It was one of those dreary days when gray flannel clouds blanketed the sky and errant raindrops pattered against my window, harbingers of the deluge that was to come. The children were at school. The dog was stretched out on the wood floor, her legs twitching as she no doubt dreamt of chasing seagulls on the lonely stretch of beach we often claimed as our own.
Though I had laundry to fold and manuscript pages to revise, the quiet house and approaching storm set a scene more conducive for reading than working. With the the rain still pattering and the dog still twitching, I decided to abandon my tasks. I grabbed a stack of books from my nightstand and took refuge upon the cushions of my favorite overstuffed toile chair.
At the top of my "To Be Read" stack was the slender biography Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution by Gita May. I looked at the lovely woman with the flushed cheeks and inquisitive gaze depicted on the cover and decided she would be the perfect companion to brighten my otherwise dreary morning.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name, Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun was an extremely gifted artist and and one of the first women admitted to the esteemed Academie Royale in France. Her superlative talent made her the most sought after portraitist in eighteenth century Europe.
I have had a curious, one might say serendipitous, relationship with Madame Vigee Le Brun. We met in the summer of 1978. I was an energetic, inquisitive ten year old; a latchkey kid with far too much unsupervised time at my disposal with which to create mischief. Besides watching television, collecting soda cans to turn in for change to buy Butterfingers and superballs, and playing ding-dong ditch, one of my favorite pastimes was to ride my bike to to the local library where I would lose myself in the world of books...oh, and pester Shirley, the librarian. Shirley was a sweet-face African-American woman who always wore a fascinating little magnifying glass on a gold chain around her neck (which she once let me look through).
Shirley was usually patient with me but on this particular day she seemed frazzled and distracted.
"I don't have the time for your nonsense today, child," she said, seizing a book from her cart. "Here, go read this. It's about a queen who gets her head chopped off. You'll like it."
I took the book but only after peppering Shirley with a few questions.
Why don't you have time to talk to me? (She explained that she was leaving the next day to visit family in Jamaica and had a lot of work to do before then.)
Where is Jamaica? (She said it was an island, far away, surrounded by the bluest waters anyone had ever seen.)
Where's your magnifying glass? (At this point, she glared at me and released a rather violent sigh. It was a look I had seen on the faces of many other adults. I knew I was hanging on her last nerve so I took the proffered book and asked one last question.)
Will you send me a postcard? (She said yes but I never received it. Sadly, Shirley did not return to the library and the woman who took her place was not nearly as patient. Worse, she smelled like mothballs and did not wear a magnifying glass around her neck. But I digress...)
So, I checked the book out, hopped on my bike, and headed over to the donut stand. After purchasing two chocolate long johns and a carton of milk (Are you noticing my predilection for sugary treats?), I settled myself onto a counter stool to learn more about the business of the queen and her missing head.
By the time I finished reading that day, the clouds had parted, the sun was shining again, and I had a deeper appreciation for the talent and resilience of Vigee Le Brun (and the power of serendipity). A prolific and tireless artist, she produced hundreds of portraits of some of the most famous and infamous people of her time (including Madame du Barry, Lady Hamilton, and Catherine the Great). Somehow, she managed to create masterpieces in the midst of personal misfortune and survive a Revolution.