Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin (2 July 1747, Abbeville, Picardie, France – 22 September 1813, Épinay-sur-Seine) was the French milliner and dressmaker to Queen Marie Antoinette. She was the first celebrated French fashion designer, and is widely credited with having brought fashion and haute couture to the forefront of popular
Bertin came from a family of small means, her mother was a sick nurse. Rose and her brother Jean-Laurent received a modest education but a superior sense of ambition. Rose moved to Paris and became apprenticed to a milliner, Mademoiselle Pagelle, eventually becoming her partner. Rose Bertin’s early success can be attributed to her good relations with the Princesse de Conti, the Duchesse de Chartres and the Princesse de Lamballe, who would one day arrange her fateful meeting with Marie Antoinette.
Rose Bertin opened her own clothing shop, Le Grand Mogol, on the Rue Saint-Honoré in 1770 and quickly found customers among influential noble ladies at Versailles, many of whom followed her from Mademoiselle Pagelle’s, including many ladies-in-waiting to the new Dauphine, Marie Antoinette.
When Marie Antoinette arrived in France from Austria, she embraced France's new styles and fashions as one of the ways in which to show her sincere appreciation of her new country. She was introduced to Bertin in 1772. Twice a week, soon after Louis XVI’s coronation, Bertin would present her newest creations to the young queen and spend hours discussing them. The Queen adored her wardrobe and was passionate about every detail, and Bertin, as her milliner, became her confidante and friend.
In the mid-18th century, French women had begun to "pouf" (raise) their hair with pads and pomade and wore oversized luxurious gowns. Bertin used and exaggerated the leading modes of the day, and created poufs for Marie Antoinette with heights up to three feet. The pouf fashion reached such extremes that it became a period trademark, along with decorating the hair with ornaments and objects which showcased current events. Working with Léonard, the Queen's royal hairdresser, Bertin created a coiffure that became the rage all over Europe: hair would be accessorized, stylized, cut into defining scenes, and modeled into shapes and objects—ranging from recent gossip to nativities to husbands' infidelities, to French naval vessels such as the Belle Poule, to the pouf aux insurgents in honor of the American Revolutionary War. The Queen's most famous coif was the "inoculation" pouf that she wore to publicize her success in persuading the King to be vaccinated against smallpox.
Marie Antoinette also asked Bertin to dress up dolls in the latest fashions as gifts for her sisters and her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. These dolls were called "Pandoras," and were made of wax, wood or porcelain. There were small ones the size of a common toy doll, or large ones as big or half as big as a real person. They were in vogue until the appearance of fashion magazines.
Called "Minister of Fashion" by her detractors, Bertin was the brains behind almost every new dress commissioned by the Queen. Dresses and hair became Marie Antoinette's personal vehicles of expression, and Bertin clothed the Queen from 1770 until her dethronement in 1792. Bertin became a powerful figure at court, and she witnessed—and sometimes effected—profound changes in French society. Her large, ostentatious gowns ensured that their wearer occupied at least three times as much space as her male counterpart, thus making the female figure an imposing, not passive, presence. Her creations also established France as the center of the fashion industry, and from then on, dresses made in Paris were sent to London, Venice, Vienna, Saint Petersburg and Constantinople. This inimitable Parisian elegance established the worldwide reputation of French couture.
Under the Queen's generous patronage, Bertin's name became synonymous with the sartorial elegance and excess of Versailles. Bertin's close relationship with the Queen provided valuable background into the social and political significance of fashion at the French court. The frequent meetings between the queen and her couturière were met, however, with hostility from the lower classes, given Bertin's high prices: her gowns and headdresses could easily cost twenty times what a skilled worker of the time earned in a year.
During Marie Antoinette’s imprisonment, Bertin continued to receive orders from her former prized customer, for much smaller, almost negligible, orders of ribbons and simple alterations. She was to provide the former queen’s mourning outfit following the execution of Louis XVI, recalling a dream that Marie Antoinette had had years before of her favorite milliner handing her ribbons that all turned to black.
During the French Revolution, when many of her noble customers were being executed or were fleeing abroad, Bertin moved her business to London. For a while, she was able to serve her old clients among the émigrés, and her fashion dolls continued to circulate among European capitals, as far away as Saint Petersburg. She eventually returned to France in 1795, where Joséphine de Beauharnais briefly became a customer, but Bertin found that the fashion excesses of the era had waned after the French Revolution ended.
As the 19th century dawned, Bertin transferred her business to her nephews and retired. She died in 1813 in Épinay-sur-Seine.
Marie-Antoinette’s fashion supplier
The career of the milliner and dressmaker Marie-Jeanne Bertin, called Rose Bertin, took off when she was introduced to Marie-Antoinette, the young queen of France, for whom she became her “Minister of Fashion”. Alongside the queen, the dressmaker was to have a considerable influence on the fashion scene of her period and lay the foundations of haute-couture.
Entrusted by Louis XVI with organising the pleasures of the Court, Marie-Antoinette took a passionate interest in all matters relating to fashion. To ensure the success of her appearances, the queen did not hesitate to receive the commoner Rose Bertin in a tête-à-tête to hear her fashion advice, in breach of the Court’s Etiquette.
Rose Bertin influenced the fashion of her time by constantly launching new trends such as the Formal Court Dress, high hair styles and the muslin country gowns worn by Marie-Antoinette at Trianon. She quickly became known as the “Minister of Fashion”.
An intimate friend of the queen, this position enabled her to become the leading fashion supplier of the kingdom and to amass a considerable fortune. Her customers included the royal family, the portrait painter Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, the Marquis de Lafayette and foreign queens. As the Revolution approached, while people were dying of starvation, numerous pamphlets denounced Rose Bertin as a “corrupt and corrupting maker of luxury goods”.
During the early days of the Revolution, milliners and dressmakers took their inspiration from the events to introduce new designs, such as the garters “à la Mirabeau” and hats “à la Desmoulins”. Rose Bertin was reticent, however, to design dresses “à l’égalite” or headscarves “à la Constitution” and produced only some cockades. But, after the arrest of the royal family, the dressmaker continued to deliver garments to Marie-Antoinette, although more modest in their design. The last outfit worn by the queen during her transfer to the Conciergerie prison were made by “Le Grand Mogol”, the Paris shop of Rose Bertin.
After the execution of Marie-Antoinette, Rose Bertin went into exile in London to escape from the Terror and did not return to France until February 1795. But the Revolution swept away her celebrity and completely changed fashion: her articles, symptomatic of the abuses of the monarchy, were rejected. Rose Bertin had long been forgotten when she died on 22 September 1813.
Lucy Moore reviews Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber in The Telegraph
When Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles in 1770, she knew that her one duty was to produce an heir to the French throne. During her first years there, her humiliating failure even to consummate her marriage placed her in a dangerously exposed position. Even after she became queen and had her first child, she was all too aware that the king did not depend on her politically.
For a woman who claimed descent from the Caesars of Rome and whose mother was empress of the Austrian empire, being sidelined in this way was unacceptable. Unlike many queens of France (one exception being Catherine de' Medici), Marie Antoinette was determined to shine. Very quickly she grasped an essential truth: that at court, the appearance of power was as important as power itself. As Caroline Weber writes in Queen of Fashion, "in this rarefied world, the surface was the substance".
In order (as she told her brother Joseph) to persuade "the public to believe that I have more credit [with the king] than I do in reality", Marie Antoinette began to dress increasingly extravagantly, often assuming the Sun King's motifs. Her unrestrained spending demonstrated to the world that she controlled Louis XVI, and through him the French throne – and created a direct link in his subjects' minds between his unpopular absolutism and her expensive image. It was, as Weber observes, a dangerous game to play.
The first attacks on the queen to appear in the popular press were the result of her appearance in 1775 with a dramatic new hairstyle, the pouf. The style was castigated as politically insensitive, given its profligate use of hair powder (made from flour) in the wake of a severe flour shortage earlier that spring. Later poufs, including her commemoration of a French naval victory in 1778 with a ship in full sail in her hair, were derided as gross and costly trivialisations of current events.
Perhaps more serious still was the sense that through her choice of clothing Marie Antoinette was destroying the traditional social order. The queen's trendy poufs were adopted by the prostitutes in the arcades of the Palais Royal as well as by duchesses; she slipped out of Versailles to dance anonymously at public masked balls; at Le Petit Trianon, she and her ladies dressed as milkmaids in simple muslin frocks. For Marie Antoinette, pretending not to be royal was, as Weber puts it, yet "another transgressive and exhilarating costume"; for the people of France, it was a kind of betrayal.
When the revolution came, precipitated in large part by the bankruptcy of the French crown, Marie Antoinette made efforts at economy. She reduced her household spending by nearly a million livres in 1787 and more than a million in 1788, and for the first time a bill survives for a dressmaker repairing and retrimming a dress instead of it being given away after one wearing.
