French Royalty's Favorite Portrait Painter

MEMOIRS OF MADAME VIG'EE LEBRUN Translated by Lionel Strachey New York: George Braziller Inc. 233 pp., $24.95 cloth, $12.95 paper ELISABETH LOUISE VIG'EE LEBRUN was as famous in her day as Georgia O'Keeffe has been in ours. Born in 1755 to a petit bourgeois family, the child demonstrated a sharp eye and an intense drive to learn about art. Her formal education as a painter was sporadic; she was largely self-taught, studying in as many private collections as she could gain admittance to.

Her early portraits of family members hinted at her flair for animated poses. She possessed a caricaturist's quick sense, but none of the animus. Her flesh tones were as delectable as blancmange. These gifts met in the person of an attractive and gregarious woman, who took personal delight in concocting as irresistibly flattering a portrait confection as any royal personage might want.

Her rise to fame was swift, lubricated by the tipsy vanities of pre-revolutionary France. In her early 20s, Vig'ee Lebrun was a favorite of French royalty, and she liked them right back: She and Marie Antoinette sang duets while the Queen posed for her.

Not unexpectedly, Vig'ee Lebrun's ``Memoirs'' are mostly decorous and selective. An apolitical Pollyanna, who literally swooned in the presence of beauty, and who was inclined to judge a person's character by the state of his complexion, Vig'ee Lebrun understood the French Revolution and its aftermath as if they were due to too much or too little etiquette.

She conjectured that if only more royals had forsaken their ``noble pride of dying with fortitude'' and cried out for mercy, ``the Terror would have ceased long before it did.'' The Jacobins, she says, showed no such restraint. They were dirty, sewery-smelling, and, yes, they had bad skin. Yet in spite of her seriously limited political vision, Vig'ee Lebrun seldom made the mistake of lying to herself about the events of her personal life.

Established as a portrait painter as a teen-ager, she was coerced into turning over all her commissions to her abstemious stepfather. At the age of 20, she was wooed by the well-known connoisseur and art dealer, Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun. Her reflections on his marriage proposal seem strikingly modern: ``I was far from wishing to become his wife ... I was ... living without anxiety as to the future, since I was already earning a deal of money ... so little ... did I feel inclined to sacrifice my liberty that, even on my way to church, I kept saying to myself, `Shall I say yes, or shall I say no.''' Ultimately, her marriage meant trading one set of problems for another. Lebrun was not cruel, but he ran through most of the fortune she amassed.

Vig'ee Lebrun was a clear target for the anti-Royalists. Her escape from France, in the heady days after the mob marched to Versailles palace, makes good reading. Leaving her husband and all her possessions, she gathered up her beloved nine-year-old daughter, Jeanne Julie Louise, and took a public stagecoach to Italy. Self-supporting during her 12-year exile, she painted the well-to-do and the aristocracy in Italy, Austria, and Russia.

She returned briefly to France in 1805. Despite the familiar surroundings, she was ``pursued by innumerable black thoughts.'' She moved on to London, where the architecture pleased her, but the climate and the Sundays did not: ``Not a shop is open; there are no plays, nor balls, nor concerts.''

To make matters worse, an English painter whom she declined to name (it was John Hoppner) publicly disparaged her work. Her reply, which she included in the ``Memoirs,'' is an index to her art knowledge and to her undeniable pluck. Returning to Paris after a three-year stay, she reunited with her daughter, only to be alarmed by Jeanne Julie Louise's quick temper and choice of friends.

The ``Memoirs,'' written in the 1830s, end with a short, sad litany. Remembering the occasion of her husband's death, Lebrun recalls: ``True that for a long time I had entertained no relation whatever with him, yet I was nonetheless mournfully affected by his death.'' But the greatest blow to her was the death of her daughter: ``All the wrongdoing of the poor little one vanished - I saw her again, I still see her, in the days of her childhood.''

By turns, Vig'ee Lebrun's ``Memoirs'' are frank and sycophantic. It is as if there were two Lebruns: one who wished to live in the cotton-candy world of her portraits, and one who did live in the real world of business and political intrigue. This is French history in the flesh, history lived and felt through a faded and flawed cosmology, but lived and felt just the same.

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