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A Short Biography of Julie Le Brun

About the birth of Julie:
The pleasures of vanity such as I am now recounting dear friend, and you did insist that I tell all, could not compare, however, with the joy I felt, when after two years of marriage, I discovered I was carrying a child. Now you will see how my devotion to art made me careless in the day to day details of life; for happy as I was at the idea of becoming a mother, after nine months of pregnancy, I was not in the least prepared for the birth of my baby. The day my daughter was born, I was still in the studio, trying to work on my Venus Binding the Wings of Cupid in the intervals between labour pains. My oldest friend, Mme de Verdun, came to see me in the morning. She felt certain that the child would be born that same day and, since she was also acquainted with my stubborn nature, asked if I had everything I needed. I replied that I had no idea what it was I needed. "That's typical of you," She rejoined. "A tomboy to the last. I'm warning you, that baby will be born tonight." "Oh no," I said, "I have a sitting tomorrow, it can't be born today." Without saying another word, Mme de Verdun left and sent for the doctor. He came at once. I sent him back but he remained hidden in the house until the evening and at ten o'clock my daughter was delivered into the world.» I shall not even attempt to describe the joy I felt on hearing her first cry. It is a feeling that all mothers will understand, increased by its coinciding with the relief following such atrocious pain. According to M. Dubuc, and he expresses it perfectly I think, happiness occurs when the mind is absorbed in an atmosphere of calm.

Louise was now in her mid-forties, and beginning to be settled. But Julie, a young woman of twenty (not seventeen, as her mother claims), was being difficult. the main upset stemmed from her own daughter's wilfulness. She had fallen in love with a man Louise did not approve of, and the fact greatly distressed this doting mother. Was Julie actually headstrong? Louise suggests she was, but does so indulgently:
when my friends said to me: 'You love your daughter so madly that it is you who obey her,' I replied: 'Don't you see that everyone loves her? Indeed, the most distinguished people in St Petersburg appreciated her and sought her out; I was never invited anywhere without her, and I rejoiced in the successes she enjoyed in society more than I have ever done in my own.

She was apparently very pretty, with large blue eyes, a delightful, slightly retroussé nose, regular teeth and a slim figure. However much she doted, Louise could not always be attending to Julie: in the mornings, for instance, she almost always had to paint. So her daughter, dangerously, spent time at the house of some friends, the Chernishevs. Count Chernishev was director of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg, and Julie fell in love with his secretary Gaéten Nigris, about whom Louise is only slightly supercilious:
This Monsieur Nigris had quite a good face and figure; he must have been thirty or so. As for his talents, he drew a little, and his handwriting was very beautiful, his gentle manners, his melancholy gaze, and even his slightly yellowish pallor gave him an interesting romantic air which seduced my daughter, and she became besotted with him.

It was distressing enough to feel that she was losing 'my daughter, my only child' to a man without talent, fortune or name. But worse was to come. Louise had always been prone to neurosis, and may have been inclined towards paranoia. Now - for no evident reason - she became convinced that she was the victim of a plot involving the Chernishevs, Julie and Madame Charrot [Julie's governess]. She nowhere specifies the nature of this supposed plot, but implies that its goal was to win Julie her freedom by turning public opinion against Louise herself as a mother. One wonders why she imagined the Russian monde would be concerned about a foreign mother-and-daughter relationship; but Louise's fears were not based on any rational reflection. Her time in Russia, where she still had months to live, would be poisoned for good by this development, and Louise's sense of being victimised and misunderstood grew so obsessive that it forced her to uproot herself and move. The disappointment with Julie was a turning-point, and may have become magnified in her imagination. All Louise's old fears of being gossiped about - perhaps damagingly enough to lose public favour, and so lucrative work - resurfaced. Typically, neurosis became muddled up with new and unjustifiable worries about money.

An unbelievable thing is that the cabal against me hoped so devoutly that I would yield to persecution that people were already talking about the dowry. As I was thought to be very rich, I remember the Neapolitan ambassador coming to see me and asking for a sum which greatly exceeded my fortune; for, as you will remember, I had left France with eighty louis in my pocket, and part of the savings I had made since that time had been taken from me by the Venice bank. (Why the Neapolitan ambassador should have come to ask for anything is unclear.) Most painful of all was to see her daughter turning against her. She principally blamed Julie's governess, who had - unforgivably - let her read novels without Louise's knowledge. But when Julie fell ill with distress and frustration, Louise's defences were down. She wrote to Jean- Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun asking him to give his consent to Julie's marriage, and eventually word of his agreement arrived. Louise's authority over her daughter in this affair was moral, no more: it was the father who disposed of his children, not the mother (who legally had to justify a refusal). So if Louise expected some gratitude for `sacrificing all my desires and all my repugnance', this would only have been because she had brought her daughter up virtually single-handed, and been doubly a parent to her. In the event, no thanks were forthcoming: 'the cruel child expressed not the least satisfaction to me for what I had done for her'.

