A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter V" by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842)
From: Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun (1903) by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842); Translated by Lionel Strachey.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



I HAD been in Rome eight months or thereabouts, when, observing that all foreigners were leaving for Naples, I was seized with a great desire to go there likewise. I confided my plan to the Cardinal de Bernis, who, while approving, advised me not to go alone. He spoke to me of a M. Duvivier, the husband of Voltaire's niece, Mme. Denis, who proposed to make the journey, and who would be charmed with my company. M. Duvivier came to me, repeating everything that the Cardinal had said, and promising to take care of my daughter and myself. He added, thus tempting me the more, that he had in his carriage a sort of stove, for cooking fowl, which would be very useful to us, seeing how bad the fare was in the best inns of Terracina. All his offers suited me to a marvel, and so I started with this gentleman. His coach was very large; my daughter and her governess sat in front, and there was another seat in the middle. A huge man-servant sat on it in front of me in such a way that his large back touched me and I had to hold my nose. I am not in the habit of talking while travelling, so that conversation between us was restricted to the exchange of a few phrases. But as we were crossing the Pontine marshes, I noticed on the edge of a canal a shepheard whose flock was passing into a meadow all studded with flowers, and beyond which the sear and Cape Circe were visible. "What a charming pictue!" said I to my travelling companion. "This shepherd, these sheep, the meadow, the sea!" "Those sheep are filthy," he answered; "you ought to see them in England." Farther along on the Terracina road, at the place where you cross a small river in a boat, I saw at my left the line of the apennines crowned with magnificent clouds, which the setting sun illumined. I was unable to refrain from expressing my admiration aloud. "Those clouds mean that we shall have rain to-morrow," said my optimistic friend.

We reached Naples at about three or four o'clock. I cannot describe the impression I received upon entering the town. That burning sun, that stretch of sea, those islands seen in the distance, that Vesuvius with a great column of smoke ascending from it, and the very population so animated and so noisy, who differ so much from the Roman that one might suppose they were a thousand miles apart.

I had engaged a house at Chiaja on the edge of the sea. Opposite me I had the island of Capri, and this situation delighted me. Hardly had I arrived when Count Skavronska, the Russian Ambassador at Naples, whose house was next to mine, sent one of his runners to find out how I was, and at the same time had a very choice dinner brought me. I was the more grateful for this kind of attention, as I must have died of hunger before there would have been time to get my kitchen ready. The same evening I went to thank the Count, and thus became acquainted with his charming wife.

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Count Skavronska had features that were noble and regular; he was very pale. This pallor came from the extreme delicacy of his health, which, however, did not prevent him from being highly sociable nor from chatting both gracefully and cleverly. The Countess was as sweet and pretty as an angel. The famous Potemkin, her uncle, had loaded her with wealth, for which she had no use. Her great delight was to live stretched out on a lounge wrapped in a large black cloak, and wearing no stays. Her mother-in-law sent her, from Paris, cases full of the most beautiful dresses then made by Mlle. Bertin, Queen Marie Antoinette's dressmaker. I do not believe that the Countess ever opened one of them, and when her mother-in-law expressed a wish to see her in the beautiful gowns and head-dresses contained in the cases, she answered indifferently: "What for? Why?" She gave me the same answer when showing me her jewel-case, one of the most splendid I have ever seen. It contained enormous diamonds given her by Potemkin, but I never saw them on her. I remember her telling me that in order to go to sleep she had a slave under her bed who told her the same story every night. She was utterly idle all day, she had no education, and her conversation was quite empty. But in spite of all that, thanks to her lovely face and her angelic sweetness, she had an incomparable charm.

Count Skavronska had made me promise to do his wife's portrait before any one else's, and, having agreed, I began this portrait two days after my arrival. After the first session, Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador at Naples, came to me and begged that my first portrait in this town should be that of the splendid woman he presented to me. This was Mme. Harte, who soon after became Lady Hamilton, and who was famous for her beauty. After the promise to my amiable neighbours, I could not begin the other portrait until Countess Skavronska's was well advanced. I then painted Mme. Harte as a bacchante reclining by the edge of the sea, holding a goblet in her hand. Her beautiful face had much animation, and was a complete contrast to the Countess's. She had a great quantity of fine chestnut hair, sufficient to cover her entirely, and thus, as a bacchante with flying hair, she was admirable to behold.

The life of Lady Hamilton is a romance. Her maiden name was Emma Lyon. Her mother, it is said, was a poor servant, and there is some disagreement as to her birthplace. At the age of thirteen she entered the service of an honest townsman of Hawarden as a nurse, but, tired of the dull life she led, and believing that she could obtain a more agreeable situation in London, she betook herself thither. The Prince of Wales told me that he had seen her at that time in wooden shoes at the stall of a fruit vender, and that, although she was very meanly clad, her pretty face attracted attention. A shopkeeper took her into his service, but she soon left him to become housemaid under a lady of decent family – a very respectable person. In her house she acquired a taste for novels, and then for the play. She studied the gestures and vocal inflections of the actors, and rendered them with remarkable facility. These talents, neither of which pleased her mistress in the very least, were the cause of her dismissal. It was then that, having heard of a tavern where painters were in the habit of meeting, she conceived the idea of going there to look for employment. Her beauty was then at its height.

