Rosalie Filleul

Born Anne-Rosalie Bouquet in Paris in 1753, she was the daughter of Blaise Bouquet, the owner of a bric-a-brac shop and an ornamental painter. Rosalie inherited a talent for art, which she showed at a very early age. Her favourite medium was pastels, because of their fresh and delicate colours. In the 1770s, when she was only in her teens, Rosalie began exhibiting her works and soon became a very popular pastellist.

A beautiful girl, Rosalie attracted attention also for looks, not just her talent. She had several suitors but, on 1st October 1777, she married Louis Besne Filleul, who was much older than her. He was the Superintendent of the royal Chateau of Muette, one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite residences, and the couple moved in the nearby Hôtel de Travers. Soon, she attracted the attention of the royal family, who commissioned her to paint several portraits, the most well-known of which depicts the children of the Comte d’Artois.

Rosalie became a widow in 1788, but was allowed to remain in her own home, because the Queen had decided to pass her late husband’s office onto her. She lived there with her eight year old son Louis-August and her friend Marguerite-Émilie Chalgrin, daughter of the artist Vernet. Rosalie was also friends with other artists of her time, such as Madame Vigee-Lebrun, and could count among her admirers even Benjamin Franklin, whom she painted too. But her tranquil existence was soon to come at an end.

When the revolution broke out in 1789, Rosalie welcomed it and the freedom she thought it would bring to the country. But she turned against it as the revolutionaries began to suppress the Christian religion and then imprisoned the royal family. By then, demonstrating any sympathy towards the royals had become an offense punishable with death and so, when Rosalie wore mourning on the first anniversary of the King’s execution and then, later, tried to auction some old pieces of furniture, which bore the royal insignia, from Muette, she inevitably attracted the attention of the Committee of Public Safety. Rosalie was duly arrested and found guilty. She was executed on the 24th June 1794 at the Place du Trône-Renversé.

Madame Vigée-Lebrun remembered her friends, and her lost hopes, in her memoirs:

“How well I remember Mme. Filleul saying to me, on the eve of my departure from France, when I was to escape from the horrors I foresaw: ‘You are wrong to go. I intend to stay, because I believe in the happiness the Revolution is to bring us.’ And that Revolution took her to the scaffold! Before she quitted La Muette the Terror had begun. Mme. Chalgrin, a daughter of Joseph Vernet, and Mme. Filleul’s bosom friend, came to the castle to celebrate her daughter’s wedding – quietly, as a matter of course. However, the next day the Jacobins none the less proceeded to arrest Mme. Filleul and Mme. Chalgrin, who, they said, had wasted the candles of the nation. A few days later they were both guillotined.”

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun

Madame Vigée Le Brun on Caroline Murat née Bonaparte

Being a renowned portrait painter can give you lots of satisfactions: you’re involved with your sitter but also spend quite a lot of time working in peace and solitude and can get paid quite a lot of money too. But sometimes, you’ll have to deal with a client who keeps changing his/her mind, doesn’t respect punctuality and just doesn’t show much consideration for the painter. That’s what happened to Madame Vigée Le Brun, when Napoleon asked her to paint a portrait of her sister Caroline Murat:

One of the first people I met, upon my return from London, was Mme. de Ségur, and I frequently went to see her. One day her husband told me that my journey to England had displeased the Emperor, who had curtly remarked, “Mme. Lebrun went to see her friends.” But Bonaparte’s resentment against me could not have been violent, since, a few days after speaking thus, he sent M. Denon to me with an order to paint his sister, Mme. Murat. I thought I could not refuse, although I was only to be paid 1,800 francs – that is to say, less than half of what I usually asked for portraits of the same size. This sum was the more moderate, too, because, for the sake of satisfying myself as to the composition of the picture, I painted Mme. Murat’s pretty little girl beside her, and that without raising the price.

I could not conceivably describe all the annoyances, all the torments I underwent in painting this picture. To begin with, at the first sitting, Mme. Murat brought two lady’s maids, who were to do her hair while I was painting her. However, upon my remark that I could not under such circumstances do justice to her features, she vouchsafed to send her servants away. Then she perpetually failed to keep the appointments she made with me, so that, in my desire to finish, I was kept in Paris nearly the whole summer, as a rule waiting for her in vain, which angered me unspeakably. Moreover, the intervals between the sittings were so long that she sometimes changed her mode of doing her hair. In the beginning, for instance, she wore curls hanging over her cheeks, and I painted them accordingly; but some time after, this having gone out of fashion, she came back with her hair dressed in a totally different manner, so that I was forced to scrape off the hair I had painted on the face, and was likewise compelled to blot out a brow-band of pearls and put cameos in its place. The same thing happened with her dress. One I had painted at first was cut rather open, as dresses were then so worn, and furnished with wide embroidering. The fashion having changed, I was obliged to close in the dress and do the embroidering anew. All the annoyances that Mme. Murat subjected me to at last put me so much out of temper that one day, when she was in my studio, I said to M. Denon, loudly enough for her to hear, “I have painted real princesses who never worried me, and never made me wait.” The fact is, Mme. Murat was unaware that punctuality is the politeness of kings, as Louis XIV. so well said.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun

