The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - Vigée le Brun

Dear Folks,

When I put this web site together, I consciously decided that I would say as little as possible about Jennifer Ehle because I did not want the site to degenerate into a fan club for that Anglo-American actress. Unhappily, an even greater danger now comes from my fascination with the French painter, Elizabeth Louise Vigée le Brun (1755-1842). A greater danger because the story of le Brun has many more tangencies with that of Jane Austen's time. This posting is dedicated to a listing of those tangencies.

Some of what I have to say, I gleaned from the web site that Kevin J. Kelly dedicated to le Brun. Also, her Memoirs are available, online, at this LINK. Elizabeth Vigée was the daughter of a portrait painter and a working-class mother. She learned her craft from her father and was accepting impressive commissions by the time she was fifteen years old. She soon became the favorite of aristocracy, even royalty. Marie Antoinette was the same age and sat for Vigée on a number of occasions.

I think that Elizabeth Vigée (later "Vigée le Brun") was quite good, even superb at times. But, even I can recognize her glaring weakness - she would never master the painting of the human hand. Some examples of hands in her paintings seem almost grotesque. Perhaps others, more familiar with the language of art criticism, can point to other failings. I don't know if this is why she is so little known today. She was a contemporary of Francisco Goya (1746-1828), and perhaps that is a too difficult comparison for any painter's reputation. I don't know why we have heard so little of her.

In her own time, Vigée le Brun was acclaimed, first in France and then throughout Europe. She was exiled (and divorced by her husband) during the Revolution because of her ties to Royalty. From France, she went to Italy where she was welcomed, honored, and commissioned by the royal houses of the Italian city-states. While in Naples, in the 1790s, she met Lady and Lord Hamilton; and, it was there that she painted the portraits of Lady Hamilton. Apparently, my favorite portrait in that series was le Brun's favorite as well. I say that because she carried it with her everywhere in her travels and displayed it publicly very often. It is said that the exhibition inevitably drew large crowds.

Le Brun was welcomed everywhere and she enjoyed travel. Her MEMOIRS (online) describe her travels in and impressions of Jane Austen's England. Among her many commissions in England was this portrait of the Prince of Wales - the future George IV.

The Prince of Wales (George IV) by Vigée le Brun

This would have been about ten years before Jane Austen was invited to a personal tour of the Prince's new palace - and then was invited to dedicate her soon to be published novel, Emma, to her Prince. Our Lady flounced home and announced, "I will not!" Her siblings then announced, "Oh yes you will!" She did. (Can you imagine how proud this country family must have felt when baby sister received such attentions?)

Incidentally, here is a poor reproduction of a drawing that some think the Prince's librarian made of Jane Austen during that visit. That judgment is controversial.

Vig?le Brun was in England from 1802 to 1805 even though she had been welcomed back to France by that time. That is interesting because England was at war with Napoleon then. In fact, Admiral Lord Nelson's celebrated victory over the combined French-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar came in 1805. We do wonder how le Brun felt about that. Especially, we wonder if she renewed her friendship with Lady Hamilton who was living openly with Nelson at the time. - That might have been awkward!

One thing I don't understand is why Vigée le Brun was allowed such freedom in travel. She lived for extended periods, in those war years, in Austria, Russia, and Poland as well as in England. Those were all enemies of Napoleon.

The victory at Trafalgar is as celebrated in England as is the destruction of the Spanish Armada or the noble, heroic efforts of the RAF during the Battle for Britain, and for the same reason. The French and Spanish fleets had been intended as a vehicle and then a screen for the French invasion of England. Without a naval screen, the plan became infeasible. Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, shot by a sniper perched high on the mast of a French ship.

There have been at least two portrayals of Lady Hamilton on the big screen. Glenda Jackson portrayed her as potty-mouthed - brassy, and crude. I don't think so - a woman like that would not have been so overwhelmingly attractive to so many different men. I suspect this was a bit of class snobbery on someone's part - how else to think of a woman with a working-class background. Vivien Leigh gave a far more plausible interpretation in That Hamilton Woman - 1941. (Her husband, Lawrence Olivier, appeared as Nelson.) And, of course, Ms. Leigh was beautiful enough for the role.

Jane Austen's brother, Francis (Frank) Austen, was a captain at the time of the battle; in fact, his ship was carrying an Admiral's flag just outside the enemy port near Trafalgar. It just so happened that it was his turn to go for fresh water, he transferred the flag, and set sail for Gibralter. He was hailed by a packet ship coming up on his stern and given the information that the French fleet was preparing for the open sea. Captain Francis Austen knew immediately what that meant and tried desparately to retrace his path. But, the wind and tides were against him and he arrived too late to participate in England's greatest battle. There are existing letters to his sister Jane in which he pours out his disappointment. Incidentally, he had been mentioned quite favorably in one of Nelson's earlier official communications. Afterwards, he was given significant shore duty. It became his duty to prepare the coastal defenses against any further attempts at invasion. He first achieved an Admiral's rank and then he was knighted. I think - do not know - that these advancements were reward for his work on coastal defense.

An even more interesting portrait, done in England, is le Brun's portrait of Lord Byron.

