Back to Rome

Once back in Rome and far away from Revolutionary France, I felt safe again. But that feeling quickly disappeared in 1798.

It was a February morning and I was climbing down the Spanish Steps when an overpowering noise like thunder made me quiver. Suddenly there were soldiers on horseback everywhere. I got knots in my stomach when I saw their uniforms—they were French troops. There was no doubt as to what was happening—Napoleon was taking over Rome. The same Napoleon who called himself a “son of the revolution”.

So, this is why they’d cut off the head of a queen? To put France in the hands of the power hungry Napoleon Bonaparte? And what did sequestrating Rome have to do with “liberté, égalité, and fraternité”?

Using military force, Napoleon’s General Berthier invaded the Papal States and took Pope Pius VI prisoner. Rome was then renamed the Roman Republic and annexed into France.

From Rome, General Berthier then went on to Egypt where he joined Napoleon in his efforts to take control of Ottoman territories. But Napoleon’s campaign there ended in defeat and he was forced to retreat. But not before looting many Egyptian antiquities such as the Rosetta Stone.

Ahhh, I know men so well. I’ve learned from my many suitors that the most dangerous men are those lacking in stature. A man who feels the need for power is a man who is basically insecure. And insecurity can make you do devious things.

Napoleon wasn’t interested in getting rid of the French monarchy. He just wanted to get them out of the way so the power could be his. Fixated with conquering the world, Napoleon took control of northern Italy and declared it a kingdom. Then, in 1805 in Milan’s cathedral, he crowned himself king. Napoleon had betrayed the very revolution he’d helped to create.

(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)


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Versailles—where too much is not enough. At first I was dazzled but it didn’t take long for the Rococo style to wear me out. All that theatrical exuberance, all those asymmetrical curves, all those volutes and festoons made me dizzy. However, I must admit that my vanity can be very Rococo. I, too, wanted to have my portrait painted while flying high like the woman in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing. You know, fluffy and extravagant and excessive.

The painting portrays a young woman flying high in a swing pushed by an elderly man. She kicks off one of her shoes so that, with her leg raised, a young man hiding in the bushes can see under her dress. Rumor was that it had been commissioned by Baron de Saint-Julien and that the woman in the painting was his mistress. On the left is a statue of cupid looking on with his finger to his lips indicating that there’s a secret to be kept. Such a naughty painting, decadent with frills, is a real bijou!

Rococo, Italian Baroque translated into French, robbed its name from “rocaille”, a kind of decoration where pebbles and seashells were cemented together to create an ornamentation that refused to stay still.

Louis XV loved Rococo but his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, thought it to be too de mode preferring, instead, the trendy Neoclassical. And since artists tend to be trendy, Fragonard toned it down, too. Nine years later we have him painting a young woman sitting not on a swing but in a chair reading a book. It’s difficult to believe that the paintings are by the same artist. Now bon ton obliterates risqué.

There’d been much speculation as to who A Young Girl Reading was. And, with some disappointment, we learned that there was nothing scandalous about her. In fact, she didn’t even exist and was just one of Fragonard’s many figures de fantaisie existing only in the artist’s imagination.

In this painting, the magic of reading is embraced. An author provides the words whereas the reader’s imagination provides the images. And as one’s imagination is the product of their own experiences and interactions with the world around them, every reader visualizes the author’s words in their own way. This means that the more there are people reading the book, the more images the book creates permitting just one book to create zillions of images. Now that’s très jolie magic!

My only question now: just what was the young girl reading?

(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)


Related: Fantasy Figures + Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure + A Brief History of the Books Depicted in Western Painting + Aphantasia: A life without mental images +

Bibliography:  The Creation of the Rococo by Fiske Kimball on HERE

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The Power of a Gaze

It was at the Petit Trianon that I’d met the artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Elisabeth, after the royal family’s arrest, wisely left France taking her young daughter with her. At the time of Marie-Antoinette’s execution, she was in Vienna painting portraits of aristocrats.

J’adore how Elisabeth easily created whimsical atmospheres in her Ancien Régime paintings although her childhood had certainly not been whimsical. Her father, well-known pastel portrait painter Louis Vigée, had taught his daughter how to paint. Elisabeth was a natural talent but, being a woman, she wasn’t permitted to study at the Académie des Beau-Arts. And to make it worse, when she was 12, her doting father died and her mother, looking for security, married a wealthy but unscrupulous jeweller.

Just a teenager, Elisabeth attracted many rich clients because of her light and airy yet sophisticated and intimate painting style. Unfortunately, her greedy step-father took control of Elisabeth’s earnings. Maybe that’s why she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, a well-known Parisian art dealer who owned a vast collection of paintings Elisabeth could study from. Pity that he was greedy, too.

Marie-Antoinette became aware of the young woman’s talent and invited her to Versailles. Having gained the Queen’s patronage, Elisabeth painted more than 30 portraits of the Queen and her family depicting Marie-Antoinette as a devout mother and wife.

The saddest “Devout Mother” painting was undoubtable “Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1783) with the young Dauphin pointing at an empty cradle. Originally her daughter Sophie had been in the cradle but was painted out after her premature death. Sophie had been born with an abnormally large head. Her various deformities were not uncommon with the Bourbons and Habsburgs perhaps due to centuries of inbreeding.

Despite her seemingly demur attitude, Elisabeth, was quite progressive and had a good understanding of human nature. Once at the Petit Trianon, we had an interesting tête-à-tête regarding the power of the gaze. Elisabeth confided that there was a reason behind her self-portrait where she is holding her palette with some brushes and is looking directly at the viewer. With this portrait, she is clearly establishing who she is—a painter and not a passive object for the male gaze.

Women were taught to control their eyes because a careless glance could be interpreted as a provocation.

