Monday, 19 February 2018

A lost dream: Madame de Sérilly


Society portraits from the 1780s, of that generation soon to be torn apart by Revolution, have a special poignancy.  Here, captured by Houdon, is Madame de Sérilly, aged seventeen or eighteen, beautiful, poised and forever unconscious of what was to come. In 1793 Mme de Sérilly was among those indicted with Madame Élisabeth, her life saved only because, thanks to the quick thinking of her cousin Mme de Montmorin, she had been able to declare herself pregnant.

Less than a year later Mme de Sérilly was famously to testify  at Fouquier-Tinville's trial.  The historian Henri Wollin remarked, that she appeared "like an apparition from another world, come to bear witness against the Public prosecutor."  Brandishing her own death certificate, she declared that she had been saved only because she had been declared pregnant;  "I saw my husband there," she announced, indicating the bench of the accused, "where today I can see his assassins and his  executioners".
Wallon, Histoire du Tribunal révolutionnaire de Paris, vol.III (1881) p.422
See: John Wilson Croker, Essays on the...French Revolution (1857) p.501:
"We know not that there is anything in the imaginary drama finer than the appearance of this widowed lady, still young, standing in that awful place, and exclaiming, with outstretched hand:J'ai vu LÀ mon mari - J'y vois aujourd'hui ses bourreaux. 

 Madame de Sérilly, née Anne-Marie Louise Thomas de Domangeville (born Paris, 24th August  1762) was the daughter of the general Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas Thomas, seigneur de Domangeville, baron de Mareuil. On 14th October 1779, whilst still at school in the fashionable convent of Panthemont in the rue de Bellechasse , she had married her cousin and guardian Antoine Jean François Mégret de Sérilly, baron de Theil, then thirty-three years old.   It was a highly advantageous match.

The Mégret de Sérilly family epitomised the new liberal aristocracy of finance and government office  in late 18th-century France  - a society fabulously wealthy, sustained by a complex of interrelated dynasties. Originally noblesse de robe from Saint-Quentin in the Aisne, the family was monied, influential and well-connected.  In 1719 the grandfather, François-Nicolas Mégret had acquired the estate of Passy in the Yonne and the seigneuries of Sérilly and d'Etigny in Bourgogne (traditionally the older son took the title "de Sérilly" and the younger "d'Etigny"). His son, Jean Nicolas Mégret, seigneur de Sérilly, became avocat royal,  then in 1750 intendant of Alsace;  his wife was the oldest daughter of Guillaume-François Joly de Fleury, procureur général of the Parlement of Paris. A sister married Jean Pâris de Montmartel, youngest of the four Pâris brothers.  

Subsequently the inheritance passed to Antoine Mégret d'Etigny, the "intendant" who, with monies from his father-in-law Jean-Baptiste Thomas de Pange, was able to buy the offices of conseiller au Parlement and and maître des requêtes, and subsequently became intendant of Auch and Pau,earning for himself a reputation as an enlightened administrator. In 1767, the inheritance passed to Antoine,who from 1772
 enjoyed the important and lucrative office of Treasurer General at the War Office, at first concurrently with his maternal uncle, then in his own right.

The hôtel Mégret de Serilly, now 106 rue Vieille du Temple
The family's Parisian residence, the beautiful 17th-century hôtel Mégret de Sérilly, in the rue Vieille du Temple, had been acquired by Jean-Baptiste Thomas de Pange in 1765. By the late 18th-century the Marais was no longer the most fashionable district of Paris but Sérilly, who purchased the property in his own name in 1775, had the interior remodelled by Jean-Simeon Rousseau de la Rottière in the height of modern taste.  By a strange quirk of fate, the little boudoir designed for Madame by the Rousseau brothers, survives intact in the collections of the V. & A. (see below).  With its intimate scale and seductive cream and gold decor, it epitomised the new aesthetic of informality and conviviality.  "Life at the mansion in the early 1780s", writes Olivier Blanc, "was a dazzling, never-ending round of revelry, accompanied by illuminated displays amidst the flowers blooming in the magnificent, newly-replanted gardens."  During the summer months, the couple moved to the Mégret de Sérilly family seat at Passy, a château lavishly renovated and redecorated by Brongniart and Chevotet at enormous cost. (Blanc, Mansions of Paris, 1998) 

The memoirs of  Dufort de Cheverny paints this portrait of Sérilly and his social circle in Paris at this time:

