Fig. 1: Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien, 1787. Oil on canvas, 123.4 x 155.9 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1964.11.1.
Simon Macdonald writes:
Previous blog entries here have noted that no portrait picture survives depicting the duchess of Elbeuf, and indeed that we have little clue about what happened to her art collection as a whole — or even if she had one at all. Fortunately, one remarkable visual entry point into the duchess’s world is available to us. For, a couple of years before the French Revolution, a number of her closest relations sat to have their group portrait painted by one of France’s leading artists in this line of work, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. The painting survives, and is now owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it is displayed under the title The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien (fig. 1 above).
On this medium- to large-sized canvas (a rectangle of 155.9 x 123.4 cm, or roughly 5 x 4 feet), we are shown two elegant young women, one of them being embraced by her two young sons. Our group is depicted seated on a neoclassical terrace, hinting at a country-house setting. Much of the paint surface of the image is taken up with women’s voguish and elaborate headdresses, billowing glossy robes, and other expensive adornments. At first glance, we seem to have stumbled into some kind of high-society fashion show where the wealthy and beautiful parade their assets and their estates. Blooming roses peek out in the corner of the image, renewing the sense of youth, beauty and showy luxury.
Colin Jones writes:
The British have long held a very negative view of Parisian policing in the eighteenth century. The episode in which the duchess of Elbeuf lost her freedom (and indeed the correspondence notebooks at the centre of this project) when she was denounced to her neighbourhood’s surveillance committee at the height of the Terror in early 1794, seems to endorse this opinion. Even before counter-revolutionary propaganda during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had painted the Paris police in grimly lurid colours – later popularised in literary offerings such as Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and baroness d’Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel – it had long attracted vociferous British criticism. Parisian police spies, censors, lettres de cachet, and all the rest caused shudders in preening ‘Free-Born Englishmen’. Some even doubted that the ‘police’ was a bona fide word in English: it was, Dr Johnson’s dictionary sagaciously observed, ‘a French term’.
One of the striking effects of the exhibition, ‘La Police des Lumières: ordre et désordre dans les villes au XVIIIe siècle’(‘The Police during the Enlightenment movement: urban order and disorder during the eighteenth century’), is to complicate and revise this simplistic vision. Continue reading
by Dr Jonathan Spangler
Jonathan Spangler is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern European History at Manchester Metropolitan University and senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. He is a specialist in the court and high aristocracy of France in the early modern period, with a particular interest in borders and trans-national exchanges. His next book, tentatively entitled Monsieur: Always Coming in Second, will be a wide-ranging study of the role of second sons in the French monarchy. He writes:
When Innocente-Catherine de Rougé married her second husband, Prince Emmanuel-Maurice de Lorraine, in 1747, she anticipated a rank with great privileges at the French court, that of duchess, as her new husband’s older brother had no children. A duchess took precedence over most other women and enjoyed specific honours such as the right to be seated in the presence of the queen. But even before her husband succeeded his brother as duke of Elbeuf in 1748, the new princess of Lorraine enjoyed even greater privileges, restricted to a very small number of families at the French court, those given to the princes étrangers, or ‘foreign princes’.
Ruth Scurr, author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (2006), has reviewed the UCL exhibition for the latest edition of The Spectator, 28 March.
Unfortunately, this exhibition is of course currently closed due to UK-wide restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The details in Ruth Scurr’s review can be complemented by the excellent set of high-resolution images from the exhibition available on the UCL Art Museum’s own website (including the basket of blood red wool), so do take a look at these too.
The project team is delighted to announce that we have now completed a first draft of our transcription of the Duchess of Elbeuf’s Letters. We look forward to sharing our findings with you over the next year, and to hearing from many of you through the comments section of this blog (the links in the ‘Meet the Team’ tab also give you the details for contacting any of us individually).
Here is how Innocente-Catherine Rougé, Duchess of Elbeuf’s distinctive commentary on events in Revolutionary France begins:
Detail from AN F7 4775/1