But as a portrait painter, it was only obvious that Elisabeth would have to look at the sitter. In general, men make women the object of their gaze. They are not comfortable when the opposite occurs. Sometimes her male sitters would interpret her looking at them as an invitation to look at her in a lascivious way. It created a problem as this erotic attention impaired her concentration and the chance to get an appropriate likeness of them.

When she was still young, to avoid this problem, her mother would always be present when Elisabeth men were sitting for portraits. However, she eventually invented the “lost look” effect. By deflecting the male gaze, she could control and displace their visual advances.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise “Emile” (1762) had made a huge impact on the French. The philosopher said a child’s initial environment would have an impact on him for the rest of his life. This inspired Elisabeth to do a series of child related paintings including several of her daughter. Of special interest is “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror.” It’s unusual in that the reflection in the mirror would have been impossible considering the angle in which it’s held. Nevertheless, the painting shows how children have a natually innocent curiosity.

A quite different approach of looking at one’s reflection comes from one of Elisabeth’s tutors, Jean-Baptiste Greuze. In his “The Broken Mirror” (c. 1762), a dishevelled young woman is sitting looking down on a broken mirror that shows a shattered reflection. She sits gracelessly in a room that’s in total disarray while her frightened little puppy wonders what to do. It’s a painting with a self-reflection gone wrong. No innocence here just the feeling of male moralism judging a young woman living in a man’s world.

When the royal family was arrested, Elisabeth, along with her daughter, left France for 12 years living and working in Italy, Austria, Russia, and Germany. She painted mainly portraits of aristocrats as well as allegorical portraits. Elisabeth’s Rococo style so loved by Marie Antoinette was now substituted with the stiff, tight Neo-Classical style.

Elisabeth and I never saw one another again. But I know she continued to paint all her life and even wrote her memoirs (three volumes!) before dying at the age of 86.

(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)

Related: Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun: Art and Gender during the French Revolution + The Broken Mirror +


Nagel, Susan. Marie-Thérèse, the Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter. Bloomsbury Publishing. London. 2008.

Elisabeth Vigéè Le Brun (1755-1842)

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Guillotined Styles

Charlotte Corday was just beginning to blossom as a woman when the French Revolution broke out.  She saw nothing liberating about the aftermath of the Revolution and its atrocities.  Believing Jean-Paul Marat to be a blood thirsty monster who sent innocent people to their graves, she felt that by murdering him she could save thousands of lives.

Because of a skin condition he’d developed while hiding in sewers, Marat was forced to bathe a lot.  So he transformed his tub into a kind of desk where he’d soak for hours while writing down his political theories. One day while he was bathing, 24 year old Charlotte Corday sneaked into his bathroom and stabbed him to death.

A young German living in Paris, Adam Lux, was so impressed by the actions of Charlotte that he fell in love with her.  He followed her trial and was present when she was beheaded. Adam saw Charlotte as a martyr and wrote a pamphlet in her defense which led to his arrest for treason. Tried, he was told he could save his life if he would retract what he’d written but he just smiled and thanked the judges because he was honored to be sacrificed on the same guillotine where Charlotte had met her death.

Jacques-Louis David was good friends with that terror loving Robespierre and actively supported the French Revolution. So to show what a groupie he was, David painted Marat dead in his tub. This earned him the power to dictate what was and wasn’t permissible art in revolutionary France.

As a youth studying in Rome, David had copied classical antiquity and read Wicklemann’s writings on ancient sculpture. And when, during the French Revolution, it came time for him to distance himself from from the frivolous Rococo popular under the Ancien Régime, David recycled his Roman studies to develop his austere and severe Neo-Classical style. Then his buddy Robespierre was guillotined, and Napoleon became Emperor so a new style was needed and, violà, the Empire style. But, when Napoleon fell from power, too, and was substituted with a Bourbon revival, David had to leave France as he’d run out of styles.

Style is not just limited to painting.


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Born to be A Natural Woman

Sitting here with pen in hand, I ask myself if one can ever really know what they want from life. Because what I want in this moment may be true today but, by tomorrow, unforeseeable events can totally change my mind.

My axis has lost its stronghold. The inhumanity of the Revolution has destabilized the meaning I’d given to my life. I am an improvisatrice, an extemporaneous poetess, a storyteller whose stories are meant to entertain. But I am writing this story now not to entertain, but to share what I’ve seen. But I write, too, because I need a new narrative for my life to give it meaning once more.

After Marie-Antoinette’s death, all I wanted to do was to leave France as quickly as possible—to escape from the atrocities that surrounded me. But most of all, I wanted to leave France because I feared for my life.

The revolutionists were out of control. Their “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” was just a slogan used to dupe the discontented into following them. But there certainly was no liberty, equality, or fraternity in their actions and intentions. Anyone who was not accommodating was terrorized and executed. Just look at what happened to poor Olympe de Gouges. Olympe was a playwright and human rights activist who just wanted to help make the world a better place. That’s why, for example, she protested the slave trade in the French colonies that reduced man to an object thus degrading human life itself. Although initially elated by the proclaimed aims of the Revolution, Olympe soon understood it was a revolution for men only. So, to express her concerns that women were not given the same rights as men, she wrote the “Declaration of the Right of Woman and of the Female Citizen”. If, she wrote, a woman has the right to mount the scaffold, she must also possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform. Olympe also opposed the execution of Louis XVI because she was against capital punishment. Why not just exile him?, she asked. The revolutionists’ growing barbaric behavior and their summary executions led her to publically criticize them. For this Olympe was arrested, tried and convicted for being an “unnatural woman”, then guillotined.

Paris was hellish. Aristocrats and anyone associated with them were being slaughtered indiscriminately. As I’d perform so many times at Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, it was just a matter of time before they came for me, too.

(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)


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