At first, eager to show that she was willing to work with rather than against the revolution, she made a point of sporting patriotic tricolour ribbons and feathers. When she and Louis decided that flight was their best hope of restoring the monarchy to its former prestige, though, she began ordering a lavish new wardrobe in defiantly royalist colours: imperial violet, the green of Louis's brother Artois, Bourbon white, Habsburg black. So significant was this change in her shopping habits that one of her wardrobe women actually warned people before they left the Tuileries in June 1791 that the royal family were planning to escape.
Brought back to Paris from Varennes and placed under virtual house arrest, Marie Antoinette began to contemplate her fate. She told her favourite marchande de modes, Rose Bertin, that she had had an unnerving dream: "You were bringing me ribbons of all colours, my dear Rose, and I chose several. But as soon as I had taken them in my hands, they turned black, and I threw them back into your boxes in horror. I took up others: green, white and lilac, and no sooner did I hold them than they became covered with the colour of death. I was weaker in that dream than I am ordinarily; I began to weep, and you wept also."
When the royal family were imprisoned a year later, Marie Antoinette's wardrobe – which had once occupied three rooms at Versailles – was sacked and emptied by the mob. Significantly, it was her clothes that were the focus of their attack: the furniture, tapestries and paintings were left untouched. For too long, she had made her clothing into a political statement, and it had become an essential element of her downfall.
"The Queen is constantly in Paris, at the Opera, at the theatre," complained a courtier soon after Louis ascended the throne. "She runs into debt; she is adorned with plumes and furbelows, and makes fun of serious things." Queen of Fashion is a brilliant refutation of this commonly held view of Marie Antoinette. By looking in fascinating detail at what she wore – at the very fripperies that caused so many of her critics to underestimate her political aims and importance – Weber reassesses her historical role and creates a mesmerising portrait of the doomed queen.
What Marie Antoinette really wore. By Anne Hollander in Slate
As Queen of France, Marie Antoinette attracted enough public loathing to ensure the French monarchy's downfall. That loathing, as Caroline Weber points out in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, was largely focused on the queen's clothes. After the royal family was imprisoned in 1792, a mob invaded the Tuileries—their palace in Paris—and made straight for the queen's wardrobe, to festoon themselves in her rich garments and then rip into shreds whatever they didn't take. Earlier, at Versailles, another mob had rushed to the queen's dressing room just to smash all the mirrors, leaving the priceless furniture and paintings untouched.
This book's theme is the way young Queen Marie Antoinette took up pointed, disturbing fashions to give herself a visible autonomy and personal force that tradition didn't provide. Weber sees this as a deliberate strategy, although it makes more sense as an instinctive maneuver. French queens had no political role, could never inherit the throne or exercise royal power, and this future queen had arrived at Versailles politically ignorant and inept. She found the court riven with faction, she had few reliable supporters of her own, and her distant imperial mother's advice soon proved useless. Marie Antoinette might well have felt that her personal style was all she could manipulate.
As the new wife of the crown prince, her one legitimate function was to produce offspring, but the young heir seemed unable to do his part at the beginning. She had her first child only after eight and a half fruitless years; and after four of them, the new queen began to focus her creative energy on clothes. She didn't invent fashions. She promoted radical new ones through her public persona, in the modern, celebrity-culture way—and that's why we like her today, instead of automatically despising her as the last century did. Sofia Coppola's film reflects our present sympathy for an eager-to-please teenager's fashion-addictive responses to unbearable demands, especially when cut off from family love—and we, of course, are safely cut off from the assumptions governing the upbringing of 18th-century royal children.
Marie Antoinette's mother, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, had destined her for this marriage from birth, grooming her appearance and behavior for all levels of French scrutiny. While commoners hailed her angelic blond looks as an augury of better times, the court delighted in her fine grasp of the French tongue, French manners, and Bourbon history. But the empress may have had an unsubtle sense of current French style. Paris had long since ruled European fashion, regularly sending elegant fashion dolls as models to foreign capitals, including the Vienna of Archduchess Marie Antoinette's childhood. The little girl was always dressed accordingly. Weber describes a painting of an imperial family group showing the nonmarriageable oldest daughter plainly dressed, while the 7-year-old future dauphine and her toy fashion doll have on the same formal French dress with a train.
The empress may not have realized that in teeming Paris, avant-garde fashion then went along with refined sexual license, class intermingling, and free political talk, whereas fashion at Versailles remained chiefly an important aspect of court etiquette. Marie Antoinette's first experience of the difference occurred halfway through her journey from home, at the ceremony called remise, or handover.
In a small pavilion situated between French and Austrian soil, a troupe of French ladies stripped the girl naked, while French and Austrian diplomats watched. Then they replaced every atom of the Paris-inspired finery she had worn out of Austria with similar garments and adornments made in France, symbolically transforming her from an Austrian imperial archduchess into a French royal princess with completely new allegiances.
The dauphine found that her court duties demanded unfashionably heavy dresses supported by old-style, extra-long, extra-rigid corsets, accompanied by thick rouge and stiff curls. These items were ritually applied every day by a phalanx of noblewomen, while lesser court ladies watched; and, at night, the whole process was reversed. She rebelled, soon and permanently, risking her mother's anger, the court's disfavor, eventually the people's scorn, and her own neck.
Once queen, she steadily ordered the newest looks from Rose Bertin, the leading Paris couturiere—among them the provocative "robe a la polonaise," with its bosom-enhancing bodice and its billowy, ankle-baring skirts, the whole crowned by a "pouf," a 3-foot mountain of powdered hair decked with plumes, veils, and other objects arranged as saucy references to current events. All this and more she wore at court and in town, with swiftly contagious effect; and Bertin became known as the Minister of Fashion.
Marie Antoinette was not a beauty (she had the Habsburg jaw); but she was an enchantress, effortlessly wearing the wildest fashions with the utter conviction of a star. The fashion she followed was moreover the new commercial mode of the larger society, not the old hermetic style of courtiers using their rich garb to reflect the Sun King's glory. It was soon obvious that her expensive modern glamour was enhancing only herself, not the monarchy.
It hadn't occurred to Maria Theresa that by training her pliable daughter from age 3 to sit, stand, walk, and bow gracefully—and dance divinely—wearing tight stays, long trains, and wide skirts with all eyes upon her, she was giving her the tools of self-creation and self-possession wholly in terms of striking costume and polished movement, as if preparing her for professional ballet or competitive ice-skating.
Weber convincingly suggests that Marie Antoinette felt those tools being stripped from her at the remise and the dressing and undressing ceremonies at court; and that she exerted herself to get them back. She began clothing and wielding her body to attract the forms of respect she understood: wonder and delight, shock and awe, the sincere flattery of imitation. Her skimpy moral education had left her unprepared for contempt and disgust.
As we all know, she met with both. The dauphine's sartorial boldness emerged early, and drew swift disapproval. She went riding astride with her husband's grandfather, the libertine Louis XV, wearing a man-tailored habit with breeches; and she even wore the shocking outfit for an equestrian portrait, modeled on one of Louis XIV. After that, the flavor of forbidden sexual adventure, and of poaching on royal male preserves, tainted her reputation and never disappeared.
Later she flouted court etiquette when she drove off her noble dressers, sacrilegiously inviting plebeian Bertin (even plebeian Leonard, the chic male hairdresser) daily into her private apartments to clothe, coif, and advise her behind closed doors. This was even more unseemly because the one court lady for whom ultra-chic fashion was appropriate was the king's mistress—a post then vacant—whereas the queen was expected to look like the king's dutiful First Subject, not his costly Favorite Object.
Still later, she offended French patriots when she adopted Anglophile fashions and spent her time with congenial foreign nobility. At the Petit Trianon—a small palace with its own grounds that served as Marie Antoinette's personal retreat—she introduced thin muslin chemises with sashes, linen caps, or straw hats above lightly powdered fluffy hair, no jewelry. This casual look, worn by countless European ladies, seemed shameless on the French queen, who (naturally) had her portrait painted in it. Her little palace was closed to the public, and her total privacy there (conspiratorial? sexual?) made a scandal of the queen's flimsy foreign clothes and foreign friends.
Most shocking in Queen Marie Antoinette was her extravagance, well-documented in the yearly records of her clothing expenses, in dressmakers' accounts, and in memoirs saying that the queen wore nothing twice. Worse was the expensive toy farm she built at the Petit Trianon, complete with livestock and crops, where her friends played at being milkmaids and shepherdesses. It's still considered her chief crime, but the queen had no sense of its effect. The French treasury was depleted, the deficit increasing, the people protesting against unbearable taxes and shortages, but Marie Antoinette, never taught to consider the people's troubles, had no clue.
