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Singing Hymns to Bacchus

All it takes is a glimpse of one of Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun’s portraits of a beautiful woman depicted as a mythic character and I long to be moving through the sumptuous aesthetics as they existed before the collapse of the ancien régime in France — not as we see the evidence of decadent beauty now, behind glass or ropes in museums, but arranged in luxurious rooms. Among these portraits that bring on my flights of fancy are Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, tambourine held high and filmy fabric flowing around her curvaceous figure. There’s also the painter’s daughter Julie, whom she painted as a paradoxical mix of innocence and sensuality dressed as Flora. The heart-shaped laurel wreath she’s holding could be meant for some dashing roué I would have met had I been lucky enough to reside in eighteenth-century Paris.

I blame my fascination on how swept up they were in emulating antiquity, which is particularly enchanting when viewed from our current hard-bitten cultural milieu. Their infatuation with the past fueled paintings, architecture, stage sets, fashion, food and parties. The balls, the opera; fêtes like Vigée-Le Brun’s Grecian supper, which was one of the most gossiped-about affairs of the last full year the courtiers would hold sway over society in pre-Napoleonic rapture. Eleanor P. DeLorme writes in her book Garden Pavilions and the 18th Century French Court that the fascination with all things antique “reached a pinnacle of the ridiculous in 1788 at the famous dinner party given by the Queen’s portraitist.”

I can just see everyone seated around the table, dressed as exotic Athenians, heartily applauding as the poet Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun enters in the guise of Anacreon. He is enveloped in a purple mantle and crowned with laurels, smiling at a choir singing hymns to Bacchus as he glides into the room. These singular details wouldn’t have survived had rumors not circulated that Vigée-Lebrun had spent an exorbitant amount of money on the evening, the gossip upsetting her so much she decided to set the record straight in her memoir.

The painter opens her account of “the most brilliant supper I ever gave in the days when people were always talking about my luxurious and magnificent mode of life” by sharing how the idea for the soirée came about. She explains that her brother Étienne Vigée was reading aloud from the Travels of Anacharsis the Younger, a fictional journal of an imaginary wanderjahr written by Jean Jacques Barthelemy. It that had just been published and was all the rage with the intellectual set in Paris at the time. When he came to the passage describing how to make several Grecian sauces, Étienne suggested that she have the cook prepare them for dinner that evening. She loved the idea and let her creative spirit reign as she planned a themed evening that would result in the transformation of all her guests.

“As I was expecting some very beautiful women, I thought it a good idea to dress everybody in Grecian costumes,” the painter says. She spent the afternoon gathering drapes from her atelier to make togas for her pretty female guests. For the décor, Count de Paroy loaned her Etruscan vases that she put on a bare mahogany table; “After that I placed behind the chairs an immense screen, which I took care to hide beneath some drapery, hung from point to point as one sees in Poussin’s pictures.”

When each woman arrived, she enveloped them in luxurious folds. She helped the men embody the theme by taking from them their powdered wigs, unfurling real tresses of hair that made the rare public appearance that night. She notes how the rumors about her expenditures began flowing forth as soon as the following day, the speculation arising because everyone in attendance waxed poetic about the fabulous evening. “Some ladies of the Court begged me to repeat the fun,” Vigée-Lebrun explains. “I refused for various reasons, whereat several of the ladies took offence.”

Before long, the dissed courtiers who wanted to make her look ridiculous reported that the cost of the party was twenty thousand francs. By the time the gossip 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. I was disappointed that Vigée-Lebrun didn’t share the recipes for the sauces that inspired the dinner so I went in search of them and found them in Barthelemy’s adventures, which, fabulously enough, 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.”

I am grateful to the gossips who infuriated the portraitist so much that the details of the soirée were recorded in her memoirs. This has made me realize that even the seemingly mundane elements of any given era can be fascinating to history lovers after several centuries have passed. Curiously though, I can’t imagine anyone being interested in the life I lead, and I believe our time will be studied but not for events with which I want to be associated. If I take a page out of the playbook of these courtiers, who thought nothing of embellishing their lives and their importance in history in what were called memoir, though not as we define the term today, I bet I could come up with some pretty fabulous stories to tell about my life. But isn’t that cheating?