blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Night the Moon Sang

My husband, two little boys and I had driven 7 hours north through snow and ice from Connecticut to Maine to see his favorite cousin, Susan. She and her family were house-sitting in a large, lovely 18th Century sea-captain’s home whose sloping lawn stretched down to an inlet of the sea.
The whole world was electric blue in the twilight when we piled out of the VW and waded the last few feet of their driveway. We stomped our feet to get rid of snow in the unheated mud room. The kitchen was wood fire piecemeal hot, and Susan was belatedly beginning to work on a sink full of dishes. The family lived for the winter in a few downstairs rooms, and kept the pipes warm for the owners, who were off sailing in the tropics, very upscale and almost unimaginable to us. Sue’s husband was a potter, and while he made beautiful things, from dinner services to exotic display pieces, they were not exactly flush with cash. Beans or spaghetti and homemade bread were probably supper that night; I don’t remember. It was Susan’s birthday, so she’d made a delicious, heavy, scratch chocolate cake, and I’d brought up Grandma Carol’s family famous “Cowboy Cookies.”
Night grew deeper. Finally, the kid cousins were extinguished, the adults all talked out. We retired to couches and sleeping bags. It was cold as the hinges of the 9th Circle of Hell in any room not heated by a woodstove, an utterly clear, dark sky, starry night—at least, until the full moon got up over the tall black pines. Then it was like day out-of-doors, the moon balefully glittering down on those crisp, fresh pillows of snow. Susan and I had agreed to wake up later, because we’d consulted the almanac and learned that there was to be a lunar eclipse around 1 a.m. It was the night between our birthdays—mine would be tomorrow. We were a kindred pair of magical-mystery-tour women, both Pisces in the cusp, and not about to miss such a grand celestial side-show.
Exhausted from carbohydrates and driving , I’d fallen into a deep sleep, but in what seemed to be only a few minutes, I heard Susan urgently whispering.
“Juliet! Get up! Get Up!”
I sat up groggily. I could see her quite well with the moonlight pouring in the windows; it was amazingly bright.
“Get your boots and get downstairs—quick—quick--hurry!”
I did as she asked, for she sounded almost desperate, as if something was terribly wrong. Not only that, but she enforced the idea by rushing out of the room as soon as she finished speaking. I heard her feet going down the stairs rapidly. I got my boots on and followed, fast as I could. When I reached the kitchen, there she was, my coat in hand.
“Is it the eclipse? What’s up?”
“Come on—quick! You have to hear this! It’s crazy!”
I threw the coat on and followed her out the door. The first breath, as we stood on the back steps, froze my nose and made me choke. It must have been zero—or lower—outside. She gestured upward toward the moon, sailing high now over the forbidding, snow robed pines.
As we stood there, trembling, it acquired a halo of dull red as the eclipse began. The weighted branches of the pines randomly cracked. I had an odd feeling inside my head; I seemed to be looking up through water. Next came a kind of hum, a low tone that reverberated through the scene, and then I heard sweet round tones, like a flute or an electronic instrument, ring across the sleeping, snow shrouded land and across the icy ocean at the bottom of the hill.
The veiled moon grew redder; the sweet little song repeated. Susan grabbed me by the shoulder.
“Do you hear it? Do you?”
“Yes! Yes! What on earth…?” I kept looking up and down and side to side to see if anything was different, but nothing else in this reality appeared unusual.
“Thank God!” Susan giggled. It was a beautiful melodic –and normal--sound. “I thought I’d completely lost it.”
Well, when the “singing” stopped, we went back inside and attempted to wake our respective spouses, but that was hopeless. Neither of them wanted to leave the warmth of their beds—besides, they knew that the two Pisces women were engaged in some weird, annoying folie à deux.
Now if you are thinking about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, go right ahead. Our brush with the other happened in 1973, four years before Spielberg’s blockbuster. In fact, when I heard "the tones" in the movie, all the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up, as I remembered the night the moon sang to Susan and me.

~~ Juliet Waldron

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self-portrait, 1800

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (Marie Élisabeth Louise; 16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842)
was a French painter, and is recognized as the most important female painter of the 18th century. Her style is generally considered Rococo and shows interest in the subject of neoclassical painting. Vigée Le Brun cannot be considered a pure Neoclassist, however, in that she creates mostly portraits in Neoclassical dress rather than the History painting. In her choice of color and style while serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun is purely Rococo.