Perhaps Julie, quite apart from having fallen in love, simply felt that the time had come to break free from a demanding and jealous mother. To judge by Louise's neglect of her twenty-five years later, when Julie was on her deathbed, the errant daughter was never quite forgiven. But in fact Julie did not break completely free from Louise at this stage: financial support seems to have been needed after the marriage, and Louise says that she provided it. Again predictably, money matters aggravated Louise's sense of grievance, and combined to pitch her into the deep depression which 1asted, with occasional remissions, until she left Russia. The long cri de coeur of a letter she sent her former husband from Moscow on 29 January 1801 apparently provoked by his describing her - in a lost letter - as being 'unnaturally' happy away from her daughter and family, dwells on the generosity of her treatment both of him and of the Nigrises, whom Le Brun had accused her of leaving in destitution in St Petersburg. In fact they were living with the Chernishevs and were apparently very far from destitute. Le Brun's letter, she told him, was 'so absurd, so dreadful that I do not know how I can find the strength to reply to it'. She then launches into an attack on him which rehearses all the old grudges, all her sense of being ill-used.

I should think I am mistress to do what I want with what I have earned through such labour. Over more than twelve years you have given me no more than 1,000 écus, which you still reproach me for. I have given my daughter as much for her keep during the two months I shall be away. Compare your conduct with mine. I gave you everything, I had to work like mad to support myself, my daughter, pay for her education, her maid, a servant, a carriage, a cook, a household, continual moves, travels. What would I have done without my work? If I had been ill, you would have let me die of hunger. For instead of saving you have kept women who deceived you, you have gambled and lost huge amounts. I know this from a thousand reports. You measure me by your own yardstick, but I am not like that, I do not let strangers' hands profit from what I have. I have too much trouble earning it... it seems easy to you to attack me, even slander me with false suspicions introduced into your heart by vipers' tongues, and the source is a woman to whom I have done only good and who has caused all my suffering and the destruction of my health. This woman is Madame Charrot, who is a harpy [sic] I have nourished in my bosom. I needed all the tenderness I feel for my daughter to put up with her for the last two years. I released her at the time of the marriage. She took no care of me, yet I rewarded her with a wage of nine thousand francs or three thousand roubles in cash... After I left, to my great regret, she stayed in St Petersburg and spread the rumour that I was not coming back for three or four years, that I was leaving my daughter in wretchedness, whereas she and her husband were supported only by me... Now people write to me from St Petersburg that they are sorry to hear I am leaving my daughter penniless. That is my lot, to be persecuted, slandered - when I was young and pretty it was another matter. So my heart is sick and bleeding, to the point where life is burdensome to me. I flee the world like the plague - the misanthrope is right.

It is an explosive and sometimes hysterical letter: Louise is surely untruthful, for example, in claiming that she alone supported the new ménage since Gaétan Nigris was professionally employed. It was written, paradoxically, after she had left for Moscow with Auguste Riviere to refresh her spirits in a new environment (and also, on the evidence of this letter, on an errand to sell pictures on behalf of her ex-husband, though she offers no further information on this). Before that, though, the wedding arrangements had to be made and the marriage celebrated, and these necessities depressed her further. Louise's St Petersburg earnings provided the dowry; Le Brun's only, involuntary, contribution seems to have been to feature as a miniature portrait in a diamond bracelet Louise also gave Julie. According to Louise's account, her daughter was barely happier than herself after the ceremony.

The day after her marriage I went to see my daughter. I found her calm and unenthusiastic about her happiness. Then, a fortnight later, finding myself at her house, I said to her: 'You are quite happy, I hope, now you have married him?' Monsieur Nigris, who was chatting in someone, had his back turned to us, and as he had a streaming cold he had a heavy greatcoat on his shoulders. 'I must admit that this padded robe puts me off; how do you expect me to be in love with a get-up like that?' So a fortnight had been long enough for love to vanish.