While fashion plates wore her face, pamphlets and pornography made her a monster—dissolute Messalina, lesbian predator, traitorous conspirator, snake-haired Medusa, harpy with claws, vampire in foreign muslin spending state millions to mock local rustics, wasting pounds of flour on her hair while the people starved for bread. Once angelic, Marie Antoinette was now plotting with hostile powers, including Lucifer, to undermine the well-being of France.
And when the Revolution exploded and prevailed, she instinctively abandoned new trends. Nervous burghers and nobles, even the king, sported Republican tricolor cockades with modishly simple tricolor outfits. But the queen's cockade was Bourbon white, her rich new dresses were purple and gold, and she got out her diamonds. Everyone could see that Marie Antoinette had no politics, only blind faith in royal privilege. Her fate, more firmly than the accommodating king's, was sealed when the Bastille fell.
Weber occasionally makes too much of Marie Antoinette's power. She repeatedly notes that the modest "Republican" dresses worn by most women in the early 1790s resembled those Marie Antoinette had introduced as avant-garde among aristocrats in the early 1780s, as though the queen personally influenced even the fashion of her enemies. She forgets that fashion runs under its own power, compelled toward desirable new forms. In fact, thin white chemises came into fashion everywhere in Europe around 1780 and stayed for nearly 40 years, no matter who was attaching what significance to them. This probably had more to do with the invention of chlorine bleach in 1774 than with anyone's fashion influence.
But Weber is certainly right to emphasize the queen's undeniable gifts when describing her solitary imprisonment after the king's execution. Visible to curious onlookers, Marie Antoinette wore her one increasingly stained and frayed black mourning ensemble day and night for two long months, even though her daughter had sent her some other clothes. At her trial, its tattered blackness aroused considerable sympathy, and she was forbidden to wear it to her execution—no public mourning for the tyrant.
So, chalk-pale Marie Antoinette rode to her death wearing a brand-new white chemise she had secretly saved, a pretty white fichu around her shoulders, and a pleated white cap on her prematurely white hair (she was two weeks short of 38), while thousands of dazzled citizens watched in stunned silence. The queen showed her unquenchable talent for inspired public display in all her last costumes, a sign of her true self-possession.
Weber is a serious historian, and nearly every sentence of her account is footnoted to one of her many sources, some not tapped before, some conflicting, as she explains. Her writing about the period is succinct and detailed, but what's most welcome is her use of her own feeling for clothes and their importance. This popular subject has been trivially belabored by numerous cultural-studies academics with no personal stake in dress history or in actual garments. It's refreshing to find solid interpretive work and historical responsibility in an impassioned book on clothing's power over perception and self-perception.
Sofia Coppola's film makes deft cinematic use of this material, though it leaves out Rose Bertin. Coppola instead conveys Marie Antoinette's fashion appetite as an unappeasable lust for fabulous shoes and fabulous sweets, both shown perpetually being reached for and consumed with great speed to a musical beat, along with endless champagne being poured and swilled. This strikes a sharply modern chord, and Caroline Weber herself, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, has approved its warning note.
Guillotine chic Veronica Horwell has a rummage around Marie Antoinette's wardrobe courtesy of Caroline Weber's Queen of Fashion
The Guardian, Saturday 10 February 2007
Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
by Caroline Weber
The only arresting portrait is reproduced in monochrome among the text, and it's hard to guess the subject's identity. A cap of fine linen supports a black veil. The dress is dark, its neck filled in with a fichu. The date is 1793, so the emphasis on a heightened waist is le denier cri, as is the cap shape. All so plain, though. Whose were these frail features? A friend of Charlotte Corday's mother?
She was the Widow Capet, formerly Marie Antoinette. After her husband, Louis XVI, had been executed, her jailers granted her plea for the proper gear of bereavement and permitted its purchase from the boutique of her "minister of fashion" Rose Bertin, which would explain the cap's crisp pleats. Although the artist painted the portrait from memory after a snatched visit to prison, it's a most composed image, and the composure is the queen's. Considering her dire circumstances, she has retained command over self-presentation.
That's Caroline Weber's theme: Marie Antoinette's control over her image through the simulation of autonomy that is fashion. She regards the queen's life as "a story ... that can be read as a series of costumed events". Her book had the same genesis in Antonia Fraser's biography as did Sofia Coppola's giggle of a movie, and Weber covers the same scenes, beginning with the ceremonial stripping of the affianced teen princess on the border between empires. (Though Weber usually describes stills, single images she can decode: nobody talks.) Once the Austrian import had been reclad à la française and wed to, but not bedded by, the heir to the throne, she had to construct an alternative public identity to maintain her celebrity at Versailles until her husband impregnated her with a brood.
The Dauphine's first act of defiance, a 15-year-old's strop, was her refusal to wear the grand corps, the rigid corset permitted only to the court elite. Her second was to learn to ride, and don not only male-style upper-body garments (nothing novel about that, female royals and courtiers had galloped about in similar equine fig since the 1660s), but to wear, and be painted in, breeches, while astride the saddle. Hunting Frenchwomen hid "culottes" under skirts; only the awesome Catherine the Great of Russia and comic actresses flaunted their lower limbs in breeches.
The marriage was at last consummated when Marie Antoinette was 18, and the couple crowned when she was 19; but she still was not a mother and was blocked from political influence, so, according to Weber's reading, she resorted to the Queen of Hearts approach. Rather than get on with the job of wife, she dressed, spent and partied like a king's maîtresse en titre. But she lacked the original identity for it, the rococo cool of Pompadour or the earthiness of Du Barry. She looks more like the lifesized doll of herself, with a trunk of the latest Paris modes, that toured Europe's capitals. In all portraits except that prison image of grief, she has the vestigial features of a fashion plate. Her clothes matter so much more than the woman in them.
They were mostly designed by Bertin and were almost couture in a modern sense. Although Weber is gushingly starstruck by Marie Antoinette, from the princess diaries debut to the death (which Weber overwrites as a sartorial martyrdom), the most charismatic character in her book turns out to be Bertin. As a single, plump, vulgar milliner aged 24, she opened a Rue St Honoré emporium, the Grand Mogol, evading restrictive laws by stocking fabrics, luxury accessories and lace and passementerie trimmings. What she really sold was her genius in putting these together: Bertin combined the shock chic of Schiaparelli with Chanel's appropriation of lower-class cuts and cloths. She didn't merely execute court orders, she proposed modes: to avoid the stately robing rituals of Versailles, Marie Antoinette closeted herself daily for hours with Bertin and her hairdresser, Léonard.
Between them, they repositioned the queen as a flashier brand, in light short skirts and high, heavy hair: the pouf do - a plinth for plumes, puffed caps and preposterous set-pieces. The extreme exaggeration of that mode was then collapsed into the simplicity of the gaulle, Bertin's adaptation of Caribbean and Louisiana colonial dress - a voluminous chemise and not a lot else - in harmony with Rousseau-esque sentiment. Just the garb for A-list rusticity at the Petit Trianon, where mirror shutters were cranked over windows so that its façade was as arrogantly blank as Victoria Beckham in outsize RayBans. Whatever happened personally or politically, Bertin could be relied upon: for coronation robes; diamonds under pale fur with a wheat-starch powdered coiffure during a famine winter; a revival of elitist whalebone once the queen's bust expanded to 44 inches after she delivered a dauphin and two more babes.
True, after the Bastille fell, the queen ordered tricolour cockades from Bertin's rival, Madame Eloffe, in the rose and sky-blue colourway favoured by aristos. But when Marie Antoinette planned a family escape in 1791, she returned to Bertin. The two dallied for months devising a magnificent trousseau for an exile the Bourbons failed to reach. ("A queen of France will be able to get the dresses she requires where ever she may find herself," her wisest attendant advised; but the queen wanted her Bertins.) The queen's death-day white outfit, improvised from quality underwear and a housecoat a supporter had sent her in prison, was probably by Bertin. The last cap is dignified even in Jacques-Louis David's brutal sketch of its wearer en route to the guillotine. (Bertin, by the way, fled France; after her return she assembled a few ensembles for Napoleon's Josephine.)
Weber isn't interested in the frocks as frocks: she's an academic, pernickety over the semiotics of their perceived meaning, but her wardrobe vocabulary is as lax as glossy-mag captions - "fashion statements", "opulent", "furbelows" and even lazier imprecisions. She has no space for the clothing currents that affected Bertin and the queen, whose chemise-dresses and coat-dresses came out of a Europe-wide, all-classes drift to plainer garb; and she provides no textile context - it's page 206 before cotton gets a mention, although its semi-industrial production in France was a revolution that prefigured political shifts. She doesn't care - doesn't know? - how the things were made, describing both silk stockings and lace as being "woven". Weber's adoration of Marie Antoinette made me dislike more the greedy silly, who charged the millions in credit that she spent like a demented mall-rat to a nation in debt and decline, and didn't deliver minimum service to the state in exchange. Shop until the blade drops, cherie, and I'll knit as I watch it fall
Rose Bertin - Couturière de Marie-Antoinette by Michelle Sapori How did a young person, an unknown and without relation, become the ear, the eye and the advisor of the queen of France Marie-Antoinette and, in her trail, of all the feminine aristocracy of her time? The talent and the intelligence allied to an extraordinary creativity explain this spectacular social ascent that Michelle Sapori tells us with talent.
