Marie Antoinette

[ French Revolution ]

The story of Marie Antoinette, youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa,
wife of Louis XVI, victim of the guillotine in 1793, has become
encrusted with myth and legend, her reputation not helped
by the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette.
As played by Kirsten Dunst, the archduchess,
bride, dauphine, queen never seemed more than an American teenager mis-
placed in an epic costume drama. The real Marie Antoinette remains
either a despised figure whose frivolity contributed to the French Revolution
or an innocent martyr to revolutionary extremism.

Despite the annoying music, the clip below, shows the young Archduchess leaving Austria and her mother,
the Empress Maria Theresa
, her meeting with the Dauphin, and the frivolity of the French court

The Viennese court where Marie Antoinette grew up was comparatively relaxed with a less stringent protocol than that of the French; the Hapsburg imperial family enjoyed more privacy, especially at Schonnbrunn, than did the Bourbons at Versailles. The young archduchess, of impeccable lineage, was the 15th of her mother's offspring, and it is no surprise that she and her education were somewhat neglected. She knew that her elder sister, Maria Christina, was her mother's favorite. The young archduchess, here pictured at the age of 12, was unprepared for her French destiny. That said, she was pretty and charming. In 1769, at the age of 14, she was sent off to marry 15 year old Louis Auguste, Dauphin of France and grandson of Louis XV, as fulfillment of the treaty agreements that comprised the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756. Their marriage signaled the end of 250 years of French-Austrian hostility and warfare.

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The young Dauphine initially made a good impression on the French when she arrived in 1770, bringing with her a sizable dowry to sweeten a match made unpopular by French defeats (even humiliation) at the 1763 Peace of Paris. Upon arrival at Versailles, she met the members of the royal family: in addition to her new husband and the King, these included the royal aunts (Mesdames Tantes,) Louis Stanislaus (Comte de Provence, later Louis XVIII,) and Charles Philippe (Comte d'Artois, later Charles X.) She made a lifelong friend of Madame Elisabeth, the Dauphin's younger sister. Knowing that Louis XV's official mistress (maitresse en titre) had politicked against the Austrian marriage, the Dauphine snubbed Madame du Barry, making powerful enemies at court. Notwithstanding the ceremonial bedding that occurred in May, 1770, the couple did not consummate their marriage for eight years. Marie Antoinette's failure to produce a child, much less a male heir, did irreparable harm to her standing at court and in France.

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Lonely and bored, bullied by her mother and berated by her for not fulfilling her duty, and neglected by her husband, Marie Antoinette turned to gambling, shopping, and young women friends (giving rise to scurrilous but untrue rumors of lesbian orgies.) Although she was expected to "dress the part" and be a fashion "trend-setter," the popular press criticized her profligate spending on clothes, shoes, ornaments. So long as the royal couple remained childless, she could do nothing right. Some blamed on her insistence on pursuing her passion for horseback riding for her continuing childlessness.

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In 1774, the King died, transforming Louis Auguste into Louis XVI. Marie Antoinette was 18 to his 20; neither was ready for the awesome challenges that faced them and France. In 1775, the artist Gautier-Dagoty painted the queen in full court regalia complete with multiple fleurs de lys draping her elaborate gown. Her enemies at court, criticized the portrait; as usual, she could do nothing right. Marie Antoinette's position remained precarious, especially when her sister-in-law, the wife of the Comte d'Artois, gave birth to a son, Louis Antoine, titled the Duc d'Angouleme. He, though not a dauphin, was a Bourbon heir (after the king's 2 brothers, Provence and Artois.) Deeply unhappy, Marie Antoinette continued her gambling, spending, and partying

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In August, 1775, Louis, understanding his wife's unhappiness, gave her the Petit Trianon, a farm laid out during the reign of Louis XV, but historically associated with Marie Antoinette. Her redesign of the gardens and renovation of Petit Trianon did, indeed, cost money, earning her the title Madame Deficit in the press, but her expenditures were as nothing in comparison with the huge national debt France incurred during the Great War for Empire and Louis' imminent support of the American rebels. The Petit Trianon became the Queen's refuge from stifling court etiquette and from snide remarks about her unconsummated marriage. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, she did not frolic about dressed as a milkmaid or shepherdess, nor did she paper her walls in silk and gold.

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In 1777, Empress Maria Theresa dispatched her son (and heir) Joseph to report on her daughter's marriage, behavior, and situation. Either the Archduke had a heart-to-heart conversation about the facts of life with the royal couple or he helped to arrange for some surgery on the King to end his impotence--at last, the marriage was consummated. Marie Thérèse Charlotte (Madame Royale) was born in 1779. Even so, Marie Antoinette's enemies questioned the child's paternity. In 1779, the Queen asked Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun to paint another royal portrait.

