Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Laure Part Deux

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!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Laure Guesnon de Bonneuil, Countess Regnaud Saint-Jean d'Angely

 I absolutely adore any and all portraits. They're beautiful, delicate little windows into the emotions and personalities of fascinating people. When I lived in Paris, I would often go to the Louvre and sit and stare at the 18th and early 19th century wings' portraits of people, mostly the famous figures I read in my history books. When I read about a historical figure, I discovered the simplest way to breathe life into a dead subject was to see their painted portrait. Then you understood what made them tick, and why. The subtlety of the features, the tiny details in the nose or the flashing expression of the eyes were so unique and mesmerizing, especially as painted by the great Neoclassical masters, that it seemed to reveal the very essence of their subjects.

  This gorgeous portrait of Laure Regnaud is no exception. It was painted by a young Baron Gerard, a former pupil of Jacques-Louis David, the incredible master of French Neoclassicism. A favorite of Napoleon, he had this marvelous way of subtly flattering his subjects so that the portraits are very realistic and yet his women are always beautiful and his men always noble. Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun had this ability also (and used it in vast quantities on the not-so-pretty Queen Marie-Antoinette!), but Gerard has a very romantic flavor to his portraits that I find utterly irresistible.

In this particular painting, exhibited to great acclaim in the Salon of 1800, Laure's classic oval-shaped face and wide-set eyes are apparent. She appears very pale, as was the trend, and is dressed very plainly for the time (this was in the heyday of Consulate fashion style, sleazy and skimpy and allllll about the bling, so she does look a little weird). This seems to be a running trend in neoclassical portraits--minimal jewelry, plain, solid-colored clothing, hair framing the face. Sparse furniture. She's wearing a simple black and forest-green dress with a little gauzy, poofy top. I do love her scarf, however--a light, almost lavender blue with tiny neoclassical flowers embroidered and tied around her waist and looped down--a pretty, creative touch. Her bracelet is soooo neoclassical, almost Roman-looking, gold and simple. Is the background Italy, perhaps? She's seated on a plus bright red velvet cushion and seems to be leaning forward eagerly. Admirers exclaimed that she was a new Madonna, virgin-like in her unearthly beauty. It is truly lovely.

When I saw this portrait of her, and realized that she bridged the same two eras of my other heroines--the late 18th and early 19th centuries--I wondered if she had any connection to them. If she was alive and had somehow hung on to her money in France after the Revolution, she had to at least know Josephine Bonaparte, or maybe Therese Tallien. And she did, she ran with the same live-fast-die-hard set. I discovered--get this--that her mother, Michelle de Bonneuil, was a Royalist spy during the Revolution and Empire--this woman trekked all over Europe on behalf of the exiled Royal family.  What an interesting figure to have as a mother? Laure's BFF was Fortunee Hamelin--the very same Fortunee who I had been tearing the libraries apart to try and find out more about (I am 95% positive she was a spy too)! Laure's hubby was Michel Regnaud, Bonaparte's 'power behind the throne' (a pretty big frigging deal), although I haven't found out whether it was a happy marriage or not. Laure was very attached to the Bonapartiste cause, even after Napoleon's downfall. Herself, Fortunee, and Josephine were all in Milan together in 1796 when Bonaparte beat the Austrians (poor Josephine, saddled with the role of unwitting Bonapartiste ambassador and hopping from broken-down palace to broken-down palace, must have been happy for the company). They all had their portraits done by Andrea Appiani and Fortunee and Laure had their portraits painted so that one was facing left, the other right--looking at each other with fond, open expressions, in the manner of true best buds:

        Laure's portrait by Appiani--listed as being finished in the first quarter of the 19th century. Probably sketched or drawn when she was in Italy then finished by Appiani later. Her hair was cut 'a la guillotine'--in the manner of French prisoners just before they were sent to have their heads hacked off. Since most French women had curly hair, the result seems to have been a frizzy, curly mess (no hairspray, no hairgel), and it's little wonder that they decided to wear their hair up from then on.

This is Fortunee's portrait--and the only portrait IN EXISTENCE which I have been able to locate on her. She's sporting the same 80's hair as Laure, and wears a simple, elegant cream-colored shawl with a red and blue neoclassical edging. This portrait hangs in the Musee Carnavalet in Paris, and everytime I go there I make a beeline for it. She hangs right next to Therese Tallien--happy face!

That is all for now on the lovely Laure--I will hopefully be making grand new discoveries about her in the (near) future, and will post them accordingly as they arrive, always with ridiculously huge amounts of excitement!