Royals in Oils

Peter Campbell

  • The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun by Angelica Goodden
    Deutsch, 384 pp, £19.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 233 99021 6

In her portraits Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun did her very best to give a pleasing account of the facts of the flesh. The faces are attractive, the expressions forthcoming and responsive. The phrase ‘a smile played around her lips’ could have been invented to describe them. Her trademarks are half-disclosed rows of little pearly teeth; up-and-under looks; draped shawls, Greek smocks, Oriental accessories and loosely gathered curls; or a heavenward gaze (which owed something to Greuze, but doesn’t have the repellent sentimentality of his tearful bearers of crushed blossoms). On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined.

When she failed to please it was, at least in one case, because something stiffer was expected. Catherine the Great complained that her granddaughters were too informally dressed – and thus, I suppose, too available. Her touch with Varvara Ivanovna Narishkin, the illegitimate daughter of Countess Stroganova (the Countess had lent Vigée Le Brun a house in Moscow) is perfect, showing, in Angelica Goodden’s words, ‘a warm and seductive romanticism’. Mrs William Chinnery is, by comparison, a little bland.

Vigée Le Brun was at her best with romantic young girls and attractive men. The sublime was beyond her register: it is hard to take her picture of Madame de Staël strumming her lyre seriously, and when, late in life, she undertook a painting of Marie Antoinette in prison, the task proved so painful she gave up. Sentiment saved her from the kind of mistake Greuze made when he tried to extend a talent which had proved wonderfully apt to modern subjects into the realm of classical history.

She worked in an idiom which combined pretty colour, soft, bright light, and a meticulous but painterly finish. The colour and lively handling were part of the legacy of 17th-century Flanders to 18th-century France. The broader gestures and stormy chiaroscuro which her English contemporaries favoured, and which came to them by various routes from Caravaggio, would not have suited her. The painter John Opie is reported to have found Vigée Le Brun’s pictures good in ‘the imitation of particular things, velvet, silk etc’ but he also remarked that they gave him ‘no high pleasure as works of art’. Hoppner, more brutally, found even her way with stuffs wanting: a piece of drapery by Rembrandt ‘differs from the piece in the woollen-draper’s or in Madame Le Brun’s shop as much in appearance as in value’ and ‘on a feeble, vulgar and detailed imitation of articles of furniture and dress rests the whole of Madame Le Brun’s reputation.’

Her defence was good craftsmanship: ‘as for these fabrics, these speaking cushions, these velvets on display in my shop, my view is that one should pay as much attention to all these accessories as possible, but without detriment to the heads.’ There was no easy meeting possible between a late 18th-century supplier of a well-made high-fashion commodity and early 19th-century painters persuaded they were gentlemen pursuing a liberal profession. Time has not decided the matter. A row of paintings by Copley, Hoppner and Opie may be dashing but you can tire of them before you are sated with Vigée Le Brun’s pretty frocks and bright eyes. And of these there is no shortage: she was prolific. She drove herself and sometimes she said she had spread herself too thin, but it is pretty clear that her talent perfectly suited her chosen métier. Painting less would probably not have meant painting better.

The feeling you get looking at her portraits – that it is the people she painted who have won you over – is, in part at least, an illusion. Much of what seems to be their personality is her invention. A few faces (the very beautiful, the very dramatic) make their own impression. Fashionable portrait painters are (or were – the genre is moribund) able to make show-stoppers of the less facially gifted. Their pictures stand to the portraiture of unvarnished (well, less varnished) truth – Frans Hals’s Dutch burghers, say – as court masques do to middleclass fiction. Courts have special needs when it comes to portraits. Vigée Le Brun did for Marie Antoinette and a swathe of the European aristocracy what Winterhalter did for the young Queen Victoria and Cecil Beaton for the women of the House of Windsor. She invented them as one might invent characters in a novel, treading a delicate path between the swooning – very hard to treat Emma Hamilton any other way, but not right for a princess – and the starchy. There is life in her inventions still. Trivial life as greetingcard material. Respectable (if more sedate) life as historical documents, to be studied in the hope that the informed mind will be able to persuade them to flutter with their old vivacity. Painting apart, she is clearly interesting, from our point of view, as a woman who was successful in a male profession.

