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PEOPLE AND PLACES
OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION


Madame Du Barri

Madame DuBarri
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A love-child of lower than average condition, the future countess was born at Vaucouleurs, the 19th of August, 1743. She received the given name of Jeanne, and took her mother's family name, Becus or Begu, surnamed Quantiny. As to the name Vaubernier, by which she is usually designated, it was only conferred upon her later, for the needs of the cause and by means of a falsification of the public records.

Jeanne and her mother leave their province in poverty, to seek their fortune at Paris. They apply to M. Dumonceau, whom they have known at Vaucouleurs. That personage, with provisions, lodges them at first with a famous courtesan. The Frederic, who was his mistress; then he has Jeanne placed with "The Daughters of St. Anne," a community where were received, for a modest compensation, girls of honest family "who found themselves in circumstances where they ran the risk of being lost." She remains there but a short time, as her continual escapades end in causing her to be sent away. Then her uncle or nominal uncle, Brother Picpus, installs her as lady copanion with Madame Lagarde at the Cour Neuve; but there Jeanne involves herself in a love affair with the two sons. Obligated to withdraw, she enters Labille's a millinery establishment in rue St. Honore, and takes the name of Madamoiselle de Lancon. She is handsome; she loves to be told so; whereby, one day, at a gaming house kept in the rue de Bourgogne by M. Duquesnoy, she forms an intimacy with a roue, the Count Du Barri, who becomes her lover, purposes to make her the instrument of his fortune, and dreams of giving her to the king Louis XV., to replace the famous Pompadour. Against all expectation, thanks to the compliciity of Lebel and the Marshal de Richelieu, the ambitious dream becomes a reality. Louis XV., enticed by the indefinable charm, the gayety, the vivacious converse, the joyous laughter of Jeanne, falls in love with the milliner; and what the retinue takes at first for a mere passing toy changes rapidly to a veritable passion. Then, to save appearances and permit the youn mistress to remain at court , she is married to Guillaume Du Barri, own brother to the roue, and given the title of countess.

Madame Du Barri now installs herself at the Palace of Versailles; but etiquette holds her aloof there until April 2, 1769, the day when the King succeeds in presenting her to his family and the court. That presentation! how many negotiations it necessitates! what confusion when the moment has at last arrived, and the countess does not appear! The company think everything has failed, or know not what to think of that extraordinary delay - of which the cause is nevertheless perfectly natural, for that great coquette, not finding her coiffure successful enough to suit her ideas, has remained at home to begin it all afresh! Covered with magnificent diamonds, clothed in the most resplendent toilette, of well-formed style, Madame Du Barri at last makes a triumphal entry. She dazzles even her enemies, who declare they have never seen a beauty rivalling hers.

This beauty, this perfection of plastic forms, is admired by the artists of the epoch, who repeatedly render homage to her. Drouais signs three portraits of Madame Du Barri: the first in feminine draperies, the second disguised as a man, the third as a Muse. Greuze represents her as a Bacchante, and takes her as a model for his picture of "The Woman with the Broken Pitcher"; Allegrain chooses her as a type of Venus; the English Cosway shows her to us in a toilette which already proclaims the Directory type: and Madame Lebrun tells us in her Memoirs that she painted three portraits of the mistress of Luciennes. The sculptors are not less charmed. Pajou, Caffieri, Lemoyne and still others reproduce a number of times, in marble, plaster, or porcelain, the bust of the graceful Du Barri. As to the engravers and the lithographers, their vulgarized work is met everywhere and under all forms.

Madame Du Barri is not desirous in any regard of the effective power which Madame de Pompadour had exercised in the affairs of France. She does not feel herself born for negotiations with ministers and ambassadors, for the intrigues and the cares of public life. She does not seek to impose her views and ideas on the King. But it is precisely this lack of political ambition which gives her in reality so much influence on the mind of Louis XV., who, tired of the domination of Mme. de Pompadour, has become refractory to all feminine tutelage.

Created by nature for love, a prey to the need of an unbridled luxury, Madame Du Barri meddles not much in politics. Her action does not make itself really felt except in important circumstances: the dismissal of the minister Choiseul, and the dissolution of the Parliament of Paris. Even there it is recognizable that she is the instrument of outside and hidden wills. She combats Choiseul because the clique which has borne her to the King's bed is interested in overthrowing that minister; then because Choiseul has been stirred up against her by the Duchess de Grammont, his sister, a clever and ambitious woman who had done everything to impose herself on Louis XV, as mistress. Lastly, her hate of the Parliament is inflamed by the clerical party, which incites her to restore religion and bring back the Jesuits to France. These two affairs are serious; nevertheless the favourite treats them almost like a heedless schoolgirl, a frolicsome child. Thus, she had dismissed a lackey, and announces it to the King in these terms, "I have sent away my Choiseul: when will you send away yours?" Or she plays with oranges; she throws them into the air and cries, "Jump, Choiseul! jump, Praslin!"