Early life

Born in Paris on 16 April 1755, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée was the daughter of a portraitist and fan painter, Louis Vigée, from whom she received her first instruction. Her mother was a hairdresser.[1] She was sent to live with relatives in Épernon until the age of 6 when she entered a convent where she remained for five years. Her father died when she was 12 years old following an infection from surgery to remove a fish bone lodged in his throat. In 1768, her mother married a wealthy jeweler, Jacques-Francois Le Sèvre and the family moved to the rue Saint-Honoré close to the Palais Royal. She was later patronised by the wealthy heiress Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon, wife of Philippe Égalité. During this period Louise Élisabeth benefited by the advice of Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Joseph Vernet, and other masters of the period.
By the time she was in her early teens, Louise Élisabeth was painting portraits professionally. After her studio was seized, for practising without a license, she applied to the Académie de Saint Luc, which unwittingly exhibited her works in their Salon. On 25 October 1783, she was made a member of the Académie.

Madame Le Sèvre, 1772, fashionable hairdresser in Paris, 
née Jeanne Maissin (1728-1800), mother of 
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842)

I'm going to interject my own comment here.  Of her works that are online, I could only find one portrait of an older woman (her mother) that was painted by Louise Élisabeth.  Much is made of her history as one of Marie Antoinette's favored artists. And comments are made that her likenesses aren't "good" (too flattering, is the consensus) - because her father died and she was largely self-taught.  No apparent appreciation of the fact that she was a highly successful and popular portrait painter without Daddy's help! 

And keep in mind that this woman was literally working during the "off with her head!" time period.  Clearly, one would be wise to flatter rich young women who are paying to have their portraits painted.  And frankly, I don't think she was overly flattering of Marie.  Actually, the young queen did much to help Louise Élisabeth.   But as history shows, the biggest threat to a painter much favored by the Queen of France was not from her patrons but the guillotine. 

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette en chemise, portrait of the queen in a "muslin" dress, 
by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783). This controversial portrait was 
viewed by her critics to be improper for a queen.

On 7 August 1775 she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer. (Her husband's great uncle was Charles Le Brun, first Director of the French Academy under Louis XIV.) Vigée Le Brun painted portraits of many of the nobility of the day and as her career blossomed, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette. So pleased was the queen that during a period of six years, Vigée Le Brun would paint more than thirty portraits of the queen and her family, leading to her being commonly viewed as the official portraitist of Marie Antoinette. Whilst of benefit during the reign of the Bourbon royals, this label was to prove problematic later.
On 12 February 1780, Vigée Le Brun gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Julie Louise, whom she called "Julie".

Self-portrait with her daughter Julie, 1786

In 1781 she and her husband toured Flanders and the Netherlands where seeing the works of the Flemish masters inspired her to try new techniques. There, she painted portraits of some of the nobility, including the Prince of Nassau.
On 31 May 1783, Vigée Le Brun was accepted as a member of France's Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. She submitted numerous portraits along with an allegorical history painting which she considered her morceau de réception—La Paix qui ramène l'Abondance (Peace Bringing Back Prosperity). The Academy did not place her work within an academic category of type of painting—history or portraiture.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard also was admitted on the same day. The admission of Vigée Le Brun was opposed on the grounds that her husband was an art dealer, but eventually they were overruled by an order from Louis XVI because Marie Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband on behalf of her painter. In 1789, she was succeeded as court painter to Marie Antoinette by Alexander Kucharsky.

French Revolution

After the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution Vigée Le Brun fled France with her young daughter Julie. She lived and worked for some years in Italy, Austria, and Russia, where her experience in dealing with an aristocratic clientele was still useful. In Rome, her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca.
In Russia, she was received by the nobility and painted numerous aristocrats including the last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski and members of the family of Catherine the Great. Although the French aesthetic was widely admired in Russia there remained some cultural differences in what was deemed acceptable. Catherine was not initially happy with Vigée Le Brun's portrait of her granddaughters, Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna, due to the area of bare skin the short sleeved gowns revealed. In order to please the Empress, Vigée Le Brun added sleeves giving the work its characteristic look. This tactic seemed effective in pleasing Catherine as she agreed to sit herself for Vigée Le Brun (although Catherine died of a stroke before this work was due to begin).[2]

Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna, painted during Vigée Le Brun's time in St Petersburg.

