Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was an extraordinarily talented painter of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Ken Craigside has recently written a play about her being commissioned to paint likenesses of Ben Franklin, the Chevalier D’ Eon, and Marie Antoinette.

He’s had to cut out this wonderful monologue (in rhymed couplets) he wrote for a portrait of George Sand to be delivered over a piano piece played by Frederick Chopin while Elizabeth paints. It celebrates a woman who, taking on a male name and mode of dress, dashingly succeeded in what would be viewed as a man’s world. As Ken says, “And many Macaronis have also done that, at least in terms of name (and skill).”

Etude Au Nu

You’ve painted, he’s played,
For most of this week,
Yet I’ve heard every word
That you two did not speak.

The slap of your brush,
And the plunk of his keys,
The sigh as you paint,
His cough…and his wheeze.

You asked for my silence.
Let him play, let you paint.
But I itch to scratch silence,
With a spoken complaint:

Of the fact that his music
Can say more with a phrase,
Or you with a line
And a daub or a glaze,
Than a writer could write
Were he writing for days.

Delacroix painted us,
Monsieur Chopin and me.
Dear Frederic played music,
While I sat at his knee.

Chou-Chou had the light.
I sank in the shade.
Mere woman enraptured
By a glow quite man-made.

But now I have the light,
And you paint in the shade,
While He plays out of sight,
As MY portrait is made.

My gender engendered in such gentlemanly ways.

He plays.

You paint.
And I…repose.

He hears.
And let’s us hear love songs.

You see.
And let us see loveliness.

But I feel…everything…and try with all my heart to craft those feelings into words.

Delacroix, in the mode,
Paints society’s cream,
Just as you did, my dear,
For the Ancient Regime.

You might wonder, Elisabeth,
Why I chose you to portray
Madame George Sand
Dressed up in this way.

With Delacroix handy,
Why take you off the shelf?
Well, remember the portrait
Which you made of your self?

I can still see that girl
In a white cotton dress,
Uncoifed, unaccoutred,
In a way that says “yes,
If a portrait needs doing,
I’ll do it the best.”

You crafted your image
In paint with a frame.
While I crafted mine
With clothes and a name.

And you wrote, in your memoirs,
Which I’ve avidly scanned,
That your sitters’ apparels
Were most carefully planned.

That a face and a posture
Could give keys to one’s soul,
But the subject’s own costume
Might best speak of one’s goal.

So…my cigar and top hat,
My long pants and strong nose.
Can you paint truth, my dear,
Of such items as those?

Women’s clothes
Are our virginal fortress.
Bodice guarding our breasts,
Skirts girding our loins,
Veils shrouding our manes.

Donning our dresses in hopes of addresses
That change Mademoiselle to Madame.

Men’s clothes
Allow them to climb mountains.
Allow riding astride;
Legs grabbing the saddle,
Hands grasping the reigns.

At my Grandma’s chateau,
Every girl that I knew
Wore her brother’s old pants,
When out riding she’d go.
It wasn’t risqué.
Just the smart thing to do.

For we found, as we rode
With our legs round the horse,
As we raced up each hill
With the wind in our hair,
That we might, that we could,
That we would, that we will!

And then, as a woman,
When Paris I’d visit,
I found it constraining
To be so exquisite.
Ladies lounged in the loges,
Or the boxes above;
Restrained from the stage,
With its passion and love.
Décolletage camouflaged,
And hands hid by silk gloves.

Men’s clothes
Were a ticket of entree
To the pit and Parterre,
To a world without care
Where no one dared to stare
At a man’s somber coat.

Knowing Monsieur is Monsieur is Monsieur
Despite one’s vocation in life

Men’s clothes
Were a sort of a passport
To anonymous treats,
And the life of the streets,
Where a person might stride
` Rather than float.

So I fled from our fortress
Garbed in top hat and pants;
Free from the censure
Of propriety’s glance,
Free for life’s pleasure
And danger…and chance.

Masculine is a Mask.
That is all, just a mask.
But it says, no it shouts,
In a plain-spoken way,
That he might, that he must,
That he can, that he may!

Now you should understand,
There was never a plan
On my part, to dress up as a man.
Just a logical change,
Increasing the range,
To allow for the strange and the new.
To investigate life,
To observe human strife,
And do all that a writer must do.

Oh Elisabeth, I wanted an author’s name
There for all to see on a title page.

But it had to be, as it always was,
A man’s name inscribed on that page.

First I wrote with a man.
Jules Sandeaux was his name.
Not a lover. Those were others.
Just a hack on the wane,
But a way to give credence to covers.

When I split with Sandeaux,
Then I split Sand from eaux,
For a name I might groom,
With a George for his Jules.
Thus George Sand, give a hand
For my proud Nom de plume!

My new name.
My top hat.
My cigar.
My success.
My career!

All my books, all my plays,
Read by those who will pay.
My town house, my chateau,
And my life, with Chopin.
That I might, that I could,
That I would, that I will.
That I dared, that I did,
And I have, yes, I have!

He plays.

You paint.
And are almost finished?

I write.

My life,
Or should I say…I mold my mask?

Delacroix’s a Romantic
Who will paint what he feels
But your style, being antique,
Must concern what is real.

So here is George Sand
With her masculine mask.
And a writer’s illusion.
Is your new painter’s task.

To see past the façade?
Find the female within?
Show the mother, the lover,
The saint…and the sin?

I revere your self-portrait,
Madame Vigée-LeBrun,
Self filled with the thrill
Of heroic homespun.
That you might, that you could,
That you must and you will!

Your figure quite swathed
In that plain cotton way,
And your palette held out
Like a girl’s fresh bouquet.

But that too was a mask…
Of ambition t’would seem…
Whose viewer might bask
In the light of your dream,

Eyes aglow ‘neath the shade
Of that simple straw hat.
And I’ll hope that today
You’ve made…something like that?

That we might, that we could,
That we dared, that we did,
That we would, that we will,
That we have, yes, we have!
Oh my dear, we both have.

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