Princess Of Lichtenstein’s scandalous feet

In her memoirs, famous painter Vigée Le Brun recalls how her portrait of the Princess of Lichtenstein, which she painted in 1793 while in Austria, scandalized her family:

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.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun

Madame Vigee Le Brun On The Duke And Duchess De Berri

In her memoir, famous painter Madame Vigée Le Brun shares her recollections of the Duke of Berry, younger son of King Charles X of France, and his wife, Caroline of Naples and Sicily:

As for the Duke de Berri, if he had not quite the same courtesy as his father, he was as clever, especially in that timely quickness of wit so useful to princes. I select one example out of a thousand. The first time he reviewed some troops he heard a few cries from the ranks of “Long live the Emperor!” “Quite right, my friends,” was his immediate remark; “every one must live.” Upon which the same soldiers exclaimed, “Long live the Duke de Berri!”

His goodness of heart went so far that not only did he interest himself in everything that concerned his friends, but behaved toward the domestics of his household as the father of a family might have done. He was worshipped by his servants, and employed his influence to encourage them in good conduct and in making whatever savings they could. One day, as he was about to enter his carriage, a little kitchen scullion came running up to him with, “Your Highness, I have saved fifteen francs this year!” “Well, my boy, that makes thirty,” said the Duke, giving him the sum the boy had mentioned. The Duke de Berri kept his revenues in good order; his heaviest expenses were occasioned by his taste for the arts, a predilection shared by his amiable wife. The Duchess de Berri was fond of encouraging young artists; she would buy their pictures and often order more. Her liberality in paying never made her forget the duty of politeness incumbent upon rank. She showed model civility in all her dealings with men of talent.

In 1819 His Highness the Duke de Berri signified his wish to buy my “Sibyl,” which he had seen in my studio at London, and although I perhaps prized this most of all my works, I speedily complied with his request. Some years later I painted Her Highness the Duchess de Berri, who gave me sittings at the Tuileries with the politest punctuality, and besides showed me a friendliness than which none could have been greater. I shall never forget how, while I was painting her one day, she said, “Wait a moment.” Then, getting up, she went to her library for a book containing an article in my praise, which she was obliging enough to read aloud from beginning to end. During one of these sittings the Duke de Bordeaux brought his mother a copybook in which his master had written “Very good.” The Duchess gave the boy two louis. The little Prince, who might have been about six, began to jump for joy, shouting, “This will do for my poor – and for my old woman first of all!” When he was gone the Duchess told me that her son referred to a poor soul he often met when he went out and of whom he was particularly fond.

While the Duchess sat for me I would become irritated at the number of people who came to make calls. She took note of this and was so considerate as to say, “Why did you not ask me to pose at your house?” Which she did for the two final sittings. I confess that I never could think of such affecting warmth of heart without comparing the time I devoted to this genial Princess with the melancholy hours Mme. Murat had made me spend. I painted two portraits of the Duchess de Berri. In the first she is wearing a red velvet dress, and in the other one of blue velvet. I have no idea what has become of these pictures.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun

Madame Vigée LeBrun Meets Empress Catherine II

In 1795, famous portraitist Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun travelled to St. Petersburg, where she was introduced to the Empress Catherine The Great. Here’s how the painter recalls their meeting in her memoirs:

I was far from recovered from all my fatigue – since the term of my residence in St. Petersburg had been only twenty-four hours – when a visitor was announced in the person of the French Ambassador, Count Esterhazy. He congratulated me on my arrival at St. Petersburg, telling me that he was about to inform the Empress of it and at the same time to take her orders for my presentation. Very little later I received a visit from the Count de Choiseul-Gouffier. While conversing with him I confessed what happiness it would give me to see the great Catherine, but I did not dissemble the fright and embarrassment I expected to undergo when I should be presented to that powerful Princess. “You will find it quite easy,” he replied. “when you see the Empress you will be surprised at her good nature; she is really an excellent woman.” I acknowledge that I was astonished by his remark, the justice of which I could scarcely believe, in view of what I had heard up to that time. It is true that the Prince de Ligne, during the charming narration of his journey in the Crimea, had recounted several facts proving that this great Princess had manners that were as gracious as they were simple, but an excellent woman was hardly the thing to call her.

