I recently visited a large exhibition of portraits by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun in France. The first few I saw delighted me, but by the end of the exhibition I felt like I had eaten too many chocolate truffles very quickly. Everyone she painted seemed to be the same in character and to some extent even in appearance. All of them lacked firmness; they were either engaging or flirtatious, if always elegant. I’m not an egalitarian, but I ended up feeling like I understood a little better the resentment or anger being directed against the class whose portraits she was painting. Even when they tried to be serious, they seemed frivolous. If frivolity can be deep, they have been deeply frivolous.
Although Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun appears quite frequently in Benedetta Craveri’s long book on the lives of seven prominent French aristocrats and their circle before, during, and after the Revolution (if they survived it), the author shares my judgment on the portraits of Vigée Le Brun not. On the other hand, their account of the lives of their subjects does little to dispel the impression they made on me.
Just before I went to the Vigée Le Brun exhibition, I had visited another one, that of Goya Portraits. The latter was of course far superior to Le Brun, but there was even more to it: The people he painted did not have the determined lightness of their sitters, but an obvious depth of character (not necessarily good), which Goya succeeded in promoting. In culinary terms it could be called a contrast between a soufflé and a gratinated dauphinois.
Of course, the lightness of one man is the lightness of another man’s heart. The aristocrats whom the author portrays without fully explaining why she chose her in place of others were cultured, intelligent, and displayed “exquisite courtesy, elegant manners, incessant genius and loyalty to their aristocratic civilization” without knowing what Talleyrand was famously remarking was not having known the full sweetness of life.
None of the seven – the Duke of Lauzun, the Viscount Joseph-Alexandre de Ségur, the Duke of Brissac, the Comte de Narbonne, the Chevalier de Boufflers, the Comte Louis-Philippe de Ségur, and the Comte de Vaudreuil – had an idea that them danced on the edge of a volcano. Though they were Enlightenment men, and many of them advocated democratic ideas of human freedom (they were mostly American Revolution enthusiasts), they were so secure in their way of life, so sure of their own, that they could hardly imagine that this way of life and these privileges might be possible don’t last forever and are sure they can take a lot of criticism. In a sense, they wanted their cake and eat him too: that is, they should be counted as progressive while retaining their personal and class privileges. Her class was four percent or less of the population, probably less; but, at least in the author’s view, it hardly occurred to them to delve deeply into the conditions under which their compatriots lived. They were certainly patriots, but it could be said that they wished their country more than their people, who for them were primarily a backdrop to their lives, rather than those on whose work they depended for the extravagant luxuries they lived in, even if they are heavily indebted or nominally bankrupt.
They married in their class primarily for dynastic or financial reasons, and it is not surprising that marriages without love resulted in infidelity. There was no shame in that, rather the opposite; A man who had no lovers would have been viewed as deficient or weird in some way. Many of them have managed to love more than one woman at the same time and women more than one man. This didn’t mean they never experienced passion or romantic love as we would imagine, but their love life was more kaleidoscopic. Betrayal of others in matters of love was the norm.
They were physically brave with the valor of the caste. In war they were chivalrous in a way that, now that we are used to the idea and even the appropriateness of total war, would seem highly quixotic to us. When they were sentenced to death on the guillotine, they behaved with impressive dignity, as if dying was no big deal. They would refuse to show fear to anyone, especially their subordinates.
Many of them wrote; The fact that their books are largely unread is not to their disadvantage, as the vast majority of books will soon be unread. As a class, however, they underestimated the power of the written word and theater, which they loved very much. The eighteenth-century most subversive play, Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, which heavily denounced aristocratic privilege, was first performed at the urging of the aristocrats and to their great applause, just a few years before many of them were to lose their heads on the scaffolding.
Craveri’s book is not a narrative story of the French Revolution, but a kind of portrait collage of aristocratic life shortly before, during and after the revolution. It is not recommended for those who do not know much about the French Revolution or the European history of the second half of the 18th century as it moves back and forth in time, introducing people and events without explanation, and it is known its only for those who already have a fairly thorough knowledge of the subject. It sometimes seems that the author is writing for a coterie rather than a general audience. There are also variations in style – for example, streams of unanswered questions – and sometimes mistakes that even a non-historian could recognize, for example that the French Revolution took place two, not three centuries after the Spanish Armada. I can’t say the book is an unclouded joy to read.
It was only eight years between the first public performance of The Barber of Seville and the beheading of Louis XVI, which would have been unthinkable at the time of that performance.
It is likely that most general readers reading history do so to shed some light on the present. Aside from the sheer fascination of the past itself, they look for historical analogies that by definition cannot be exact, or they would be repetitions rather than analogies: because history only repeats itself in outlines, not in detail. What a light, then, after the author has read 440 pages of rather dense pages written by a real and obviously very learned scholar, like the author obviously, a lifetime devoted to reading, marking up, learning and digesting texts internally that would benefit the vast majority of people would appear dark and researched and will never have the time or inclination to read, does this book raise the contemporary world? What moral, political or historical lesson do we draw from this for the present?
The first is that we can’t even know what to expect around the corner. It was only eight years between the first public performance of The Barber of Seville and the beheading of Louis XVI, which would have been unthinkable at the time of that performance.
The second is that ridicule, contempt, or an attitude of superior detachment from the established order can all too easily destroy or prevent the destruction of what appears to be solid, and can lead to immeasurable misery for many years. It took millions of deaths and a quarter of a century to restore stability to Europe after the French Revolution, at which point the weapons surrendered by all sides were comparatively inefficient.
Is there a risk of a repetition of 1789 and its subsequent elaboration? Certainly we have the hatred and self-loathing of an aristocracy, albeit a self-made one (which lacks the aesthetic taste of earlier aristocracies and whose only appeal is their wealth) which, at least in popular imagination, is likely to make up a smaller percentage of the population than the French aristocracy . The very human impulse to cut off one’s nose in order to annoy one’s face while it is harmful to others has by no means gone away. It is common that merit – usually one’s own – is not adequately recognized and that the economic pie (to use a dangerous and misleading but very powerful and influential metaphor) is broken down by affiliation, privilege, etc., rather than by it should be. Finally, the legitimacy of government is being put under suspicious scrutiny like never in the recent past, even by those who have everything to lose to radical change. While it seems inconceivable that a modern democratic state, with all its powers of surveillance and repression, could be overthrown when the ancien regime was overthrown, we must remember that the beneficiaries of the ancien regime, highly educated, intelligent and secular, do this Didn’t have the slightest inkling of their fate just months before it overtook them.
In a way, this is a deeply optimistic message because it means that human history is not under anyone’s control. But the price for not having such control is the constant possibility of nasty surprises.