The social life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun was necessarily restricted by her passion for work, at the same time that her fame as a painter brought her many opportunities of visiting houses frequented by people who were specially worth meeting.
From the early days of her married life there was no house in which Madame Lebrun was more happy than that of the Marquise de Grollier, where a few chosen friends were accustomed to come in the evening, and where now and then the young artist enjoyed the special pleasure of a long tête-à-tête with the “grande dame,” her elder by some thirteen years.
Her conversation, always lively, was rich in ideas, full of happy touches, and for all that one could not recall, among all the witty things that constantly fell from her lips, a single word which was soiled by scandal.
Vigée-Lebrun frequently saw Benjamin Franklin. The first time was at the Court, when he was received, with the other foreign ambassadors, by the King. In his Quaker-like costume, among the magnificent nobles from the great European States, he must have afforded an even more striking contrast than Castlereagh was to offer when he attended the Congress of Vienna in a plain suit, without wearing his orders. Any one more out of place, one might think, in the Paris society of that time, could hardly have been found than Dr Franklin, and at the house of her friends the Brions, where Vigée-Lebrun often met him, he would sit without saying a word, so that she was “tempted to believe that he had made a vow of silence.” But, however dull might be his conversation and his costume, no man was more the fashion in Paris, or more sought after. The crowd ran after him on the promenades and in other public places; hats, walking-sticks, snuff-boxes, everything was “á la Franklin.”
It will have been noticed how highly Vigée-Lebrun reckons good-nature among the qualities of her acquaintances. It was not commonly regarded as a social virtue in those days, when backbiting flourished as perhaps never before or since, on either side of the Channel. It was the period of The School for Scandal, a play which the critic of the Morning Post, on the morrow of its first performance, justly described as one wherein a group of characters “are ever ready, at the call of scandal, to sacrifice the reputations even of their dearest friends at the too fashionable shrine of calumny.”
If calumny could not be more “fashionable” in Paris than in London, it was assuredly more virulent, the licence allowed to the malicious tongues and pens exceeding anything that Sheridan even suggests.
How openly slanders were published in those days when, as a rule, the freedom of the press, outside politics, was tempered only by fear of personal chastisement or private influence, we shall see in the life-story of Vigée-Lebrun herself.
If she was, during the decade which preceded the outbreak of the Revolution, a social favourite, much invited, she invited many in her turn, and it was quite “the right thing“ to pass an hour or two with the Queen’s favourite painter. The rooms of her house in the Rue de Cléry were simply furnished, though of course the big gallery adjoining, in which her husband did his business, was richly appointed, and hung with pictures of price. Her enemies spread about that she lived in extravagant luxury, and that her hangings, her couches, her candelabra, her plate and everything else were after the style of Versailles.
Foremost among the artists who came were, as might be supposed, Ménageot (who lived upstairs), Brongniart, Hubert Robert, and Vernet, the last two having been among her best friends from her childhood. The Abbe Delille headed the literary set, with the poet Écouchard Lebrun, and its tail, in the opinion of the hostess, was that poet’s friend, Pierre Ginguené, critic then, and historian after the Revolution, whom she disliked excessively, and who struck a discordant note whenever he appeared. She was an enthusiastic admirer of Écouchard Lebrun’s poetry. Like some more famous poets, he did not at all think that his name was writ in water. One day he read out an ode to himself in which he had written:
Comme un cèdre aux vastes ombrages.
Mon nom, croissant avec les âges,
Règne sur la postérité.
Siècles, vous êtes ma conquête;
Et la palme qui ceint ma tête
No one smiled or had a word to say except “It is magnificent! It is true.”
Three of her famous paintings:
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