Painting Caroline Bonaparte’s portrait, by Madame Vigée-Lebrun

Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun is best remembered today for being Marie-Antoinette’s favorite portraitist. In fact her career went on for decades, with unabated success, after she left France in October 1789, at the very beginning of the French Revolution. For years Madame Lebrun traveled to Italy, Germany, England and Russia, where she enjoyed the patronage of the imperial family and much of the aristocracy.

She returned to France after Napoléon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor. Bonaparte meant to recreate around himself and Joséphine a new court, no less brilliant than that of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Naturally the idea came to him to secure the services of the late Queen’s portraitist for the newly minted Imperial Highnesses of his own family. Let us listen to Madame Lebrun, who recalls the experience in her Memoirs:

Vigee Lebrun Caroline Bonaparte Madame Murat

Vigee Lebrun Caroline Bonaparte Madame Murat

My journey to England had displeased the Emperor, who had curtly remarked, “Madame Lebrun went to see her friends.” But Bonaparte’s resentment against me could not have been violent since, a few days after speaking thus, he sent Monsieur Denon [director of the Musée Napoléon, as the Louvre was then known] to me with an order to paint his sister, Madame Murat [née Caroline Bonaparte]. I thought I could not refuse, although I was only to be paid 1,800 Francs – less than half of what I usually charged for portraits of the same size. This sum was the more moderate that, for the sake of pleasing myself as to the composition of the picture, I painted Madame Murat’s pretty little girl beside her, and that without raising the price.

I could not conceivably describe all the annoyances, all the torments I underwent in painting this picture. To begin with, at the first sitting, Madame Murat brought two lady’s maids, who were to do her hair while I was painting her. However, upon my remark that I could not under such circumstances do justice to her features, she agreed to send her servants away.

Then she repeatedly failed to keep the appointments she made with me, so that, in my desire to finish, I was kept in Paris nearly the whole summer, as a rule waiting for her in vain, which angered me unspeakably. Moreover, the intervals between the sittings were so long that she sometimes changed her hairstyle. In the beginning, for instance, she wore curls hanging over her cheeks, and I painted them accordingly; but some time after, this having gone out of fashion, she came back with her hair dressed in a totally different manner, so that I was forced to scrape off the hair I had painted on the face, and was likewise compelled to blot out a pearl diadem and put one of cameos in its place.

The same thing happened with her gown. The one I had painted at first was cut rather open, as dresses were then so worn, and adorned with wide embroidery. The fashion having changed, I was obliged to close in the dress and do the embroidery anew. All the annoyances that Madame Murat subjected me to at last put me so much out of temper that one day, when she was in my studio, I said to Monsieur Denon, loudly enough for her to overhear me, “I have painted real princesses who never worried me, and never made me wait.” The fact is, Madame Murat did not know that “punctuality is the politeness of kings,” as Louis XIV had so aptly said.

Vigée Lebrun signature

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12 Comments to “Painting Caroline Bonaparte’s portrait, by Madame Vigée-Lebrun”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh, quite the contrary, Penny! Caroline may have been a diva, but, as Queen of Naples, she is an important historical character in her own right. Maybe I should do a series on the Bonaparte siblings, as I did with the daughters of Louis XV…

  2. Penny says:

    Since you won’t be coming back anytime soon,
    I thought I would also add that I enjoyed the story behind the painting.
    Secondly, Caroline sounds like such a diva as they say here in the U.S.
    She doesn’t seem to be an important part of history. So much for the stereotype that
    if a man has more than one sister he is more likely to be a sensitive man to his lover or as we say here also, friend with benefits?

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Penny. I am happy and flattered to contribute to the artwork in your apartment. I do hope to come to NY in 2010, for the release of For The King!

  4. Penny says:

    i also add my gratitude for this posting. it is a beautiful. Lebrun certainly let Caroline have it. anyway, I might use it to decorate my dining room. i have a modern French artist, Enjolras right now dominating the living room among some Fragonard and Boucher.
    i hope one day you are brooklyn and can see how i have used your artwork. hmmm, maybe 2011.

  5. Penny says:

    thank you for such beauty. i am always consoled by art and good music. oh and good friends when they are not on vacation.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Quite so, Elena, and that is probably what Madame Lebrun had in mind when she dealt with Caroline.

  7. What a contrast is the above scene with Madame Lebrun’s experiences when painting Marie-Antoinette! When Madame Lebrun dropped her paints one day, the Queen got down on her hands and knees and picked them up, so that the artist, who was with child, would not have to bend!

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    True, Ellen, and maybe by being so candid she sends Napoleon, through Denon and Caroline, the message that she means to keep her distances from all the Bonapartes. By this time in her career she had nothing to prove professionally, and it turned out to be a wise political move in the long term.

  9. Ellen Moody says:

    Yes, Very good, and the copy is so clear and beautiful (the colors come out gorgeous). I see she had a lot to provoke her: beyond not showing up on time, changing her hairstyle and then LeBrun get paid only half her usual fee.

    She thought there was little to lose here to say the truth, and maybe something to gain by showing herself not to be a doormat. She warns others to be more polite (and pay the usual fee).


  10. lucy says:

    Oh Catherine this is an excellent post. I have the Memoirs of Madame Lebrun but have not yet read it. And it’s an antique copy too…I have to get to it and see if this is in there somewhere!

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Lucy, you won’t be disappointed. Madame Lebrun’s Memoirs are a great read, and full of original, first-hand information on many events and people. Careful, though, many editions have been unfortunately bowdlerized. But this passage must have escaped the most determined of censors.

  12. lucy says:

    Oh Catherine this is an excellent post. I have the Memoirs of Madame Lebrun but have not yet read it. And it’s an antique copy too…I have to get to it and see if this is in there somewhere!

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