April 16

Hunting for births, deaths and events of significance in the universal history of June 27th, for my novel "A Journey In Time", the names of obscure, minor composers came up so repeatedly that it began to seem the date had been dedicated among the zodiacal signs as "Composers' Day", save only for the fact that it did not claim any composer of real merit – Mozart and Beethoven, for example, had scrupulously avoided it, while Haydn's third cousin who got married on that date cannot be said to count. 

But minor composers a-plenty. June 27th 1829, for example, was the date on which Louis-Sebastien Lebrun died, at the age of sixty-four. In the novel, the narrator, whose obsessive search for these names, dates and events is the satirical core of the tale, becomes particularly fixated over Lebrun, and eventually falls out with his girlfriend altogether over the subject. There is, as he discovers – or fails to discover – no known information about Louis-Sebastien; what he finds instead are Charles Lebrun (1619-1690), a French painter "whose ornate, Baroque designs dominated French art for two generations"; a French statesman of the 19th century named Albert Lebrun; and that splendid rarity, a woman painter who was not forced to take a man's name or restrict herself to the convent of nursery-painting, Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842). In the novel, Marie-Louise is no more than a passing mention; but she remained in my notebooks as a potential return-to-one-day, provided that a suitable excuse arose.

And so it did, almost twenty years later, when I finally got around to visiting the Wallace Collection, a splendid museum of the arts at Hertford House in Manchester Square in London, the former townhouse of the Seymour family, the Marquesses of Hertford – yes, those Seymours, of whom Edward was Lord Protector of England during Edward VI's reign, and Jane was one of Henry VIII's six wives, and her brother Thomas was the man with whom Princess Elizabeth may or may not have had an affair before she became the Virgin Queen. Dukes of Somerset as well, but Hertford House was specifically the London residence of the Marquesses of that county, and its collection of very fine arts essentially the 18th and 19th century achievement of the first four Marquesses, completed by Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the fourth though not himself the fifth, and bequeathed to the nation after his death in 1897.

So I found myself, one early spring afternoon of 2016, wandering among porcelain and furniture and gold boxes, strolling between Titian and Velazquez and Franz Hals, from Watteau to Rubens to Fragonard, looking at Limoges enamels and majolica, when there on the wall was the most splendid portrait, and if I stopped to look more closely, both at it and at its label, it was in part the majestic splendour of the work,  and also a vague notion that I had walked past a very similar painting at the National Gallery just a few days earlier, but at that stage of my visit where I had been reduced by its infinitudes to merely browsing, while truthfully searching for the sign that led down to the coffee bar.

The painting in question at the Wallace was "Madame Perregaux, France, 1789, Oil on oak panel, Louise. Vigee. Le Brun. f. 1789", a sort of middle-ageing Juliet looking over the balcony railings hopeful of the arrival of her Romeo, or is she at the Opera and has noticed something unusual in a nearby box? Something in the style of the painting triggered that vague memory, perhaps the rosy pinkness of the cheeks, perhaps simply the manner in which the background had been created, an emptiness of cloudy, Turneresque skies that belied the interior nature of the remainder of the portrait.

From Manchester Square to Trafalgar Square is no great walking distance, and so I went back to the National Gallery, and there, on the second floor, in room 33 (and at the top of this blog-page), was the very lady who had painted "Madame Perregaux", a self-portrait of elegance in a straw hat, styled on Rubens' "Chapeau de Paille" which, as I have since learned, she saw in Antwerp although Rubens actually painted it in Brussels. So this was what she looked like; rather plain in fact, the eyes too intense, the face too oval, the mouth decidedly not the sort one yearns to kiss, but get beyond the instinctive male response to everyfemale and there is deep intelligence in those features; the intensity of those eyes is actually what makes them so appealing, because their vision is enormous, their capacity to read other human faces, and present them to the world with style and grace and elegance. A very great second-tier painter was Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

But yet virtually unknown, or at least demoted to the B-list, that terrible foolishness of the cultural decision-makers, who leave us with such a tiny catalogue of "greats-to-be-remembered" when it is really those exhausting infinitudes that define us humans as an intelligent life-form. 

Nor was she merely somebody wealthy's wife or daughter, who filled the empty time between baby-making and maidservant-hiring by dabbling water-colours on a sheet of gesso-coated cotton. Her mother was a hairdresser. Her father, Louis, was a professional portrait-painter, who would no doubt have gone on teaching the craft to his daughter, only poverty forced him to place her in a convent at the age of six; she stayed there for five years; and the following year her father died. For the next three years she supported herself as a painter of portraits, only for her studio to be closed down by the gendarmerie for the crime of painting without a license. She responded by applying for membership of the Academie de St-Luc, which saw the name Vigée, assumed it was the father, accepted several of her pictures for exhibition at their Salon, and then discovered that she was a woman, but admitted her anyway, because, let's be honest, elle n'est pas sans talent, at the age of only nineteen, in 1774. Two years later she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer, who turned their home, the Hôtel de Lubert in Paris, into a Salon of its own, and the rest is a period of history which the Chinese would describe as "interesting".

Her mother having, in the meanwhile, married a wealthy jeweller and established her own home close to the Palais Royal, was not unhelpful. Le Brun's pedigree likewise gave access to the nobility, and Madame Lebrun, as she now styled herself, became the portrait painter to go to for anyone who wished to be counted. Which eventually, perhaps inevitably, included the Royal Consort, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, or more simply Marie-Antoinette. Her very first portrait of la première dame des gâteaux, painted in 1779 at the Palais de Versailles, consolidated her reputation. By 1783 she had transferred from St-Luc to the Académie Royale, and while France was cutting off royal heads and Terrorising its own subjects and proclaiming Napoleon as the unelected King of Democracy, Madame Lebrun was wisely travelling around Europe, still painting the nobility, but now enlarging her reputation to the international, leaving behind a staggering eight hundred canvases and a deep attachment to the word rococo.

The version of the straw hat at the National Gallery turned out to be a mere replica, autographed but not original. Where exactly the original is remains unknown, but probably in a private collection somewhere in France, which is to say, confined in some bourgeois space where only the family who owns it can know of its greatness, and the eyes of the world never be permitted to pry on it – the fate of most 18th and 19th century French women; though not Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.