Her true occupation, that which takes up the most of her time, is her millinery, her toilette. Every morning she receives the most renowned purveyors: for as soon as she rises each of them hastens to bring her, of their own divising, those knickknacks of fashion which are so enticing to women in general, and which are for her an arsenal where she finds the thousand resources that her coquetry has need of to charm her royal lover. Bourjot, Assorty, Barbier, Lenormand, Buffaut, exhibit their most shimmering silks to her; Madame Sigly tries gowns upon her worth more than 10,000 livres; Payelle, the modiste of the Traits Galants of the rue St. Honore, exerts her ingenuity to discover new patterns, shows her laces, deshabilles, etc.: and Davaus completely embroiders for her, on designs of Michel de Saint-Aubin, robes of white silk, trimmed with shaded silk and colored spangles!

This capricious creature desires, buys, or has herself given everything that is beautiful, everything that attains a fantastic price. Pictures, statues, marbles, porcelains, highly sumptuous furnishings, jewels, trinkets, bronzes, - she gathers everything, she makes a collection of everything. Her apartment at the chateau, her houses at Versailles, her pavilion of Luciennes, become actual museums, where she heaps up the rarest, the most curious, the most costly objects. And if on some one day, by unusual hap, temptation forgets to knock at the door of the countess, the self-indulgent favourite knows how to correct that injury of Fate. She will speedily convoke around her the chief goldsmiths, jewellers, painters, and sculptors of Paris and they will not leave her till charged with the costliest commissons.

For her Gauthier sets to work lovingly at his bronzes; for her Roettier, the foremost designer and sculptor in silver work of the eighteenth century, employs in profusion the precious metals, silver and gold; and all receive the order to execute their commissions in the most finished manner and carried to the highest degree of polish. Finally, at the manufactory of Sevres, all count must be abandoned of the number of pieces destroyed in firing before success is attained, in fabricating her vases with handles and goats' heads, her teapots with green ribbons and golden hatchings, her groups of biscuit ware, her basins of royal blue with trellises and birds, other service with roses and garlands, of three hundred and twenty pieces, for ordinary use and supppers.

If you cast your eyes over the walls of Luciennes, you will admire on them the pictures of Pollemburg, the Ostades, the Teniers, the Vernets, the Casanovas, the Viens, the Greuzes, the Drouais, the Fragonards, etc., or the Gobelin tapestries fabricated by Cazette after Boucher.

Before this accumulation of artistic works, which she has inspired or given orders for, it is impossible neverthless to refrain from noting the curious fact that Madame Du Barri has not been able to impress her personal stamp, has not created a style of her own, and on the contraty has always let herself be servilely guided by the taste of the day and the current fashion.

To settle for all these mad outlays, of which the total will never be known, it needed streams of gold from an inexhaustible Pactolus. The countess plunges her hands deep in the coffers of the State; she draws without accounting upon Beaujon, the banker to the court; she signs quantities of notes which the Abbe Terray, the controller-general of finances, accepts without discussion, as if they bore the signature of the King himself. And nevertheless, when the sudden death of Louis XV. supervenes, she remains with a multitude of huge clamorous debts, which the new King will satisfy in part, and on whose account she herself later, to her great regret, will have to sell many of her precious objects.

The new sovereign exiles the countess to the convent of Pont-au-Dames, in Brie. The pretty sinner departs with her maids, and for a year has no other distraction than the visits of the jeweller whom she gets to come from Paris, and who shows precious stones to her. By force of supplications she obtains from Louis XVI., who recognizes her political insignificance, permission first to live on her property of Sain-Vrain, near Chartres, then to return to Luciennes. Now she recommences her ancient and joyous existence. There is nothing with her except dinners, receptions, pleasures. A true priestess of love, she attaches herself to her neighbor in the country, Lord Seymour; but she soon replaces him with the Count de Cosse-Brissac. He makes her heart beat as if she were still twenty, and retains her affection unbroken up to the day when he is butchered at Versailles, in September 1792. The countess weeps his death; she weeps for him so much with the Prince de Rohan-Rochefort, one of their common friends, that the day comes when Rohan-Rochefort succeeds Cosse-Brissac in her heart.

Who knows if the amorous avatars of the fair Jeanne, aged fifty at this time, would have terminated there? But the revolutionary storm bursts in the door of the pavilion of Luciennes. Among the people, some recall in the Convention that she has offered her fortune to Louis XVI.; that she has given shelter to wounded bodyguards; and that she has been three times to London under pretext of searching for stolen jewels, but in reality, they say, to conspire with the emigres. Nothing more is needed. A suspect, she is arrested, thrown into prison, tried, and at last condemned to death. On hearing the terrible sentence pronounced, Jeanne faints. From that instant she has but one fixed idea: to gain time, to gain hours, minutes, seconds. Pleasure-loving flesh, she has a terror of death she wishes to live, to live at any price. In the cell of the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette has been a prisoner, where she is shut up in her turn, she has the clerk come to her under pretext of dictating revelations to him. She abandons all her treasures to the nation: she indicates one by one all the hiding-places where she has buried her precious objects; and when the fatal car is waiting for her, when the horses are stamping with impatience, she asks for a respite, - she still has something to say! In delivering herself up to the scaffold, she almost gathers a mob by her cries; and when she is bound to the fatal plank, they hear her as she supplicates, "Monsieur executioner, one little instant more!" Written by Leon Vallee

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