Marie-Antoinette restores her image

Marie-Antoinette restores her image

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Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, Queen of France, and her children

© Palace of Versailles, dist. RMN - Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin

Publication date: March 2013

Professor at Paris VIII University

Historical context

In 1785, Marie-Antoinette, whose desire for motherhood was finally fulfilled, wanted a painting in which she would be represented with her children. Indeed, the image of "the Austrian" continues to deteriorate in public opinion: libels, pamphlets spread multiple rumors about her expenses, her extravagant hairstyles, her manners, even calling into question the legitimacy. royal children.

Presenting the sovereign as the mother of a future king of France would be a way of restoring her image. Her clumsy painting greatly displeased, and the reports during the Salon were particularly severe: “The queen had to be represented as mother of children and as sovereign. "

It was then - we are in September 1785 - that Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was called upon. Since 1778, the year in which she painted a large full-length portrait of Marie-Antoinette, she has truly become "the queen's painter", and a true friendship has been born between the two women. So much so that Marie-Antoinette personally interceded so that Elisabeth Louise, a woman, could enter, in May 1783, the - very masculine - Academy of painting and sculpture: "The Queen, writes d'Angiviller, superintendent of Buildings, honors Lady Le Brun with her kindness, this woman is worthy of them, not only by her talents, but also by her conduct. "

But for this new commission, Elisabeth is somewhat at a loss, as she is hardly used to group portraits. So she asked the advice of Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), already famous and recognized painter: they chose as a model a Holy family by Raphaël.

From the sketches to the final realization, it will take two years for Vigée Le Brun to complete this monumental work.

Image Analysis

This very famous painting represents the queen seated, holding on her knees her penultimate child, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy; little Marie-Thérèse leans affectionately against her mother, while the dolphin stands near the empty cradle. The artist made the intensity of the Queen's presence majestic, serene and serious. The nobility of her head carriage is accentuated by the plume that adorns her scarlet velvet beret. His gaze is calm.

The variation of colors is perfectly mastered: complementarity of reds, greens, ochres of fabrics and of the cradle, colors that are found associated in the arabesques and flowers of the cushions and rugs. Light from the Hall of Mirrors illuminates the stage, while behind the group a piece of furniture glows in the half-light: it is a jewelery holder belonging to the queen. Marie-Antoinette seems to tell posterity that her children are her only treasure. Maybe she read theOpinion of a mother to her son (1726), by Madame de Lambert (1647-1733), who reports that a "Greek lady showed Phocion's mother her precious stones, and asked her for hers; she showed him her children and said to him: “Here are my adornments and my ornaments” ”.

Accused of widening the royal deficit, splashed by the affair of the necklace, criticized for being neither a good mother nor a good wife, the sovereign in majesty thus inflicts on her detractors a spectacular denial!


The painting was exhibited at the Salon of 1787. “My fear,” writes Elisabeth Louise, “was so strong that I had a fever. I went to lock myself in my room, and there I was, praying to God, for the success of my Royal family, when my brother and a host of friends came to tell me that I was achieving general success. "

In reality, reactions were mixed: Journalists at the Salon are at first intrigued by the empty cradle; a libel also says that "people complain that the Queen has no intention in her looks"; and it is criticized for having given "the flesh of a woman of thirty" an implausibly diaphanous transparency. It is nevertheless one of the most justly famous paintings by Madame Vigée Le Brun.

From 1789, Élisabeth Louise was one of the victims of the campaign of libels and pamphlets aimed at discrediting the royal family and its entourage: she was accused in particular of being the mistress of Calonne, the former Controller General of Finance, and she is portrayed as profiteer of the nation's money.
“I was born a coward and indecisive. This is what she writes in her handwritten notebooks. In July 1789, she, so close to the queen, felt her life threatened. Also, on October 6 at midnight, the very day the king, queen and dauphin were forced by the angry crowd to leave Versailles for Paris, Élisabeth Louise and Julie, her only daughter, left the capital in the stagecoach. which leads them to Lyon. As Geneviève Haroche writes, "this is not the departure of an artist who wants to discover Italy contrary to what those around her will try to make believe, she is a woman whose life saves her anxiety" ...

After a long exile in Rome, Vienna, London, Saint Petersburg, she returned to France in 1800. She published her Memories in 1835, before passing away in 1842 when she became an eighty-seven year old lady, inhabited by the ghosts of the past. His grave in the Louveciennes cemetery bears the simple epitaph “Here, finally, I rest…”.

  • Marie Antoinette
  • absolute monarchy
  • official portrait
  • royal bride


Simone BERTIÈRE, Marie-Antoinette the rebellious, Paris, Fallois, 2002.

Claire CONSTANS, National Museum of the Palace of Versailles. The paintings, Paris, R.M.N., 1995.

Guy CHOSSIGNAND-NOGARET, The Daily Life of King's Wives from Agnès Sorel to Marie-Antoinette, Paris, Hachette, 1990.

· Jules FLAMMERMONT, "The portraits of Marie-Antoinette", in Gazette of Fine Arts, 1898.

Évelyne LEVER, Marie-Antoinette, the last queen, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "Discoveries", 2000.

Françoise PITT-RIVERS, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Paris, Gallimard, 2001.

Muriel VIGIÉ, The Official Portrait in France from the 5th to the 20th century, Paris, Van Wilder, 2000.

To cite this article

Joël CORNETTE, "Marie-Antoinette restores her image"

Video: What Life Was Like for Marie Antoinettes Children