So surprising is in the country of the elegance and the fashion, no real biography had been dedicated to "Miss Bertin", as well as called her contemporaries. By undermining the bases of the Ancien Régime clothing, by substituting for pinafores a light, fluid and comfortable fashion which will triumph completely under the Empire, by developing accessories? Hats and gloves? Rose Bertin invented a new wardrobe.
With thirty salaried workers, of multiple suppliers and subcontractors, her store "Grand Mogol" situated near the Palais-Royal, in the heart of Paris, received a prestigious and demanding clientele, with which Rose Bertin maintained ambiguous connections, oscillating between submission and arrogance.
Appointed to the head of the quite new feminine corporation of the traders of fashions, the "enjoliveuse", qualified also as " female Minister " or as Marie - Antoinette's " evil genius ", has to emigrate in the Revolution. This outstanding woman, with a sturdy character, comes back from Thermidor to try to save what can still be her. In her death in 1813, Rose Bertin already entered the legend, in the lively and contrasted colors.
Michelle Sapori is a historian, author of a thesis and numerous articles on Rose Bertin
18th century court costume and Marie-Antoinette by historical novelist Catherine Delors, author of For the King
I saw the Court Pomp and Royal Ceremony exhibition at Versailles on its closing day last June and would have hated to miss it. My expectations were very high, and yet I could not help being somewhat disappointed, not by the quality of the objects on display, which were magnificent, but by their scarcity. I should have known better, of course: how many 18th century court costumes could have survived till the 21st century?
Interestingly, the few that did have been preserved in the royal collections of northern Europe, for instance the coronation gown (below) of Queen Sofia Magdelena of Sweden. It was made in Paris of silver cloth, and consists, like all French court gowns, in three separate pieces: bodice, skirt and train. Indeed in the course of the 18th century all European courts had adopted the Versailles court costume. Note the width of the panniers: 3 meters (12 feet!) The depth is no more than 2 feet, which gives the gown the shape of a very elongated oval.
The shape of the 18th century court costume, for men and women, originated at Versailles during the last decades of the reign of Louis XIV, and remained unchanged until the Revolution. It does not mean that court attire was immune to the dictates of fashion: fabrics, colors, ribbons and other decorative elements varied over time. But the cut of the garments was immutable.
Court costume was highly codified. Wearing a court gown was a privilege reserved for the Queen, the princesses of the royal blood and “presented” ladies. I have written a prior post on the preparations of dressing for Court. Wearing a court gown was mandatory for all ladies entitled to it, even for the Queen herself, on every formal occasion. The only acceptable excuse was an advanced pregnancy, obviously incompatible with the close-fitting shape of the bodice and the underlying grand corps (a special corset) that covered the entire abdomen.
Marie-Antoinette once apologized to the Venetian ambassador, who had come to Versailles to present his letters of accreditation, for not wearing a court gown on account of her pregnancy. If she had not done so, her wearing “regular” clothes on such an occasion would have been construed as a grave slight, and created a diplomatic incident. Court dress was no simple fashion matter.
One of the most beautiful pieces on display at Versailles was this shimmering wedding dress of Edwige Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess of Holstein-Gottorp, who married into the Swedish royal family.
The fineness of the silver lace on silver cloth creates a garment of ethereal beauty in spite of its bulk. Note the extreme thinness of the waist. The sleeves, which would have been made of rows of matching lace, are unfortunately missing. I can only guess they were reused by another Swedish princess.
This makes the comparison between these 18th century court gowns, in their pristine, unadulterated condition, with the famous “Marie-Antoinette” dress from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (below) all the more striking. Here the skirt was altered to fit a round 19th century crinoline, and the plain ivory silk of the bodice does not match the exquisite embroidery work of the skirt and train. It should be noted that the Toronto gown was simply presented as “attributed to Rose Bertin” without any mention of prior ownership by Marie-Antoinette. I can only assume that such claim was not established to the satisfaction of the show’s curators.
After visiting the show, I purchased the (very highly recommended) Connaissance des Arts special issue dedicated to it, and read therein an interview of Pascale Gorguet Ballesteros, Chief Curator of the Musee Galliera, and co-curator of the exhibition.
When asked whether Marie-Antoinette’s taste in fashions was copied at Court and beyond, Ms. Gorguet Ballesteros explained that the Queen was the the “number one fashion model” in France and greatly contributed to the success of the fashions she liked. But Marie-Antoinette did not “invent” any distinct style of dress. She launched nothing, she simply adopted some of the fashions available at the time.
Especially as a young woman, the Queen loved clothes, and other ladies tended to follow her taste. It was the Duchesse d’Orléans, then Duchesse de Chartres, who introduced her to the famous dressmaker Rose Bertin in 1774, as, incidentally, she also introduced her to Madame Vigée-Lebrun. “Marie-Antoinette,” says Ms. Gorguet Ballesteros, “sits at the border of two worlds, the sclerotic world of the Court and the world of fashion, where one is led to believe that one is going to express one’s individuality. But she has the misfortune of being of being the Queen.” When she sat for Madame Vigée-Lebrun “en gaulle,” in a simple white muslin dress, she created a scandal.
Marie-Antoinette was never forgiven for abandoning the traditional court costume in what may now be the most famous of her portraits.
Since the outcome of the cinematographic version of “The Liaisons Dangereuses” and lately of Marie Antoinette by Sophie Coppola … the World has been taken by a XVIII Century Hysteria, where the “Boudoir”, associated with a aesthetical rediscovery of the XVIII century and “Frenchness”, has taken even the Internet and the Blog World by surprise…
Often, this context is reduced to a caricature … with this world looking like a music box of confetti … or … like a cover of a Bonbonniére …
Personally … I discovered as a young teenager, Marie Antoinette through an old book in my parent's library … Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig …
I am going away for a while … I leave you with this long post … I will try to keep on posting where I Am … Yours Jeeves .
Guillotined by history
Hazel Mills sees Marie Antoinette rehabilitated in Antonia Fraser's biography that shows her to be not simply a queen with a penchant for jewel-encrusted gowns, but a diplomatic pawn
The Guardian, Saturday 14 July 2001
It was a defining moment of the French revolution. Shortly after midnight on June 20, 1791, a small group of people left the Tuileries Palace in the centre of Paris, climbed into a coach, and set off for the countryside. For almost 20 hours they travelled, stopping only to change horses. Heading for Montmédy, close to the border with the then Austrian Netherlands, the party never reached their destination. At the small town of Varennes their journey was halted by a series of blunders and by the dawning realisation of the local populace that in their midst was none other than the French royal family - the plain attire of the valet "M Durand" disguised King Louis XVI, while the sombre dress of one of his companions concealed his wife Marie Antoinette, otherwise renowned for her jewel-encrusted gowns. The coach and its occupants were returned to the capital under armed escort, where they were greeted by a silent, hostile crowd.
This tense episode marked the beginning of the end for the French monarchy during the revolution and is grippingly narrated by Antonia Fraser in her biography of Marie Antoinette. It offers but one example of the author's skill in telling a good story - drama, betrayal, religion and sex, it's all here, adorned by often fascinating, at times esoteric detail. Big set pieces such as the lavish banquets at the Austrian and French courts are colourfully depicted, as are the elaborate rituals of rising, dressing and eating in public that shaped the daily life of Marie Antoinette and her husband. The author has catholic taste - her span covers 18th-century make-up, the family connections of Europe's major and minor royal dynasties, and the severity of the haemorrhoids suffered by the Austrian ambassador to Versailles.
This is grand narrative biography in a familiar, pacy form: it is perhaps no coincidence that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire makes an appearance. Marie Antoinette is "a piece on her mother's chessboard"; her family's blood lines course "like great rivers whose tributaries flowed into each other so frequently that their waters were inextricably mingled"; the crowds of the early years of the revolution operate in a "bloodthirsty frenzy", while those of September 1792 staged a "maniacal assault" on the prisons of Paris, executing inmates in a "bloodthirsty delirium".
Fraser is broadly sympathetic to her subject, arguing that the queen was often misunderstood, and in her final months, heroic. Ultimately her reader can't help but feel sorry for a woman trapped in the structures of her age and position. She was a dynastic pawn who, aged 14, met her young husband on a Monday, and married and went to bed with him on Wednesday. She suffered in growing dejection his inability to consummate the union for seven years. Fraser dismisses, with lengthy precision, the possibility of phimosis - an overtight foreskin - in favour of sheer laziness and apathy. Poor Marie Antoinette.