However, the same evening Count Esterhazy, on returning from Czarskoiesielo, where the Empress was living, came to tell me that Her Majesty would receive me the next day at one o’clock. Such a quick presentation, which I had not hoped for, put me into a very awkward position. I had nothing but very plain muslin dresses, as I usually wore no others, and it was impossible to have an ornamental gown made from one day to the next, even at St. Petersburg. Count Esterhazy had said he would call for me at ten o’clock precisely and take me to breakfast with his wife, who also lived at Czarskoiesielo, so that when the appointed hour struck I started with serious apprehensions about my dress, which certainly was no court dress. On arriving at Mme. d’Esterhazy’s, I, in fact, took note of her amazement. Her obliging civility did not prevent her from asking me, “Have you not brought another gown?” I turned crimson at her question, and explained how time had been wanting to have a more suitable gown made. Her displeased looks increased my anxiety to such a degree that I needed to summon up all my courage when the moment came to go before the Empress. […]

A few minutes later I was alone with the autocrat of all the Russias. The Ambassador had told me I must kiss her hand, in accordance with which custom she drew off one of her gloves, and this ought to have reminded me what to do. But I forgot all about it. The truth is, that the sight of this famous woman made such an impression upon me that I could not possibly think of anything else but to look at her. I was at first extremely surprised to find her short; I had imagined her a great height – something like her renown. She was very stout, but still had a handsome face, which her white hair framed to perfection. Genius seemed to have its seat on her broad, high forehead. Her eyes were soft and small, her nose was quite Greek, her complexion lively, and her features very mobile. She at once said in a voice that was soft though rather thick: “I am delighted, madame, to see you here; your reputation had preceded you. I am fond of the arts and especially of painting. I am not an adept, but a fancier.” Everything else she said during this interview, which was rather long, in reference to her wish that I might like Russia well enough to remain a long time, bore the stamp of such great amiability that my shyness vanished, and by the time I took leave of Her Majesty I was entirely reassured. Only I could not forgive myself for not having kissed her hand, which was very beautiful and very white, and I deplored that oversight the more as Count Esterhazy reproached me with it. As for what I was wearing, she did not seem to have paid the least attention to it. Or else perhaps she may have been easier to please than our Ambassadress.

I went over part of the gardens at Czarskoiesielo, which are a veritable little fairyland. The Empress had a terrace from them communicating with her apartment, and on this terrace she kept a large number of birds. I was told that every morning she went out to feed them, and that this was one of her chief pleasures.

Directly after my audience Her Majesty testified her wish to have me spend the summer in that beautiful region. She commanded her stewards, of whom the old Prince Bariatinski was one, to give me an apartment in the castle, as she desired to have me near her, so that she might see me paint. But I afterward found out that these gentlemen took no pains to put me near the Empress, and that in spite of her repeated orders they always maintained that they had no lodgings at their disposal. What astonished me most of all, when I was informed of this matter, was that these courtiers, suspecting me to belong to the party of the Count d’Artois, were afraid lest I had come to get Esterhazy replaced by another Ambassador. It is probable that the Count was in connivance with them about all this, but anybody was surely little acquainted with me who did not know that I was too busy with my art to give any time to politics, even if I had not always felt an aversion to everything smacking of intrigue. Moreover, aside from the honour of being lodged with the Empress and the pleasure of inhabiting such a fine place, everything would have been stiff and irksome for me at Czarskoiesielo. I have always had the greatest need to enjoy my liberty, and, for the sake of following my own inclination, I have always infinitely preferred living in my own house.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun

Madame Vigée Le Brun On Catherine The Great

A while ago, I posted Madame Vigée Le Brun’s thoughts about her first meeting with the Russian Empress Catherine The Great. The portraitist spent a lot of time in Russia and had the chance to meet the Empress several more times and form her own opinion about this autocrat. Here’s what she wrote in her memoirs:

The Russian people lived very happily under the rule of Catherine; by great and lowly have I heard the name of her blessed to whom the nation owed so much glory and so much well-being. I do not speak of the conquests by which the national vanity was so prodigiously flattered, but of the real, lasting good that this Empress did her people. During the space of the thirty-four years she reigned, her beneficent genius fathered or furthered all that was useful, all that was grand. She erected an immortal monument to Peter I.; she built two hundred and thirty-seven towns in stone, saying that wooden villages cost much more because they burned down so often; she covered the sea with her fleets; she established everywhere manufactories and banks, highly propitious to the commerce of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Tobolsk; she granted new privileges to the Academy; she founded schools in all the towns and the country districts; she dug canals, built granite quays, gave a legal code, instituted an asylum for foundlings, and, finally, introduced into her empire the boon of vaccination, adopted by the Russians solely through her mighty will, and, for the public encouragement, was the first to be inoculated.