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In 1781, at last, a dauphin was born, Louis Joseph Xavier Francois. The Queen adored her two children. In 1784, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun painted Madame Royale and the Dauphin, whose delicate health caused anxiety in the King and Queen, and pressure on her to increase their family. Vigée Lebrun earned fame and fortune for her portraits; critics comment on the "grace" and "sensitivity" of her portrayal of the royal children in this rendering (Chapman 47).

image source Chapman 47



According to contemporary accounts, the royal marriage was a happy one. Louis XVI took no mistresses and despite the rumor-mongering, Marie Antoinette was a devoted wife and mother. Once she had produced an heir, she had more control over her own life and court protocol. With Louis' support, she abandoned heavy makeup and over-the-top panniers. She adopted a plainer style of dress, quickly emulated by French elites. However, this 1783 Vigée Lebrun portrait created a scandal! Her depiction of the Queen in casual attire ("her underwear," was one outraged comment) was, apparently, profoundly shocking and compounded the allegations of Marie Antoinette's "indecency" (Chapman 67). Ironically, this style became the height of fashion in the later Directory.

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Almost immediately and in response to the Muslin Portrait (above,) Vigée Lebrun painted a more formal one of the Queen "à la rose." In it, Marie Antoinette struck a pose almost identical to the scandalous one above. The painting was well-received on several levels, one being that her beautiful grey-blue silk dress demonstrated the Queen's patronage of the French silk industry of Lyon (Chapman 67). Some, however, objected to the pink rose as representing Austria.

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By 1785, the Queen's reputation was in tatters. Rumors, perhaps circulated by the Comte of Provence, continued to cast doubts on the paternity of the royal children, especially when Marie Antoinette admitted Swedish Count Axel Ferson into her inner circle of friends. The scandal of the diamond necklace, a complicated and tawdry affair in which she was not involved, though the Paris libellistes painted her in the darkest of hues, added to her unpopularity. Although every political setback was blamed on Marie Antoinette, recent historiography suggests that in fact she had very little political influence.

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In 1938, Hollywood produced the epic Marie Antoinette,
Tyrone Power plays the role of Marie Antoinette's great admirer,
the Swedish count, Axel Ferson. Perhaps you can find on youtube.
Or, the 2006 Kirsten Dunst version (beloved by Mme Répillin)


After the birth of a second son, Louis Charles in 1785, Marie Antoinette worked hard to project an image in distinct contrast to the ones circulating in the taverns of Paris, presenting herself as the mother of the "Children of France." In 1787, Vigée Lebrun painted this more matronly Queen with her 3 surviving children, Madame Royale, the Dauphin, and little Louis Charles, the Duc de Normandie. The empty cradle stands as testimony to the Queen's several miscarriages and the death of little Sophie Hélène Béatrix.

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As queen and mother, Marie Antoinette, in the late 1780s, began to take more interest in politics. The financial situation of the country, exacerbated by participation in the American Revolution, was desperate. Louis appointed a series of advisors to resolve the mounting crisis (Calonne, Necker, Brienne); he and Marie Antoinette made efforts to cut expenses. She, however, remained the convenient scapegoat for all of France's ills. In what turned out to be an epochal decision, the King convoked an Assembly of Notables in 1787, the members of which demanded political reforms beyond what Louis envisaged, and the Parlement of Paris acted as a stumbling block to progress on the financial imbroglio. Louis sank into depression and Marie Antoinette mourned the death of little Sophie Hélène Béatrix. In May, 1788, Louis XVI announced the convening of the Estates General for the first time since 1614 to take place the following year.

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To make matters worse, national and personal tragedy rocked France and the royal family. Crops failed in 1788 bringing famine and starvation. The Dauphin, suffering from spinal tuberculosis declined (he would die in the spring of 1789, as the Estates General convened.) In the escalating crisis of the summer of 1789, the National Constituent Assembly replaced the Estates General, the Great Fear swept the countryside, Parisians stormed the Bastille, Artois and conservative aristocrats fled France to seek safety and help abroad. Marie Antoinette could have but did not desert her husband or her country. Vigée-Lebrun painted this last portrait of the Queen.

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In 1793, accused of the most disgusting sexual perversions, Marie Antoinette was tried as the "widow Capet" on a charge of treason and condemned to death. David sketched her in the open tumbril en route to the Place de Grève and the guillotine.

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Sappy and annoying background music and no narrative or dialogue,
but an interesting presentation of the Queen's last days
in fact, watch without the sound
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Although this next clip is in French, diaglogue is minimal, and it's quite poignant;
Louis went to the guillotine in a closed carriage while the Queen went in an open tumbril,
vulnerable to the taunts of a hostile crowd

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Execution of the Queen < >


Chapman, Martin, et al. Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles. San Francisco:
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2007.

"Marie Antoinette." Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. Online available.
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