A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter VI" 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



MEANWHILE, it being my desire to see France again, I reached Turin with this end in view. The two aunts of Louis XVI. had been kind enough to give me letters to Clotilda, Queen of Sardinia, their niece. They sent word that they very much wished to have a portrait done by me, and consequently, as soon as I was settled, I presented myself before Her Majesty. She received me very well after reading the letters of Princess Adelaide and Princess Victoria. She told me that she regretted having to refuse her aunts, but that, having renounced the world altogether, she must decline being painted. What I saw indeed seemed quite in accord with her statement and her resolve. The Queen of Sardinia had her hair cut short and wore on her head a little cap, which, like the rest of her garb, was the simplest conceivable. Her leanness struck me particularly, as I had seen her when she was very young, before her marriage, when her stoutness was so pronounced that she was called "Fat Milady" in France. Be it that this change was caused by too austere religious practices, or by the sufferings which the misfortunes of her family had made her undergo, the fact was that she had altered beyond recognition. The King joined her in the room where she received me. He was likewise so pale and thin that it was painful to look at them together.

I lost no time in going to see Madame, the wife of Louis XVIII. She not only accorded me a warm welcome, but arranged picturesque drives for me in the neighbourhood of Turin, which I took with her lady-in-waiting, Mme. de Gourbillon, and her son. Said surroundings are very beautiful, but our first expedition was not very auspicious. We set out in the heat of the day to visit a monastery situated high up on a mountain. As the mountain was very steep, we were obliged to get out of the carriage when we had gone half way and then climb on foot. I remember passing a spring of the clearest water, whose drops sparkled like diamonds, and which peasants declared to be a cure for sundry diseases. After climbing so long that we were exhausted, we at length arrived at the monastery dying with heat and hunger. The table was already laid for the monks and for travellers, which filled us with joy, since it may be imagined how impatient we were for dinner. As there was some delay, we thought that something special was being done for us, seeing that Madame had recommended us to the monks in a letter she had given us addressed to them. At last a dish of frogs' breasts was served, which I took for a chicken stew. But as soon as I tasted it I found it impossible to eat another morsel, hungry as I was. Then three other dishes were brought on, boiled, fried and grilled, and I set great hopes on each in turn. Alas! they were only frogs again! So we ate nothing but dry bread, and drank water, these monks never drinking nor offering wine. My heart's desire was then an omelet – but there were no eggs in the house.

After my visit to the monastery I met Porporati, who wanted me to live with him. He proposed occupying a farm he owned two miles from Turin, where he had some plain but comfortable rooms. I gladly accepted this offer, as I hated living in town, and at once went to establish myself with my daughter and her governess in this retreat. The farm stood in the open country, surrounded with fields, and little streams edged by trees high enough to form delightful bowers. From morning till night I took rapturous walks in these enchanting solitudes. My child enjoyed the pure air as much as I did the quiet, peaceful life that we led. Alas! it was in this peaceful place, while I was in such a happy state of mind, that I was struck a most cruel blow. The cart which brought our letters having come one evening, the carter handed me one from my friend M. de Rivière, my sister-in-law's brother, who apprised me of the dreadful events of the 10th of August and supplied me with some horrible details. I was quite overcome, and made up my mind to go back to Turin immediately.

On entering the town, great heavens! what did I behold! Streets, squares, were all filled with men and women of all ages who had fled from French towns and come to Turin in search of a home. They were coming in by thousands, and the sight broke my heart. Most of them brought neither baggage, nor money, nor even food, for they had had no time to do anything but think been of saving their lives. Since then the case has been cited to me of the aged Duchess de Villeroi, whose lady's maid, possessing a small sum of money, kept her alive on the way by a daily expenditure of ten sous. The children were crying with hunger in lamentable fashion. In fact, I never saw anything more pitiful. The King of Sardinia ordered these unfortunates to be housed and fed, but there was not room for all. Madame also did much to succour them; we went all over the town, accompanied by her equerry, seeking lodgings and victuals for the poor wretches, without being able to find as many of either as were wanted.

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Never shall I forget the impression made upon me by an old soldier, decorated with the cross of St. Louis, who might have been about sixty-five years old. He was a fine man with a noble mien, supporting himself against the curbstone at the corner of a lonely street; he accosted nobody and asked for nothing; I believe he would rather have died of hunger than beg, but the profound unhappiness imprinted on his face compelled interest at first sight. We went straight to him, giving him a little money that remained to us, and he thanked us with sobs in his throat. The next day he was lodged in the King's palace, as several other refugees were, for there was no more room in the town.

It may well be imagined that I abandoned the plan of going to Paris. I decided to leave for Vienna instead.

Vienna is of considerable extent, if you count its thirty-two suburbs. It is full of very fine palaces. The Imperial Museum boasts pictures by the greatest masters, and I often went to admire them, as well as those belonging to Prince Lichtenstein. His gallery comprises seven rooms, of which one contains only pictures by Van Dyck and the others some fine Titians, Caravaggios, Rubens, Canalettos, and so on. There are also several masterpieces by the last-named painter in the Imperial Museum.

It has been said with truth that the Prater is one of the best promenades in existence. It is a long, magnificent avenue in which large numbers of elegant carriages drive up and down, and which is lined on either side by sitting spectators, just as in the great avenue of the Tuileries. But what renders the Prater more pleasant and more picturesque is that the avenue leads to a wood, which is not very thick, and full of deer so tame that one can approach them without frightening them. There is another promenade on the bank of the Danube, where every Sunday various companies of the middle classes meet together to eat fried chicken. The park of Schoenbrunn is also well frequented, especially on Sundays. Its broad avenues, and the pretty resting places on the heights at the end of the park, make it very pleasant for walking in.

