Friday, August 1, 2008

Portrait of a Queen

As readers of Trianon may recall, the novel opens with a scene of Madame Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun painting what became the portrait (above) of Marie-Antoinette and her children. Catherine Delors relates how, according to Madame Campan, it is one of the most accurate portrayals of the Queen, the other being the 1788 portrait by Wertmüller (below). To quote Madame Delors:
This portrait shows Marie-Antoinette in 1788, when she was 33. It was painted by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, a Swede who was a member of the Royal Academy in Paris.

Indeed, according to Madame Campan's Memoirs, this is, along with the more famous portrait of the Queen with her children by Madame Vigee-Lebrun, the best likeness of Marie-Antoinette.

Madame Campan, as the Queen's Premiere Femme de Chambre, or First Chambermaid, saw Marie-Antoinette on a daily basis. I trust her judgment on the matter of the likeness.

You can see a shift in the manner in which Marie-Antoinette chose to be depicted, one short year before the Revolution. For one thing, the emphasis is no longer on ornate dresses, giant paniers or shimmering fabrics. Neither is the Queen dressed "en gaulle," in a simple white linen gown. That portrait, beautiful as it is, was the subject of much derision. People remarked jokingly that the Queen had been painted in her chemise.

Here Marie-Antoinette seems to be wearing a simple riding habit. No accusations of immodesty can be made because her kerchief comes up to her chin.

The sobriety and dark colors of the clothing shift the attention to the Queen's face. The features are also different from earlier images. The nose is less small and straight, the lips are thicker, the eyes more prominent than in Madame Lebrun's idealized portraits.

But I read a lot of energy and determination in these eyes, no longer dreamy, in the manner in which the head is proudly held backwards. This is the Queen who will assume a foremost political role during the Revolution. I believe that Madame Campan is right. Here at last we get a glimpse of the real Marie-Antoinette.
As much as I love the work of Madame Lebrun, it is true that in many of her portraits of Marie-Antoinette she was aiming for the misty, dreamy look, rather than an accurate likeness. While the en gaulle portrait (on the sidebar of this blog) is definitely an idealized representation, it embodies the life of simplicity and innocence which the Queen tried to create at Petit Trianon.

Coraje! Coraje no se necesita para morir, coraje se necesita para vivir Share