Catherine herself was the source of all these blessings, for she never allowed any one else real authority. She dictated her own despatches to her ministers, who, in effect, were but her secretaries.

Catherine II. loved everything that was magnificent in the arts. At the Hermitage she built a set of rooms corresponding to certain rooms in the Vatican, and had copies made of the fifty pictures by Raphael adorning those rooms. She enriched the Academy of Fine Arts with plaster casts of the finest ancient statues and with a large number of paintings by various masters. The Hermitage, which she had founded and erected quite near her palace, was a model of good taste in every respect, and made the clumsy architecture of the imperial palace at St. Petersburg appear to worse advantage than ever by the contrast. It is well known that she wrote French with great facility. In the library at St. Petersburg I saw the original manuscript of the legal code she gave the Russians written entirely in her own hand and in the French language. Her style, I was told, was elegant and very concise, and this reminds me of an instance of her laconic manner of expression which seems to me quite delightful. When General Suvaroff had won the battle of Warsaw, Catherine at once sent him a messenger, and this messenger brought the fortunate victor nothing but an envelope on which she had written with her own hand, “To Marshal Suvaroff.”

This woman, whose power was so great, was at home the simplest and least exacting of women. She rose at five in the morning, lit her fire, and then made her coffee herself. It was even said that one day, having lit the fire without being aware that the sweeper had climbed up the chimney, the sweeper began to swear at her, and to shower the coarsest revilements upon her, believing he was speaking to a stove-lighter. The Empress hastened to extinguish the fire, though not without laughing heartily at having been thus treated.


After breakfast the Empress wrote her letters and prepared her despatches, remaining in seclusion until nine o’clock. She then rang for her men servants, who sometimes did not answer her bell. One day, for instance, impatient at waiting, she opened the door of the room they were in, and, finding them settled down at a game of cards, she asked them why they did not come when she rang. Thereupon one of them calmly replied that they wanted to finish their game – and so they did. On another occasion the Countess Bruce, who was allowed in the Empress’s apartments at all hours, came in one morning to find her alone at her toilet. “Your Majesty seems to be without assistance,” said the Countess. “How can I help it?” answered the Empress. “My maids all went off. I was trying on a dress which fitted so badly that I lost my temper over it, and so they left me to myself. Not one of them stayed, not even Reinette, my head maid, and I am waiting for them to cool off.

In the evening Catherine would gather about her some of the people of her court she liked best. She sent for her grandchildren, and blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper and other games were played until ten o’clock, when Her Majesty went to bed. Princess Dolgoruki, who was among the favoured, often told me with what good spirits and jollity the Empress enlivened these gatherings. Count Stachelberg and the Count de Ségur were invited to Catherine’s small parties. When she broke with France and dismissed the Count de Ségur, the French Ambassador, she expressed deep regret at losing him. “But,” she added, “I am an autocrat. Every one to his trade.”

A few days later I went to a gala dinner at court. When I entered the room the invited ladies were all there, standing by the table, on which the first dish was already served. A moment after, a large door with two valves was thrown open, and the Empress appeared. I have said that she was short, but nevertheless on state occasions, her erect head, her eagle eye, her countenance so used to command – all was so symbolic of majesty that she seemed to be the queen of the world. She wore the ribbons of three orders. Her garb was plain and dignified, consisting of a muslin tunic embroidered with gold and enclasped by a diamond belt, a pair of wide sleeves being turned back in oriental fashion. Over this tunic was a red velvet dolman with very short sleeves. The cap set on her white hair was not adorned with bows, but with diamonds of the greatest beauty. When Her Majesty had taken her place all the ladies sat down to the table, and, according to universal custom, laid their napkins on their knees, while the Empress fastened hers with two pins, just as napkins are fastened on children. She soon noticed that the ladies did not eat, and suddenly burst out: “Ladies, you do not want to follow my example, and you are only pretending to eat! I have adopted the habit of pinning my napkin, as otherwise I could not even eat an egg without spilling some of it on my collar.

I, in fact, observed her to dine with a very hearty appetite. A good orchestra played during the whole meal, the musicians being in a large gallery at the end of the room.