 [M. de Sérilly was] virtuous, likeable, sensitive and endowed with all the qualities of a gentleman; munificent, magnificent,  well versed in every respect and brought up in a state of luxury bordering on the prodigal.  He had married mademoiselle de Domangeville, his cousin, and he lived in a superb house, in the rue Vieille-du-Temple, opposite Les Égouts, with his mother, the most respected of women, the sister of M. Thomas de Pange, and with his brother Mégret d'Étigny,  an esteemed officer in the Guards.  It was not a house which was open to everyone.  I was introduced by his colleague Boullongne and the company suited me in every respect....
Mémoires du comte Dufort de Cheverny, vol. 1 (1886), p.386

 I lived in intimacy with Sérilly and his family.  I had dinner with them at least once a week.  This society was composed only of relations and a few chosen friends, and I was flattered to be among them.   It was the most respectable house that I have known. The baron de Viomesnil, the comte de Bercheny, their nephew;  M. de Turmilly, colonel; Boullongne..a few famous artists comprised the whole company.  This household, relaxed and modest beyond equal, had an air of happiness due to the sincerity and loyalty which existed there.
Vol. 2 (1886), p.24

The château de Passy-Véron today (from Wikipedia)

The Mégret de Sérilly were in fact very much part of Paris's new cultural elite. High society played court to Madame's beauty, with her luminous grey eyes and lustrous chestnut hair. The playwright Le Moyne dedicated a tragedy to her. Another cousin, was Marie-François-Denis Thomas, the comte de Pange (the "Chevalier de Pange"), the friend of  André Chenier and Madame de Staël -  a connection which placed her in the centre of liberal aristocratic circles. Chenier was presented to her at one of the glittering gathering hosted at the château de Voisins in Louveciennes by Mme de Pourrat, who in 1796 was to be instrumental in securing her release from prison.

The couple patronised the artist Danloux, who married Antoine's adoptive sister, and painted intimate family portraits of the household, one of which is known through a copy in miniature in the Louvre.  Madame, is posed affectionately on her husband's knee; with them are their three children - Armand, Aline playing happily and the newborn Amédée asleep in her cradle.

Jacques Touron, after Danloux La famille Mégret de Sérilly (1787).  
Miniature on enamel.  Louvre.
Even before the Revolution, this glittering and privileged dream had starting to unravel.  In 1787 Mégret de Sérilly,  "adored by his clerks" fell victim to the financial uncertainties of the last years of the Ancien regime.  In June 1787 his office was suppressed, ostensibly as a measure of royal economy. A series of disastrous speculations - notably in the royal arms manufacture at Tulle which involved his friend Boullongue -  forced  him to the brink of  liquidation and bankruptcy.  He was forced to sell the house in the rue du Temple, although a second property at 119 rue des Capucines was made over to him by his mother. In the 1790s he rented a house in the rue de Grenelle where he continued to entertain a small number of guests.  However, the family increasingly resided on the country estate at Passy, where Antoine embraced the role of enlightened cultivateur.

[In the Spring of 1791] My friend Sérilly rented a house near Les Invalides [in the rue de Grenelle]. His business affairs were over; his wife, using all the resources nature had given her, had saved a part of his fortune.  He still had his beautiful estate at Passy, near Sens, and almost 80,000 livres in rentes. He lived well, but very privately, keeping only his most intimate friends:  Boullongne, the president de Salaberry, the baron de Vioménil and d'Etigny his brother.  We dined together every Wednesday when I was in Paris;  it was a touchstone for me.  There we talked openly and we lamented the misfortunes of the State.
Mémoires du comte Dufort de Cheverny, vol. 2 (1886), p.107

As was the case with so many members of the liberal aristocracy, the Revolution cut across the allegiances of family and friends.  With the fall of the monarchy it became increasingly difficult to stand aloof from political events. On 10th August the baron Viomesnil,Sérilly's intimate and a  career soldier, was one of the defenders of the Tuileries.  Dufort de Cheverny tells how the wounded Viomesnil first sought sanctuary at the Venetian embassy then in Sérilly's house in the rue de Grenelle. He managed to pass through the patrols hidden in an empty coach.  Sérilly had him placed in his own bed, whilst he himself posed as a valet.  
There was an unexpected domiciliary visit and M. de Sérilly was asked for. The men were led into the apartment where Viomesnil was in bed, surrounded by pillows and covered with nightcaps.  He ordered his supposed valet-de- chambre and all his people to open up, excusing himself from getting up since for two months he had been subject to a violent attack of gout
Viomesnil feared to compromise his friends further and had himself hidden in a winecellar, where he died three days latter (Mémoires, p.125-6)  According to Bardoux, who has a slightly different version, it was  Mégret d'Étigny, the former guardsman, who was denounced for sheltering Viomesnil to the Representative Maure in the department of the Yonne. (Études.... (1884), p.227)

