The Evolution of Men’s Fashion in the 18th Century

When I was writing An Uncommon Duke, I had fun playing with a character quirk of my hero, Gabriel Pearce the Duke of Winterbourne. Gabriel heads up an undercover group of operatives that protect King George and the Prince Regent. His work is dangerous and much of what occurs protecting the crown is out of his control. One of the things he can control is his wardrobe and because of that, Gabriel is a bit obsessed with his clothes. Someone referred to him as the Regency version of a sharp dressed man. Researching men’s fashion in the Regency era was fun and I spent many hours on Pinterest and museum sites looking for inspiration for Gabriel’s wardrobe.

Recently I had the opportunity to see the fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Masterwork: Unpacking Fashion. I knew I’d enjoy taking a look back at 300 years of fashion history and I’d learn some new things. I was disappointed to find it did not include men’s fashion from the Regency era, however it did include 18th century men’s fashion and some of those styles did carry over into the Regency era. The collection highlighted garments from France and Great Britian reflecting the roles these nations played as centers of textile production and as styles leaders in Europe and America. Fashions from the 18th century are from an era shaped by political and industrial revolutions as well as expanding global trade. The examples given in this exhibition reflected that.

So sit back and enjoy this peek at what fashionable men wore in the 18th century.

Banyan

Beginning in the 18th century, British gentlemen wore loose, informal gowns in the privacy of their homes as a comfortable alternative to the stiff and physically restrictive suits they wore in public. These gowns were made of imported materials from the European East India companies and went by various names such nightgowns, morning gowns, India gowns, and banyans. This banyan is made of Chinese silk that was quilted for warmth and has a fitted cut which became popular in the mid-18th century. The fitted banyan combined Persian, Turkish, and Indian influences but followed the silhouette of contemporary European coats, making them well suited to wear informally when receiving guests at home. The banyan was an essential garment for fashionable men and suggested sophisticated, worldly masculinity. This banyan was made in England in 1760-1770, and is made of blue diamond-quilted silk satin.

A Gentleman’s Suit

The suit above was made of red wool-silk poplin in England between 1770 and 1780. It is an example of the relative simplicity in appearance of 18th century English menswear, which influenced fashionable men’s style throughout Europe in the latter half of the century. The plain style was an alternative to the elaborately embroidered and ornately patterned men’s wear in France. This reserved style of dress became linked with broader political values and greater personal liberty that French philosophers, such as Voltaire, associated with England. Just like the banyan above, this garment has a slim silhouette which was fashionable in the 1770s. English tailors were expert in making these tailcoats appear simple, while actually doing an excellent job emphasizing a man’s physique. The fine details of this coat include a gracefully curved front, narrow sleeves, and side seams that arch toward the center of the back, creating the impression of a tapered waistline. While the suit appears simple, the color shows a lingering taste for bold color.

The tailcoat above is French and was made in the 1790s from dark brown, gray, and blue warp-printed plain weave silk with green ombré silk satin stripes. With its high turned down collar, narrow back and wide lapels, it’s typical of the exaggerated silhouette that was fashionable in post-revolutionary France. The museum curators placed it alongside the redingote (the dress) to show the harmony between men’s and women’s fashions during this period that extended to fabric as well as cut. For men, stripes were a decorative substitute for the ornate embroidery of earlier suits. It was interesting to find out that in centuries previous to the 18th, stripes had been associated with the clothing of socially marginalized groups. I think it’s worth noting that even though embroidered suits went out of fashion, embroidery on waistcoats was still popular.

 

The exhibition also included a suit of a French Incroyable (Incredible) that made me smile. The Incroyables were rakish men who lived in France following the French Revolution. They stood out among fashionable men of the time due to their tightly fitted clothing which took on extreme proportions. This coat was made in France of red wool broadcloth between 1787 and 1792, and predates the most exaggerated styles embraced by the Incryoyables in the late 1790s. As the decade progressed, the cut of their clothing became even tighter than this. The high, turned-down collar, narrow sleeves, and sharply curved coat front of this coat still manages to create the impression of an elongated figure. I think the high cut of the top of the waistcoat also helps.

The banyan featured in this exhibition is close to the one I put Gabriel in in An Uncommon Duke. It seems to be the perfect thing for a sharp dressed man to wear while lounging in the doorway of his wife’s bedchamber.