Prince Bezborodko was a man of high ability. He was employed in the reign of Catherine II. and of Paul, first as secretary to the cabinet, and then, in 1780, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In his desire to avoid the countless appeals by which he was besieged, he made himself as inaccessible as possible. Women sometimes followed him into his carriage. He would answer their demands with “I shall forget,” and if it was a case of a petition with “I shall lose it.” His greatest gift was a thorough and exact knowledge of the Russian language. In addition to this he boasted a phenomenal memory and an astonishing facility of putting his thoughts into words. I give a well-known instance in proof thereof. On one occasion the Empress ordered him to draw up a ukase*, which, however, a great pressure of business caused him to forget. The first time he saw the Empress again, after conferring with him on several matters of administration, she asked him for the ukase. Bezborodko, not the least bit in the world dismayed, drew a sheet of paper out of his portfolio, and without a moment’s hesitation improvised the whole thing from beginning to end. Catherine was so well pleased with this presentment that she took the paper from him to look at it. Her surprise may be imagined at the sight of a sheet that was quite blank! Bezborodko began elaborate excuses, but she stopped him with compliments, and the next day made him Privy Councillor.

Note:
*Ukase: decree

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Catherine II’s Death

Famous French portraitist Madame Vigée LeBrun spent six years in Russia, a country she seemed to have genuinely loved. During her stay she got to meet the Empress Catherine II several times. I have already posted about their first meeting and her recollections and thoughts about this autocrat. In this last instalment, Madame Vigée LeBrun talks about Catherine’s death and funeral:

The Sunday preceding her death, I went to Her Majesty after church to present her with the portrait that I had made of the Grand Duchess Elisabeth. She congratulated me upon my work and then said: “They insist that you must take my portrait. I am very old, but still, as they all wish it, I will give you the first sitting this day week.” The following Thursday she did not ring at nine o’clock as was her wont. The servants waited until ten o’clock, and even a little later. At last the head maid went in. Not seeing the Empress in her room, she went to the clothes-closet, and no sooner did she open the door than Catherine’s body fell upon the floor. It was impossible to discover at what hour the apoplectic shock had touched her; however, her pulse was still beating, and hope was not entirely given up. Never in my days did I see such lively alarm spread so generally. For my part I was so seized with pain and terror when apprised of the dreadful tidings that my convalescing daughter, perceiving my state of prostration, became again ill.

After dinner I hastened to Princess Dolgoruki’s, whither Count Cobentzel brought us the news every ten minutes from the palace. Our anxiety continued to grow, and was unbearable for everybody, since not only did the nation worship Catherine, but it had an awful dread of being governed by Paul. Toward evening Paul arrived from a place near St. Petersburg, where he lived most of the time. When he saw his mother lying senseless, nature for a moment asserted her rights; he approached the Empress, kissed her hand, and shed some tears. Catherine II. finally expired at nine o’clock on the evening of November 17, 1796. Count Cobentzel who saw her breathe her last sigh, at once came to inform us that she had ceased to live.

I confess that I did not leave Princess Dolgoruki’s devoid of fear, in view of the general talk as to a probable revolution against Paul. The immense mob I saw on my way home in the palace square by no means tended to comfort me; nevertheless, all those people were so quiet that I soon concluded, and rightly, we had nothing to fear for the moment. The next morning the populace gathered again at the same place, giving vent to its grief under Catherine’s windows in heartrending cries. Old men and young, as well as children, called to their “matusha” (little mother), and between their sobs lamented that they had lost everything. This day was the more depressing as it augured so sadly for the Prince succeeding to the throne.

The Empress’s body was exposed six weeks in a large room at the palace, lit up day and night and gorgeously decorated. Catherine was laid out on a bed of state and surrounded by shields bearing the arms of all the towns in the empire. Her face was uncovered, her beautiful hand resting on the bed. All the ladies – of whom some took turn in watching by the body – bent to kiss that hand, or pretended to. I, who had never kissed it in her lifetime, did not dare to kiss it now, and even avoided looking at Catherine’s face, which would have left too bad an impression on my memory.


After his mother’s death, Paul at once had his father Peter disinterred; he had been buried for thirty-five years in the convent of Alexander Nevski. Nothing was found in the coffin but bones and a sleeve of Peter’s uniform. Paul desired the same honours rendered to these remains as to Catherine’s. He had them exhibited in the middle of the Church at Kazan; the watch service was performed by old officers, friends of Peter III, whom his son had pressed to come, and whom he loaded with honours. The day of the funeral having arrived, Peter III.’s coffin, on which his son had placed a crown, was put with great ceremony beside Catherine’s, and both were conveyed to the Citadel, Peter’s preceding, it being Paul’s wish to humble his mother’s ashes. I saw the marvellous procession from my window as one sees a play from a box in the theatre. Before the Emperor’s coffin rode a horseman of the guard, clad from top to toe in golden armour; but the man riding in front of the Empress’s coffin wore only steel armour. The murderers of Peter III. were, by order of his son, obliged to act as pall-bearers. The new Emperor walked in the procession on foot, bareheaded, with his wife and the whole court, which was very numerous, and attired in deep mourning. The women wore long trains and enormous black veils. They were obliged to walk in the snow, at a very low temperature, from the palace to the fortress, where Russia’s sovereigns were laid to rest, a long distance on the other side of the Neva. Mourning was ordered for six months. The women’s hair was brushed back, and their headgear came to a point on the forehead, which did not improve their looks at all. But this slight inconvenience was insignificant compared to the deep anxiety to which the Empress’s death gave rise throughout the whole empire.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun

