Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Portraits of Marie Antoinette Sparked Scandal—Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About the Royal Image
Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, still manages to mesmerize the masses. Some 230 years after her grisly demise, her most powerful legacy, in many senses, is her image, with its complex and contradictory forms.
Visions and revisions of the Austrian-born Queen have inspired astounding biographies, fictions, films (including Sofia Coppola’s aughts classic), fever-pitched bidding at auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s alike, and of course, countless fashion spreads. Just now, the Getty Center in Los Angeles is hosting “Porcelain from Versailles: Vases for a King & Queen,” an exhibition devoted to two sumptuous Sèvres porcelain vases owned by the royals. This very week, a new television series Marie Antoinette, created by Deborah Davis, the writer of The Favourite, is making its U.S. debut on PBS.
In her own lifetime, Marie Antoinette consciously constructed her public-facing image—oftentimes to her own detriment. Born Maria Antonia Anna Josepha, she was the 15th child and youngest daughter of the astute Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan of Lorraine, rulers of the Habsburg empire. Regarded as an undeniably beautiful, but somewhat frivolous child, Marie Antoinette was thrust into the public and political eye when, at the age of 11, it was agreed that the young Archduchess of Austria would marry Louis XVI, the Dauphin of France and heir to the French throne.
The would-be Queen’s painted image played a pivotal role even in these earliest moments. In 1769, the French artist Joseph Ducreux traveled to Vienna to paint the young Maria Antonia and his resulting portrait, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, acted as Louis XVI’s first glimpse of his soon-to-be wife. Her visage was met with approval and, in 1770, at the tender age of 14, she was sent to France where she wed the shy 15-year-old Dauphin.
The new Queen’s position in the court remained tenuous for over a decade, as the betrothed royals failed to consummate their marriage; Marie Antoinette was unable to produce an heir, thus making an annulment of their marriage a possibility. Her first child Marie-Thérèse wasn’t born until 1778, and Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France and heir apparent, until 1781. In the intervening years, she had become keenly aware of how she presented herself. “As long as an annulment was possible, she had to cultivate an ‘appearance of credit’ with the King,” wrote Judith Thurman in a 2006 New Yorker essay on the Queen. The young Queen, then, sought to cultivate the air of sway and power, even as she felt she had little.
Marie Antoinette favored Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the leading woman artist of her era, as a frequent court painter, in helping her bring this image to life. A celebrated portraitist, Vigée Le Brun imbued her paintings with singular naturalism and sensitivity, while embracing the pastel tones of late Rococo and elements of the emerging Neoclassical style.
Having painted her first major official portrait of Marie Antoinette in 1778, Vigée Le Brun would go on to paint some 30 portraits of the Queen over the next six years. This artistic alliance would bring the artist fame, money, and prestige, but would cost her her safety as well. In 1789, at the dawn of the revolution, Vigée Le Brun, a lifelong royalist, made the infinitely wise decision to flee France with her daughter, disguised in tattered clothes, so as to escape the consequences of her allegiance to the Queen.
Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783), which belongs to the Palace of Versailles, is among Vigée Le Brun’s most famed portraits of the monarch. Picturing the Queen in a blue silk dress, with fantastic ostrich plumes in her hair, delicately holding a rose, the image is once imperial and naturalistic—an indelible vision of Marie Antoinette. But, as with every image of this Queen, political and cultural angling is happening right on the surface of the canvas.
We’ve taken a closer look at Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783) and found three facts that might help you see it in a whole new light.
It Had an Infamously ‘Austrian’ Counterpart
Often we say there is a story behind the story. In this instance, there is a painting before the painting.
One of the premier artists of her age, and one of very few women artists in the Academy, Vigée Le Brun was invited to show in the 1783 Paris Salon. For the exhibition, the Queen agreed to have her most recent portrait—Marie Antoinette en robe de gaulle (Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress)—displayed to the public. The painting depicted the Queen in pastoral attire, donning a muslin cotton dress with a blue sash, a straw hat, and free of jewels.
The dress had been designed by dressmaker Rose Bertin, a popular French designer and a favorite of Queen’s. Bertin, a woman born to modest means, had become a competitively sought-after marchande de modes and was dressmaker to a stylish cohort including Vigée Le Brun herself, as well as the infamous Madame du Barry, the longtime mistress of King Louis XV. Bertin’s styles were often unconventional, sending early shockwaves through more traditional circles.
Though idyllic from a contemporary perspective, Vigée Le Brun’s painting sparked a furor in French society for its perceived lack of dignity. To many, the muslin dress read as bold insult to the public; rather than presenting herself as a regal queen deserving of respect, she attired herself in what many deemed to be her underwear, roleplaying a country girl.