 

George IV’s Collection of Items Owned by Napoleon

In my second book, An Uncommon Duke, the plot involves an assassination attempt made on the Prince Regent, who later become King George IV (1762–1830). In order to bring him to life in my story, I read a number of biographies about him before I began writing. One small little nugget of history stuck in my mind months later.

When the British defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, George, then the Prince Regent, became very enthusiastic about celebrating the victory. He collected prints, drawings, and works of art related to the battle. He even created the Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle and commissioned Sir Thomas Lawrence to paint portraits of all the key players involved in the defeat of Napoleon to display on the walls. But the one point that I couldn’t let go of was his interest in collecting items once owned by Napoleon.

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Coronation Portrait of King George, IV. Painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1820. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

You might be familiar with this coronation portrait of George, which was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1820, but did you know that the table featured in the painting was made for Napoleon Bonaparte? That was the one historical tidbit that led me on a quest to find out what other items George owned that once belonged to Napoleon. Here is a sample of a few of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Table of Great Commanders. Photo courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

Known as the Table of Great Commanders, it was one of four commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 to immortalize his reign and took six years to complete. It has an internal wooden frame covered in hard-paste porcelain with gilt bronze mounts. The image in the center of the top is of Alexander the Great and bears a striking resemblance to Napoleon. The table was given to George as a gift from Louis XVIII of France. There is a silent statement in having George’s crown on the table in the portrait above. It’s as if he is thumbing his nose to his enemy.

 

 

 

 

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Napoleon’s Writing Table. Photo courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

Maybe it has something to do with me being an author, but I adore antique desks and writing tables. This one, made by Jacob Frères and owned by Napoleon, does not disappoint. It’s made of elm and oak with gilded metal elements. There are two top drawers and each leg is carved with a winged, gilded lion. It is estimated to date between 1796-1815. George purchased it in 1820.

 

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Cloak once owned by Napoleon. Photo courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

Another item of Napoleon’s that came into George’s possession was this beautiful cloak. Out of all the items I discovered George owned that belonged to Napoleon, I think this is my favorite. I’d love to have it in my closet! I just might be a bit overdressed wearing it to pick up my son from school.

According to the Royal Collection Trust website, “It is recorded in July 1816 in the Carlton House Inventory as ‘Said to be a Cloak worn by Bonaparte’ and ‘A large cloak made of scarlet cloth with large hood.  The hood and front are embroidered with gold. Parts of the inside of the front of the cloak are lined with silk and also embroidered with gold.  It was transferred to Windsor Castle in March 1837.  It is recorded in the North Corridor Inventory at Windsor as being a ‘Cloak of Napoleon 1st said to have been brought by him from Egypt, and taken out of his carriage by the Prussians after Waterloo.  An Aide de Camp of Marshal Blücher who visited Windsor Castle about 1870 vouched for the truth of the above and said he himself took the cloak from Napoleon’s carriage’.”

 

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Bowls and stands once owned by Napoleon. Photo courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

These two silver-gilt bowls have an interesting story behind them. According to the Royal Collection Trust’s website, “These decorative bowls were said to have been modelled on the breast of Venus, although the more likely model was Napoleon’s sister, Pauline de Borghese (1780–1825). As Prince Regent, George IV acquired both bowls and one stand in 1815 and commissioned a second stand to match the following year.” The bowls are marked with a Paris guarantee mark of 1798-1809 and the maker’s mark is of Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot. The stand that George commissioned is struck with London hallmarks for 1816-1817 and a maker’s mark of Paul Storr.

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Robe sword and scabbard once owned by Napoleon. Photo courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

 

This robe sword and scabbard dates from 1802-1803. It’s believed the original copy of this sword was given to Napoleon when he was elected First Consul in 1799. The marks on this one makes one assume it was crafted as a replacement for the original. When George acquired this sword, a certificate accompanied it swearing that it had belonged to Napoleon. The sword is silver-gilt with enamel, ivory, gold and steel. The scabbard is made of wood, mother-of-pearl, and silver-gilt. Today it can be found in the Grand Vestibule at Windsor Castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shooting gun once owned by Napoleon. Photo courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

And finally, this gun owned by Napoleon was presented to George by Lieutenant Brooke of the Royal Horse Guards in 1817. The note accompanying indicates that it was “constantly used by Bonaparte”. It was manufactured by Lepage as a sporting gun and is made of blued steel and carved walnut. You can also find this gun in the Grand Vestibule at Windsor Castle.