In a footnote, though, Louise does allow that the couple lived harmoniously enough together for several years, since Nigris had a gentle, emollient character - contrasting, she implies, with her own daughter's headstrong one. Selfish and ungrateful or not, Julie had deeply upset her mother. Who was to blame? One cannot help thinking of another mother and daughter: Madame de Sévigné and the cold, proud Francoise de Grignan, whose only answer to burning and exclusive passion was withdrawal. Was Julie's crime any more grave? Louise was prone to regard her as 'her' creation: she had taken her around civilised Europe, kept the girl by her rather than consigning her to a convent, overseen her education, and chaperoned her in the drawing-rooms of the monde. Intense possessiveness was a fairly natural result. Now, Julie had dared to break away, as Louise, much earlier, had broken away from a constricting and unhappy household. More than a century before, Madame de Sévigné's daughter had tried to sum up her troubled relations with her mother: 'You cannot do me any more harm, for you no longer have me: I was the disorder of your mind, your health, your house; I am worth nothing at all to you.' Her mother's response was to accuse Francoise of being part of a 'plot' against her. One thinks ahead to Louise's obsessive fears of the cabal threatening her happiness in St Petersburg. She remained convinced, as Madame de Sévigné did, that her daughter had wronged her.

As for myself, all the charm of my life seemed irredeemably destroyed. I no longer took the same pleasure in loving my daughter, and yet heaven knows how much I still loved her, despite all her faults. Only mothers will understand me properly. Soon after her marriage, she caught smallpox. Although I had never had this dreadful illness nobody could prevent me rushing to her bedside. I found her face so swollen that I was seized with fear; but I was afraid only for her, and as long as the illness lasted I did not think far a second of myself. I was happy enough, in the end, to see her recovered without having any marks at all.

The contrast with Louise's absence from her daughter's deathbed a quarter of a century later is remarkable. Either she was more stunned by Julie's last illness than seems possible, or relations between mother and daughter had become immeasurably worse in the interim. It is striking, for instance, that she refused to share her house with Julie (despite the fact that she was rich and Julie had no evident means of support) because she disapproved of her friends - a 'taste for bad company' which, at the end of her stay in England in 1805, she would blame on her former husband's influence.

pp.200-201 Despite flattering attentions and professional success, Louise was immobilised in gloom, She is explicit about her paralysing melancholy in a letter she sent Gaétan Nigris from Moscow, which is surprisingly fond for someone who had so disliked her daughter's choice of husband; the bond between us is too close to my heart for anything involving you to be alien to me, and unless I were an egoist I could not remain indifferent to it; those who were unjust towards me have put much too great a distance between us, for I am willing to believe that neither you nor my daughter are at fault; she was well deceived! I suffered cruelly from it all, and despite time and my own efforts, the wound is still so raw that when I am alone with myself, my ideas about the happiness a mother may hope for, when she has never had anything to reproach herself with, affect me more than they console me. Circumstances have long obliged me to undertake laborious, painful work, and as a result my health is beginning to alarm me, not as far as my life is concerned, I have no desire to see it prolonged, and I have not changed in what I have often told you in that respect, but I feel a weakness which is destroying me; I am becoming so sad that the greatest misanthrope would seem too gay to me; society fatigues me, solitude kills me, and I can find no position that suits me; my only hope is in rest, sun, a warm climate, and before long I intend to go and seek them out. There is self-deception in the letter, but also a very moving suffering. The 'plot' Louise imagined seems to have dissolved, or to have undergone a change of focus, leaving only pain and incomprehension behind. Though so strong in some respects, Louise was radically affected by the loss of mental repose. She seemed to have reached an impasse. Obviously, any- thing was better than staying put. She had probably never heard Horace's view that Caelum, non animum, mutant/Qui trans mare currunt, but back in St Petersburg she would be forced to acknowledge its justice. Moving would change her sky, but not her disposition.

pp.261-62 The English interlude was clearly a success for Louise, both from the point of view of my financial interests as a painter and because it enabled her to shake off melancholy again. But the news that Julie Nigris was in Paris decided her to return, more particularly as she had heard that Jean- Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun was allowing her daughter to form all kinds of unsuitable friendships. She had not seen Julie for five years, and seems to have been apprehensive about their reunion. She felt both distanced from her daughter and anxious for renewed proximity to her, as this passage from the Souvenirs reveals;
For her misfortune and mine, my poor child was extremely head-strong; besides, I had nut succeeded in giving her all the distaste I personally felt for bad company. Add to this - whether through my own fault or not - that however much influence she had over my mind, I had none whatsoever over hers, and you may imagine that she sometimes made me weep bitter tears.