During this era, Marie Antoinette particularly enjoyed spending time at her beloved Petit Trianon, a small château the King had gifted her on the grounds of Versailles, far from the palace and a sanctuary from the court life she deplored. There, the Queen had a functioning dairy, chickens, and other animals, and enjoyed an idyllic, if amusement-park-like, version of country life, and where she dressed informally, in-keeping with Vigée Le Brun’s portrait.
Many saw this first painting as evidence of the Queen’s unwillingness to assimilate to French court life. The rose that appears in both portraits stands as symbol of her Hapsburg family heritage. The dress itself was scandalously made from imported cotton instead of French silk, an industry that was flailing at the time. One critic decried the image, saying it would be better titled “France Dressed as Austria, Reduced to Covering Herself with Straw.” The art historian Mary Sheriff surmised that the painting “was read as indicating the Queen’s desire to escape being French, to bring what was alien into the heart of the French realm.” With the outrage mounting, Vigée Le Brun withdrew the portrait and quickly painted Marie Antoinette with a Rose as a replacement, which was displayed before the Salon ended
Despite the public outcry, this very same chemise-style gown would soon become a fashion rage in France and England, even earning the name chemise à la reine, or nightdress of the queen, cementing the association.
The Painting Places French Fashion First
Marie Antoinette with a Rose presents our infamous monarch in a much more formal attire than its predecessor and acts as a direct artistic appeal to the public, underscoring the political muscle of Vigée Le Brun’s portraiture.
“Vigee Lebrun’s career raises important questions about artists’ relationships to social change, for artists do not reproduce dominant ideology passively; they participate in its construction and alteration. Artists work in and also on ideology,” remarked art historian Griselda Pollock in her essay “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians.”
“This painting represented Marie Antoinette in a blue-gray silk robe à la française and rich pearl jewelry, attributes that better attested to both her majesty and her Frenchness,” describes historian Caroline Weber.
The blue silk and lace trim were both nods to France’s own industries, while, in her hair, she wears a turban set with large plumes of ostrich feathers. The bird’s feathers were a signal of great wealth, as they had to be imported from Africa—also hinting at the scope of the French empire and its conquests. In one more twist, by the beginning of the Revolution in the following years, the very robe à la française, pictured here to appease the public, would fall quickly out of favor for its associations with the aristocracy.
These two paintings—Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress and Marie Antoinette with a Rose—together reenact on canvas a lived moment from the Queen’s young life. Upon reaching the French border, the teenage soon-to-be Queen, dressed in an opulent Austrian wedding dress, was met by members of the French court and stripped to her underwear. Crying, the Queen bid goodbyes to her friends and her beloved dog Mops, who were sent back to Austria—and she was redressed publicly in the French style. This act, a symbolic stripping of her Austrian ways and her adornment in the French, was described a process of making her “a thousand times more charming.”
A Queen—and a Painter—Caught Between Two Worlds
Painting a portrait of Marie Antoinette was in many ways a double bind. During her many precarious years at the court, the young monarch had made conscious decisions about how she would attempt to preserve her perceived relevance, amid swirling rumors of the king’s infertility and more-than-whispered allegations of her supposed romantic dalliances. She chose to announce herself through fashionability, being a la mode, and with it, became a notorious spendthrift, earning the nickname Madame Déficit.
“Cultivating the appearance of virtue might have been a more politic strategy, but she chose, instead, to model her style and behavior on those of a royal paramour. The wives of Louis XIV and Louis XV had both been pious and obscure wallflowers, which is precisely what the French expected from a good queen,” wrote Thurman in her essay.
Changing fashions—and the shifting role of women—only further scandalized the public. Bertin’s fashionable styles were adored by the Queen, but also by the actresses and prostitutes who mingled with the monarch at the Palais Royal. As stylistic boundaries dissolved, in painting and in fashion, the public grew further disoriented.
“The resulting erosion of visible boundaries between sovereign and guttersnipe bred still more animosity against Marie Antoinette. As one underground writer noted with scorn, ‘The most elegant whore in Paris could not be more tarted up than the Queen,’” wrote Weber in her book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
Women’s role in society was very much in flux and as Weber notes of the Queen’s dressmaker, “Bertin’s rise to power had already generated tremendous anxiety as it seemed to indicate that the King had ceded his authority to a pack of frivolous scheming women.” Among these women was none other than Vigée Le Brun, who herself fell under the public’s scrutiny. “The painter’s iconoclastic aesthetic program led certain members of the public to perceive her as a disgrace to her sex and to qualify her as a hermaphrodite of sorts,” Thurmin explained.
As the bourgeois family rose up with its ideal of the domestic mother, and the notion of family as dynasty collapsed, no version of Marie Antoinette that Vigée Le Brun could conjure, would appease a society in panic.
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