Reference Used:  The Royal Collection Trust.

If you’re interested in finding out more about An Uncommon Duke, check out my Bookshelf page or these fine retailers:

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks , Kobo, and WHSmith

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The Connection Between a Favorite Drink of Regency Era Gentlemen and the Great Comet of 1811.

I’m writing the third book in my Secrets of the Ton trilogy and my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, is a man who appreciates fine brandy. I love creating personal details about my characters and wanted to include the name of Hart’s favorite brandy in my story. When I started my research, I thought I’d simply get the name of a notable brandy from 1819. What I discovered, gave me insight into the cognac I drink today and I thought you might find it interesting as well.

First let me explain the difference between the terms brandy and cognac. Brandy is made by distilling wine and aging it in barrels. Cognac is brandy which comes from the Cognac region in France.

During the Regency era, the finest brandy was produced during 1811 in France. The interesting thing is, still to this day, that vintage is considered to be one of the greatest in history. And the reason behind it is tied to a comet.

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The Great Comet of 1811, as drawn by William Henry Smith. Curtesy of Wikimedia.

In March of 1811, the Flaugergues comet began its trek across the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Although the comet was visible to astronomers for 17 months, during September and October of  that year, it was visible to the naked eye. Accounts of the time describe the comet as illuminating the night sky and at one point it exceeded the diameter of the sun.

It’s believed the presence of the comet contributed to optimal growing conditions, particularly in France. The long hot summer and warm dry autumn of that year led to an abundant harvest of perfectly ripe grapes. People soon realized that the cognac, wine, and champagne of this vintage were exceptional. Even today, you can find bottles of cognac in your local liquor store that have stars on the labels. This isn’t a ranking. The stars are there as a tribute to the 1811 vintage, known as “The Comet Vintage”.

If you’re familiar with Courvoisier cognac, you’re probably aware it’s known as “Le Cognac de Napoleon”. According to the company’s website, not long after they were founded in 1809, the reputation of their cognac grew quickly among brandy connoisseurs and Napoleon visited their warehouse in Bercy to try it. He started giving a ration of cognac to his artillery companies to lift their morale during the Napoleonic Wars. When he was exiled to St. Helena, legend has it that he chose several casks of Courvoisier cognac to take with him as one of the luxury items he was granted by the British. The British officers on board the HMS Northumberland, who were tasked with transporting Napoleon, appreciated the cognac their prisoner shared with them and referred to it as “the brandy of Napoleon”.

And in case you’re curious which brandy the Earl of Hartwick favors in my upcoming book An Unexpected Countess, it’s an 1811 Croizet B. Léon cognac, which currently is selling for €25,000 for one bottle.

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References:

http://courvoisier.com/us/history

http://www.forbes.com/sites/sethporges/2013/10/10/6-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-cognac/#3b2df53b7bf5

http://www.oldliquors.com/cognac-1811-croizet-b-léon-4837

The Daily Cognac: 1811 The Comet Vintage

 

How to Smell Like a Regency Era Gentleman

I fully admit to having a thing about the way my characters smell. I kinda get a bit obsessive about it. Maybe it’s because I can still recall which cologne each of my ex-boyfriends wore and, if I smell them today, the scent will bring back a distinct memory. And before you question that statement, I’m referring to smelling the cologne, not an ex-boyfriend.

Creating a distinct smell for a female character that lives during the Regency era is much easier than figuring out how I’d like my heroes to smell. I’ve read about so many male characters smelling of Bay Rum, that I was beginning to question whether there were other scents available to men. So during my recent trip to London I was on a mission to find out what scents gentlemen favored during the Regency era. There were two shops, in particular, that I wanted to visit because they’re chemists and perfumers who have been around since the late 18th century and catered more to a male clientele. Lucky for me, each shop had very helpful salesclerks that were happy to show me some of their oldest scents.