Madame Vigee Lebrun On Madame Du Barry

Madame Du Barry was the last mistress of King Louis XV. After the King’s death, she retired to the Château de Louveciennes and it is here that, a few years before the start of the French Revolution, Madame Vigée LeBrun, one of the most famous and successful portraitists of her time, painted the former courtesan. It is also here that she was arrested during the Terror. On 8 December 1793, Madame Du Barry was guillotined. Madame Vigee Lebrun remembers her famous model in her Memoirs:

It was in 1786 that I went for the first time to Louveciennes, where I had promised to paint Mme. Du Barry. She might then have been about forty-five years old. She was tall without being too much so; she had a certain roundness, her throat being rather pronounced but very beautiful; her face was still attractive, her features were regular and graceful; her hair was ashy, and curly like a child’s. But her complexion was beginning to fade. She received me with much courtesy, and seemed to me very well behaved, but I found her more spontaneous in mind than in manner: her glance was that of a coquette, for her long eyes were never quite open, and her pronunciation had something childish which no longer suited her age.

She lodged me in a part of the building where I was greatly put out by the continual noise. Under my room was a gallery, sadly neglected, in which busts, vases, columns, the rarest marbles, and a quantity of other valuable articles were displayed without system or order. These remains of luxury contrasted with the simplicity adopted by the mistress of the house, with her dress and her mode of life. Summer and winter Mme. Du Barry wore only a dressing-robe of cotton cambric or white muslin, and every day, whatever the weather might be, she walked in her park, or outside of it, without ever incurring disastrous consequences, so sturdy had her health become through her life in the country. She had maintained no relations with the numerous court that surrounded her so long. In the evening we were usually alone at the fireside, Mme. Du Barry and I. She sometimes talked to me about Louis XV. and his court. She showed herself a worthy person by her actions as well as her words, and did a great deal of good at Louvecienes, where she helped all the poor. Every day after dinner we took coffee in the pavilion which was so famous for its rich and tasteful decorations. The first time Mme. Du Barry showed it to me she said: “It is here that Louis XV. did me the honour of coming to dinner. There was a gallery above for musicians and singers who performed during the meal.

When Mme. Du Barry went to England, before the Terror, to get back her stolen diamonds, which, in fact, she recovered there, the English received her very well. They did all they could to prevent her from returning to but France. But it was not long before she succumbed to the fate in store for everybody who had some possessions. She was informed against and betrayed by a little Negro called Zamore, who is mentioned in all the memoirs of the period as having been overwhelmed with kindness by her and Louis XV. Being arrested and thrown into prison, Mme. Du Barry was tried and condemned to death by the Revolutionary tribunal at the end of 1793. She was the only woman, among all who perished in those dreadful days, unable to face the scaffold with firmness; she screamed, she sued for pardon to the hideous mob surrounding her, and that mob became moved to such a degree that the executioner hastened to finish his task. This has always confirmed my belief that if the victims of that period of execrable memory had not had the noble pride of dying with fortitude the Terror would have ceased long before it did.

I made three portraits of Mme. Du Barry. In the first I painted her at half length, in a dressing-gown and straw hat. In the second she is dressed in white satin; she holds a wreath in one hand, and one of her arms is leaning on a pedestal. The third portrait I made of Mme. Du Barry is in my own possession. I began it about the middle of September, 1789. From Louveciennes we could hear shooting in the distance, and I remember the poor woman saying, “If Louis XV. were alive I am sure this would not be happening.” I had done the head, and outlined the body and arms, when I was obliged to make an expedition to Paris. I hoped to be able to return to Louveciennes to finish my work, but heard that Berthier and Foulon had been murdered. I was now frightened beyond measure, and thenceforth thought of nothing but leaving France. 

Further reading:
Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun

Madame Vigée Lebrun On Lady Hamilton

Lady Emma Hamilton, born Amy Lyons, lead a very interesting life. She was a maid, an artist’s model, a courtesan, but is best remembered as the mistress and love of Lord Nelson. French artist Madame Vigée Lebrun met and painted her when she visited Italy. Here’s what she says about Lady Hamilton in her memoirs:

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.

