Madame Herbelin: A Miniaturist of the Second Empire


   Young people of my generation who have only known Mme Herbelin in her secluded, charming and discreet old age, could never imagine, because of the extent to which she has preferred to cast a melancholy veil over her brilliant past, that this old lady, so lively, so gentle, so unaffected, had taken part in the most sumptuous life, the most brilliant society of the July monarchy and the Second Empire. They would have never discovered from the lady herself that she had been one of the most accomplished and original painters of the era - because she was profoundly modest. In the end this modesty had made her appear as a sad, almost anxious character: she seemed to doubt in her final years the value of those miniatures which, however, remain not only as documents of the first order of an already far distant age, but also amongst the most seductive and the most exquisite examples of a difficult and delightful art. A portrait such as that of Mme Andryane, which is owned by the Luxembourg museum, is in no way inferior to the most beautiful miniatures of Mme de Mirbel1 and Isabey2; and for our part we acknowledge that we enjoy it as a most tasteful composition, in its restrained vigour, in its unexpected and charming colouring.
   Any of our readers who have not visited prince d'Essling's collection will at least be familiar, through the reproductions that have been made of them (notably those that illustrate M. Armand Dayot's book on the Second Empire), with the famous miniatures by Mme Herbelin which depict Her Imperial Highness Eugénie and the Imperial Prince. We could also cite the portraits of Isabey, Eugène Délacroix, Rossini, Guizot, Rosa Bonheur, Dumas the Elder and Dumas the Younger. Before becoming her models all these prominent personalities of the day were regular guests at her salon. Alongside these one could also have seen Merimée, Guizot, Thiers, Émile Augier, Eugène Lami, Hébert, Gounod, Baudry there. If one succeeded in making Mme Herbelin talk about the distinguished men of genius, who loved to meet at her house, her conversation became instructive and piquant like reading authentic memoirs, memoirs which would have a remarkable quality in that the author would tell us a great deal about others, yet never talk about herself. Moreover her memories dated back even further than the generation of which she would remain the faithful and charming painter. Daughter of Baron Habert, who had been a volunteer in 1792, lieutenant-general in 1811 and governor of Barcelona during the Spanish campaign, she had brought back from the very fountain-head the still living tales from that imperial age in which her father had played no little part. She herself was born in 1818 in Brunoy. Her first debuts had been brilliant and rapid. At the age of thirty she was awarded the grand medal of the Universal Exhibition, alongside Rosa Bonheur. She had preserved a charming memory of the "Award Winners' Dinner" which was given that day at Saint-Cloud by the Emperor on the 2nd of August 1853. For many years she exhibited regularly at the Salon, always with great success.
   Then the time for her retirement called to her, and she liked to spend long hours behind her casement windows which looked out over the lilacs in her garden, still, silent and expressive, like one of those charming old miniatures to which she put her name and which we "love to look at in their oval frames". But she had, to adorn her long old age, a subject of which she was justly proud: her two nieces, near to whom she had gone to live in her retirement, who she cherished and cared for until her final hours as if they had been her daughters, and who, in fact, were none other than Mme Madeleine Lemaire and Mlle Suzette Lemaire.
   Thus she was able to see, in younger hands, the torch of art transmitted and protected with incomparable brilliance.
   Mme Madeleine Lemaire's fame and Mlle Suzette Lemaire's rare and exquisite reputation filled her final years with sweetness and pride. She had a profound admiration for them which has been confirmed over the years by the public and by connoisseurs alike.


First published in La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 23 April 1904.

1. Lizinka-Aimée-Zoé de Mirbel (1796 - 1849) French miniaturist.

2. Jean Baptiste Isabey (1767 - 1855) French painter.

Return to Front Page