While in Saint Petersburg, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. Much to Vigée Le Brun's dismay, her daughter Julie married a Russian nobleman.[3]
After a sustained campaign by her ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, Vigée Le Brun was finally able to return to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. In spite of being no longer labeled as émigrée, her relationship with the new regime was never totally harmonious, as might be expected given that she was a strong royalist and the former portraitist of Marie Antoinette.
Much in demand by the élite of Europe, she visited England at the beginning of the 19th century and painted the portrait of several British notables including Lord Byron. In 1807 she traveled to Switzerland and was made an honorary member of the Société pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva.
She published her memoirs in 1835 and 1837, which provide an interesting view of the training of artists at the end of the period dominated by royal academies. Her portrait of fellow neoclassical painter, Hubert Robert, is in Paris at Musée National du Louvre.
Still very active with her painting in her fifties, she purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the war in 1814. She stayed in Paris until her death on 30 March 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home.
Her tombstone epitaph states "Ici, enfin, je repose…" (Here, at last, I rest…).
Vigée Le Brun left a legacy of 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. In addition to private collections, her works may be found at major museums, such as Hermitage Museum, London's National Gallery, in Europe and the United States.


  1. ^ CyberPathways Art World
  2. ^ Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: the odyssey of an artist in an age of revolution/Gita May
  3. ^ CyberPathways Art World
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Lebrun, Souvenirs, Paris, 1835–1837 (translated by Lionel Strachey, New York, 1903).


I'm not crazy about this mini-bio because it leaves so many questions unanswered for me. But I have to say, this was one strong, gutsy woman!  She made it out of France alive, worked and supported herself and her daughter - alone in foreign countries - for several years.  What happened to her mother?  And why the reference to an ex-husband, who helps get her off the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, and  back into France?
Did he divorce her to save her life? Divorce was unheard of (if not impossible) in Catholic France until after the revolution.  And why did he stay and then campaign for her return?  It seems to me I'm going to be reading this woman's memoirs. Forget Marie Antoinette! As much as I found Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006) fun and fascinating, as I said, I think there's quite a story about a strong woman lurking in this sketch.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Grief, The Great Yearning

From fellow Second Wind Author, Pat Bertram, a personal and beautiful meditation upon one of the toughest things about the Crone-Age, which is that Death becomes our constant companion. We open a newspaper and read the Obits, perhaps for the first time in our lives, and see the names of friends, family, and our own husbands and wives who have fallen into the past.

Connect with Pat at


Death came in the spring.
At the beginning of March 2010, the doctors said that Jeff, my life mate—my soul mate—had inoperable kidney cancer and that he had six months to live. He had only three weeks. We’d spent thirty-four years together, and suddenly I was alone, unprepared, and totally devastated. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the wreckage of my life. It wasn’t just he who died but “we.” There was no more “us,” no more shared plans and dreams and private jokes. There was only me.
Other losses compounded the misery. I had to sort through the accumulation of decades, dismantle what was left of our life, move from our home. We bereft are counseled not to make major changes during the first year after a significant loss—one’s thinking processes become muddled, leaving one prey to faulty logic and rash decisions—but I needed to go stay with my father for a while. Although he was doing well by himself, he was 93 years old, and it wasn’t wise for him to continue living alone.
I relocated from cool mountain climes to the heat of a southwestern community. Lost, heartbroken, awash in tears, I walked for hours every day beneath the cloudless sky, finding what comfort I could in the simple activity. During one such walk, I turned down an unfamiliar city street, and followed it . . . into the desert.
I was stunned to find myself in a vast wilderness of rocky knolls, creosote bushes, cacti, rabbits, lizards, and snakes. I’d been to the area several times during my mother’s last few months, but I’d spent little time outside. I hated the heat, the constant glare of the sun, the harsh winds. After Jeff died, however, that bleak weather, that bleak terrain seemed to mirror my inner landscape. Wandering in the desert, crying in the wilderness, I tried to find meaning in all that had happened. I didn’t find it, of course. How can there be meaning in the painful, horrific death of a 63-year-old man? I didn’t find myself, either. It was too soon for me to move on, to abandon my grief. I felt as if I’d be negating him and the life we led.
What I did find was the peace of the moment.
Children, most of whom know little of death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they can—it’s all they have. The bereft, who know too much about death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they must—it’s the only way they can survive.
During the first year after Jeff’s death, I lived as a child—moment to moment, embracing my grief, trying not to think about the future because such thoughts brought panic about growing old alone, trying not to think about the past because such thoughts reminded me of all I had lost.
And so went the seasons of my soul. The spring of death gave way to the summer of grief, and grief flowed into the fall and winter of renewal.
As I struggled to get through that first year of grief, I wrote blog posts, letters to Jeff, journal entries, anything to help me stay in the moment, and afterward, I compiled the best of my grief writings into a book called Grief, The Great Yearning, which has been released by Second Wind Publishing. Our society seems to value cheerfulness at all costs, and I wanted to let people know that sometimes those costs are too high. It’s important to grieve but it’s also important to know you are not alone in your grief. Whatever you feel, others have felt. Whatever seemingly crazy thing you do to bring yourself comfort, others have done. And, as impossible as it is to imagine now, you will survive.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Great Yearning and four novels --- Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.  At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ethyl: 1976-1988

