Thursday, April 2, 2009

Marie-Antoinette: The Artist Within

Toronto artist Gabriela Delworth is hosting an online celebration of Marie-Antoinette and the arts this week. Please visit Gabriela's beautiful blog for a plunge into creativity from the past and present. I am honored to have been invited to contribute the following article about Marie-Antoinette and her needlework:
Too often the popular image of Queen Marie-Antoinette over the years has been that of a woman of few accomplishments, interested in nothing but clothes and jewelry. Such an image does a great disservice to a lady who among her many interests acquired a mastery of the art of needlework in her short life. Like all girls of aristocratic birth, Marie-Antoinette was taught sewing and embroidery as a child. One pastel sketch of the young Archduchess Antonia shows her “knotting,” a form of tatting in which a shuttle was used. Ladies often carried a knotting shuttle around with them just as they would carry a fan.

Later, when Marie-Antoinette was sent to France at age fourteen to marry the heir to the throne, she continued to have lessons in embroidery along with lessons in dancing and music. When being read to or even when conversing with friends and family, her hands were not idle, but busy with handiwork. (The Life of Marie Antoinette by Maxime de La Rocheterie, translated by Cora Hamilton Bell. London., 1893, pp 46, 107) In July of 1770, she wrote the following words to her mother Empress Maria Theresa: “I read, write, or work since I am embroidering a waistcoat for the King which has not progressed much, but I hope that with God’s grace, it will be finished in a few years.” (Secrets of Marie-Antoinette: A Collection of Letters, ed. By Olivier Bernier, Fromm International, 1986, p. 40)

While Marie-Antoinette’s progress as an adolescent may have been slow, over the years she became quite adept, embroidering upholstery for chairs and cushions, as well as church vestments. She was skilled with petit point and tapestry, creating her own designs. This is known especially because of the artifacts which remain from her days in prison, such as the silk purse she crafted and embroidered with tiny rosebuds for her children’s governess Madame de Tourzel, a piece which was recently up for auction.

Marie-Antoinette’s daughter reports how in the Temple prison the Queen “worked a good deal of tapestry.” (Private Memoirs by Madame Royale, translated by John Wilson Croker, London,1823, p. 184) While awaiting death in the Conciergerie the Queen steadied her nerves by embroidering a cherub on a piece of tapestry. The work was never completed.



May said...

That part about the cherub is so poignant!

Thanks, a very interesting article.

Passages to the Past said...

you've got an award waiting for you - stop by my place and pick it up!

Christina said...

Beautiful portrait! I recognized the tatting shuttle instantly.

The examples of the Queen's handwork are exquisite. Sadly, in the past handcrafting and especially "women's work" was not recognized as art. I think that is changing now, with the renewed popularity of crafting of all kinds.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, all. Sometimes I wonder if the face of the cherub was supposed to resemble Louis-Charles, who at the time was being brutalized by his jailers. I don't know, but I wonder.

Anonymous said...

Is there a tradition in art history of the period of depicting devout women with handcrafts of thread of some kind? The Orthodox sacred art form frequently makes use of the New Eve trope to communicate Our Lady with a spindle
Indeed many of their icons have the fabric in the background edifices start out hanging on the left and only proceed to drape across to the right upon our Lord's Nativity. Would the youthful portrait with spindle indicate an unmarried virginal subject, perhaps to be exchanged during a favorable courtship (one hears of such things with Queen Mary, that she sent Philip images of herself to woo him)?

I've seen contemporary woodblock Jesuit catechetical materials with similar depictions with skeins of wool, just can't locate where (at Fr. Felix Just's homepage perhaps)? Neat to think that perhaps even when sitting for a personal portrait that faith set the stage for intimate affairs amongst the aristocracy...?

God Bless
Clare Krishan