According to Fraser, however, the queen did not entirely lack for passion. Considering the possibility of an affair with Axel Fersen, a dashing Swedish count, Fraser acknowledges that little attention was given to it at the time. Anti-royal pamphleteers, "with their guns fixed on incest with the Comte d'Artois and lesbianism with the Duchesse de Polignac, were facing the wrong way", she argues, weighing the ambiguous evidence and coming down "on balance of probabilities" in favour of a relationship. It would have been, after all, "human nature" for the queen to have succumbed. Fersen was likened by contemporaries to Apollo, "someone with whom all women fell in love and of whom all men felt jealous". He understood "how to appeal to a queen who, all things considered, had had a fairly lugubrious experience of sex" until then. Fraser also concludes that Fersen's "gallantry" would have extended to "knowing very well how to avoid procreation". Lucky Marie Antoinette.
The queen was also a diplomatic pawn, under constant pressure from her German-Austrian family to further their interests within France. She was not trained for the silk-cloaked brutality of late 18th-century court politics, and even less prepared for the tumultuous challenges of the revolution. She persisted, tragically, in her deference to her weak-willed and vacillating husband. One of Fraser's more interesting speculations is that had Marie Antoinette been able to force Louis to act more decisively, not least during the Varennes fiasco, she and her family might have been spared their grisly ends.
It is not just royal decapitations that interest Fraser; she is nothing if not up-to-date with bodily concerns. We learn of the "disfiguring eczema" of finance minister Loménie de Brienne; that Philippe, Duc de Chartres was the best dancer at court; and that the Princesse de Lamballe had a "sweetly soulful" appearance, although this was marred by "a strain of melancholy". We are also told that Louis XV's sister, Mme Victoire, was so fat that her father nicknamed her "Sow". The portliness of several members of the French royal family ("which may have been glandular in origin") leads Fraser to conclude that many had "what would now be called a weight problem". Perhaps Fraser's saddest speculation is that Marie Antoinette not only experienced irregular menstruation in her early life, but went to the guillotine suffering from uterine haemorrhages. Were these caused by early menopause, fibroids or ("most plausibly") cancer of the womb?
Like other biographers before her - and there have been dozens - Fraser tackles two myths. Marie Antoinette was not sexually promiscuous, even allowing for a possible affair with Fersen. Nor did she make that infamous "Let them eat cake" remark from which so much anti-monarchical propaganda erupted. But why did this barb, since the mid-17th century attributed to apparently heartless royal women, stick to her? Why was Marie Antoinette subject to such focused vilification? And how did this process of vilification contribute to the outbreak of the revolution, which otherwise risks becoming a mere, if violent, backdrop to the life? We could be told more about this.
Fraser rightly highlights the extremism of the accusations made against the queen in cheaply printed " libelles " from the mid-1770s on. During the revolution, the accounts became simply wild. Most cruelly, she was accused of incest with her son. Is it the case that, through this process of vilification, the degree to which the monarchy itself had lost legitimacy was first made manifest and then extended? Louis lacked virility in more than his personal relations with his wife; the French state was debauched, feminised, corrupt. This could be written on and with the body of the queen, after all a foreigner, and a symbol of all that was insufficiently manly and virtuous at the heart of the polity. Her body also offered a means of communication to a wider population not schooled in the niceties of Montesquieu's or Rousseau's critiques of despotism.
Though in places too speculative to satisfy professional historians - it frustratingly merges references to contemporary accounts with the work of more recent scholars - this entertaining biography is erudite and, at times, unwittingly amusing. Fraser gives helpful summaries of the complex high politics that contributed to the fall of the monarchy. Meanwhile, in her endnotes, we are given Marie Antoinette's horoscope, circa 2001. Footnotes also offer the idea that the queen may have imbibed a love of Gluck in her mother's womb. Meanwhile, for those worried by the possibility, it can be confirmed that Sèvres porcelain teacups from this era were not modelled on Marie Antoinette's breasts.
• Hazel Mills is a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge
Marie Antoinette baptised Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna (or Maria Antonia Josephina Johanna); 2 November 1755 – 16 October 1793) was an Archduchess of Austria and the Queen of France and of Navarre. She was the fifteenth and penultimate child of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and Emperor Francis I.
In April 1770, on the day of her marriage to Louis-Auguste, Dauphin of France, she subsequently became Dauphine of France. Marie Antoinette assumed the title of Queen of France and of Navarre when her husband, Louis XVI of France, ascended the throne upon the death of Louis XV in May 1774. After seven years of marriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, the first of four children.
Initially charmed by her personality and beauty, the French people generally came to dislike her, accusing "the Austrian" of being profligate and promiscuous, and of harboring sympathies for France's enemies, particularly Austria, since Marie Antoinette was, after all, Austrian.
At the height of the French Revolution, Louis XVI was deposed and the monarchy abolished on 10 August 1792; the royal family was subsequently imprisoned at the Temple Prison. Nine months after her husband's execution, Marie Antoinette was herself tried, convicted of treason, and executed by guillotine on 16 October 1793.
Even after her death, Marie Antoinette is often considered to be a part of popular culture and a major historical figure, being the subject of several books, films and other forms of media. Some academics and scholars have deemed her frivolous and superficial, and have attributed the start of the French Revolution to her; however, others have claimed that she was treated unjustly and should have more sympathetic views towards her.
Marie Antoinette age 7
Marie Antoinette at age 12 by Martin van Meytens, 1767.
Portrait of Marie Antoinette in hunting attire (a favorite of her mother), by Joseph Krantzinger (1771), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
1774–1778: Early years From the outset, despite how she was portrayed in contemporary libelles, the new queen had very little political influence with her husband. Louis, who had been influenced as a child by anti-Austrian sentiments in the court, blocked many of her candidates, including Choiseul, from taking important positions, aided and abetted by his two most important ministers, Chief Minister Maurepas and Foreign Minister Vergennes. All three were anti-Austrian, and were wary of the potential repercussions of allowing the queen – and, through her, the Austrian empire – to have any say in French policy.
Archduke Maximilian Francis of Austria visited Marie Antoinette and her husband on 7 February 1775 at the Château de la Muette.Marie Antoinette's situation became more precarious when, on 6 August 1775, her sister-in-law, the comtesse d'Artois, gave birth to a son, the duc d'Angoulême (who later became the presumptive heir to the French throne when his father, the comte d'Artois, became King Charles X of France in 1824). This resulted in release of a plethora of graphic satirical pamphlets, which mainly centered on the king's impotence and the queen's searching for sexual relief elsewhere, with men and women alike. Among her rumored lovers were her close friend, the princesse de Lamballe, and her handsome brother-in-law, the comte d'Artois, with whom the queen had a good rapport.
This caused the queen to plunge further into the costly diversions of buying her dresses from Rose Bertin and gambling, simply to enjoy herself. On one famed occasion, she played for three days straight with players from Paris, straight up until her 21st birthday. She also began to attract various male admirers whom she accepted into her inner circles, including the baron de Besenval, the duc de Coigny, and Count Valentin Esterházy.
She was given free rein to renovate the Petit Trianon, a small château on the grounds of Versailles, which was given to her as a gift by Louis XVI on 15 August 1774; she concentrated mainly on horticulture, redesigning in the English mode the garden, which in the previous reign had been an arboretum of introduced species. Although the Petit Trianon had been built for Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, it became associated with Marie Antoinette's perceived extravagance. Rumors circulated that she plastered the walls with gold and diamonds."...the innovativeness of Marie Antoinette's country retreat would attract her subjects’ fierce disapproval, even as it aimed to bolster her autonomy and enhance her prestige," (Weber 132).
An even bigger problem, however, was the debt incurred by France during the Seven Years' War, still unpaid. It was further exacerbated by Vergennes' prodding Louis XVI to get involved in Great Britain's war with its North American colonies, due to France's traditional rivalry with Great Britain.
In the midst of preparations for sending help to France, and in the atmosphere of the first wave of libelles, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph came to call on his sister and brother-in-law on 18 April 1777, the subsequent six-week visit in Versailles a part of the attempt to figure out why their marriage had not been consummated.
It was due to Joseph's intervention that, on 30 August 1777, the marriage was officially consummated. Eight months later, in April, it was suspected that the queen was finally pregnant with her first child. This was confirmed on 16 May 1778.
Marie Antoinette 1767
Marie Antoinette with her two eldest children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte and the Dauphin Louis Joseph, in the Petit Trianon's gardens, by Adolf Ulrich Wertmüller (1785).