Her name was Ethyl—the perfect name for a battered redhead well past her prime but still up for adventure.

The year was 1986. I was a freshly minted journalism grad who had relied on Chicago public transportation to get from my apartment in Evanston to school, work and socializing in the city and never thought she’d need to drive again. But after I landed my dream job as a beat reporter at Chicago’s legendary City News Bureau, I knew I’d have to relinquish my CTA tokens for an ignition key. I needed a cheap, reliable beater, and fast.
The solution came from my high-school buddy Georgia and her motorhead husband Mike. The car in question was a 1976 Chevy Nova, orange, with well over 150,000 miles on her odometer. Georgia had driven the car for several years but was finally in a position to upgrade. Mike was constantly working on it and could vouch for its reliability. Asking price? $350. Done.

I’m not big on naming things, but just looking at the rust-scabby redhead with the torn black-and-white checked cloth upholstery evoked the name Ethyl—a play on words referring to both the old lead additive to gasoline and my high-school principal, Sister Ethel. She was loose-limbed and well broken in—the car, not the nun—with manual steering and a windshield that leaked around the edges in a heavy rain, giving the interior a distinctive musty smell.
Ethyl and I immediately started a drivers’ ed crash refresher with my father—a guy with a serious history behind the wheel (a novel in itself, involving both his activities as a wheelman for some nefarious West Side Chicago characters and the Bronze Star in World War II). In the two weeks before I started the job, the old man rode shotgun while I struggled with parallel parking, overcame my expressway phobia and practically wore out the little blue-and-white “Chicago Streets” book that listed all the city’s byways. By the time I started the job, I was as ready as I’d ever be.

City News was a baptism by fire for a suburban kid and reporting newbie, and Ethyl was the perfect accomplice to my adventures. She waited at the curb as I tailed Mayor Harold Washington and various Chicago pols and celebrities (Adlai Stevenson Jr., former Mayor Jane Byrne, Irv Kupcinet, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) as a regular part of my rounds. She was a regular fixture in the parking lot of the old District 20 police headquarters at California and Pershing. In those pre-cell days, I used the phones to call bereaved families for comments on dead loved ones, checked with the coroner’s office for gory details, called in stories to persnickety editors, and got endless good-natured grief from Chicago’s Finest. She nervously waited on the street when I accidently got locked into a West Side community center after hours on a Saturday night. And I had to rescue her one day when she was towed from a downtown street. My efforts to free her from the auto pound in the labyrinthine bowels of lower Wacker took on the desperation of Dante in one of the Seven Circles.
In our free time, Ethyl transported me and my favorite drinking buddy Eileen to a myriad of locations—from Joe Danno’s fabled speakeasy Bucket O’ Suds, to the then-funky Higgins Tap, to the Sunset Inn on Cermak in Berwyn to the dive bar attached to Dino’s Pizzeria in Norwood Park.

Ethyl was as far from high maintenance as a gal could be. My old man and his buddy Lou were constantly tinkering with her, replacing her innards as they wore out with parts scavenged from their Sunday morning sojourns to Maxwell Street. As a result, she was the healthiest, if not most attractive beater on the streets.
But finally, inevitably, our days together drew to a close after Ethyl got a fatal transmission diagnosis and I got another job and was making enough to buy an almost-new Chevy Cavalier.

She was a fighter until the end. She was still running when my old man managed to sell her at a neighborhood gas station for $350—the same price I’d paid for her two years earlier.
Requiescat in pace, old girl.