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Americans, possibly because they are exhausted from their own July the Fourth celebrations, pay relatively little attention to Bastille Day, July 14. They should give it more recognition than they do if for no other reason than to honor the huge debt that we owe to the French for supporting George Washington and his fellow revolutionaries during a crucial time in our history.
We should also be clear about another fact. The French did not support American independence because their government and king were lovers of liberty. They did so for strategic reasons. Supporting the American cause was a way of gaining an advantage over their European rival, Great Britain. Some in France also sought a trading advantage with a newly independent set of American states.
And, indeed, there were many in France who were caught up in the American ideal of freedom from monarchical power.
So, as we pass through July, let us remember the French and the role they played—for a variety of reasons—in assisting the American goal of independence. To honor this assistance, I am highlighting in this newsletter a couple of French citizens you should know about.
Avoir un merveilleux week-end. (Have a wonderful weekend.)
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Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais: a leading French supporter of the American Revolution
The French name most associated with the American Revolution is Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. Dozens of places around the U.S. bear that name, and rightly so. La Fayette crossed the ocean and joined the Continental Army, commanding troops in several battles. He was present at Yorktown when the British army finally surrendered.
But there is another French name that Americans should remember: Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais.
Beaumarchais was born in 1732, the son of a Parisian watchmaker. Growing up, he showed a talent for his father’s trade and eventually invented a device for watches that greatly increased their accuracy. His invention was stolen by Jean-André Lepaute, the royal clockmaker who claimed it as the “Lepaute system” in a letter to the French Academy. Although only 20 years old, Beaumarchais wrote a letter to Le Mercure de France pointing out the theft. An investigation by the Academy confirmed Beaumarchais’ story and vaulted him into the headlines and the conversations of high society Paris.
The story foretold much of the way Beaumarchais would live his life—full of bold strokes, creativity, controversy, and headlines.
Beaumarchais became a favorite of the royal family and performed a number of missions for them—even spying for them in England. He also designed a watch set inside a ring for the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour.
Beaumarchais’ talents went beyond politics and court life. He was an accomplished musician, tutoring the daughters of Louis XV on the harp. He was also a playwright and among other works wrote The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. These two comedies might have been completely forgotten today except for the fact that musical greats Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gioachino Rossini used them to produce two of the best known operas of the age.
Through all of the ups and downs of his life, Beaumarchais was incessantly upbeat and good-humored, even when being challenged to a duel by the husband of one of his many mistresses. His memoir, published in 1774, drew favorable reviews from the literary giants Voltaire and Goethe.
When the rumblings of revolution grew in the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s, the French did not take much convincing about where their sympathies should lay. They hated the English, not just because they had been soundly defeated during the recently completed Seven Years War, but also because the English had continued to humiliate them with their naval and military strength. The French quickly recognized that the unrest in America could offer them opportunities to weaken the English without provoking them directly into war.
The Americans understood this situation, too, and wasted little time in exploiting it. Informally, the French government had set up a shell company that funneled money, clothes, munitions, supplies, and arms to the Americans. The head of this company was Beaumarchais.
Beaumarchais, though no republican, had been charmed by the American idea of breaking away from England and saw that eventually it would happen. Even the might of the British army and navy could not keep America in the Empire’s fold if it really wanted to leave. “All sensible persons are convinced in England that the English colonies are lost to the mother country,” he wrote in 1775 during a visit to London.
In 1777, the Americans defeated the invasion of New York led by British commander John Burgoyne at Saratoga, a series of battles that resulted in the surrender of the British force under Burgoyne. The supplies that the Americans had received from Beaumarchais’ company were instrumental in that defeat, and Beaumarchais was elated. The battle had demonstrated that they could defeat the British, and that demonstration convinced the French government to openly support the rebellion.
Beaumarchais had invested part of his private fortune in the rebellion as well as brokering public funds for that purpose. Unfortunately, the Americans did not treat him as well as he treated them, and they never compensated him for what he had done or for the money he had invested.
When revolution broke out in France in 1789, Beaumarchais supported the republicans but was not above criticizing their excesses. While out of the country on a business trip in 1793, he was declared an enemy of the state and had to remain in exile until 1796. He was finally able to return to Paris safely, and he died in Paris in 1799.
Beaumarchais lived a remarkably adventurous life. He was once described as a man who “oozed through keyholes.” His importance to the American Revolution has never been properly recognized.
A note from French class (famous quotation)
Tu ne traverseras jamais l’océan si tu as peur de perdre de vue le rivage.
You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. Christopher Columbus
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: Élisabeth Le Brun, the woman who changed portrait painting
Élisabeth Vigée (later Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun) painted her first exhibited portrait sometime before 1770—a picture of her younger brother Étienne Vigée, who would later become a playwright and man of letters. She had not yet reached her fifteenth birthday.
—She had a talent for portrait painting and, more importantly, an inclination to use and develop that talent.
—She had a father who was also an artist, who doted on her, and who taught and encouraged her.
—Because of her father’s position, she had great teachers from a very early age.
—The artistic rage of her time was portrait painting. Everyone who was anyone wanted a portrait.