Further reading:
Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun

Madame Vigée Le Brun on Marie Antoinette

Madame Vigéè Le Brun was one of the most famous and sough-after portraitists of her time. She was also a favourite of Marie Antoinette and, over the years, Madame Vigéè Le Brun, would paint numerous portraits of this tragic Queen. Her paintings have become so iconic that, when we think of Marie Antoinette today, we conjure up images of her holding a rose in the gardens of the Palace, wearing a simple muslin dress and a straw hat, or sitting down surrounded by her children (and an empty cradle). All portraits painted by Madame Vigéè Le Brun. And while they may not be the most realistic representation of her likeness, the Queen’s charming personality and elegance certainly shines through in these paintings. But let’s see what Madame Vigéè Le Brun has to say about the Queen in her memoirs, shall we?

We went to Marly-le-Roi, and there I found a more beautiful spot than any I had seen in my life. On each side of the magnificent palace were six summer-houses communicating with one another by walks embowered with jessamine and honeysuckle. Water fell in cascades from the top of a hill behind the castle, and formed a large channel on which a number of swans floated. The handsome trees, the carpets of green, the flowers, the fountains, one of which spouted up so high that it was lost from sight – it was all grand, all regal; it all spoke of Louis XIV. One morning I met Queen Marie Antoinette walking in the park with several of the ladies of her court. They were all in white dresses, and so young and pretty that for a moment I thought I was in a dream. I was with my mother, and was turning away when the Queen was kind enough to stop me, and invited me to continue in any direction I might prefer. Alas! when I returned to France in 1802 I hastened to see my noble, smiling Marly. The palace, the trees, the cascades., and the fountains had all disappeared; scarcely a stone was left. […]

This reminds me that in 1786, when I was painting the Queen, I begged her to use no powder, and to part her hair on the forehead. “I should be the last to follow that fashion,” said the Queen, laughing; “I do not want people to say that I adopted it to hide my large forehead.” […]


It was in the year 1779 that I painted the Queen for the first time; she was then in the heyday of her youth and beauty. Marie Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court, her majestic mien, however, not in the least diminishing the sweetness and amiability of her face. To any one who has not seen the Queen it is difficult to get an idea of all the graces and all the nobility combined in her person. Her features were not regular; she had inherited that long and narrow oval peculiar to the Austrian nation. Her eyes were not large; in colour they were almost blue, and they were at the same time merry and kind. Her nose was slender and pretty, and her mouth not too large, though her lips were rather thick. But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.

At the first sitting the imposing air of the Queen at first frightened me greatly, but Her Majesty spoke to me so graciously that my fear was soon dissipated. It was on that occasion that I began the picture representing her with a large basket, wearing a satin dress, and holding a rose in her hand. This portrait was destined for her brother, Emperor Joseph II., and the Queen ordered two copies besides – one for the Empress of Russia, the other for her own apartments at Versailles or Fontainebleau.

I painted various pictures of the Queen at different times. In one I did her to the knees, in a pale orange-red dress, standing before a table on which she was arranging some flowers in a vase. It may be well imagined that I preferred to paint her in a plain gown and especially without a wide hoopskirt. She usually gave these portraits to her friends or to foreign diplomatic envoys. One of them shows her with a straw hat on, and a white muslin dress, whose sleeves are turned up, though quite neatly. When this work was exhibited at the Salon, malignant folk did not fail to make the remark that the Queen had been painted in her chemise, for we were then in 1786, and calumny was already busy concerning her. Yet in spite of all this the portraits were very successful.

Toward the end of the exhibition a little piece was given at the Vaudeville Theatre, bearing the title, I think, “The Assembling of the Arts.” Brongniart, the architect, and his wife, whom the author had taken into his confidence, had taken a box on the first tier, and called for me on the day of the first performance. As I had no suspicion of the surprise in store for me, judge of my emotion when Painting appeared on the scene and I saw the actress representing that art copy me in the act of painting a portrait of the Queen. The same moment everybody in the parterre and the boxes turned toward me and applauded to bring the roof down. I can hardly believe that any one was ever more moved and more grateful than I was that evening.

I was so fortunate as to be on very pleasant terms with the Queen. When she heard that I had something of a voice we rarely had a sitting without singing some duets by Grétry together, for she was exceedingly fond of music, although she did not sing very true. As for her conversation, it would be difficult for me to convey all its charm, all its affability. I do not think that Queen Marie Antoinette ever missed an opportunity of saying some thing pleasant to those who had the honour of being presented to her, and the kindness she always bestowed upon me has ever been one of my sweetest memories.