Her contemporaries were kinder than critics are today but she is not forgotten. Her portrait of herself and her daughter Julie, now in the Louvre, and her self-portrait in the National Gallery are likely to be recognised, even if people do not remember who they are by. ‘Until a few decades ago,’ Angelica Goodden writes, Vigée Le Brun ‘seemed to many lovers of painting beside the point, charming and seductive but shallow and politically incorrect’; now, however, she is to be taken more seriously: ‘the remarkable scale of Vigée Le Brun’s achievement deserves more attention.’ Demands it even – energetic, determined, single-minded, competent and independent; a winner in the race she chose to run – you don’t have to rate all the paintings to be impressed by what she managed to do.

It is a problem for biographers that their primary source are Vigée Le Brun’s substantial memoirs. It is an engrossing book and, intentionally and otherwise, a revealing one. But it is often unreliable – it was written late in life by a woman who was conscious of having achieved much, but who also believed she had suffered envy, bad faith and calumny. There isn’t an abundance of contemporary material with which to challenge her versions of events and Goodden is forced to maintain a balance by arguing probabilities: ‘Since Louise’s self-portraits as well as her memoirs show a well-developed awareness – verging on the coquettish – of her attractions, we may occasionally feel that she protests her purity too insistently to be altogether credible.’ Fair comment. But as the book progresses, the difficulty of wresting control of the narrative tone from a woman of determined self-regard becomes increasingly clear. The task of describing a remarkable professional life is sometimes stymied by Vigée Le Brun’s lack of interest in plain truth. A touch of the spoilt child’s insistence that things must be how she wants them suggests a kind of stupidity which goes beyond political incorrectness; moral blinkers were doubtless a useful accessory for someone who was to keep up an uncritical and affectionate attachment to the royal families of Europe.

For all that, this biography is a good one. As Vigée Le Brun pointed out, a portrait is not just a picture of a face. Goodden has something of her subject’s skill with backgrounds – her accounts of cities, courts, salons and studios are done with neat, lively touches. As a peripatetic servant of the courts of late 18th and early 19th-century Europe, Vigée Le Brun was privy to stories of pathos, debauchery, refinement, extravagance and squalor which make modern gossip seem insipid (or perhaps it is just that such stories play better in fancy dress). Whichever way, The Sweetness of Life is enlivened by tales which make the hazards and opportunities of her career – about which her own account is sometimes partial or confusing – much clearer.

She was born in Paris in 1755, daughter of the portrait painter Louis Vigée, and his wife, a hairdresser from Lorraine. She had no formal training but considerable help from her father’s friends in the development of a precocious talent. In 1767 her father died (a fish bone caught in his throat). He left the family poor, and in January of the following year, her mother remarried. Her new husband, a jeweller called Le Sèvre, had premises in the rue Saint-Honoré. Louise was, at least geographically, on her way up. She loathed her stepfather, who gets a mauling in her memoirs – she was particularly angry that he took over her dead father’s wardrobe and failed to have anything altered to fit.

She was now beginning to make money. Later she would support a spendthrift, womanising husband as well as herself and her daughter. Despite the loss of large sums in various financial mishaps she kept her independence, was never a poor woman and was finally a wealthy one. By her early teens she was a fluent painter; before she was twenty she had a substantial, rich clientèle. As a child-star she was properly modest in good company, pretty and prettily talented. And she knew how to look after herself. When potential admirers made their approaches by way of a sitting, she painted them, she says, gazing into space, and then ‘at the first flicker of their pupils towards me’, said she was ‘just doing the eyes’.

In 1776 she married. She had moved with her mother and stepfather to an apartment in the rue de Cléry, where they were tenants of a picture dealer, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, nephew of the painter Charles Le Brun, remembered now as the rediscoverer of Vermeer. Louise copied some of the Old Masters in his splendid collection, thus becoming ‘indebted to him for the most important lessons I could have learned’. The lessons of the marriage she contracted six months later were not so happy: ‘his frenzied passion for women of easy virtue, combined with his passion for gambling caused the ruin of his fortune and my own, of which he had entire possession.’ On the other hand, being in the same trade, husband and wife were useful to each other; he was clearly agreeable and (money apart) undemanding. Above all, she was no longer having to live with her tedious and bad-tempered step-father. Before the couple divorced she tried unsuccessfully to obtain a legal separation of property; the divorce took place in 1794 on her husband’s initiative. She had by then gone abroad and he was worried that having an émigré wife would result in the confiscation of his property.