But she was still my daughter; her beauty, her talents, her mind made her as enchanting as can be, and although I could sadly not decide her to come and live with me, given that she insisted on seeing several people I could not receive, at least I saw her every day, and that was still a great joy to me. So despite the entreaties of her English acquaintances, and after an unspecified period at the inn to which Josephina Grassini accompanied her, she set sail for Rotterdam. (The Channel routes were closed because of the renewed enmity between France and England.) After ten days at large in Holland, where the Spanish ambassador, a friend from St Petersburg days, arranged for her to go on consoling outings to The Hague, she was given a passport and told she could proceed to Antwerp. Here she was shown the city's treasures by the obliging prefect, Monsieur Hédouville, and visited a sick young artist who greatly admired her, and whom her mere presence was apparently enough to cure. The following day she continued her journey to Paris, and arrived there in July 1805.

p.277 Of the two hundred or so landscapes which Louise did over her career,» gi a considerable proportion must date from her two Swiss trips. She seems to have sketched because she was happy. As she wrote from Coppet to Julie Nigris, whom she had presumably left behind in Paris, The spectacle of nature consoles one for a great many things, or distracts one from torment; I have just been made especially aware of this. You cannot imagine the pleasure I felt during our travels over Switzerland; you cannot conceive of all the pictures, all the views, all the sites - so varied and so picturesque. How many things I shall have to tell you about on return! I feel as though I have lived ten years in two-and-a-half months; it is not that time has dragged, but every hour has been so interesting and packed so full that I have fixed it, as it were, or noted its distance from the next. Partly, no doubt, the Alpine air has been responsible for lifting her spirits. Louise remained as impressionable as ever to atmospheric purity.