She was rescued from this pitfall by a strange chance. Doctor Graham took her to exhibit her at his house, covered with a light veil, as the goddess Hygeia (the goddess of health). A number of curious people and amateurs went to see her, and the painters were especially delighted. Some time after this exhibition, a painter secured her as a model; he made her pose in a thousand graceful attitudes, which he reproduced on canvas. She now perfected herself in this new sort of talent which made her famous. Nothing, indeed, was more remarkable than the ease Lady Hamilton acquired in spontaneously giving her features an expression of sorrow or of joy, and of posing marvelously to represent different people. Her eyes a-kindle, her hair flying, she showed you a bewitching bacchante; then, all of a sudden, her face expressed grief, and you saw a magnificent repentant Magdalen. The day her husband presented her to me, she insisted on my seeing her in a pose. I was delighted, but she was dressed in every-day clothes, which gave me a shock. I had gowns made for her such as I wore in order to paint in comfort, and which consisted of a kind of loose tunic. She also took some shawls to drape herself with, which she understood very well, and then was ready to render enough different positions and expressions to fill a whole picture gallery. There is, in fact, a collection drawn by Frederic Reimberg, which has been engraved.

To return to the romance of Emma Lyon. It was while she was with the painter I have mentioned that Lord Greville fell so desperately in love with her that he intended to marry her, when he suddenly lost his official place and was ruined. He at once left for Naples in the hope of obtaining help from his Uncle Hamilton, and took Emma with him so that she might plead his cause. The uncle, indeed, consented to pay all his nephew's debts, but also decided to marry Emma Lyon in spite of his family's remonstrances. Lady Hamilton became as great a lady as can be imagined. It is asserted that the Queen of Naples was on an intimate footing with her. Certain it is that the Queen saw her often – politically, might perhaps be said. Lady Hamilton, being a most indiscreet woman, betrayed a number of little diplomatic secrets to the Queen, of which she made use to the advantage of her country.

Lady Hamilton was not at all clever, though she was extremely supercilious and disdainful, so much so that these two defects were conspicuous in all her conversation. But she also possessed considerable craftiness, of which she made use in order to bring about her marriage. She wanted in style, and dressed very badly when it was a question of every-day dress. I remember that when I did my first picture of her, as a sibyl, she was living at Caserta, whither I went every day, desiring to progress quickly with the picture. The Duchess de Fleury and the Princess de Joseph Monaco were present at the third sitting, which was the last. I had wound a scarf round her head in the shape of a turban, one end hanging down in graceful folds. This head-dress so beautified her that the ladies declared she looked ravishing. Her husband having invited us all to dinner, she went to her apartment to change, and when she came back to meet us in the drawing-room, her new costume, which was a very ordinary one indeed, had so altered her to her disadvantage that the two ladies had all the difficulty in the world in recognising her.

When I went to London in 1802 Lady Hamilton had just lost her husband. I left a card for her, and she soon came to see me, wearing deep mourning, with a dense black veil surrounding her, and she had had her splendid hair cut off to follow the new "Titus" fashion. I found this Andromache enormous, for she had become terribly fat. She said that she was very much to be pitied, that in her husband she had lost a friend and a father, and that she would never be consoled. I confess that her grief made little impression upon me, since it seemed to me that she was playing a part. I was evidently not mistaken, because a few minutes later, having noticed some music lying on my piano, she took up a lively tune and began to sing it.

As is well known, Lord Nelson had been in love with her at Naples; she had maintained a very tender correspondence with him. When I went to return her visit one morning, I found her radiant with joy, and besides she had put a rose in her hair, like Nina. I could not help asking her what the rose signified. "It is because I have just received a letter from Lord Nelson," she answered.

The Duke de Bern and the Duke de Bourbon, having heard of her poses, very much desired to witness a spectacle which she had never been willing to offer in London. I requested her to give me an evening for the two Princes, and she consented. I also invited some other French people, who I was aware would be anxious to see this sight. On the day appointed I placed in the middle of my drawing-room a very large frame, with a screen on either side of it. I had had a strong limelight prepared and disposed so that it could not be seen, but which would light up Lady Hamilton as though she were a picture. All the invited guests having arrived, Lady Hamilton assumed various attitudes in this frame in a truly admirable way. She had brought a little girl with her, who might have been seven or eight years old, and who resembled her strikingly. One group they made together reminded me of Poussin's "Rape of the Sabines." She changed from grief to joy and from joy to terror so rapidly and effectively that we were all enchanted. As I kept her for supper, the Duke de Bourbon, who sat next to me at table, called my attention to the quantity of porter she drank. I am sure she must have been used to it, for she was not tipsy after two or three bottles. Long after leaving London, in 1815, I heard that Lady Hamilton had ended her days at Calais, dying there neglected and forsaken in the most awful poverty.