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My first stop was D.R. Harris & Co., Chemists and Perfumers on St. James’s Street. This shop was established in 1790. During the Georgian era they gained a reputation as purveyors of Lavender Water, Classic Cologne and English Flower perfumes. While I was there, I sampled some of the men’s fragrances that were around during the Regency era. Here is what I discovered. Classic Cologne is a typically fresh fragrance, Freshening Cologne has a tangy lemon note, and Traditional Cologne is a warmer scent with subtle orange notes.

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Two of their other oldest fragrances caught my eye. They were  Albany, named after the fashionable bachelors’ residence on Piccadilly, and Mayfair, named after the exclusive area of London where the Regency era elite resided. It was surprising to see such a modern technique of naming a product. I liked both of these fragrances so much, that I brought bottles of them back with me. Albany is a blend of lavender and citrus, and Mayfair had a sweeter floral fragrance.

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I also did smell Bay Rum. It was not to my taste at all and, for the record, none of my heroes will smell like it. I expected a very warm fragrance leaning more towards spicy rum. It actually smelled more like bay leaves.

 

 

Another shop I visited is Truefitt & Hill, which is also on St. James’s Street. This is the oldest barbershop in the world and was established in 1805.

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Famous Regency era men who were patrons of this shop include the sons of George III, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and Beau Brummell. Aside from the services of the barber shop, they also sell men’s cologne and shaving products. Sadly, I was not able to find out which scent was favored by Brummell.

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Statue of Beau Brummell on Jermyn Street in London

 

It was amusing to learn that their Freshmen Cologne was specifically blended in 1805 with fashion conscious Cambridge and Oxford students in mind. According to the shops description, it has “top notes of Lemon, Bergamot, Rosemary, Mint and Orange Blossom surrounding a heart of Clary Sage, Lily of the Valley, Jasmine and Ylang-Ylang which comfortably rest on a base notes of Musk and Oakmoss.”

Their Spanish Leather cologne dates back to 1814. I’ll often have my heroes smelling like leather, depending on what they are wearing or if they’ve been riding. To find a fragrance named leather made me laugh. It is described by Truefitt &Hill as “a rich, but subtle blend, with top notes of Fruit, Bergamot, Orange and Pimento, with a heart of Carnation, Cinnamon, Patchouli, Rose, Orris and woody notes, all resting on a base of Amber, Moss and Musk, Vanilla and Tonka.”

So now I have different scents to distinguish my characters, and you now know what a Regency era gentleman might have smelled like if you were standing beside him under the glittering chandeliers of a London ballroom. And best of all, you can still buy these fragrances today!

If you’re interested in learning more about these shops or buying some of there products, here are the links to their websites:

D.R. Harris & Co.

Truefitt & Hill

 

 

 

 

 

The Inconvenient Problem of the Poor

Today, I’ve invited my friend Virginia Heath to my cozy drawing room to share a bit of early 19th century history with you. Prior to her current career as a Regency romance author, Virginia was a history teacher. So pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage and settle in. Class is in session. Take it away, Virginia.

The ladies and gentlemen of early 19th century had a problem- extreme poverty amongst the labouring classes. A problem which was getting bigger with each passing year and one which they would prefer to ignore. Unfortunately, no matter how hard they tried, those pesky poor people were becoming a noisy, angry, organised mass who were buoyed by the recent successes of the French and American revolutions. It made the ruling classes have to listen, even if they were not prepared to make a great many concessions and created a climate of acute nervousness in the homes of the great and the good throughout Britain. It is this nervousness which I would like to explore here today.

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Cartoon by John Leech for Punch Magazine. 1846 Courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

First of all, you need to understand the mind-set of the average English aristocrat at this time. They did not have the plucky pioneer spirit of the Americans, where a new nation was forged from scratch in a relatively short space of time, and where industry, fortitude and self-made men ruled. In the New World, anything was possible. Such radical ideas were simply not British. The concept of society being rigidly structured was ingrained; the feudalism from medieval times was still very much alive- although undisputedly not very well. Two bloodless British revolutions had seen to that.

The Agricultural Revolution saw thousands displaced from their tiny holdings with the Enclosure Act of 1773, so that efficient modern farming techniques could be implemented. The fact that this also served to render thousands incapable of eking out their own meager living was by-the-by.