By the time she was fifteen (her father died when she was twelve, leaving her devastated with grief), she was supporting her family with so many portrait commissions that she barely had time to finish them. Her ascension as a French artist reached its highest levels when she became the favorite of Marie Antoinette while she was still in her twenties. She would paint more than 50 portraits of the queen, her husband, and family.
When she was 20, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, also a painter as well as an art dealer and curator. Despite the fact that in her memoirs Élisabeth had few good things to say about her husband, Le Brun opened many doors for her and most crucially took her with him on a trip to Flanders and the Netherlands in 1781. There she saw many of the paintings of the Dutch masters and especially those of Peter Paul Rubens.
Determined to apply the techniques that she had observed in the Netherlands, she returned to Paris and executed a self-portrait (Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782, seen here) on wood rather than canvas. That piece broke many of the conventions of portrait painting and caused a minor scandal. The work turned out to be highly popular, however, and she received many requests from patrons who wanted the same look she exhibited in that painting.
Her association with Marie Antoinette, which had been so important to her reputation and income, became a detriment to her safety in 1789 when a mob stormed the Bastille, setting in motion the French Revolution. Élisabeth fled France with her daughter, Julie, when the royals were arrested and began a 12-year sojourn that took her around Europe and highlighted her fame.
When Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun fled Paris with her small daughter in October 1789, she felt that her life might be in danger—and she was probably right. Élisabeth had been the unofficial portraitist for the French royal family. She had painted more than 50 portraits of them and was most especially noted for her paintings of the hated Marie Antoinette.
The king, queen, and family had been arrested by the revolutionary powers that held sway in France. The Terror had not yet begun, but many who were there saw it coming. Élisabeth was one of them. So, she set out on an arduous stagecoach journey to Italy, leaving behind her husband, many paintings, and a rich clientele.
What she had with her, in addition to her daughter and some possessions, were her reputation and, most importantly, her talent.
Élisabeth spent the next two years in various cities in Italy: Venice, Parma, Florence, and Rome among them. She taught her school of painting and again had the rich and famous for clients. Among them was Lady Emma Hamilton, the beautiful and bold mistress of Lord Nelson, who sat for several portraits and served as a model for Élisabeth to try various genres of painting
In the mid-1790s, Élisabeth traveled and lived in Austria and the German provinces, again painting portraits of those well-heeled enough to pay her prices. She continued to develop her style and technique. She produced her own pigments and paints and thus put colors on her canvases that no other artist could match. She continued to travel north, and in 1795 she found herself in Russia, where she stayed for six years. Catherine the Great commissioned her to paint a portrait of her beloved granddaughters but was highly displeased with the result, complaining that the girls’ nearly sleeveless dresses showed too much skin. Élisabeth repainted the portrait.
By 1801, Élisabeth was ready to return home to Paris, and France was ready to have her. After 12 years of exile, she found that France was less enthralled by her work than when she left. She was still able to receive commissions, and she still traveled widely because of her reputation. But the social structures had changed as well, and she found Paris less inviting. She purchased a house outside of Paris and continued to paint and exhibit her work.
Before she passed away at the age of 70, she composed a three-volume autobiography of her life, and she died in 1842 at the age of 86. During her life she produced 660 portraits and 200 landscapes, and today they hang in galleries and museums around the world.
An excellent video about her life is on Amazon Video and free to Amazon Prime members.
The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)
An entry from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce:
INCOME, n. The natural and rational gauge and measure of respectability, the commonly accepted standards being artificial, arbitrary and fallacious; for, as “Sir Sycophas Chrysolater” in the play has justly remarked, “the true use and function of property (in whatsoever it consisteth—coins, or land, or houses, or merchant-stuff, or anything which may be named as holden of right to one’s own subservience) as also of honors, titles, preferments and place, and all favor and acquaintance of persons of quality or ableness, are but to get money. Hence it followeth that all things are truly to be rated as of worth in measure of their serviceableness to that end; and their possessors should take rank in agreement thereto, neither the lord of an unproducing manor, howsoever broad and ancient, nor he who bears an unremunerate dignity, nor yet the pauper favorite of a king, being esteemed of level excellency with him whose riches are of daily accretion; and hardly should they whose wealth is barren claim and rightly take more honor than the poor and unworthy.”
A poem by Emily Dickinson
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
Elizabeth F.: Great issue, Jim. The Sacks quote sums it up very well. We need to remember that the plasticity of the brain means we are also wired with the capacity to change and go beyond beliefs fixed early. We grow in our lifelong learning. This also, I think, applies to learning wherever possible and where and how it happens. Circumstances gave me the opportunity to rethink online learning; in the past 5 years I have taken most of my continuing education to maintain professional licenses online and they have been useful, memorable, and yes, some even made me change my mind a couple of ways. Thanks!
Marcia D.: Canada just announced that they will be opening their border to people that are vaccinated.
Washington State has reached the 70% vaccination rate. We would have 100% if it wasn’t for E. Washington.
Best quote of the week:
People are like stained glass windows: they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, psychiatrist and author (1926-2004)
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The ‘Specials’ at Gettysburg, more from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and a little learning wherever we can: newsletter, July 16, 2021
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