She kept her sex life, if she had one after she separated from Le Brun, under wraps. Maybe she had an affair with Calonne, the Comptroller-General – although she denies it in the memoir. Damn it all, the man did not wear his own hair! (‘Imagine me, with my love of the picturesque ever accustoming myself to a wig!’) Her view of herself as a person who did not care about money and who lived and dressed simply is not necessarily at odds with her position as a supplier of luxury goods. Her human sympathies, despite various protestations of affection, seem to have been limited, her interests and conversation scaled to fit drawing-rooms which preferred amusement to political philosophy. Perhaps she had the gift of liking best those who were most useful to her. Her combination of public sentiment – in the portraits of herself with her daughter, for example – and private self-centredness is easy to understand but hard to like.

In 1783, at the age of 28, she and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard were both admitted to the Académie royale. Comparisons were, and are, made. Labille-Guiard was sympathetic to the Revolution and (unlike Vigée Le Brun) active in the training of women as painters. Her portraits are more firmly drawn and less vivacious. She may have been the ‘woman artist, who for reasons I cannot fathom, has always shown herself to be my enemy’, or one of the women written about in the memoirs who had a grudge against Mme Le Brun for ‘not being as ugly as they were’ or one of those who ‘could not forgive me for being fashionable, and selling my pictures for more than they did’. Perhaps Vigée Le Brun saw, resentfully, that Labille-Guiard, who could not so easily be accused of merely painting girly pictures, would in the end get more serious attention. Whatever the truth of the matter, Vigée Le Brun’s career in the years leading up to the Revolution was splendid. Its apotheosis was her portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children: both her grandest early commission and one which, by the time it was ready to be exhibited, was thought too inflammatory to be shown in the Salon.

The society she had depended on for her livelihood, the elegance of which she admired, and the failings of which she ignored or denied, fell apart around her. The peasants, she observed, no longer doffed their caps. She feared for her safety – was more worried indeed than many of her friends thought she need be – and although she later tried to have her name removed from the list of émigrés on the grounds that she had only travelled in order to study, she had good reasons, commercial as well as political, to leave France as the Revolution advanced. Depression overwhelmed her from time to time, but she did not stay down. She would arrive in town, make her approaches and take up her introductions, give a picture to the relevant academy and make herself agreeable to the local princes. In Rome her patrons were mainly English, Russian and Polish. She says she turned down her chance to paint Pope Pius VI because she didn’t believe she could do herself justice wearing the obligatory veil, but Goodden thinks she was fibbing and was never offered the commission. In Naples she enthused about the bay and the volcano and painted (among many others) Emma Hamilton, whom she dressed in smocks and shawls and whose off-the-cuff ability to supply ‘all the expressions of grief or joy, and ... to portray different characters’ greatly intrigued her. Here was direct proof of the absurdity of reckoning that the human face need tell its own story. She tasted sublimity among the lava flows of Vesuvius. She painted the unprepossessing royal children and the composer, Giovanni Paisiello. When the Paisiello portrait was exhibited in the Salon of 1791 it won extravagant praise from David, who thought a man could not have done better.

The Queen of Naples herself insisted on a portrait. ‘This princess of whom so much ill has been spoken and written, was affectionate by nature and very simple in her private life; her generosity was truly royal.’ In Vienna, where émigré French were rather frowned on, she found the paternalism of the Viennese upper classes charming. Even the beautiful Countess Kinsky sat knitting thick socks for the poor when she went to the theatre. If you saw a flashy dresser, it was more likely to be a Pole or a Hungarian than a native. Vigée Le Brun advertised her presence by putting her painting of Emma Hamilton as a sybil on display in her studio and work soon followed. In Vienna she at last heard more of what had been happening in France. A letter from her brother ‘told me simply that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had died on the scaffold! Ever since then, out of pity for myself I have always avoided asking the merest question about what may have accompanied or preceded this horrible murder.’ Goodden wonders how she could have remained ignorant of what had been going on for so long. ‘Her obliviousness,’ she writes, ‘remains a troubling mystery.’

