Kimbell Art Museum Exhibition Catalog
June 5 - August 8, 1982

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Catalog Number 57

35 folios of laid paper, bound in maroon crushed levant
Average dimensions of folios: 121/8 x 75/8 inches (310 x 195 mm.)
Some of the sheets bear the watermark Berges
The University of Rochester Library, Department of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Archives.

At the end of her long life, Vigee Le Brun was deeply concerned about posterity's judgment of her. In 1818, she had ceded to the royal collection a monumental portrait of Marie Antoinette (see cat. no. 27). Somewhat later she bequeathed to the Musee Royal the finest of her own paintings still in her possession. At an even more advanced age, she made certain that the portrait she considered as her masterpiece, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (fig. 30), was exhibited to the public in the newly created museum of the history of France at Versailles. These works constituted her artistic legacy to the nation.

"Over the years, she had been carefully cultivating in her salon an image of herself that she wished to be perpetuated, that of a beautiful woman of rather humble origins, splendidly endowed as an artist, who had been patronized by the martyred Queen of France and many of the crowned heads of Europe, feted by aristocracy, honored by the most distinguished academies of art, and who in times of great adversity had remained steadfastly loyal to the older branch of the Bourbon family. Much of her adult life had been spent in the glare of publicity. On occasion she had endured savage assaults on her art and her morals. Friends repeatedly warned her that if she did not write the story of her own life, others would do so, and the results were likely to be far from flattering. Among the first pages of these manuscripts, there is a rough draft of a letter from Mme Le Brun to Louis Aime Martin, the author of a short biography of the artist. In the letter she explains:

Finally, my good friend, I have begun what you have so often recommended over the years. You know how reluctant I was to undertake what you call my memoirs, because, in addition to the events of which I have been a spectator, I must talk about myself. This self is so boring for others, that verily it was for this reason I renounced the project. But Monsieur de Gasperiny, who like yourself, encouraged me to write, determined me to do so when he told me: "Very well, Madame, if you do not do it yourself, it will be done for you, and God knows what will be written. I understood his reasoning, having often been so misunderstood, so maligned, that six months ago I resigned myself to it. As I go along I jot down what I remember of times and places. You will see no style, no structure, no harmony. I am merely consigning facts to paper, with simplicity and truth like one who writes a letter to a friend.

In your brief biography you have already recounted so well the main events of my life. From this bright picture one would think that I have been the most fortunate of women. And yet, my friend, the tributes, the distinctions which were so honorable and flattering, were interspersed with very cruel pain ... caused by what was closest and dearest to me. And this has often made me reflect that one must never envy the fate of others, even those whom one believes are the most fortunate.

I do not include among the sorrows the venomous attacks of calumny which have always pursued me. I have always disdained them because they were dictated by enemies I never even knew ...

The most interesting feature that I can inject will concern the remarkable events, as well as- the most famous and distinguished people of Europe, that my position in society permitted me to see first hand."

Mme Vigee Le Brun was undoubtedly a fascinating conversationalist, but she wrote clumsily, even incoherently, in blissful ignorance of the most elementary rules of grammar, syntax, orthography, punctuation, and capitalization. The Souvenirs were composed by her in bits and pieces which were subsequently transcribed, edited, often expurgated, and then rewritten. Recognizing her literary shortcomings, she enlisted the help of family and friends. Her principal collaborators were her nieces, Caroline Vigee and Eugenie Le Brun, and the latter's husband, Justin Tripier Le Franc. They were perhaps assisted in their efforts by Louis Aime Martin, Sophie de Bawr, and the historians Michaud And Poujoulat, all established authors who frequented the artist s salon and who, like her, were outspoken in their royalist convictions.

On February 29, 1835, Mme Le Brun signed an agreement authorizing the publisher Hippolyte Fournier to print fifteen-hundred copies of her Souvenirs which were to appear in two or three installments. The first went to press that very year. It concerns the period between the artist's birth and the outbreak of the French Revolution. (The Rochester manuscripts relate specifically to this first volume.) It was written in epistolary form, in letters supposedly addressed to a Russian friend who had died in 1831, Princess Natalia Kourakin, for whom Mme Le Brun had six years previously composed a short autobiography.

The manuscripts were dispersed, but loose pages and entire sections are still in existence [these will eventually be published in a critical edition by the author of the present catalogue], Rochester's bound volume being the most cohesive. Folios I through 13 are entirely in the hand of Vigee Le run. The remaining pages are written in the cursive script of Eugenie Tripier Le Franc. Although awkward in style and structure, the artist's manuscripts are less inhibited than the revised versions, and they contain candid and oftentimes revealing remarks which for proprietys sake were deleted.

In terms of sheer quality, Vigee Le Brun's artistic production declined steadily after 1800., Not a single major painting dates from after the turn of the century. It is her only literary achievement, the Souvenirs, which ultimately has to be regarded as the magnum opus of her last years. Historians have doubted her active participation in their drafting. Some have contended that they were entirely written by Tripier Le Franc and Aime Martin from notes taken in the course of their conversations with the aged artist. The Rochester manuscripts disprove this theory and demonstrate incontestably that Vigee Le Brun herself furnished in manuscript form the basic raw material of the Souvenirs.

PROVENANCE: Goodspeed's, Boston; acquired in 1976 by the University of Rochester Library.

REFERENCE: A. Molinier, "A propos des Souvenirs de Madame Vigee - Lebrun," L'Art, Revue Illustree, LXIV, pp. 130-136.

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