Madame du Barry, by Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Madame du Barry, née Jeanne Bécu, the last mistress of Louis XV and a former courtesan, was guillotined on December 8, 1793.

Here she is, painted by Madame Vigée-Lebrun, who also recorded her impressions of the model in her Memoirs:

Madame du Barry by Vigee Lebrun

It was in 1786 that I went for the first time to Louveciennes, where I had promised to paint Madame 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 bosom being rather pronounced but very beautiful; her face was still attractive, her features were regular and graceful; her hair was ash blonde, 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 housed 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 items 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 Madame 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, Madame 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 Madame 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 Madame 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… [Meaning that Madame du Barry, like many others, imprudently returned to France in the middle of the Terror not to forfeit her properties there.]

Madame du Barry Vigee Lebrun

Madame du Barry by Vigee Lebrun

Being arrested and thrown into prison, Madame 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 fortitude; she screamed, she begged for forgiveness to the hideous mob surrounding her, and that mob became moved to such a degreethat 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 Madame 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 Madame 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.

What became of Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s third portrait of Madame du Barry, never finished and never delivered? I couldn’t find any copy of it.

For images of Louveciennes, see these stills (scroll down the “Choisir” menu) and videos. You can now rent Madame du Barry’s beautiful little Pavillon de Musique for special events…

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15 Comments to “Madame du Barry, by Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun”

  1. Telynor, I never heard that anecdote, but one has to be careful about many stories and anecdotes about Madame du Barry. Many are apocryphal. I think she was aware of her precarious status and, far from wishing to antagonize MA and the future King, craved some kind of recognition from the Dauphine. I also doubt Louis XV would have approved of such a joke, which would have shown, in addition to bad taste, grave disrespect for the monarchy and its future.

  2. Telynor says:

    Gorgeous stuff! I didn’t know that Louis XVI had her locked up in a convent, but considering Mme du Barry’s treatment of his wife, I’m not surprised at all. Wasn’t she the one who presented the two of them with a toy cradle in a not too subtle jibe?

  3. J.S. STAFFIER says:

    Cear Catherine,
    Thanks for your work & updates. You make the period come alive!
    My ‘MA’ tale is going to published on Kindle in a few weeks.
    It’s been along haul–3 years of research & writing!
    Wish me luck!
    J.S. Staffier

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Many thanks! Apparently it was not completed until 1820, more than 30 years later…

  5. Jos says:

    For the third portrait of Mme du Barry see

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Janis, I could not agree more, since the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution is also a courtesan…

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Janis, I could not agree more, since the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution is also a courtesan…

  8. Janis says:

    Am about to read “Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty” and found your site while doing additional research. Am fascinated by the “courtesans” of history, as so many of them are interesting people in their own right.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Dear Penny – Not only was Madame du Barry a former royal mistress (“former” was no excuse) but she had gone to England and returned to France, all without government permission. In itself, that made her an illegally returned emigree, and subject to a death sentence.

    She was indeed graceful and beautiful, and had quite a bit of political influence during her heyday.

  10. Penny says:

    I had not realized there was so much blood lust in the crowd. and this was not even the current king’s mistress. doubt she had much influence on him. she looks so graceful in these portraits, and so comfortable with herself. so very sad

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    And thank you for giving me the idea of this post, Elena. Yes, Madame Lebrun’s perspective is always interesting and informative.

  12. Thank you for the link! Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s memoirs are indispensable for filling in the details!

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    You are welcome, Jaime! No, I haven’t read “The Book of the Courtesans” but will look into it. I will post on Madame de Pompadour after I see the Tours show over the holidays. I agree with you, when it comes to such ladies, “powers” is the more appropriate term.

  14. Jaime says:

    Thanks so much for this post and for the link back to Tea at Trianon. I read both with great interest. I’m wondering if you have read “The Book of the Courtesans” by Susan Griffin? A very interesting and entertaining overview of some of history’s most famous courtesans at the height of their “charms” (I think “powers” could be substituted as well), including du Barry, and La Pompadour among others. Take a look if you get a chance.
    Thanks again for the post!
    Jaime A

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