Then it was on to Russia, where she found much that was picturesque – she was always pleased to see a robust peasantry and exotic uniforms – and built up yet another circle of clients. Her daughter Julie, now 20, fell in love with Gaéten Nigris, secretary to the director of the Imperial theatres in St Petersburg. Vigée Le Brun did not much like him, but the marriage of the ‘cruel child’, who ‘expressed not the least satisfaction to me for what I had done for her’, went ahead. Twenty-five years later, Julie would die in poverty, estranged from her mother, who seems not even to have offered the financial help which would have been well within her means. She justified the break by complaining of Julie’s taste for bad company.

In Berlin, she painted the Queen of Prussia (dazzling beauty, subject – genuinely so apparently – of ‘infamous calumny’) and, in 1801, returned nervously to Paris, the scene of such horrible events and potentially the source of such slander. The papers recorded her return. Le Brun had ‘spared none of my expense’ in redecorating her apartment in the marital home and filling the staircase with flowers. Old colleagues (Greuze, for example) visited or were called on. Young ones were cultivated (Gérard, Girodet, Gros and Guérin). She made the acquaintance of Madame Récamier. But this was a very different city from the one she had known. A more masculine city, made richer in works of art by Napoleon’s victories, but uncomfortable for survivors of the Ancien Régime, and one in which the demand for her work had fallen. She became depressed and retreated briefly to Meudon. Finding country life did little to improve her spirits, she set out again – this time for England.

There was still a substantial French presence in London and old acquaintances to encounter – Emma Hamilton, now sadly mountainous and in mourning, was one. A place in society – harder for a painter to win in England than Paris – was established. The Prince of Wales came to parties at her house in Maddox Street and she said (there is evidence that she may again have exaggerated royal interest in her affairs) that it was he who arranged permission for her to stay when an edict issued after the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens sent recent French arrivals home. Although Sundays were dull, London’s weather dirty and damp, and conversation flat, she spent two years in England and found clients too, despite the fact that the respect she would have liked from her English colleagues proved hard to come by.

Back to Paris, even less agreeable than it was when she had left it. Trips to Switzerland, where she was suitably impressed by the scenery, painted landscapes and was annoyed by the number of tourists. She stayed with Madame de Staël and painted her portrait; they visited the Alpine shepherds’ festival together and, as they stood listening to the singing, watching the procession of the peasantry, ‘dressed as they would have been five centuries ago ... Madame de Staël and I were so moved, so filled with emotion ... that we clasped each other’s hands without being able to say a single word; but our eyes filled with gentle tears. I shall never forget this moment of mutual sensibility.’

Vigée Le Brun died at 87, in 1842, having completed three volumes of memoirs. She seems to have been known and cultivated and up to a point liked by many, but to have been loved by few. Even Goodden, who is on the whole a sympathetic biographer, judges her crisply. In what she wrote about other professional women – Madame de Staël and the singer Giuseppina Grassini, for example – one senses not so much intimacy as an understanding based on shared experience. The need to please and be pleased, to combine skill as a painter with deference, to demand much of yourself but be easy as well – all that must have been isolating, not to mention hard work. One way she seems to have handled it was by telling herself that the people she painted were more wonderful than they were, and that they cared more for her than they did. The conviction the paintings carried would doubtless have been less if she had not, in some degree, been able to generate sincerity.

These days painting is burdened either with the notion that it must show genius and authority or with reactions to that burden, in which jokes and irony take their place. We have no painters of agreed merit, performers of the old kind; artists who can be called on to do their stuff in the limiting genre of fashionable portrait painting. We cannot, as her contemporaries could, judge Vigée Le Brun as a worker in a living tradition. The painting of the past comes alive when it resonates with what is new: in this sense we have no line to her as we have to Chardin, David, or Delacroix except, perhaps, through fashion or portrait photography. Her feeling that she was somehow wasting her talent seems misplaced – but if she felt her voice was not one which would carry, she was probably right.