In the middle of her pregnancy, two events occurred which had a profound impact on the queen's later life. First, there was the return of the handsome Swede, Count Axel von Fersen – whom she had met previously on New Year's Day, 1774, while she was still Dauphine – to Versailles for two years. Secondly, the king's wealthy but spiteful cousin, the duc de Chartres, was disgraced due to his questionable conduct during the Battle of Ouessant against the British. In addition, Marie Antoinette's brother, the Emperor Joseph, began making claims on the throne of Bavaria based upon his second marriage to the princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria. Marie Antoinette pleaded with her husband for the French to help intercede on behalf of Austria but was rebuffed by the king and his ministers. The Peace of Teschen, signed on 13 May 1779, ended the brief conflict, but the incident once more showed the limited influence that the queen had in politics.
Marie Antoinette's daughter, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, given the honorific title at birth of Madame Royale, was finally born at Versailles, after a particularly difficult labour, on 19 December 1778, following an ordeal where the queen literally collapsed from suffocation and hemorrhaging. The queen's bedroom was packed with courtiers watching the birth, and the doctor aiding her supposedly caused the excessive bleeding by accident. The windows had to be torn out to revive her. This incident has a variant: some sources purport that it was the Princesse de Lamballe who lost consciousness, and to prevent the queen from doing the same, the king himself – rather unusually – let in some air by tearing off the tapes that sealed the windows. In any case, as a result of this harrowing experience, the queen and the king banned most courtiers from entering her bedchamber for subsequent labours.
The baby's paternity was contested in the libelles but not by the king himself, who was close to his daughter.
The birth of a daughter meant that pressure to have a male heir continued, and Marie Antoinette wrote about her worrisome health, which might have contributed to a miscarriage in July 1779. Antonia Fraser expresses doubts as to whether there was a pregnancy in 1779, ascribing the queen's belief that she had a miscarriage to Antoinette's irregular menstrual cycle. The memoirs of the queen's lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan, state explicitly that the miscarriage came about after the queen exerted herself too strenuously in closing a window in her carriage, felt that she had hurt herself, and lost the child eight days later. Campan adds that the king spent a morning consoling the queen at her bedside, and swore to secrecy all those who were aware of the accident.
Meanwhile, the queen began to institute changes in the customs practised at court, with the approval of the king. Some changes, such as the abolition of segregated dining spaces, had already been instituted for some time and had been met with disapproval from the older generation. More importantly was the abandonment of heavy make-up and the popular wide-hooped panniers for a more simple feminine look, typified first by the rustic robe à la polonaise and later by the 'gaulle,' a simple muslin dress that she wore in a 1783 Vigée-Le Brun portrait. She also began to participate in amateur plays and musicals, starting in 1780, in a theatre built for her and other courtiers who wished to indulge in the delights of acting and singing.
In 1780, two candidates who had been supported by Marie Antoinette for positions, the marquis de Castries, and the comte de Ségur, were appointed Minister of the Navy and Minister of War, respectively. Though many believed it was entirely the support of the queen that enabled them to secure their positions, in truth it was mostly that of Finance Minister Jacques Necker.
Later that year, Empress Maria Theresa began to fall ill with dropsy and an unnamed respiratory problem. She died on 29 November 1780, in Vienna, at the age of 63, and was mourned throughout Europe. Marie Antoinette was worried that the death of her mother would jeopardise the Franco-Austrian alliance (as well as, ultimately, herself), but Emperor Joseph reassured her through his own letters (as the empress had not stopped writing to Marie Antoinette until shortly before her death) that he had no intention of breaking the alliance.
Three months after the empress' death, it was rumoured that Marie Antoinette was pregnant again, which was confirmed in March 1781. Another royal visit from Joseph II in July, partially to reaffirm the Franco-Austrian alliance and also a means of seeing his sister again, was tainted with false rumours that Marie Antoinette was siphoning treasury money to him.
On 22 October 1781, the queen gave birth to Louis Joseph Xavier François, who bore the title Dauphin of France, as was customary for the eldest son of the King of France. The reaction to the birth of an heir was best summed up by the words of Louis XVI himself, as he wrote them down in his hunting journal: "Madame, you have fulfilled our wishes and those of France, you are the mother of Dauphin". He would, according to courtiers, try to frame sentences to put in the phrase "my son the Dauphin" in the weeks to come. It also helped that, three days before the birth, the majority of the fighting in the conflict in America had been concluded with the surrender of General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Marie Antoinette en chemise, portrait of the queen in a "muslin" dress, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783). This controversial portrait was viewed by her critics to be improper for a queen.
An engraving of Marie Antoinette à la paysanne, or Marie Antoinette as a peasant; she often dressed as one with her friends at her Hameau, imitating the simple life.<
This State Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1787) of Marie Antoinette and her children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph, was meant to help her reputation by depicting her as a mother and in simple, yet stately attire.
1782–1785: Declining popularity
Despite the general celebration over the birth of the Dauphin, Marie Antoinette's political influence, such as it was, did not benefit Austria. Instead, after the death of the comte de Maurepas, the influence of Vergennes was strengthened, and she was again left out of political affairs. The same happened during the so-called Kettle War, in which her brother Joseph attempted to open up the Scheldt River for naval passage. Later, another attempt by him to claim Bavaria was rebuffed as being against French interests.
When accused of being a "dupe" by her brother for her political inaction, Marie Antoinette responded that she had little power. The king rarely talked to her about policy, and his anti-Austrian education as a child fortified his refusals in allowing his wife any participation in his decisions. As a result, she had to pretend to his ministers that she was in his full confidence in order to get the information she wanted. This led the court to believe she had more power than she did. As she wrote, "Would it be wise of me to have scenes with his (Louis XVI's) ministers over matters on which it is practically certain the King would not support me?"
Her temperament was more suited to personally directing the education of her children. This was against the traditions of Versailles, where the queen usually had little say over the Enfants de France, as the royal children were called, and they were instead handed over to various courtiers who fought over the privilege. In particular, after the royal governess at the time of the Dauphin's birth, the princesse de Guéméné, went bankrupt and was forced to resign, there was a controversy over who should replace her. Marie Antoinette appointed her favourite, the duchesse de Polignac, to the position. This met with disapproval from the court, as the duchess was considered to be of too "immodest" a birth to occupy such an exalted position. On the other hand, both the king and queen trusted Mme de Polignac completely, and the duchess had children of her own to whom the queen had become attached.
In June 1783, Marie Antoinette was pregnant again. That same month, Count Axel von Fersen returned from America, in order to secure a military appointment, and he was accepted into her private society. He left in September to become a captain of the bodyguard for his sovereign, Gustavus III, the king of Sweden, who was conducting a tour of Europe. Marie Antoinette suffered a miscarriage on the night of 1–2 November 1783, prompting more fears for her health.
Trying to calm her mind, during Fersen's first visit, and later after his return on 7 June 1784, the queen occupied herself with the creation of the Hameau de la reine, a model hamlet in the garden of the Petit Trianon with a mill and 12 cottages, 9 of which are still standing. The Hameau was one of Marie Antoinette's contributions to augmenting the chateau at Versailles and it can to this day be viewed by the public. Its creation, however, unexpectedly caused another uproar when the actual price of the Hameau was inflated by her critics. In truth, it was copied from another, far grander "model village" built in 1774 for the prince de Condé on his estate at Chantilly. The comtesse de Provence's version included windmills and a marble dairyhouse. Started in 1783 and finished in 1787, to designs of the Queen's favoured architect, Richard Mique, the hamlet was complete with farmhouse, dairy, and mill. Public records indicate that in 1781 the Comtesse de Provence's bought land for her Hameau which was completed in 1783, just before work started on the Queen's Hameau. Also, the "Temple of Love" (a physical structure built as a part of the Queen's Hameau) bears a marked and striking resemblance to the rotunda of the Pavillon de Musique, which was the folie built by the Comtesse de Provence situated in her Hameau.
In addition to the creation of the Hameau, Marie Antoinette had other notable interests and activities. She became an avid reader of historical novels, and her scientific interest was piqued enough to become a witness to the launching of hot air balloons. She was fascinated by Rousseau's "back to nature" philosophy, as well as the culture of the Incas of Peru and their worship of the sun, about which she had books in her library. Briefly, she even sought out important British personages such as the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the British ambassador to France, the Duke of Dorset. She also developed an interest in learning English, and while she never became fluent, she was able to write in broken English to her friend, the Duchess of Devonshire, whose life was very similar to her own.
Despite the many things which she did in her spare time, her primary concern became the health of the Dauphin, which was beginning to fail. By the time Fersen returned to Versailles in 1784, it was widely thought that the sickly Dauphin would not live to be an adult. As a consequence, it was rumored that the king and queen were attempting to have another child. During this time, Beaumarchais' play The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Paris. After initially having been banned by the king due to its negative portrayal of the nobility, the play was ironically finally allowed to be publicly performed because of its overwhelming popularity at court, where secret readings of it had been given.