One day I happened to miss the appointment she had given me for a sitting; I had suddenly become unwell. The next day I hastened to Versailles to offer my excuses. The Queen was not expecting me; she had had her horses harnessed to go out driving, and her carriage was the first thing I saw on entering the palace yard. I nevertheless went upstairs to speak with the chamberlains on duty. One of them, M. Campan, received me with a stiff and haughty manner, and bellowed at me in his stentorian voice, “It was yesterday, madame, that Her Majesty expected you, and I am very sure she is going out driving, and I am very sure she will give you no sitting to-day!” Upon my reply that I had simply come to take Her Majesty’s orders for another day, he went to the Queen, who at once had me conducted to her room. She was finishing her toilet, and was holding a book in her hand, hearing her daughter repeat a lesson. My heart was beating violently, for I knew that I was in the wrong. But the Queen looked up at me and said most amiably, “I was waiting for you all the morning yesterday; what happened to you?

“I am sorry to say, Your Majesty,” I replied, “I was so ill that I was unable to comply with Your Majesty’s commands. I am here to receive more now, and then I will immediately retire.”

“No, no! Do not go!” exclaimed the Queen. “I do not want you to have made your journey for nothing!” She revoked the order for her carriage and gave me a sitting. I remember that, in my confusion and my eagerness to make a fitting response to her kind words, I opened my paint-box so excitedly that I spilled my brushes on the floor. I stooped down to pick them up. “Never mind, never mind,” said the Queen, and, for aught I could say, she insisted on gathering them all up herself.

When the Queen went for the last time to Fontainebleau, where the court, according to custom, was to appear in full gala, I repaired there to enjoy that spectacle. I saw the Queen in her grandest dress; she was covered with diamonds, and as the brilliant sunshine fell upon her she seemed to me nothing short of dazzling. Her head, erect on her beautiful Greek neck, lent her as she walked such an imposing, such a majestic air, that one seemed to see a goddess in the midst of her nymphs. During the first sitting I had with Her Majesty after this occasion I took the liberty of mentioning the impression she had made upon me, and of saying to the Queen how the carriage of her head added to the nobility of her bearing. She answered in a jesting tone, “If I were not Queen they would say I looked insolent, would they not?”

The Queen neglected nothing to impart to her children the courteous and gracious manners which endeared her so to all her surroundings. I once saw her make her six-year-old daughter dine with a little peasant girl and attend to her wants. The Queen saw to it that the little visitor was served first, saying to her daughter, “You must do the honours.”

The last sitting I had with Her Majesty was given me at Trianon, where I did her hair for the large picture in which she appeared with her children. After doing the Queen’s hair, as well as separate studies of the Dauphin, Madame Royale, and the Duke de Normandie, I busied myself with my picture, to which I attached great importance, and I had it ready for the Salon of 1788. The frame, which had been taken there alone, was enough to evoke a thousand malicious remarks. “That’s how the money goes,” they said, and a number of other things which seemed to me the bitterest comments. At last I sent my picture, but I could not muster up the courage to follow it and find out what its fate was to be, so afraid was I that it would be badly received by the public. In fact, I became quite ill with fright. I shut myself in my room, and there I was, praying to the Lord for the success of my “Royal Family,” when my brother and a host of friends burst in to tell me that my picture had met with universal acclaim. After the Salon, the King, having had the picture transferred to Versailles, M. d’Angevilliers, then minister of the fine arts and director of royal residences, presented me to His Majesty. Louis XVI. vouchsafed to talk to me at some length and to tell me that he was very much pleased. Then he added, still looking at my work, “I know nothing about painting, but you make me like it.”


The picture was placed in one of the rooms at Versailles, and the Queen passed it going to mass and returning. After the death of the Dauphin, which occurred early in the year 1789, the sight of this picture reminded her so keenly of the cruel loss she had suffered that she could not go through the room without shedding tears. She then ordered M. d’Angevilliers to have the picture taken away, but with her usual consideration she informed me of the fact as well, apprising me of her motive for the removal. It is really to the Queen’s sensitiveness that I owed the preservation of my picture, for the fishwives who soon afterward came to Versailles for Their Majesties would certainly have destroyed it, as they did the Queen’s bed, which was ruthlessly torn apart.

I never had the felicity of setting eyes on Marie Antoinette after the last court ball at Versailles. The ball was given in the theatre, and the box where I was seated was so situated that I could hear what the Queen said. I observed that she was very excited, asking the young men of the court to dance with her, such as M. Lameth, whose family had been overwhelmed with kindness by the Queen, and others, who all refused, so that many of the dances had to be given up. The conduct of these gentlemen seemed to me exceedingly improper; somehow their refusal likened a sort of revolt – the prelude to revolts of a more serious kind. The Revolution was drawing near; it was, in fact, to burst out before long.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun