Madame Vigée Lebrun in Naples

5 June 2011

On the run from the French Revolution, the celebrated society portrait painter Madame Vigée-Lebrun went on a tour of some of the royal courts of Europe, where she painted portraits and recorded her impressions of her noble and royal sitters for a gleeful and very appreciative posterity. One of her first stops was the court of Marie Antoinette’s elder and favourite sister, Maria Carolina, Queen on Naples at the Palace of Caserta…

The Countess Skavronska was as sweet and pretty as an angel. The famous Potemkin, her uncle, had loaded her with wealth, for which she had no use. Her great delight was to live stretched out on a lounge wrapped in a large black cloak, and wearing no stays. Her mother-in-law sent her, from Paris, cases full of the most beautiful dresses then made by Mlle. Bertin, Queen Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker. I do not believe that the Countess ever opened one of them, and when her mother-in-law expressed a wish to see her in the beautiful gowns and head-dresses contained in the cases, she answered indifferently: “What for? Why?” She gave me the same answer when showing me her jewel-case, one of the most splendid I have ever seen. It contained enormous diamonds given her by Potemkin, but I never saw them on her. 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, she 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.

Count Skavronska had made me promise to do his wife’s portrait before any one else’s, and, having agreed, I began this portrait two days after my arrival. After the first session, Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador at Naples, came to me and begged that my first portrait in this town should be that of the splendid woman he presented to me. This was Mme. Harte, who soon after became Lady Hamilton, and who was famous for her beauty. After the promise to my amiable neighbours, I could not begin the other portrait until Countess Skavronska’s was well advanced. I then painted Mme. Harte as a bacchante reclining by the edge of the sea, holding a goblet in her hand. Her beautiful face had much animation, and was a complete contrast to the Countess’s. She had a great quantity of fine chestnut hair, sufficient to cover her entirely, and thus, as a bacchante with flying hair, she was admirable to behold.

Lady Hamilton was not at all clever, though she was extremely supercilious and disdainful, so much so that these two defects were conspicuous in all her conversation. But she also possessed considerable craftiness, of which she made use in order to bring about her marriage. She wanted in style, and dressed very badly when it was a question of every-day dress. I remember that when I did my first picture of her, as a sibyl, she was living at Caserta, whither I went every day, desiring to progress quickly with the picture. The Duchess de Fleury and the Princess de Joseph Monaco were present at the third sitting, which was the last. I had wound a scarf round her head in the shape of a turban, one end hanging down in graceful folds. This head-dress so beautified her that the ladies declared she looked ravishing. Her husband having invited us all to dinner, she went to her apartment to change, and when she came back to meet us in the drawing-room, her new costume, which was a very ordinary one indeed, had so altered her to her disadvantage that the two ladies had all the difficulty in the world in recognising her.

The excursions I made at Naples did not prevent me from accomplishing a great deal of work. I even undertook so many portraits that my first stay in that town extended to six months. I had arrived with the intention of spending only six weeks. The French Ambassador, the Baron de Talleyrand, came to inform me one morning that the Queen of Naples wished me to do the portraits of her two eldest daughters, and I began upon them at once. Her Majesty was preparing to leave for Vienna, where she was to busy herself about the marriage of these Princesses. I remember her saying to me after her return: “I have had a successful journey; I have just made two fortunate matches for my daughters.” The eldest, in fact, soon after was married to the Emperor of Austria, Francis II., and the other, who was called Louise, to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This second girl was very ugly, and made such grimaces that I did not want to finish her picture. She died a few years after her marriage.

Upon arriving at Naples I began the portrait of the Queen forthwith. It was then so terribly hot that one day when Her Majesty gave me a sitting we both fell asleep. I took great pleasure in doing this picture. The Queen of Naples, without being as pretty as her younger sister, the Queen of France, reminded me strongly of her. Her face was worn, but one readily judged that she had been handsome; her hands and arms especially were perfect in form and colour. This Princess, of whom so much evil has been written and spoken, had an affectionate nature and simple ways at home. Her magnanimity was truly royal.

Text from the Memoirs of Mme Vigée-Lebrun.