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Wood engraving after Le Brun’s crayon sketch of The Marquise de Brinvilliers on her Way to Execution

MBB 3.3 Le Brun Le Marquise de Brinvilliers wikimedia.jpg

MBB 3.3. Charles Le Brun, crayon sketch of La Marquise de Brinvilliers on her Way to Execution, 1676, The Louvre.

Although Charles Le Brun was best known for his grand history paintings and the royal palace of Versailles, he addressed a great variety of subjects both before and after he became “Premier Peintre du Roi.”  Among the works displayed at the commemorative 1963 Le Brun exhibition at Versailles were The Passage of Granicus and two of its preparatory drawings, studies of a camel and the head of a Persian soldier reminiscent of Melville’s etching by della Bella, and the crayon sketch that Le Brun made of La Marquise de Brinvilliers on her Way to Execution in 1676 for having poisoned members of her family (Montagu and Thuillier, cats. 30-32, 126, 138, and 151).

Le Brun’s crayon sketch was a likely inspiration for the poem entitled “The Marchioness of Brinvilliers” that Melville published in Timoleon in 1891. 

He toned the sprightly beam of morning
With twilight meek of tender eve,
Brightness interfused with softness,
    Light and shade did weave:
And gave to candor equal place
With mystery starred in open skies;
And, floating all in sweetness, made
    Her fathomless mild eyes. (NN PP 285)

In 1964, Hennig Cohen was the first to suggest that the “the language of the poem and its point of view” may have been inspired by a particular portrait of its subject. Melville “may have remembered a crayon sketch by Charles Le Brun showing the marquise on the way to the scaffold. It was prominently displayed in the Louvre” when he “visited on November 30, 1849 [and was] much remarked upon, and widely reproduced” (Selected Poems, 238-39). Cohen also noted that this poem “assumes the reader’s knowledge of a somewhat obscure personage.” The catalog entry for the 1963 Le Brun exhibition at Versailles refers to that same personage is “la célèbre empoisonneuse” (cat. 151).

Although the crayon sketch by Le Brun might have suggested the subject of Melville’s poem, the image of the poem correlates much more closely with a wood engraving after the Le Brun drawing that Samuel Otter has discovered in La Livre Rouge: Histoire de l’échafaud en France published in Paris in 1863 (fig. 1).

MBB 3.3 fig 1 Brinvilliers wood engraving of LeBrun drawing in Le Livre Rouge 1863_.jpg

Figure 1. Wood engraving by  Trouvé after design by Yan D’Argent after drawing of La Marquise de Brinvilliers by Charles Le Brun. In La Livre Rouge: Histoire de l’échafaud en France. Paris: Libraire Parisienne, 1863.

Unlike the original crayon sketch, this wood engraving by Trouvé after a design by Yan D’Argent does show the “open skies” to which Melville devotes the first six lines of his eight-line poem. Here we do see the brightness of morning interfused with a tender twilight in a weaving of light and shade such as Melville depicts in the poem. Here the “fathomless mild eyes” of the Marquise do seem to “float” in a “sweetness” supplanting much of the anguish Le Brun had depicted on the execution day nearly two hundred years before.

  • Works cited for this entry:
  • Cohen, Hennig. Selected Poems of Herman Melville. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991; originally published by Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.
  • Montagu, J. and J. Thuillier. Charles Le Brun, 1619-1690. Chateau de Versailles, July 1-October 1963.