The excursions I made at Naples did not prevent me from accomplishing a great deal of work. I even undertook so many portraits that my first stay in that town extended to six months. I had arrived with the intention of spending only six weeks. The French Ambassador, the Baron de Talleyrand, came to inform me one morning that the Queen of Naples wished me to do the portraits of her two eldest daughters, and I began upon them at once. Her Majesty was preparing to leave for Vienna, where she was to busy herself about the marriage of these Princesses. I remember her saying to me after her return: "I have had a successful journey; I have just made two fortunate matches for my daughters." The eldest, in fact, soon after was married to the Emperor of Austria, Francis II., and the other, who was called Louise, to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This second girl was very ugly, and made such grimaces that I did not want to finish her picture. She died a few years after her marriage.

During the Queen's absence I also painted the Prince Royal. The hour of noon was appointed for the sittings, and in order to attend I was obliged to follow the Chiaja road in the heat of the day. The houses on the left, which faced the sea, being painted a lustrous white, the sun was reflected from them so vividly that I was almost struck blind. To save my eyes, I put on a green veil, which I had never seen any one else do, and which must have looked rather peculiar, since only black or white veils were worn. But a few days after I saw several English women imitating me, and green veils came into fashion. I also found great comfort in my green veil at St. Petersburg, where the snow was so dazzling that it might have killed my eyesight.

One of my greatest pleasures was to go for walks on the lovely slope of Posilippo. Under it is the grotto of the same name, which is a splendid piece of work a mile long, and which is recognised as having been done by the Romans. This slope of Posilippo is covered with country houses, casinos, meadows, and very fine trees with vines winding about them in festoons. It is here that Virgil's tomb is to be found, and it is said that laurels grow upon it, but I must confess that I saw none. In the evenings I walked on the seashore; I frequently took my daughter, and we often remained sitting there together until moonrise, enjoying the salubrious air and the gorgeous view. This was a rest for my daughter after her daily studies, for I had resolved to give her the best education possible, and to this effect I had engaged at Naples masters of writing, geography, Italian, English, and German. She showed a preference for German above the others, and evinced a remarkable aptitude in her various studies. There were some signs in her of a talent for painting, but her favourite pastime was to compose novels. Returning from evening parties to which I had gone, I would find her with a pen in her hand and another in her cap; I would then oblige her to go to bed, but not infrequently did she secretly get up in the middle of the night to finish one of her chapters, and I remember very well how, at the age of nine, at Vienna, she wrote a little romance as remarkable for its situations as for its style.

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All the portraits I had engaged to do at Naples being finished, I went back to Rome, but hardly had I arrived when the Queen of Naples arrived also, she making a stop there on her return journey from Vienna. As I happened to be in the crowd through which she made her way, she noticed me and spoke to me, and begged me with extreme graciousness to visit Naples once more for the purpose of painting her portrait. It was impossible to refuse, and I complied with her wish at once.

Upon arriving at Naples I began the portrait of the Queen forthwith. It was then so terribly hot that one day when Her Majesty gave me a sitting we both fell asleep. I took great pleasure in doing this picture. The Queen of Naples, without being as pretty as her younger sister, the Queen of France, reminded me strongly of her. Her face was worn, but one readily judged that she had been handsome; her hands and arms especially were perfect in form and colour. This Princess, of whom so much evil has been written and spoken, had an affectionate nature and simple ways at home. Her magnanimity was truly royal. The Marquis de Bombelles, the Ambassador at Vienna in 1790, was the only French envoy who refused to swear to the constitution; the Queen, being apprised that by this brave and noble conduct M. de Bombelles, the father of a large family, had been reduced to the most unfortunate position, wrote him a letter of commendation with her own hand. She added that all sovereigns should be at one in acknowledging faithful subjects, and asked him to accept a pension of twelve thousand francs. She had a fine character and a good deal of wit. She bore the burden of government alone. The King would have nothing to do with it; he spent most of his time at Caserta. Before I left Naples for good the Queen presented me with a box of old lacquer, with her initials surrounded by beautiful diamonds. The initials are worth ten thousand francs; I shall keep them all my life.

I had a burning desire to see Venice; I arrived there the day before Ascension. M. Denon, whom I had known in Paris, having heard of this, came to see me without delay. His cleverness and his great knowledge of the arts made him the most charming mentor, and I congratulated myself upon such a happy encounter. The very next day he took me out on the canal, where the marriage of the Doge with the sea was enacted. The Doge and all the members of the senate were on a vessel gilded inside and out and called the Bucentaur; it was surrounded by a swarm of boats, of which several were occupied by musicians. The Doge and the senators had on black gowns and white wigs with three bows. When the Bucentaur had reached the place fixed for the celebration of the marriage, the Doge pulled a ring from his finger and threw it into the sea. At the same instant a thousand cannon shots announced to the city and its surroundings the consumnmation of this great wedding, which concluded with mass.

A number of strangers were present at the ceremony. I observed among them Prince Augustus of England, and the charming Princess Joseph de Monaco, then preparing to go back to France for her children. I saw her at Venice for the last time.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom