This essay about a fashionable Grecian supper held by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun is included in my book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Singing Hymns to Bacchus
In the post-Blues Brothers era, the phrase “elegant toga party” seems oxymoronic, but time-travel 230 years into the past and it is the perfect description for a soirée held by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1788. Best known as Marie Antoinette’s unofficial court painter, she produced the most popular portraits of the Queen, and turned the celebrities of her day into fashionable trendsetters and mythic figures on canvas. She also held sway as an influential salonnière just before the collapse of the ancien régime in France.
The painter’s fascination with antiquity, not at all uncommon among portratists of her era, shines through in her work: Lady Hamilton poses as a Bacchante with a tambourine held high and filmy fabric flowing around her curvaceous figure; Vigée Le Brun’s daughter Julie is a paradoxical mix of innocence and sensuality as Flora; and draped across an animal skin, Emma Hamilton is beguiling as the Greek goddess Ariadne. This preoccupation with “the antique,” as it was called, was spilling over into other artistic disciplines at the time—one example, a piece of literature that inspired a Grecian supper to which Vigée Le Brun invited a select number of courtiers.
She left an account of the dinner party in her memoirs, which she opens by calling it “the most brilliant supper I ever gave in the days when people were always talking about my luxurious and magnificent mode of life.” The idea for the soirée came about one afternoon when her brother Étienne Vigée was reading aloud from the Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece, a historical novel that had just been published. Set in the sixth century, the fictional travel journal, written by Jean Jacques Barthelemy, takes its protagonist on a wanderjahr through the Greek islands. When Étienne came to the passage describing how to make several Grecian sauces, he suggested that his sister have the cook prepare them for the dinner party she was having that evening.
Vigée Le Brun loved the idea and gave her creative spirit free rein, spending an afternoon prop-gathering so she could transform all of her guests. “As I was expecting some very beautiful women, I thought it a good idea to dress everybody in Grecian costumes,” the painter wrote. She collected drapes from her atelier so she could make togas for everyone, and for the décor she borrowed several Etruscan vases that she put on a bare mahogany table from Count de Paroy. “After that I placed behind the chairs an immense screen,” she wrote, “which I took care to hide beneath some drapery, hung from point to point as one sees in [Nicolas] Poussin’s pictures.”
Setting a Fashionable Tone
When each person arrived, she enveloped them in luxurious folds and helped the men embody the theme by taking from them their powdered wigs, unfurling real tresses of hair that made the rare appearance that night. Once her exotic Athenians were seated around the table, the poet Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun made a grand entrance in the guise of Anacreon. Everyone applauded as he floated in, swathed in a purple mantle and crowned with laurels as he smiled at a choir singing hymns to Bacchus.
Were it not for a handful of jealous courtiers who didn’t receive an invitation to the dinner, Vigée Le Brun may not have felt compelled to share these details. Because she dissed the aristocrats, they spread rumors that she had spent an exorbitant amount of money on the evening. This upset her so much she decided to set the record straight in her memoirs, noting how the gossip about her expenditures began flowing forth as soon as the following day. In reality, her partygoers were to blame because everyone in attendance waxed poetic about the fabulous evening, feeling smug that they had made the list.
“Some ladies of the Court begged me to repeat the fun,” Vigée Le Brun wrote. “I refused for various reasons, whereat several of the ladies took offence.” Before long, gossip swirled that the cost of the party was twenty-thousand francs. By the time the rumors had spread from Versailles to St. Petersburg, she had spent eighty-thousand francs on the evening. She claims the entire production actually cost her fifteen francs. On a lark, I decided to see if I could find the recipes for the sauces that inspired the dinner, and was surprised to come across them in the pages of Barthelemy’s adventures, which are available online.
He describes the ingredients of the “very hot sauce” for the fowl as being made from scraped cheese, oil, vinegar and silphium—a plant that seems to be extinct but is said to taste similar to fennel. For fish, the sauce was composed of vinegar, scraped cheese, and garlic “to which may be added a few leeks and onions cut small.” He goes on to say, “When you wish to have it not so strong, it may be mixed with oil, the yolks of eggs, leeks, garlic and cheese; if you desire it still milder, honey, dates, cumin, and other ingredients of the same nature may be used.”
As a lover of French history, I am grateful that Vigee Le Brun was famous enough that her memoirs were valued and have survived. By the time the courtiers who attended her dinner were singing hymns to Bacchus, and dining on fish and fowl topped with these exotic sauces, she had been a celebrity for ten years, her biggest contributions having been to art and fashion. It was the influence of Vigée Le Brun that inspired Marie Antoinette and her courtiers to adopt a more casual style when not at court, inspiring tastemakers like the Duchesse de Polignac to ditch the corsets and panniers of full court costumes when they were not attending formal functions and don straw hats when having Vigée Le Brun paint their portraits.
Their behavior not only had impacts on French society. In an article titled “The Marie Antoinette Dress That Ignited the Slave Trade,” which was published on Racked.com, Caroline London wrote, “Paired with the rising affinity for Greek and Roman culture brought on by the Enlightenment, the plain white dress quickly took over the fashion world.” The butterfly effect of those garments shown in Vigée Le Brun’s paintings, according to London, would be the explosion of the popularity of cotton and the American slave trade, though she admits there’s no way a royal painter and the celebrities she depicted could have known this. Besides, there were greater tribulations on their minds as the eighteenth century lumbered to a close.
It’s clear from the following entry in Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs about her last portrait of the Queen, who was depicted with her children, that anger toward the royals was reaching a full boil. “After doing the Queen’s hair, as well as separate studies of the Dauphin, Madame Royale, and the Duke de Normandie, I busied myself with my picture, to which I attached great importance,” she wrote. When Vigée Le Brun delivered the fashionable painting to the venue where the Salon of 1788 was being held, she experienced the indignation that would be the Queen’s downfall: “The frame, which had been taken there alone, was enough to evoke a thousand malicious remarks. ‘That’s how the money goes,’ they said, and a number of other things which seemed to me the bitterest comments.”
Vigée Le Brun wrote her memoirs late in life, so she was recording these reminiscences in her seventies. This means she would have known the anecdote foreshadowed what was to come when the King and Queen were arrested and the artist was forced into a 12-year exile during which she resided in a number of European cities. When she was finally able to return home to France, it was much changed. The pleasant expression on her face in the self-portrait, which she painted a few months before she left for her self-imposed exile, belonged to a past never to be recaptured.
As I was writing this, it struck me how perfect a paradoxical encapsulation of an era Vigée Le Brun’s story about her supper presents from a remove of 230 years. As antiquity was inspiring a lighthearted fad, chaos and death were all too soon to follow, the impetus for the about-face Immanuel Kant’s rally cry “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!” in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” written in 1784. Delving into Vigée Le Brun’s fashionable world has made me wonder which pieces of anecdotal evidence from our time will be of interest to someone after several centuries have passed. Would anyone living in the twenty-third century really be inspired to write about one of our dinner parties? This is one of those questions that is unknowable to those of us living now, which makes it both worthless and fascinating to consider.
The Fashionable Grecian Supper © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.