In August 1784, the queen reported that she was pregnant again. With the future enlargement of her family in mind, she bought the Château de Saint-Cloud, a place she had always loved, from the duc d'Orléans, the father of the previously disgraced duc de Chartres. She intended to leave it as an inheritance to her younger children without stipulation, but later realized that her children would not appreciate it. This was a hugely unpopular acquisition, particularly with some factions of the nobility who already disliked her, but also with a growing percentage of the population who felt shocked that a French queen might own her own residence, independent of the king. Despite having the baron de Breteuil working on her behalf, the purchase did not help improve the public's frivolous image of the queen. The château's expensive price, almost 6 million livres, plus the substantial extra cost of redecorating it, ensured that there was less money going towards repaying France's substantial debt.
On 27 March 1785, Marie Antoinette gave birth to a second son, Louis Charles, who was created the duc de Normandie. Louis Charles was visibly stronger than the sickly Dauphin, and the new baby was affectionately nicknamed by the queen, chou d'amour. The fact that this delivery occurred exactly nine months following Fersen's visit did not escape the attention of many, and though there is much doubt and historical speculation about the parentage of this child, public opinion towards her decreased noticeably. These suspicions of illegitimacy, along with the continued publication of the libelles, a never-ending cavalcade of court intrigues, the actions of Joseph II in the Kettle War, and her purchase of Saint-Cloud combined to sharply turn popular opinion against the queen, and the image of a licentious, spendthrift, empty-headed foreign queen was quickly taking root in the French psyche. A second daughter, Sophie Hélène Béatrice de France, was born on 9 July 1786, but died on 19 June 1787.
This State Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1787) of Marie Antoinette and her children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph, was meant to help her reputation by depicting her as a mother and in simple, yet stately attire.
Sophie Hélène Béatrice de France, Mademoiselle Sophie, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1786).The continuing deterioration of the financial situation in France – despite the fact that cutbacks in the royal retinue had been made – ultimately forced the king, in collaboration with his current Minister of Finance, Calonne, to call the Assembly of Notables, after a hiatus of 160 years. The assembly was held to try to pass some of the reforms needed to alleviate the financial situation when the Parlements refused to cooperate. The first meeting of the assembly took place on 22 February 1787, at which Marie Antoinette was not present. Later, her absence resulted in her being accused of trying to undermine the purpose of the assembly .
However, the Assembly was a failure with or without the queen, as it did not pass any reforms and instead fell into a pattern of defying the king, demanding other reforms and for the acquiescence of the Parlements. As a result, the king dismissed Calonne on 8 April 1787; Vergennes died on 13 February. The king, once more ignoring the queen's pro-Austrian candidate, appointed a childhood friend, the comte de Montmorin, to replace Vergennes as Foreign Minister.
During this time, even as her candidate was rejected, the queen began to abandon her more carefree activities to become more involved in politics than ever before, and mostly against the interests of Austria. This was for a variety of reasons. First, her children were Enfants de France, and thus their future as leaders of France needed to be assured. Second, by concentrating on her children, the queen sought to improve the dissolute image she had acquired from the "Diamond Necklace Affair", in which she had been accused of participating in a crime to defraud the crown jewelers of the cost of a very expensive diamond necklace. Third, the king had begun to withdraw from a decision-making role in government due to the onset of an acute case of depression from all the pressures he was under. The symptoms of this depression were passed off as drunkenness by the libelles. As a result, Marie Antoinette finally emerged as a politically viable entity, although that was never her actual intention. In her new capacity as a politician with a degree of power, the queen tried her best to help the situation brewing between the assembly and the king.
This change in her political role signalled the beginning of the end of the influence of the duchesse de Polignac, as Marie Antoinette began to dislike the duchesse's huge expenditures and their impact on the finances of the Crown. The duchesse left for England in May, leaving her children behind in Versailles. Also in May, Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, the archbishop of Toulouse and one of the queen's political allies, was appointed by the king to replace Calonne as the Finance Minister. He began instituting more cutbacks at court.
Brienne, though, was not able to improve the financial situation. Since he was her ally, this failure adversely affected the queen's political position. The continued poor financial climate of the country resulted in the 25 May dissolution of the Assembly of Notables because of its inability to get things done. This lack of solutions was unfairly blamed on the queen. In reality, the blame should have been placed on a combination of several other factors. There had been too many expensive wars, a too-large royal family whose large frivolous expenditures far exceeded those of the queen, and an unwillingness on the part of many of the aristocrats in charge to help defray the costs of the government out of their own pockets with higher taxes. Marie Antoinette earned the nickname of "Madame Déficit" in the summer of 1787 as a result of the public perception that she had singlehandedly ruined the finances of the nation.
The queen attempted to fight back with her own propaganda that portrayed her as a caring mother, most notably with the portrait of her and her children done by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, which premiered at the Royal Académie Salon de Paris in August 1787. This attack strategy was eventually dropped, however, because of the death of the queen's youngest child, Sophie. Around the same time, Jeanne de Lamotte-Valois escaped from prison in France and fled to London, where she published more damaging lies concerning her supposed "affair" with the queen.
The political situation in 1787 began to worsen when the Parlement was exiled, and culminated on 11 November, when the king tried to use a lit de justice to force through legislation. He was unexpectedly challenged by his formerly disgraced cousin, the duc de Chartres, who had inherited the title of duc d'Orléans at the death of his father in 1785. The new duc d'Orléans publicly protested the king's actions, and was subsequently exiled. The May Edicts issued on 8 May 1788 were also opposed by the public. Finally, on 8 July and 8 August, the king announced his intention to bring back the Estates General, the traditional elected legislature of the country which had not been convened since 1614.
Marie Antoinette was not directly involved with the exile of the Parlement, the May Edicts or with the announcement regarding the Estates General. Her primary concern in late 1787 and 1788 was instead the improved health of the Dauphin. He was suffering from tuberculosis, which in his case had twisted and curved his spinal column severely. He was brought to the château at Meudon in the hope that its country air would help the young boy recover. Unfortunately, the move did little to alleviate the Dauphin's condition, which gradually continued to deteriorate.
The queen, however, was present with her daughter, Marie-Therese, when Tippu Sahib of Mysore visited Versailles seeking help against the British. More importantly she was instrumental in the recall of Jacques Necker as Finance Minister on 26 August, a popular move, even though she herself was worried that the recall would again go against her if Necker was unsuccessful in reforming the country's finances.
Her prediction began to come true when bread prices started to rise due to the severe 1788–1789 winter. The Dauphin's condition worsened even more, riots broke out in Paris in April, and on 26 March, Louis XVI himself almost died from a fall off the roof.
"Come, Léonard, dress my hair, I must go like an actress, exhibit myself to a public that may hiss me", the queen quipped to her hairdresser, who was one of her "ministers of fashion", as she prepared for the Mass celebrating the return of the Estates General on 4 May 1789. She knew that her rival, the duc d'Orléans, who had given money and bread to the people during the winter, would be popularly acclaimed by the crowd much to her detriment. The Estates General convened the next day.
During the month of May, the Estates General began to fracture between the democratic Third Estate (consisting of the bourgeoisie and radical nobility), and the royalist nobility of the Second Estate, while the king's brothers began to become more hardline. Despite these developments, the queen could only think about her son, the dying Dauphin. With his mother at his side, the seven-year old boy passed away at Meudon on 4 June, succumbing to tuberculosis, and leaving the title of Dauphin to his younger brother, Louis Charles. His death, which would have normally been nationally mourned, was virtually ignored by the French people, who were instead preparing for the next meeting of the Estates General, and hoping for a resolution to the bread crisis. As the Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly and took the Tennis Court Oath, and as others listened to rumors that the queen wished to bathe in their blood, Marie Antoinette went into mourning for her eldest son.
A portrait of Marie Antoinette, painted around 1791, by Alexandre Kucharsky.
Arrest of Louis XVI and his family in Varennes 1791
July 1789–1792: The French RevolutionThe situation began to escalate violently in June as the National Assembly began to demand more rights, and Louis XVI began to push back with efforts to suppress the Third Estate. However, the king's ineffectiveness and the queen's unpopularity undermined the monarchy as an institution, and so these attempts failed. Then, on 11 July, Necker was dismissed. Paris was besieged by riots at the news, which culminated in the storming of the Bastille on 14 July.
In the days and weeks that followed, many of the most conservative, reactionary royalists, including the comte d'Artois and the duchesse de Polignac, fled France for fear of assassination. Marie Antoinette, whose life was the most in danger, stayed behind in order to help the king promote stability, even as his power was gradually being taken away by the National Constituent Assembly, which was now ruling Paris and conscripting men to serve in the Garde Nationale.
By the end of August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (La Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen) was adopted, which officially created the beginning of a constitutional monarchy in France. Despite this, the king was still required to perform certain court ceremonies, even as the situation in Paris became worse due to a bread shortage in September. On 5 October, a mob from Paris descended upon Versailles and forced the royal family, along with the comte de Provence, his wife and Madame Elisabeth, to move to Paris under the watchful eye of the Garde Nationale. The king and queen were installed in the Tuileries Palace under surveillance. During this limited house arrest, Marie Antoinette conveyed to her friends that she did not intend to involve herself any further in French politics, as everything, whether or not she was involved, would inevitably be attributed to her anyway and she feared the repercussions of further involvement.