To compound the misery of these faceless, voiceless individuals further, by the early 1800s the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, making the rich richer and Britain great. Those polluting, soul-destroying factories needed legions of workers and it was those on the bottom rung of the ladder who were forced to swarm to the newly expanding industrial towns like Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and London to get work.

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Sheffield from the Attercliffe Road c. 1819 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The rich both feared and despised these people and tried to categorize them in order to understand them. By the Victorian era, they had even coined particular phrases to separate the wheat from the chaff. The ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The deserving consisted of anyone who slaved away in a menial, poorly paid job, former soldiers injured in the service of the nation, certain old people who could no longer work and foundling children who needed to be institutionalised to save their souls. Such people were romanticised to appear almost noble, like the flower seller in Francis Wheatley’s ‘Cries of London’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in the 1790s. These were the sort of people the aristocracy wanted to rule over.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ‘undeserving’ were vast, and seen as drunks, layabouts and criminals. Those without the means to feed themselves, those forced into prostitution or into begging were not to be helped. These people were a plague which needed to be eradicated. Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ shows the typical stereotype fervently believed by the rich to avoid having to face up to the issues they themselves created.

The horrific conditions the poorest were made to work and live in do not bear thinking about, so that is precisely what the well-heeled gentry at the time did. Not think about the poor. Ignore them. Segregate them.

The city of London is an excellent example of how they did this. Here is a typical map of the capital city from 1817.

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As you can see the old city followed the route of River Thames. But so did the rigorously structured population. The river flows west to east, eventually out into the Thames Estuary and the sea beyond. The further west you were, the less smelly and polluted Father Thames, therefore it is no accident that the wealthy neighborhoods, like Mayfair and Kensington, sit in the West End of the city. This engraving of Berkeley Square shows the typical paved splendour of the affluent.

Berkeley Square, London

Berkeley Square c.1816

The dregs got to live close to the flow of effluent and toxic waste dumped in the river in the East End. And they lived in over-crowded squalor far away from the genteel sensibilities of their rulers.

This was also the perfect place to put the docks. Although foreign trade was essential for Britain’s power and commerce, those ships brought other undesirable things into the capital which the rich did not wish to rub shoulders with: sordid sailors from around the world, immigrants. Nasty diseases. The merchants and tradesmen tended to live in the centre of the town, the part now known as the City, within easy reach of both their wealthy clientele and the imported stock they sold them. These industrious men were partially tolerated in society because they provided the essential status symbols, however they were looked down upon. They might wish to shop in Cheapside, but Heaven forbid they should have to live there!

However, as the century progressed, the population of these industrial towns soared and the problems they created multiplied. John Thomas Smith wrote an impassioned tome on the subject in 1817 entitled ‘Vagobondiana’. He complains “Beggary, of late, has become so dreadful in London, that the more active interference of the legislature was deemed absolutely necessary, indeed the deceptions of the idle and sturdy were so various, cunning and extensive, that it was in most instances extremely difficult to discover the real object of charity”.

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Massacre at St Peter’s by George Cruickshank Courtesy of the British Library

Imbued with a new sense of political purpose the labouring classes began to organise. The Corn Law riots, Spa Field riots and Peterloo Massacre are pertinent examples of how the British government tried to keep the poor in their proper place. Violent clashes where blatant, unpatriotic insubordination was dealt with harshly by the authorities. The aristocracy ardently supported this. They wanted the inconvenient problem of the vocal, terrifying battalions of potential usurpers to simply go away.

Yet the poor just kept on complaining, and growing in size, to such an extent that in the 1830s a French-style revolution was only narrowly avoided with some minor concessions from parliament. However, the chasm between the ruling and the working classes was now to wide to be breached and only became wider with time.

A Bit About Virginia Heath:

When Virginia Heath was a little girl it took her ages to fall asleep, so she made up stories in her head to help pass the time while she was staring at the ceiling. As she got older, the stories became more complicated, sometimes taking weeks to get to the happy ending. Then one day, she decided to embrace the insomnia and start writing them down. Her first Regency romance, That Despicable Rogue, is available now but it still takes her forever to fall asleep.

If you want to find out more about Virginia and her books, check out www.virginiaheathromance.com. You can also follow her on Twitter  and on  Facebook.

