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A Tale of Two Duchesses

The duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse
Several years ago, I visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri and discovered a portrait of Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty, the Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse by Elizabeth Vigree Le Brun. 

I have gazed upon thousands of portraits in my travels and throughout my years of research, but something about this lady's face captured me.  Perhaps it was her delicate nose, flushed cheeks, and open, expressive brown eyes that gave her an air of innocence and insouciance.

I confess, the fashionista in me coveted her black velvet jacket with the slashed sleeves.  I adored the way the sleeves were fastened to the jacket with red silk bows.  Who doesn't find an ensemble in red and black utterly dramatic and appealing?

But there was something else that drew me to the portrait, that had me standing there, gazing at it for nearly a quarter of an hour.  A familiarity that seemed to haunt me...

A Faithful Friend
I would soon learn that the Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse was one of Marie Antoinette's friends, a trusted member of her coterie.  This discovery sparked imaginations of the women strolling arm-in-arm through gardens at le hameau, pausing to inhale the perfumed aroma of a rose.

A few years after first gazing at the Duchesse's lovely face, I met a brown-haired French beauty who possessed startlingly similar expressive brown eyes and an equally delicate nose.  I felt an instant familiarity, as I had felt when gazing at the Vigee Le Brun painting.  I didn't know it then, but the French beauty would become my best friend, the most trusted member of my coterie.

But this is not another of my stories about the startling nature of serendipity.  It is not a tale of odd coincidences.

The Two Duchesses
This is a piece about two rather privileged duchesses.  One would live a long life, the other would end her privileged days with her neck in a blood spattered lunette (the moon shaped recess where victims of the guillotine would place their neck).  Both would witness unspeakable violence.

After discovering Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun's portrait of Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty, I found myself wanting to know more about the pretty duchesse.  Naturally, I turned to Souvenirs: The Memoirs of Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun. 

The artist confessed that she had a prejudice against hair powder and went on to write, "I persuaded the lovely Duchesse de Grammont-Caderousse not to wear any when she was painted.  Her hair was as black as night, and I parted it in front and arranged it in careless locks.  After my seance, which finished at dinner-time, the Duchesse did not alter her head-dress, and went to the theater without altering it.  Such a pretty woman setting the fashion caused it soon to become popular."


I noticed that Vigee Le Brun spelled the duchesse's name Grammont and not Gramont, as had been printed on the plaque in the museum.  With no disrespect intended toward the venerated curators at the Nelson-Atkins, I assumed they had spelled the duchesse's name wrong and elected to continue my research for the Duchesse de Grammont-Caderousse - with two M's.

Vigee Le Brun does not mention the lovely duchesse again, so I turned to Simon Schama's Citizens.  Then, on page 827, I read something that made my heart drop.

"Sharing their tumbril were the Princesse de Lubomirski, the Duchesses de Chatelet and de Grammont..."

Grammont.  Spelled with two M's.

If the Duchesse de Grammont had been in a tumbril (a cart used to transport the condemned to the guillotine), she had surely died during the Revolution.  I shuddered to imagine that sweet-faced woman, with her basket of fruits and flowers, a victim of such a horrific death.  I imagined her red satin slippers slipping on the blood soaked sawdust, her wide eyes glistening with tears. 

The image filled me with an incomprehensible melancholia. 

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), there were two duchesses of similar name.  The Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse and the Duchesse de Grammont (also, confusingly, spelled Gramont, with one M).

A little more sleuthing and I learned the Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty, AKA the Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse, was not the duchesse in the tumbril.

The Duchesse de Gramont
The Other Duchesse Gramont
The lady who - on a bright Spring day in 1794 - found herself an unfortunate occupant in a rough wooden cart, crushed between a haughty princess and a trembling duchesse, was none other than Béatrix de Choiseul-Stainville, duchesse de Grammont Béatrix was not nearly as lovely as Marie-Gabrielle.  Her portrait was not painted by Vigee Le Brun but by Alexander Roslin, an eighteenth century Swedish court painter. 

Less-than-lovely Béatrix was the wife of the duc de Gramont and the daughter of François Joseph de Choiseul, marquis de Stainville, a diplomat.  She is mentioned in the memoirs of the lothario, soldier, and politician, Armand Louis de Gontaut-Biron, the duc de Lauzun.  (In fact, Lauzun once fancied himself in love with Beatrix).   Madame de Grammont is mentioned in twenty different passages in Lauzun's Memoirs. 

She was also a member of Marie Antoinette's inner-circle, having proved her loyalty early on in a skirmish with Madame du Barry that had tongues all around Versailles wagging!  One night at the theater, Béatrix refused to make room for Marie Antoinette's rival, Madame du Barry.  The king's mistress complained and had Béatrix banished from court.  Marie Antoinette appealed to her grandfather-in-law and Béatrix was allowed to return.

If one searches, there are quite a few references to the Duchesse de Grammont/Gramont (for it is spelled both ways) in various contemporary memoirs and letters.

This less-than-lovely duchesse made a mark that the passage of time did little to erase.


The Elusive Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse
Vigee Le Brun's lovely duchesse, with almond shaped eyes and slightly parted lips as if in the throes of a self-conscious smile, proves to be far more elusive.  Time, it would seem, has nearly obliterated her mark.

She was born in Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty in 1760.  She married André Joseph Hippolyte de Gramont-Vacheres, the duc de Gramont-Caderousse in February of 1779.  The duc, her husband, was Lord of Cap-Cornu, governor of La Tour-de-Crest, and a Knight of Malta.  They had four children.  From her family tree, I learned three of her children grew to adulthood and had children of their own.  She died on April 24, 1832 at the Château de Caderousse.

There are no memoirs detailing her exploits through Europe or her dangerous liaisons with dashing lotharios.  I could unearth no clues as to how she survived the bloody Revolution that took the lives of her king, queen, and the other Duchesse de Grammont.

Her portrait is her enduring mark.  Her secrets lie hidden in her dreamy gaze.  Her slightly parted lips tease us with tales that will not be told...

Vigee Le Brun's portrait of the duchesse de
Gramont-Caderousse in the fabulous
Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.
Shot yesterday by Leah Marie Brown.


CLICK HERE TO VIEW A LARGE, DETAILED IMAGE OF VIGEE LE BRUN'S PAINTING OF THE DUCHESSE DE GRAMONT-CADEROUSSE

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