So since finishing my first little post on Laure the other day (for which I received many compliments, thanks ever so much!) I decided to delve a bit deeper into the mystery surrounding Laure of a million last names, as I call her now. (Her full name is-get ready-Laure Guesnon de Bonneuil, Comtesse Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angely. Good Lord.) I found a treasure trove of information just sitting and waiting happily to be read on this remarkable lady, although much of it was in the form of gossipy notes and anecdotes, which tells me that there is still much to be done.
So basically Laure was one of three girls born to a sickly nobleman named Nicolas Guesnon de Bonneuil and his wife, Michelle de Bonneuil (pronounced bun-oy). Her Dad held a minor post first in the household of the Comtesse d'Artois, King Louis XVI's sister-in-law, and then later in the household of the king's brother, the Comte d'Artois (by far the most stupid of all those princes, sadly, although that didn't stop him from becoming King Charles X after the Revolution). These types of 'posts' really accomplished nothing, but were a great way for poor aristocrats to make a living. Nicolas moved up the food chain quickly, all the way to the household of the Comte d'Artois himself. Her mother, Michelle Sentuary, was born on Reunion Island, near west Africa, and had emigrated to Bordeaux at a young age. She was a highly intelligent, spirited, and drop-dead gorgeous woman who dabbled in several different philosophical clubs so popular in 1780's Paris before embarking on an incredible spying career for the Royalist cause during the Revolution, Napoleon's Empire, and up to the Restoration (it spanned several decades! She will be the subject a future post, fear not...).
A gorgeous portrait of Laure's mother Michelle, although this is a horrible copy. Michelle's beauty is plain to see, and her dark dress embellished with lace and her pretty necklace really set her small, delicate features off. She has a worried, anxious-to-please expression on her face. Apparently this portrait's whereabouts are unknown, as a private collector has it somewhere. Who knows if it will ever have the chance to be appreciated. Sad. Also, I could find no portrait anywhere of her father!
What this all meant was that Laure was basically raised at the huge, sprawling palace of Versailles, since her Dad would have had to live there to be close to the Comte d'Artois. Her Mom probably had a house in Paris, and when she wasn't away at school she would go to either of these two 'homes'. Her mom seems to be a distant figure, as mothers of that period usually were, although they grew close when Laure was in her mid-20's. Her mom also had to lug her Dad around with her everywhere, even when she went to Spain in secret. How sad. I would love find out how close Laure was to her father, or her sisters. Or was Laure ever close to Madame Royale, Marie-Antoinette's daughter, who was around the same age? No information is known. I also can't seem to find out much information about either of her sisters; they were fairly obscure figures, compared to Laure's popularity.
But Laure did have the chance to meet the incredible portrait artist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (who was a great friend to her mother), and not only to meet the celebrated artist, who was already Queen Marie-Antoinette's official portraitist, but to attend her celebrated 'Greek Dinner' in 1788, where everyone dressed up in Greek attire-togas, laurel wreaths, sandals, the works. This dinner was splashed all over the papers of the period, it was so popular (Elisabeth proudly dishes all about it in her memoirs). She met Elisabeth's beloved daughter Julie there, after which they became friends. At this dinner, Elisabeth, ever the artist on the hunt for a classical profile, made a small sketch of Laure which she would later turn into a delicate, gorgeous portrait of her in 1805:
I just love this portrait of Laure. It's by far my favorite. Her eyes look so expressive--like they can laugh and cry at the same time. Her mouth is open, as though she's going to exclaim about something. She has the same features as in her portrait by Gerard-long, aquiline nose, oval face, wide-set, gentle brown eyes, small cherry mouth, but somehow she appears more human here , rosy-cheeked and full of life. And I love her costume too--the gentle layers of flowing fabric that compliment her beauty, her frizzy hair finally tamed into a beautiful, classical chignon with curls framing her face. This whole look Greek and Roman look was huuuuuugely popular in this time period, and the only other person I think it really compliments so well is Therese Tallien (who could have worn anything, in any time period, and still been gorgeous).
When the Revolution started full-throttle, Laure was sent to the countryside with her sisters to stay for a while, out of harm's way, in their country house. It was there that she met and fell head-over-heels in love with a handsome, dashing politician, Michel Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angely. This remarkable man was a lawyer, a journalist, had published his own pamphlets during the Revolution, and was even a Deputy to the revolutionary Convention (kind of like our modern-day House of Representatives). The man was pretty good looking--he has a sturdy, capable look about him, as though he was a soldier and you really didn't want to screw with him. He was wise, direct, and to the point--exactly the type of man Napoleon liked to have near him.