In September 1792, still hoping to weather the storm,  the Mégret de Sérilly family moved permanently to Passy, On September 18th Sérilly enrolled himself in National Guard and took the civic oath to maintain the Constitution or die in its defence; he busied himself with the affairs of the local commune.  In the winter they were joined in their refuge by the widow of the comte Montmorin (to whom Sérilly had sold the adjoining manor of Thiel), her two married daughters and her young son Calixte.

It was Madame de Sérilly herself who was the first to be troubled by the Revolutionary authorities.  In 5th April 1793, was arrested by the Committee of General Security under suspicion of complicity with her brother Jean-Baptiste Thomas de Domangeville, who had emigrated.  She was taken to Sens, then to Paris for interrogation, but was eventually released. 

The family was not to be left in peace for long.  There were further investigations into the Viomesnil affair and Sérilly's business agent and former valet L'Hoste was arrested in the rue des Capuchines on suspicion of arranging currency export.On 13th February 1794 supper at Passy interrupted by the arrival of three heavily armed police agents who apprehended M. de Sérilly. Madame followed her husband to Paris where she was detained in her turn and sent to the Conciergerie.  Other members of their entourage - Mégret d'Etigny, Mme de Montmorin and Calixte de Montmorin - were also rapidly rounded up and, with the sole exception of Madame, were sent to the guillotine on 10th May. Her brother was executed on 24 May, and André Chenier just before Thermidor, on 25 July 1794.

At the Hospice de L'Evêché, Madame de Sérilly survived the Terror,  possibly thanks to the humanity of a doctor Bayard. It is not certain whether her pregnancy was feigned; probably not, for Dufort de Cheverny, who met her in 1797 mentioned the existence of five children.  On her release, she was able to regain possession of the estate at Passy,  but financial insecurity and misfortune continued to dog her.  In January 1796 she married her cousin François de Pange, only to see him die of tuberculosis a few months later.   Dufort de Cheverny encountered her in Paris in April 1797, living in a dingy appartment in the in the rue Chabanais with her children.  He relates that, despite all her troubles, she seemed to him "every bit as beautiful as when I'd seen her last".  She began to rebuild her social circle and in September 1798 married for third time to  Anne-Pierre,  Marquis de Montesquiou Fezensac, a distinguished and kindly  man in his fifties.  No doubt she had hopes of happiness but it was not to be.  In the December Montesquiou contracted and died horribly of the "black smallpox".  Madame de Sérilly lingered quarantined in their new Parisian apartment, 752 rue Brest, for a few months, then succombed herself.  She died on 17th April 1799, aged just thirty-six.


"Anne-Louise de Domangeville"  Article on Wikipedia

Agénor Bardoux, Études sur la fin du XVIIIe siècle : la comtesse de Beaumont, Pauline de Montmorin (1884), p.232

Félix Chandenier, "Madame de Sérilly: échappée de l'échafaud sous la Terreur", Bulletin de la Société archéologique de Sens, 1891 p.132-61

Denise Ozanam, Claude Baudard de Saint-James (1969) [extracts on GoogleBooks]
(This study of Mégret de Sérilly's counterpart in the Navy has many details of his family background and career)

There is a biography of Madame de Sérilly in English:  Joan Evans, The pursuit of happiness: the story of Madame de Sérilly 1762-1799 (1946), but it is rare and unavailable on the internet.

The Sérilly Cabinet in the Victoria and Albert Museum 

V & A Collections, The Sérilly Cabinet , 1778.
The tiny boudoir was situated between the house and the garden. The decoration represents the four seasons and the cycle of life. 

The piece has recently been dismantled and reinstalled in the V & A's new European galleries:  for further details and a ground plan, see the post of 27.07.2015 on the V & A. blog.

Here are some nice pictures of the hôtel Sérilly today - now divided into private apartments - on the "Paris Promeneurs" website.

1 comment:

  1. So many tragedies! Thanks for keeping the memories of those people alive!