pp.298-301 So it might have been predicted that Le Brun, never to be trusted where money was concerned, would leave his surviving family and associates with obligations to meet. Admittedly, he also left wonderful pictures; but their number was equalled, if not exceeded, by the number of unsettled bills from painters, decorators, clock-makers, engravers, wine merchants, picture-restorers, printers and many others.'» His heir Julie Nigris, then living near her mother at 83 rue Saint-Lazare, inherited heavy debts on the house in the rue du Gros-Chenet. One was the sum of io,468 francs, described in the relevant legal document as money owed to Louise her-self - an 'obligation' which Louise evidently waived. Had she not done so, Julie would have been ruined. But when, subsequently, Louise also waived all claims on the estate of her daughter (who predeceased her), the action undoubtedly worked to her own financial advantage. According to a note dated 27 March 1820, the loan outstanding on the Gros-Chenet house had not been included in the sale of the property to her (at an unspecified date) by her former husband; so the sum had to be repaid by Julie Nigris's own heir, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun's brother. Le Brun's death grieved but in no sense devastated his former wife, Julie's, in 1819, apparently did. 'Apparently', because there remains considerable ambiguity in Louise's behaviour and in the account of events she gives. There is, for example, an obsessive concern with her own reactions:
I had rushed to her side as soon as I learned she was unwell; but the illness advanced quickly, and I cannot express what I felt when I lost all hope of saving her: when I went to see her on the last day, alas, and my gaze was transfixed by this pretty face, completely distorted, I felt ill; Madame de Noisville, my old friend, who had accompanied me, managed to drag me away from this bed of sorrows; she supported me, for my legs refused to carry me, and took me back to my house. By the next day I had lost my child! Madame de Verdun came to give me the news, trying in vain to soothe my despair; for the poor little thing's faults were quite forgotten, I saw her once more, I see her still, as she was in her child-hood... Alas, she was so young! Should she not have outlived me. There is no surviving evidence to give Julie's side of the story. Did she refuse help from her mother? If she did not, Louise should surely have done more than 'rush to her side' when she heard of Julie's illness. She could have supported her daughter, instead of seeing her reduced to selling her linen to pay bills: there is almost no evidence to suggest how Julie supported herself after the collapse of her marriage, though it seems that she may have done some engravings. The emphasis on Louise's prostrated grief perhaps suggests, rather unpleasantly, that she feels the need to prove how genuine her devastation was. And what was this paragon of motherly love thinking of in abandoning her daughter to the attention of others at the end? Perhaps her love had become fixed at the stage of childhood and adolescent adoration. The Julie she worshipped was the model of picture-book prettiness 'as she was in her childhood; not the thirty-nine- year-old with a dramatically changed face. Louise had never painted her since they fell out in Russia. It was, one might have thought, an opportunity missed - the artist-parent, no longer doting but critically distanced, traces the transition from fresh youthfulness to maturity. Perhaps Julie forbade any more sittings. The Souvenirs give no further information, and we shall probably never know. But Louise's stress on her reappropriation of the child Julie, not the grown woman with a dubious set of acquaintances, suggests the 1imitations to her love. She admired, and wanted, someone who had ceased to exist, and whose only continuing reality was in the besotted images of her canvases. Perhaps, though, Louise was a responsible mother in other ways - ways Rousseau would have approved of. At least she kept her child by her instead of consigning her to the distant care of others while she travelled and worked. Many of the aristocratic women she painted, if contemporary reports and the evidence of novels like Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses are to be believed, would have failed to recognise any such moral duty. But she contravened another basic Rousseauist doctrine in being such an intensely professional woman; and her devotion to that profession must have entailed some neglect of her daughter, which she over-compensated for with a jealous protectiveness and a Sévigné-like exclusiveness. One cannot forget her indignation at being accused of vindictive and mean-spirited behaviour towards Julie at the time of the Nigrises' marriage in Russia. It would surely have been matched by the fury of her reaction to a much later attack launched by Calonne's former secretary sometime after the publication of her Souvenirs, had she been aware of it. According to this undated manuscript by the abbé Géralde, a review (unnamed) of the Souvenirs had called Louise a self-seeking woman and heartless mother. In the same spirit, Géralde advises her to repair the wrong she did Julie during her lifetime. She must found a painting-prize in her memory, and the artist who wins the medal you award should every year lay his wreath on the tomb that has so long been neglected, and which was erected during your lifetime expressly to serve as an expiatory monument. You must also establish a charitable fund in your own name and that of your poor child as a form of reconciliation in this world, if you do not want her to refuse to acknowledge you in a better one. Only thus... will you cleanse your life of the stain which disfigures even your finest works. Do good now towards those who have devoted their lives to you. Do not wait to be bent by infirmity before doing your duty and paying penance for great wrongs. (There is no evidence, incidentally, of Louise having had Julie's tomb built 'expressly' in expiation.) She stands accused in the 1830s of neglecting her daughter's grave 'too long', of having 'stained' her own life by her treatment - hostile or merely neglectful? - of Julie, and of behaving unreasonably towards some unspecified women (celles) who have selflessly attended to her needs. These women are presumably the nieces who looked after Louise in old age, and whether their behaviour was really selfless must be considered in due course. But one wonders whether Géralde is a reliable source. The next allegation suggests that we should be cautious about accepting his word uncritically:
I say nothing about your love-affair with a young man. At ninety years of age, it is an unparalleled example of absurdity; but at least absurdity is not dishonourable, it merely amuses the world, which is always so inclined to laugh. Make yourself decent and worthy if you wish to be esteemed. Louise was certainly long-lived, but never reached the age of ninety: she was eighty-two when the third and final volume of the Souvenirs was published in 1837, and the notion that she might have taken a young lover so late in life seems implausible. What provoked Géralde's animosity is altogether unclear. Apparently Louise never fell out with Calonne, who had long been dead, and there was no obvious reason for his former secretary to attack her. What is certain, though, is that Louise did little to alleviate Julie's distress before she died. Julie had moved from the house in the rue Saint-Lazare, near to her mother, and at the time of her death was living a considerable distance away at 39 rue de Sevres. She was buried on the morning of 10 December 1819, the funeral service being conducted at the church of l'Abbaye-aux-Bois. The funeral expenses amounted to over 90 livres whether Louise or Julie's heir settled them is unknown, but some if not all of her medical treatment in her last illness was paid for by her mother. On 13 December, five days after her death, Louise paid an out-standing bill of 154 francs to the doctor, and the next day one of 38 francs to the nurse. Without any reliable source of income since her separation, Julie had certainly suffered financial hardship, and her difficulties were exacerbated when she inherited her father's debts. Her relations with her mother had unquestionably soured, despite the fact that Louise says she saw her daughter daily (which can hardly have applied to the lengthy periods she spent in Louveciennes). The clear and irrefutable fact is that Louise was rich, and Julie died a pauper. Perhaps she rejected her mother's help, or perhaps certain forms of help were never forthcoming. Less than a year after Julie's death, Louise lost her brother Etienne. The Souvenirs say little about his presence in her life after her return from exile, beyond remarking that he wept with joy to see her back in Paris, as did his wife Suzanne and daughter Caroline. Whatever the defects of his personality, Louise could not help being saddened by his death. Her friends now worried about her state of mind. They know her well enough to realise what the most practical treatment would be: 'they... advised me to try the effects of distraction and go on a trip. I resolved to leave for Bordeaux. I knew nothing about this town, and the route I should have to follow to get there would be a tonic for my eyes. So the 65-year-old Louise obediently set off. This would be the last time she travelled.

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