In Vienna I went to several balls, especially to those given by the Russian Ambassador, Count Rasomovski. They danced the waltz there with such fury that I could not imagine how all these people, spinning round at such a rate, did not fall down from giddiness; but men and women were so accustomed to this violent exercise that they never rested a single moment while a ball lasted. The "polonaise" was often danced, too, and was much less fatiguing, for this dance is nothing more than a procession in which you quietly walk two by two. It suits pretty women to perfection, as there is time to look their faces and figures all over.

I also wanted to see a great court ball. I was invited to one. The Emperor Francis II. had taken for his second wife Maria Theresa of the two Sicilies, daughter to the Queen of Naples. I had painted this Princess in 1792, but I found her so changed on meeting her at this ball that I had difficulty in recognising her. Her nose had lengthened, and her cheeks had sunk so much that she resembled her father. I was sorry for her sake that she had not kept her mother's features, who reminded me strongly of our charming Queen of France.

A person whose friendship I had great pleasure in renewing at Vienna was the Countess de Brionne, Princess de Lorraine. She had been most kind to me in my early youth, and I resumed the agreeable habit of supping at her house, where I often met the valiant Prince Nassau, so formidable in a fight, so gentle and modest in a salon.

I also made frequent visits at the house of the Countess de Rombec, sister of Count Cobentzel. The Countess de Rombec gathered about her the most distinguished society of Vienna. It was under her roof that I saw Prince Metternich and his son, who has since become prime minister, and who was then nothing but a very handsome young man. I there met again the amiable Prince de Ligne; he told us about the delightful journey he had made in the Crimea with the Empress Catherine II. and inspired me with a wish to see that great ruler. In the same house I encountered the Duchess de Guiche, whose lovely face had not changed in the least. Her mother, the Duchess de Polignac, lived permanently at a place near Vienna. It was there that she heard of the death of Louis XVI., which affected her health very seriously, but when she heard the dreadful news of the Queen's death she succumbed altogether. Her grief changed her to such an extent that her pretty face became unrecognisable, and every one foresaw that she had not much longer to live. She did, in fact, die in a little while, leaving her family and some friends who would not leave her disconsolate at their loss.

I can judge how terrible that which had happened in France must have been to her by the sorrow I experienced myself. I learned nothing from the newspapers, for I had read them no more since the day when, having opened one at Mme. de Rombec's, I had found the names of nine persons of my acquaintance who had been guillotined. People even took care to hide all political pamphlets from me. I thus heard of the horrible occurrence through my brother, who wrote it down and sent the letter without giving any further particulars whatever. His heart broken, he simply wrote that Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette had perished on the scaffold. Afterward, from compassion toward myself, I always abstained from putting the least question concerning what accompanied or preceded that awful murder, so that I should have known nothing about it to this very day had it not been for a certain fact to which I may possibly refer in the future.

As soon as spring came I took a little house in a village near Vienna and went to settle there. This village, called Huitzing, was adjacent to the park of Schoenbrunn. I took with me to Huitzing the large portrait I was then doing of the Princess Lichtenstein, to finish it. This young Princess was very well built; her pretty face had a sweet, angelic expression, which gave me the idea of representing her as Iris. I painted her standing, as if about to fly into the air. She had about her a fluttering, rainbow-coloured scarf. Of course I painted her with naked feet, but when the picture was hung in her husband's gallery the heads of the family were greatly scandalised at seeing the Princess exhibited without shoes, and the Prince told me that he had had a pair of nice, little slippers placed under the portrait, which slippers, so he had informed the grandparents, had slipped off her feet and fallen on the ground.

At Vienna I was as happy as any one possibly could be away from her kin and country. In the winter the city offered one of the most agreeable and brilliant societies of Europe, and when the fine weather returned I delightedly sought my little country retreat. Not thinking of leaving Austria before I could safely return to France, the Russian Ambassador and some of his compatriots urged me strongly to go to St. Petersburg, where, they assured me, the Empress would be pleased to see me. Everything that the Prince de Ligne had told me about Catherine II. inspired me with an irrepressible desire to get a glance at that potentate. Moreover I reasoned correctly that even a short stay in Russia would complete the fortune I had decided to make before resuming residence in Paris. So I made up my mind to go.

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After a sojourn at Vienna of two years and a half, I left that place in April of the year 1795 for Prague. I then passed on to Budweis, whose surroundings are most engaging. The town is deserted, the fortifications are in ruins; there are only old men and some women and children to be met with – and not many of those. Finally we reached Dresden by a very narrow road skirting the Elbe at a great height, the river flowing through a broad valley. The very day after my arrival I visited the famous Dresden gallery, unexcelled in the world. Its masterpieces are so well known that I render no special account. I will only observe that here, as everywhere else, one recognises how far Raphael stands above all other painters. I had inspected several rooms of the gallery, when I found myself before a picture which filled me with an admiration greater than anything else in the art of painting could have evoked. It represents the Virgin, standing on some clouds and holding the infant Jesus in her arms. This figure is of a beauty and a nobility worthy of the divine brush that traced it; the face of the child bears an expression at once innocent and heavenly; the draperies are most accurately drawn, and their colouring is exquisite. At the right of the Virgin is a saint done with admirable fidelity to life, his two hands being especially to be noted. At the left is a young saint, with head inclined, looking at two angels at the bottom of the picture. Her face is all loveliness, truth and modesty. The two little angels are leaning on their hands, their eyes raised to the persons above them, and their heads are done with an ingenuity and a delicacy not to be conveyed in words.

Being in great haste to get to St. Petersburg, I went from Dresden to Berlin, where I only remained five days, my project being to return thither and make a longer stay on my way back from Russia, for the purpose of seeing Prussia's charming Queen.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom