“Let them eat cake!”. Who has never heard this sentence and associated it to Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France? Spoiled, capricious, instigator of controversies at court, squanderer of the Royal French heritage and, arguably, considered the scapegoat for the end of the monarchy with the French Revolution of 1789. Yet, Marie Antoinette, better known for her Marge Simpson-style hair, was more that what History commonly tells us.
Of Austrian origins, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna moved to France at the tender age of 15 to join the French court at the Royal Palace of Versailles and marry the Dauphin of France, later King Louis XVI. Like all the girls of her age, she enjoyed entertainment and to chat with the ladies of the Court.
Shifting your attention to the artworks; portraits, as I always tell my art history students, were originally conceived to record the likeness of the sitters (true predecessors of Photography, which will not appear until the end of the 19th century). However, their function was regularly extended to display the power, the importance, the virtue, the beauty and the wealth of the sitters, among
other qualities. Moreover, portraits have traditionally aimed to flatter the model – what in art is called to “idealise” (in my students’ words, “to get a fancy photoshop!”). Consequently, as a member of the French Royal Family, Marie Antoinette was the subject of a copious amount of – idealised – portraits.
Hence, there was a problem. Examine the paintings below, all representations of the French Queen. What do you notice? Indeed, they are all depicting her as a Queen: the Queen of France, the Mother of France, the Wife of the King of France, the Mother of the future King…but never as Marie Antoinette alone. Neoclassical columns to convey power, a globe to show how the French Empire expands its borders, fancy merengue-style dresses with more layers that a wedding cake, hairstyles that make me wonder whether they developed special muscles in the neck to keep their head upright, later surrounded by her children, to show her as a loving mother.
Thus, her identity had always been defined by her status, eclipsing her personality. However, shouldn’t the latter be the focus of a portrait? Meaning, who was Marie Antoinette? What did she like? What did she enjoy to wear? What was her favourite flower? Was she just a frivolous girl?
These are all questions – and here we arrive to the core of our discussion – that don’t find an explanation in these portraits, but that the exceptional French artist, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, will first answer in her portrait: “Marie Antoinette in muslin Dress” (1783). The mention of this painting is vital to understand the production of “Portrait of Marie Antoinette” (1783).
At a time where the French Royal family was being judged by the public opinion for living a lavish life, and tired of having her status constantly precede her personality, Marie Antoinette was intentioned to transmit a more sober and natural vision of herself. Hence, in 1783, the Queen of France commissioned to her trusted Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun an innovative portrait of herself. The artist was known for her ability to idealise yet capture the personality of the sitters, and for this she would then become the official portraitist of the Queen (painting over thirty portraits of her and her family!).
The result was this artwork, where her royal status is substituted by a more ordinary representation of the French Queen (maybe a bit too much?). In fact, if you see, she lacks the royal attributes: her crown and her expensive clothing are replaced by a muslin dress, a garment made out of relatively inexpensive fabric, usually worn to lounge in the private gardens and definitely not to be exhibited in public events.
Fun fact: Marie Antoinette – passionate about fashion – will bring into vogue the use of this dress, today known as « la chemise a la Reine ».
However, as I am sure you will understand, this painting caused enormous controversy, since the Queen was portrayed in way too casual clothing, originally conceived for a private audience but here aimed to be presented in public. She was accused of indecency, of literally showing herself in her undergarments! Hence, in an attempt to calm the critics and the scandal that this painting generated, Vigée Le Brun painted – a few months later – the more famous “Portrait of Marie Antoinette” (1783), today displayed at the Petit Trianon, part of the complex of the Château of Versailles.
(Yes, you are right: it is almost a copy-paste of the previous painting! Similar composition, same pose, same expression, same gaze, same flower, but with a different setting, dress and attributes! Just brilliant).
Here, the artist offers a more socially accepted version of the Queen, yet remaining loyal to her patron’s aspiration to be seen as a woman rather than a sovereign.
Marie Antoinette stands with her body slightly turned to the right, facing the viewer with a gaze that suggests a calm amusement. Following the in vogue Rococo style, the care for details and aesthetics is seen in the radiant tone of her skin and the directional light on her face which illuminate her, drawing the viewer’s attention to Her. This is further extended to her flattering soft look and the absence of strong contour lines. Also, the capable use of oil paints on canvas allows intricate details…please, have a look at that dress: the textures, the folds, that diaphanous (transparent) drapery around her arms…isn’t it just exquisite?
Moreover, the competence of the artist is made visible by conceiving a painting that meets the requirements of a royal portrait, visible in her idealisation, focused on minimising her defects and portraying her status as an aristocrat. Nonetheless, she doesn’t cede to include the sitter’s personality, seen in the presence of several elements which relate to her identity. Who was Marie Antoinette? Well, this painting tells us. She holds a rose because it was her favourite flower, inferring that she had picked it from the gardens of Versailles – which she deeply loved – suggested by the presence of a rose bush and a tree in the background. She is seen as a woman rather than a monarch (please, remember that she was barely 18 when she became Queen of France!) still lacking her royal attributes, but now wearing expensive clothing to enhance her aristocratic status (unlike in the previous portrait). Moreover, the setting is not the – usual – royal palace, with large Neoclassical columns that imply wealth and status, but rather the garden of her residence, presenting her closer to the people, in a more domestic and warm environment. Additionally, common among adolescents, she wants to enhance her femininity, seen in the choice of an elegant dress which reveals her chest. After all, how different is this from any depiction of teenagers?
Despite all this, as we all know, this attempt to restore her public opinion failed drastically. However, to conclude, I would like to lead you into a mood of reflection: it is no mystery that Marie Antoinette went down in History as the “frivolous Queen of France”, who lived a sumptuous life while the population of France was starving. And this is undeniable.
Nonetheless, echoing the patriarchal society we live in, one tends to forget three critical aspects:
Firstly – and I am sure only few of you know this – Marie Antoinette was a patron of the Arts. That’s right, as a result of her patronage, several (women) artists – like Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun herself – were able to access education (limited to very few women) and succeed in the male dominant artistic society.
Secondly, she further favoured the Arts with the construction of a theatre in the premises of the Château of Versailles, where she performed as an actress in an acting company she founded.
Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, she wasn’t living this luxurious life alone: the King was benefitting of the exact same privileges, refusing to aid the people of France…but, for some curious reason, King Louis XVI doesn’t stand out as much for this, does he?
Hence, shouldn’t History be slightly more objective and offer a more complete vision of this historical figure? In my opinion, and as my students would say, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun nailed it.
– Gita May, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
If you are interested (Historical fiction):
– Film: Coppola, S. (Director). (2006). Marie-Antoinette [Film]. American Zoetrope, Columbia Pictures, Pricel and Tohokushinsha Film Corporation.
– Book: Carolyn Meyer. “The Bad Queen”, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2010