Works by 18th Century French Artist Vigée Le Brun at The Met

A few days ago I went to see the Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) is considered to be one of the finest eighteenth-century French painters and among the most important women artists of all time. She was known for her expressive portraits of French royalty and the aristocracy. She was the same age as her patron, Queen Marie Antoinette, and their association caused Vigée to flee France during the Revolution. According to the exhibition catalog, “Vigée Le Brun exemplifed success and resourcefulness in an age when women were rarely allowed either.”

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Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons by Vigée Le Brun, ca.1782 (Kimbell Art Museum)

This exhibition was stunning, and I highly recommend seeing it if you’re in the New York City area. There are restrictions on photographing many of the beautiful paintings, including those of Marie Antoinette, and honestly, the photos I did take do not do justice to Vigée’s fine brushwork. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share a few pieces with you, along with some fun tidbits about the paintings and the women who sat for them.

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The Maréchale-Comtesse de Mailly in Van Dyck Costume by Vigée Le Brun, 1783 (Private Collection)

Blanche Charlotte Marie Felicite de Narbonne-Pelet, the Maréchale-Comtesse de Mailly (1761-1840) was a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette and was known for her kindness and sense of mischief. Her husband was marshal of France and was guillotined during the French Revolution in 1794. Blanche and their son barely escaped the same fate and went into hiding in Paris. In 1797 the administration of Sarthe returned to her all the marshal’s unsold properties and the money raised from the properties already sold. On Napoleon’s orders, she was obligated to spend her time at the imperial court and to send her seventeen year old son, Adrien, to the Ecole Militaire. When he was wounded during the Russian campaign in 1812, Adrien was saved by Napoleon, who would not allow the last of the Mailly line to perish. Blanche lived to the age of seventy-nine.

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The Comtesse de Gramont Caderousse Gathering Grapes by Vigée Le Brun, 1784 (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Marie Gabrielle de Sinety, Comtesse de Gramont Caderousse (1761-1832) was also a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette. The comtesse is depicted as a grape harvester in keeping with the Queen’s love of contrived rusticity. Vigée persuaded Marie to forgo powdering her hair for this painting, wishing to show her ebony black locks. This was a radical departure from the powered hair usually worn by women of court and the privileged classes. After one particular sitting, Marie left and went to the theater as she was. According to Vigée, this action set the fashion of unpowered hair, which became wide-spread.

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Comtesse Du Barry de Cérés by Vigée Le Brun, 1784 (Toledo Museum of Art)

The Comtesse Du Barry de Cérés was born Anne Marie Thérèse de Rabaudy Montoussin (1759-1834) and she married the comte Jean Baptiste Du Barry de Cérés, thirty-six years her senior when she was eighteen. According to Vigée, Anne had a “charming and sweet face though you could see something false about her eyes.” That falseness was evident when she diverted public attention away from her liaison with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, controller general of finances, by spreading rumors that it was Vigée Le Brun who was engaged in an affair with the man. This rumor hurt Vigée’s reputation.

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The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Two Sons by Vigée Le Brun, 1787 (National Gallery of Art)

This portrait was commissioned by the Marquise de Rougé, who appears in the center of the painting with her two sons, Alexis and Adrien. By the time this portrait was painted she had been widowed about four years. Her husband, Colonel Marquis de Rouge died while returning from a distinguished military career. The other woman in the painting is her dear friend The Marquise de Pezay, who was also a widow. This is one of my favorite paintings in the exhibition. I love the iridescent gown of the Marquise de Pezay, and there is a sweetness in the way the boys are snuggling up with their mother. But I think the aspect of the painting that touched me the most was that it includes two girlfriends. It is a sweet tribute to what must have been a very close friendship.

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Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1790 (Institut de France, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris)

When Vigée arrived in Naples in 1790 she met Ekaterina Vasilievna, née Engelhardt (1761-1829) at dinner. Ekaterina was the wife of the Russian plenipotentiary in Naples. Vigée recalled her as “sweet and pretty as an angel. I remember her telling me that in order to go to sleep she had a slave under her bed who told her the same story every night. She was utterly idle all day, had no education, and her conversation was quite empty. But in spite of all that, thanks to her lovely face and her angelic sweetness, she had an incomparable charm.” Ekaterina is believed to be staring at a miniature of her husband in this portrait.