Portrait of Lord Byron by Vigée le Brun

You can find other portraits of Byron that make him out more idealized - absurdly heroic and handsome. Le Brun was more willing to see the brooding and dangerous side of the man. Still, if he deserves his reputation as an intellectual, then Byron might have preferred her image of him. This would have been about ten years before his shenanigans with the Shelley party in Switzerland, including the events that led to the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Those latter events were portrayed in the 1986 film Gothic. It seems to me that the film correctly portrays all the characters and their relationships. However, this is a Ken Russell film, so we might expect that some aspects were sensationalized. I particularly liked Natasha Richardson's portrayal of Mary Shelley. I think she nailed the part. Mary is the only character that you will gain any sympathy for, and that is my view as well. I like Mary Shelley. Richardson made her seem elegant and thoughtful in the midst of chaos - in the company of older and more accomplished companions. You will hate the Byron portrayed in that film.

After I posted three of le Brun's self portraits (1781, 1782, and 1789), Ted Adams was kind enough to send me several le Bruns including her self portrait of 1790. I pasted that in here for your approval. Le Brun was still radiantly beautiful and still willing and able to recognize and capture that beauty. That is audacity - That is the kind of calm, assured, unflinching conceit that men adore in a woman. Maybe that is a part of French culture. I mean, don't we, today, sense the same thing in the beauty and carriage of Isabelle Adjani or Sophie Marceau?

Incidentally, the hand is not so badly done in this portrait is it?

Self portrait of Vigée le Brun, 1790

Le Brun still had that bee-stung mouth you might have noticed in earlier portraits. Someone should have kissed that bee sting - to make it feel better.

Let me conclude all this with some thoughts on the Austen family and the novels of baby sister, Jane Austen. The brother, Captain Frank Austen, never sat at table with Lord Nelson and his famous mistress. But, he might, someday, have had the privilege if not for intervening events. I mean if Frank Austen had not been sent for fresh water and if that sniper had missed Nelson, then Frank might, someday, have been charmed at dinner by the fairest face in the land. It is plausible to imagine that Mdm. le Brun might then have sat across from him and discussed, perhaps, her impressions of Lord Byron. Perhaps the main point is that these persons were within Frank Austen's - therefore Jane Austen's - circle, within their ken. It would be another decade before Jane Austen would begin work on Mansfield Park. Remember that the next time you are trying to imagine how a reader was expected to think of Mary and Henry Crawford.

Finally, here is a really sweet portrait of le Brun with her daughter.

Dear Ash,

You said

Most assuredly!? This brings to mind our study of "influences".? Lately, Rousseau keeps popping up all over the place as an influence.? Recently I have been delving into the French Revolution.? I found that Robespierre was an admirer of Rousseau - he advocated 'death to resisters' - that led to a lot of beheadings.? In the introduction to my book on Thomas Malthus, I found that Hume and Rousseau visited in the Malthus home when Thomas was a young boy.? His father was an admirer of Rousseau.? Then you and I ran into him in our study of "The Princess of Cleves".? That guy was all over the place.? I do think it behooves us (at least me) to look into this guy and just exactly what he said.? Your post on 10/08/00 was enlightening on his possible influence on our dear Jane, but I begin to wonder about the broader aspect of his influence and maybe the havoc he reeked.? That leads us to wonder, who influenced Rousseau. Where does it all stop?

That said, it brings me to the point: IMO she based her characters on people she knew - she drew them from real life.? She did not have to "make them up".? The proof - please just look around you today, because people have not changed!

I do like the self-portrait of Le Brun you pasted in your post.? I really like the portrait of Byron.? I feel as though I am looking at the 'real' Byron with all his various 'character' traits displayed.

I can definitely relate with your fascination for Le Brun.? I took a peek at her Marie Antoinette pictures and she did seem to have a problem with hands.? I do admire her talent, and it is a wonder that Hollywood has not put her life in pictures.? It has all the makings of a saga.?Thanks for the sketch of Le Brun.

Dear Linda,

I suppose that people should never recommend references they have not read themselves, but I will now break that rule. I mean that since you are about to study the possible effect of the French Revolution on Jane Austen, you may be interested in something that I only know by title

Jane Austen and the French Revolution Warren Roberts
Macmillan, 1979 or Athlone Press, 1995
I hope you find that useful. I glanced at it once and my impression was that it was probably readable.

One of my great defects as a student is that I can never look past the way a person actually lived to what they accomplished. So, to me, Rousseau was a monumental smuck. Say what you will about Thomas Jefferson, he was a saint compared to Rousseau. Still, Rousseau was and is a great hero in the Official Pantheon of Human Progress. I wish that I had just read his Social Contract and never picked up his Confessions. - phooie!

I can agree about Jane Austen, but I would put a different slant on things. I believe that our Lady was very inventive when it came to her characters. However, it seems she was a keen observer of the human condition and, so, there is much of true human nature in her novels. I think those novels deeply psychological and, therefore, interesting. They are interesting because they are about us. I suspect that this is rarely understood because she seems most interested in normal psychology. These days, it is the abnormal that is investigated by writers. Well, that's OK too; but, I suspect that it is easier to write about the abnormal because the writer need only get a few details right, and the effects of those are so startling that the writer need not be concerned with all the details. Well, I am more interested in us than I could ever be with the severely dysfunctional.

There are people in this world who will tell you that Jane Austen's novels cannot have been psychological because Freud had not yet lived. This is a concept that Freud himself did not understand; so, he sometimes quoted Shakespeare to illustrate his points. It seems to me that one of Mary Waldron's contributions was to point to this deeper side of Jane Austen's novels. Do you agree?

Thank you for seeing something worthy in le Brun's life and work. I will never mention her name again as the subject is Jane Austen. Who is Vigée le Brun? Don't ask me, I am sure I don't know - don't know and don't care. (Gulp!)


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