Rococo

Queen Marie Antoinette in Portraits

Zuzanna Stańska 10 August 2023 min Read

Marie Antoinette, the final Queen of France and Navarre before the French Revolution, is renowned for numerous portraits that depict her life. However, during the Revolution, she became known as “Madame Déficit.” This name stemmed from the nation’s financial crisis, with blame directed at her extravagant spending and resistance to social and financial reforms. Additionally, she is infamous for a purported response, “If they have no bread, then let them eat cake,” though its authenticity remains doubtful. Join us as we delve into the life of Queen Marie Antoinette through the lens of her captivating portraits!

Indeed, that statement proved unwise. After a two-day trial which began on 14 October 1793, the Revolutionary Tribunal convicted Marie Antoinette of high treason. She was executed by guillotine on the Place de la Révolution on 16 October 1793.

But, before the wind of history howled for Marie Antoinette, she was well-known for amassing artworks of extraordinary opulence and beauty. In particular, the queen ordered a lot of portraits by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, as well as some by other artists. Here we have gathered some of them.

1. Marie Antoinette at the Age of 13

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Joseph Ducreux, Marie Antoinette at the age of thirteen, 1769, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.
Joseph Ducreaux, Marie Antoinette at the age of thirteen, 1769, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.

This miniature portrait was sent to the Dauphin – the hair of the French crown, to show him what his future bride looked like. As a result, he must have been impressed.

2. Wearing a Chemise Dress

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antonine in a chemise dress, 1783, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

This portrait by Le Brun was one of those which was exhibited during the artist’s first Salon attendance. It caused some controversy, as the muslin chemise dress was considered “too pastoral” for a portrait of royalty. Here, Marie Antoinette wears a gown in a style called gaulle, meaning a simple white muslin dress that fits relatively loosely over the body with a sash around the waist.

3. Dressed in a Silk Dress

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antonine in a muslin dress, 1783,  Palace of Versailles
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antonine with a rose, 1783, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.

After causing controversy with the previous portrait, Vigée Le Brun quickly prepared another one to exhibit at the Salon. This time, she dressed the queen in a more classic, blue-gray Lyon silk dress.

4. Playing the Harp

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty, Marie Antoinette playing the harp, 1774, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.
Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-D’Agoty, Marie Antoinette playing the harp, 1774, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.

For Marie Antoinette, the harp was the perfect way to entertain and perhaps show off to her guests. It also allowed for a more intimate perspective of the Queen, as she is shown not yet dressed in her full regalia. Instead, she wears a morning gown and holds herself most elegantly in the center of the room.

5. Posing with a Globe

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Jean-Baptiste-Andre Gautier d'Agoty, Marie Antoinette, 1775, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.
Jean-Baptiste-Andre Gautier D’Agoty, Marie Antoinette, 1775, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.

Gautier-D’Agoty shows Queen Marie Antoinette of France as a strong ruler. When the portrait was presented to Marie Antoinette and the court, it was strongly disliked. This suggested that the artist had incorrectly rendered the Queen or had depicted her in an unflattering light.

Part of the power of this painting comes from the portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a wealthy, majestic queen surrounded by various trappings. Her right hand rests on the globe, expressing worldliness and global knowledge. Her left-hand floats delicately by her waist. This gives her the appearance that she, too, might be slightly floating within her voluminous skirts.

6. Archduchess Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, Archduchess Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, 1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, Archduchess Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, 1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

In this painting, the Queen wears an elaborate golden white dress. Her hair is piled high and she wears a feathery headdress. All around her are the accouterments of her station. These include huge columns and a marble bust of her husband, Louis XVI, displayed high atop a pedestal. Behind her sits a table, on which rests a crown. The painting was originally meant for the queen’s brother, Emperor Joseph II of Austria. However, Marie-Antoinette was so pleased with it that she ordered copies to be made. She sent one of these to Catherine the Great of Russia and kept another for her own apartments at Versailles.

7. With Her Two Eldest Children

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, Marie Antoinette with her two eldest children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte and the Dauphin Louis Joseph, in the gardens of the Petit Trianon, 1785, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.
Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, Marie Antoinette with her two eldest children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte and the Dauphin Louis Joseph, in the gardens of the Petit Trianon, 1785, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

Wertmüller portrays the Queen in an environment where she spent much of her time: the gardens surrounding her palace Petit Trianon, near Versailles. This portrait was part of a strategy to change the official image of Marie Antoinette. Instead of seeing her as a frivolous foreigner who loved life’s luxuries, here she is the mother of all France.

Marie Antoinette was 30 years old when the portrait was painted. Louis-Joseph was four and died three years later of tuberculosis. Marie-Thérèse Charlotte was the only member of the family to survive the Revolution.

8. State Portrait of Marie Antoinette

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Portrait of Marie Antoinette with Her Children, 1787, Musée National du Château de Versailles Portraits Marie Antoinette
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Marie Antoinette with Her Children, 1787, Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.

This is a state portrait of Marie Antoinette and her three surviving children, Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph. Louis Joseph holds up the drape of an empty bassinet. This signified the recent death of Marie’s fourth child. Again, this was meant to improve her reputation by depicting her as a mother in simple, yet stately attire.

9. Prisoner in the Temple Tower

Portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette: Alexandre Kucharski, Marie Antoinette prisoner in the Temple Tower, ca. 1792, private collection Portraits Marie Antoinette
Alexandre Kucharski, Marie Antoinette prisoner in the Temple Tower, c. 1792, Château du Champ-de-Bataille, Eure, France.

Early on the 16th of October, Marie Antoinette, then called “Widow Capet” was declared guilty of the three main charges against her. The first charge was a depletion of the national treasury. The second was a conspiracy against the internal and external security of the state. The third charge was high treason, which resulted from her intelligence activities in the interest of the enemy. This last charge alone was enough to condemn her to death.

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