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The Princess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris by Vigée Le Brun, 1793 (Private collection)

This is my favorite story about any of the paintings in this exhibition. When Vigée was in Vienna, Prince Alois I von und zu Liechtenstein (1759-1805) requested two enormous paintings. One of his wife Princess Karoline Felicitas Engelberte von und zu Liechtenstein (1768-1831) and the other of her sister. Vigée decided to paint the princesss of Liechtenstein as Iris. This is Vigée’s recounting of this painting in her Souvenirs: “That young princess was very shapely; her pretty face had a sweet and heavenly expression, which gave me the idea to represent her as Iris. She was painted full-length, soaring into the air. Her scarf, in the colors of the rainbow, fluttered about her. You can well imagine that I painted her barefoot; but when that painting was placed in the prince’s gallery, her husband and the heads of the family were very scandalized to see the princess without shoes, and the prince told me he had a pretty pair put under the portrait, telling the grandparents that the shoes had just slipped out and fallen onto the floor.” At the time, the prince was thirty-four and the princess was twenty-five. Prince Alois liked the painting so much, he also commissioned the present bust-length version that is displayed in this exhibition. I found it sad the cheeky prince died at the young age of forty-six.

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Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1796 (Musée du Louvre)

After receiving a number of commissions from Russians in Vienna, Vigée decided to travel on to St. Petersburg in 1795. This portrait of Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya was painted after Ekaterina had been widowed for three years. It is considered a boudoir painting due to the relaxed nature of her dress and is believed to have been painted for her younger sister, Tatyana. Providing a seat and something to lean on were comforts that Vigée liked to give her sitters.

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Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1796 (Private Collection)

Anna Ivanovna (1774-1825) was married to Count Nokolai Alexandrovich Tolstoy, a renowned collector of books and prints and an intimate friend of the future Tzar Alexander I. Anna was well known for her tall stature and her friends nicknamed her “La Longue”. She commissioned this portrait by Vigée in keeping with her mother’s preference for women artists. The chemise dress is reminiscent of the attire Queen Marie Antoinette favored in the 1780s.

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Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia by Vigée Le Brun, 1802 (H.R.H. George Friedrich, Prince of Prussia, Hohenzollern Castle)

When Vigée left St. Petersburg she traveled to Berlin, capital of the Prussian kingdom. Three days later she was summoned by Queen Luise (1776-1810) to Potsdam Palace to paint her portrait. The queen treated Vigée more like a hostess than a patron. She offered rooms to Vigée at the castle, but the artist declined preferring to rent a room in a modest hotel. The queen sent her coffee, provided her with a loge at the theater, invited her to visit Pfaueninsel and its castle in a carriage supplied by the court, and gave Vigée two bracelets that the artist had admired. Sadly, the thoughtful queen would die at the young age of thirty-four.

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Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina by Vigée Le Brun,1820 (Private Collection)

Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina (1797-1869) suffered from lung disease and, accompanied by her husband, left Russia to seek medical treatment abroad. While they were in Paris she posed for Vigée. The painting suggests the sitter’s reserve and withdrawn personality.

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The Duchesse de Berry in a Blue Velvet Dress by Vigée Le Brun, 1824 (Private Collection)

The Duchesse de Berry is a woman who I keep running across in my research and in a few of the antiques I’ve purchased. In fact, I’ve written a number of blog posts that include her. Marie-Carolina Ferdinanda Luisa di Napoli e di Sicilia, princesse de Bourbon-Naples (1798-1870) was married at seventeen to the second son of the future Charles X, Charles-Ferdinand d’Artois, duc de Berry. Destined for the throne, he was assassinated two years after their marriage by a fanatic bent on eliminating the house of Bourbon. Shortly after her husband’s death, the duchesse gave birth to their son, Henri, duc de Bordeaux, later comte de Chambord. She was a fashion trend-setter of her day and after her husband’s death, she devoted the rest of her life to trying to restore the Bourbons to the French throne, in the form of her son.

Viewing art is such an individual experience, even if we are standing in a gallery surrounded by other people. When we look at a painting, we bring our life experiences with us and see the work through our own unique perspective. I’ve told you about some of my favorite paintings from this exhibition. I’d love to know what your favorite is. Make a note in the comments section and let me know.

Reference:

Vigée-Lebrun,  Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, Paul Lang, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. Print.