Michel's portrait here by Gerard (I can't find a date, but it's probably from 1805-1810) was done obviously in the full-swing of Imperial regalia and style, as you can see by the red sash, the huge medals, and the Roman-inspired furniture. He was a statesman and financial wizard, 'the power behind the throne', although Napoleon thought he spent too much on 'pleasures'. He seems to have been very tall, stocky, and well-built, with an abundance of curly chestnut hair, brushed forward in that wind-blown style so popular. His eyes seem kind but sharp, as though he misses nothing.
One very interesting fact here is that when he met Laure, Michel already had a young son to raise--the product of a short-lived affair with a poor Parisian actress, Marie-Louise Chenie, whose family let Michel hide with them during the Terror. She died in childbirth, sadly, but instead of refusing to acknowledge the helpless baby, Michel not only acknowledged him as his own child, he took him in to raise himself. This is really remarkable; not many men in late 18th-century France were so scrupulously moral (The famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself left ALL of his children at orphanages in Paris, for example). As for Laure, she adopted the young boy without a qualm and raised him as her own son. Sadly, she and Michel never had any children of their own. I wonder why? Perhaps this young boy, Auguste who would later become a well-respected and loyal general to Napoleon III, helped fill this little void in her life. Or maybe she never wanted children? We can never know, sadly.
In 1796, Michel became the director of the hospitals for the newly-created Army of Italy, a ragtag group of bandits and cut-throats, run by a scruffy and tattered young general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Michel and Laure dutifully followed the troupe to Italy, and it was here that Laure met Napoleon's creole wife Josephine, desolate at having to be separated from her two children in Paris. They became fast friends, but Laure's real best friend whom she met here was Fortunee Hamelin, (Fortunee would later call Laure 'the dearest friend of my heart') as I mentioned before. All three of them--Laure, Fortunee, and Josephine--had their portraits done by the Italian artist Andrea Appiani, and the results are lovely (I will post all three portraits again so as to give a good comparison:
Josephine (my favorite portrait of her).
Other than having their portraits painted, life must have been kind of boring in Italy. Bonaparte wanted them to have salons, come to the balls, and breathe some new life into his newly conquered territory, but the women there were so conservative that it would have been difficult, and the Parisian beauties would have been scaaaaaandalous. In 1798, Michel dutifully followed Bonaparte on his Egypt campaign, and Laure remained behind in Paris, at their little townhouse, the 'Hotel Regnaud', on 56 Rue de Provence, in the heart of the nouveau-riche district of Paris. It was during this time that the famous portrait of her was painted by Gerard and exhibited to such great acclaim, launching the career of the famous young artist, who also formed part of Laure's circle of friends. But apparently, not everyone thought Laure was a great beauty--one particularly bitter-sounding former general remarked that Laure 'had the head and teeth of a horse' and that a 'breath of venus' was blown on her portrait by Gerard--in other words, that she wasn't even close to being that gorgeous. Another little gossipmonger claimed that Laure supposedly knew her profile was classically perfect, and much in demand, so she would often turn her head to the side when speaking to people so they could admire the perfect line of her nose, or the angle of her eyes. For some reason, I could see Laure laughing at these accusations, they seem so stupid.
She could sing beautifully (and sang all day in her house) and took constant singing lessons. She read widely, and because of the broad array of her political connections through her mother (a famous spy), Fortunee (a not-so-famous spy), and Michel (a Counselor of State), she was probably her very own CNN center, with information constantly coming in on the progress of political events. Her salon, that weekly meet-up where everyone discussed events, debated, laughed, and got drunk, was a hubbub of activity, with political figures of all stripes, artists, writers, visiting diplomats and their wives, social primadonnas, and everyone else could meet and mingle in a peppy, uplifting atmosphere. Laure seems the type to have imposed no restrictions, no limits--no topic would have been off-limits for her, and everyone would have felt comfortable and at ease. After Bonaparte's rather inglorious return from Egypt, Michel was made a Minister and Counselor of State, and even a Comte of the Empire. He sometimes attended the salons; most often he did not, as he was often cranky and abrupt and hated being polite and fake (same as Bonaparte). Apparently, this caused some tension between the couple and Laure, embarrassed, had to make excuses for her husband's stubborn rudeness (as did Josephine constantly did for Napoleon).
Most people agreed, however, that Laure was 'affable' and 'sprightly', kindhearted, witty, and funny, and what's more, she was willing to stick up for her friends. One of the best quotes I have found about her declares that she was 'not exactly a model of virtue'--ha! I love her already, she was no stick in the mud. She had plenty of lovers, who she called her 'favorites', a very old-regime-ish word that she probably picked up from her days in Versailles. She was a girl who liked to have fun, and loved a good party. Maybe this was why she and Fortunee were such good friends? Both girls could party with the best of them into the wee hours of the morning, and often did at balls and receptions--to the point that Bonaparte banned them from Josephine's salon! Poor Bonaparte, for all his progress at heart he was still just a conservative husband.
There is more to come on Laure, for believe it or not, her story does not end here! Hope you enjoyed today's history lesson!