In Paris, in the Rue Coquillière, Louis XV being King of France – or rather the Pompadour holding sway thereover – there lived a witty, amiable fellow who plied the art of painting portraits in oils and pastels after the mediocre fashion that is called “pleasing”. This Louis Vigée and his wife, Jeanne Maissin, moved in the genial enthusiastic circle of the lesser artists, passing through their sober day without undue excitement; for fame and wealth and the prizes of life were not for them. Boucher was lord of art; La Tour and Greuze and Chardin were at the height of their genius. But honest Louis Vigée could but plod on at his pleasing portraits, and sigh that the gods had not borne to him immortal flame.
It was to have its beginning in that year after the indolent but obstinate king, having fallen foul of his Parliaments in his game of facing-both-ways in the bitter strife between Church and people, patched up a peace with the Parliament men.
Our worthy mediocre Vigée could remember the banished Parliament re-entering Paris in triumph on that fourth day of September in 1754 amidst the exultant shouts of the people; the clergy looking on with a scowl the while. On that same day was born to the Dauphin a son – the little fellow called the Duke de Berry – whom we shall soon see ascending the throne as the ill-starred Louis XVI, for the Dauphin was to be taken before the old king died.
On 10 April 1755 there was born to him a little girl-child, whom they christened Marie Elizabeth Louise Vigée, or as she herself wrote it across the title-page of her Memoirs, Louise Elizabeth Vigée. Into her little fingers Destiny set the skill that had been denied to her father; the flame was given to her. And by the whimsy of things, there was also born in far-away Vienna, in this same year of 1755, in the palace of the Emperors of Austria, a little princess whom they christened Marie Antoinette; who was to marry the little seven-month old princeling that lay sucking his thumb in the Royal palace nearby, and thereby to become future Queen of France.
When Elizabeth Vigée was born, the French court and monarchy were still at the height of their splendour and power. Louis XV was upon the throne; the manners and customs of the ancien regime were in full force, though mitigated and softened by the growing enlightenment and liberalism which were spreading not only in the literary and professional circles, but amongst the younger generation in all classes.
Elizabeth Vigée came to the pretty business of painting with the advantage of being an artist’s child. She received her first lessons at an early age from her father; she moved from earliest childhood in an atmosphere of art and artists. From her father she inherited a talent and taste for art, an amiable temper, a gift of wit; from her mother, a very handsome woman, she was dowered with a beauty for which she was as remarkable, and to which her many portraits of herself bear abundant witness. From very childhood she began to display the proofs of her inheritance – that happy disposition and that charm of manner that were to make her one of the most winsome personalities of her time.
In Madame Lebrun we see a beauty, a genius, and a woman unusually charming and attractive, thrown, before she was sixteen, into the society of the magnificent, licentious court of Louis XV. Married to a dissipated, bourgeois spendthrift, for whom she had never cared; sought after, flattered, and worshipped in all the great courts of Europe; courted by fascinating, unscrupulous men of the highest rank, without the protection of family connections and an assured position. Yet her religious principles, exalted character, and passionate devotion to her art, carried her unscathed and honoured through a life of extraordinary dangers and temptations. She emigrated early, and far from being, as in most cases, a time of poverty and hardship, her exile was one long, triumphant career of prosperity.
Owing to her brilliant success, to the affection and friendship which surrounded her wherever she went, to her absorbing interest in her art, the delightful places and society in which she spent her time, and also to her own sunny, light-hearted nature, her long life, in spite of certain serious domestic drawbacks and sorrows, was a very happy one. Her wonderful capacity for enjoyment, her appreciation of beauty in nature and art, the great interest she took in matters intellectual and political, her pleasure in the society of her numerous friends, and her ardent devotion to the religious and royalist principles of her youth, continued undiminished through the peaceful old age which terminated her brilliant career…
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