Despite the situation, Marie Antoinette was still required to perform charitable functions and to attend certain religious ceremonies, which she did. Most of her time, however, was dedicated to her children.
Despite her attempts to remain out of the public eye, she was falsely accused in the libelles of having an affair with the commander of the Garde Nationale, the marquis de La Fayette. In reality, she loathed the marquis for his liberal tendencies and for being partially responsible for the royal family's forced departure from Versailles. This was not the only accusation Marie Antoinette faced from such "libelles." In such pamphlets as "Le Godmiché Royal", (translated, "The Royal Dildo"), it was suggested that she routinely engaged in deviant sexual acts of various sorts, most famously with the English Baroness 'Lady Sophie Farrell' of Bournemouth, a renowned lesbian of the time. From acting as a tribade, (in her case in the lesbian sense), to sleeping with her son, Marie Antoinette was constantly an object of rumor and false accusations of committing sexual acts with partners other than the king. Later, allegations of this sort (from incest to orgiastic excesses) were used to justify her execution. Ultimately, none of the charges of sexual depravity have any credible evidentiary support. Marie Antoinette was simply an easy target for rumor and criticism.
Constantly monitored by revolutionary spies within her own household, the queen played little or no part in the writing of the French Constitution of 1791, which greatly weakened the king's authority. She, nevertheless, hoped for a future where her son would still be able to rule, convinced that the violence would soon pass.
During this time, there were many plots designed to help members of the royal family escape. The queen rejected several because she would not leave without the king. Other opportunities to rescue the family were ultimately frittered away by the indecisive king. Once the king finally did commit to a plan, his indecision played an important role in its poor execution and ultimate failure. In an elaborate attempt to escape from Paris to the royalist stronghold of Montmédy planned by Count Axel von Fersen and the baron de Breteuil, some members of the royal family were to pose as the servants of a wealthy Russian baroness. Initially, the queen rejected the plan because it required her to leave with only her son. She wished instead for the rest of the royal family to accompany her. The king wasted time deciding upon which members of the family should be included in the venture, what the departure date should be, and the exact path of the route to be used. After many delays, the escape ultimately occurred on 21 June 1791, and was a failure. The entire family was captured twenty-four hours later at Varennes and taken back to Paris within a week.
The result of the fiasco was a further decline in the popularity of both the king and queen. The Jacobin Party successfully exploited the failed escape to advance its radical agenda. Its members called for the end to any type of monarchy in France.
Though the new constitution was adopted on 3 September, Marie Antoinette hoped through the end of 1791 that the political drift she saw occurring toward representative democracy could be stopped and rolled back. She fervently hoped that the constitution would prove unworkable, and also that her brother, the new Holy Roman emperor, Leopold II, would find some way to defeat the revolutionaries. However, she was unaware that Leopold was more interested in taking advantage of France's state of chaos for the benefit of Austria than in helping his sister and her family, despite many demands from both citizens and even soldiers to have the Austrian Army invade France and rescue Marie.
The result of Leopold's aggressive tendencies, and those of his son Francis II, who succeeded him in March, was that France declared war on Austria on 20 April 1792. This caused the queen to be viewed as an enemy, even though she was personally against Austrian claims on French lands. The situation became compounded in the summer when French armies were continually being defeated by the Austrians and the king vetoed several measures that would have restricted his power even further. During this time, due to his political activities, Louis received the nickname "Monsieur Veto" – and the name "Madame Veto" was likewise subsequently bequeathed on Marie Antoinette. These names were then prominently featured in different contexts, including La Carmagnole.
Marie Antoinette with her children and Madame Élisabeth, when the mob broke into the Tuileries Palace on 20 June 1792.On 20 June, "a mob of terrifying aspect" broke into the Tuileries and made the king wear the bonnet rouge (red Phrygian cap) to show his loyalty to France.
The vulnerability of the king was exposed on 10 August when an armed mob, on the verge of forcing its way into the Tuileries Palace, forced the king and the royal family to seek refuge at the Legislative Assembly. An hour and a half later, the palace was invaded by the mob who massacred the Swiss Guards. On 13 August, the royal family was imprisoned in the tower of the Temple in the Marais under conditions considerably harsher than their previous confinement in the Tuileries.
A week later, many of the royal family's attendants, among them the princesse de Lamballe, were taken in for interrogation by the Paris Commune. Transferred to the La Force prison, she was one of the victims of the September Massacres, killed on 3 September. Her head was affixed on a pike and marched through the city. Although Marie Antoinette did not see the head of her friend as it was paraded outside her prison window, she fainted upon learning about the gruesome end that had befallen her faithful companion.
On 21 September, the fall of the monarchy was officially declared, and the National Convention became the legal authority of France. The royal family was re-styled as the non-royal "Capets". Preparations for the trial of the king in a court of law began.
Charged with undermining the First French Republic, Louis was separated from his family and tried in December. He was found guilty by the Convention, led by the Jacobins who rejected the idea of keeping him as a hostage. However, the sentence did not come until one month later, when he was condemned to execution by guillotine.
The result was that the "Widow Capet", as the former queen was called after the death of her husband, plunged into deep mourning; she refused to eat or do any exercise. There is no knowledge of her proclaiming her son as Louis XVII; however, the comte de Provence, in exile, recognised his nephew as the new king of France and took the title of Regent. Marie-Antoinette's health rapidly deteriorated in the following months. By this time she suffered from tuberculosis and possibly uterine cancer, which caused her to hemorrhage frequently.
Despite her condition, the debate as to her fate was the central question of the National Convention after Louis's death. There were those who had been advocating her death for some time, while some had the idea of exchanging her for French prisoners of war or for a ransom from the Holy Roman Emperor. Thomas Paine advocated exile to America. Starting in April, however, a Committee of Public Safety was formed, and men such as Jacques Hébert were beginning to call for Antoinette's trial; by the end of May, the Girondins had been chased out of power and arrested. Other calls were made to "retrain" the Dauphin, to make him more pliant to revolutionary ideas. This was carried out when the eight year old boy Louis Charles was separated from Antoinette on 3 July, and given to the care of a cobbler. On 1 August, she herself was taken out of the Tower and entered into the Conciergerie as Prisoner No. 280. Despite various attempts to get her out, such as the Carnation Plot in September, Marie Antoinette refused when the plots for her escape were brought to her attention. While in the Conciergerie, she was attended by her last servant, Rosalie Lamorlière.
She was finally tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14 October. Unlike the king, who had been given time to prepare a defence, the queen's trial was far more of a sham, considering the time she was given (less than one day). Among the things she was accused of (most, if not all, of the accusations were untrue and probably lifted from rumours begun by libelles) were orchestrating orgies in Versailles, sending millions of livres of treasury money to Austria, plotting to kill the Duke of Orléans, incest with her son, declaring her son to be the new king of France and orchestrating the massacre of the Swiss Guards in 1792.
The most infamous charge was that she sexually abused her son. This was according to Louis Charles, who, through his coaching by Hébert and his guardian, accused his mother. After being reminded that she had not answered the charge of incest, Marie Antoinette protested emotionally to the accusation, and the women present in the courtroom – the market women who had stormed the palace for her entrails in 1789 – ironically began to support her. She had been composed throughout the trial until this accusation was made, to which she finally answered, "If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother."
However, in reality the outcome of the trial had already been decided by the Committee of Public Safety around the time the Carnation Plot was uncovered, and she was declared guilty of treason in the early morning of 16 October, after two days of proceedings. Back in her cell, she composed a moving letter to her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth, affirming her clear conscience, her Catholic faith and her feelings for her children. The letter did not reach Élisabeth.
On the same day, her hair was cut off and she was driven through Paris in an open cart, wearing a simple white dress. At 12:15 pm, two and a half weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday, she was executed at the Place de la Révolution (present-day Place de la Concorde). Her last words were "Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it", to Henri Sanson the executioner, whose foot she had accidentally stepped on after climbing the scaffold. Her body was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery, rue d'Anjou, (which was closed the following year).
Her sister-in-law Élisabeth was executed in 1794 and her son died in prison in 1795. Her daughter returned to Austria in a prisoner exchange, married and died childless in 1851.
Both her body and that of Louis XVI were exhumed on 18 January 1815, during the Bourbon Restoration, when the comte de Provence had become King Louis XVIII. Christian burial of the royal remains took place three days later, on 21 January, in the necropolis of French Kings at the Basilica of St Denis.
Marie Antoinette Tuilleries 20th June 1792
Marie Antoinette being taken to her execution 1794
Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine. (Pen and ink by Jacques-Louis David, 16 October 1793)