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Books : A Painter Recalls the Reign of Terror

Times Book Critic

Memoirs of Madame Vigee Lebrun, translated by Lionel Strachey (George Braziller; $24.95; 233 pages)

For an unlikely story of prosperity in unpromising circumstances, consider Louise Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun.

At 7, she tells us in her memoirs, she insisted on covering her school books and classroom walls with drawings. When her father saw them, “He went into transports of joy, exclaiming, ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one.’ ”

Now this was 1763. Even a painter father, such as the elder Vigee, would not normally welcome a daughter into the trade with such enthusiasm. Granted, he was witty and unconventional, and so was his daughter. Both chatted up their sitters as they painted, giving them, in her case at least--his portraits have not survived--a fresh look, as if they themselves were about to think of something witty to say.

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Father Encouraged Her

Vigee pere firmly supported his daughter’s vocation until his death, when she was 12. His colleagues continued the encouragement. At 15, she was already in demand at the court in Versailles.

Furthermore, she remained a successful painter of kings and nobles all her life. Considering that she died at 86--in 1842--and considering the convulsions that France and much of Europe went through, this was remarkable.

If you are in the business of painting faces, it is a real problem of supply and demand to have the guillotine remove them so drastically. Mme. Vigee never got over the French Revolution, though she survived it by knowing when it was time to hop a stagecoach and head for the frontier.

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She found work in Catherine the Great’s Russia. There, an Ancien Regime really knew how to take care of itself. Later, she moved to England and returned to France once Napoleon was firmly in charge.

Wrote of Court Life

Buoyancy and self-confidence mark the memoirs of this woman, whom the sun tended to shine on with the help of some shrewd meteorological positioning. She writes, with a pleasure that approaches innocence, of the beautiful people, their parties, their clothes and how much they liked her. Once in awhile, though, darkness breaks through. The guillotine left its shadow.

At two points in this abridged version of the Memoirs--it is a reissue of the selection made and translated in 1903 by Lionel Strachy--Mme. Vigee produces a graphic and unalloyed moment of pain. In contrast to her rosy-fleshed portraits, she is painting bone.

One of these is an unsettling comment on the report that Mme. Du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, struggled and cried for mercy as she was put on the guillotine block. There was a moment of shocked hesitation; the other victims had generally made a point of showing serenity.

If the others, Mme. Vigee muses, “had not had the noble pride of dying with fortitude, the Terror would have ceased long before it did.”

More chilling is her account of the last court ball at Versailles. By this time, some of the nobility were distancing themselves from Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and expressing tentative sympathy with the early ideas of the Revolution.

No Partners for Queen

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Mme. Vigee writes as compact and vivid a detail as we have of how the bottom fell out of a world. The queen was unable to get any of the younger courtiers to dance with her. “Their refusal likened a sort of revolt--the prelude to revolts of a more serious kind.”

Not all of this book is as revealing. There is a bland, even gushing quality to many of the painter’s descriptions of the high, if insecure society she moved among and lived off.

A more active editing job might have compensated for the rather unfocused effect. Although a foreword by John Russell helps, it would have been useful to have more in the way of dates; and at least a few footnotes giving a historical context for some of Vigee’s stories. And the reader should be told that this is an abridgment, not the full Memoirs.

There are some good moments, nevertheless. Mme. Vigee would flatter the mighty, but only up to a certain point. One of her aristocratic sitters kept pursing her lips to make her mouth look smaller. Finally, the painter offered to do her without a mouth at all. Louis XVIII, proud of his voice, would sing while posing. Did she think he sang well? he asked. “Like a prince,” she replied.

Spent Time in Russia

Her description of the lavish scale on which the Russian nobility lived is striking; these were untamed feudal barons in contrast to the domesticated courtiers of Versailles. Count Stroganoff, for example, employed an orchestra in which each musician was assigned a single note, which he repeated each time it came up. It was a human music box; a grotesque masterpiece of cultural autocracy.

To function, however, the Russian empire needed its share of practiced and skillful officials. The most memorable was Prince Bezborod, secretary of state for foreign affairs. Wherever he went, he was deluged by requests, and he perfected two consummate bureaucratic retorts. To those who asked a favor, he invariably replied: “I shall forget.” To those who sought to fortify his memory by handing him a written petition, he would say: “I shall lose it.”


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