Adolf Fredrik Wertmüller was commissioned by King Gustav III to paint this portrait of Marie Antoinette and two of her children. The painting was displayed at the Salon in Paris in 1785, four years before the French Revolution. Wertmüller’s autobiography explains how the portrait came about:
“I travelled […] to Versailles and from there to Petit Trianon, where she spent her summers. That is where I painted portraits of her and the Princess, who was six years old at the time. The Queen welcomed me with the greatest of kindness and distinction, and gave the order that I should paint His Highness The Dauphin at La Muette [the residence of the French Crown Prince] while I was here.” […] “I then headed back to Paris and painted a large canvas of natural size and the full length of the person[s].”
From Art in Focus 4, Marie-Antoinette. Portrait of a Queen. Nationalmuseum, 1989. p. 23
Wertmüller ordered two mannequins for his studio in Paris – one for the Dauphin’s portrait and one for the Princess. It was common to lend the portraitist the clothing that you wanted to be depicted in. It is therefore assumed that the costumes in which the mannequins were dressed actually belonged to the Royal children. Wertmüller also ordered a special coiffure from the Queen’s wigmaker Monsieur Léonard, and he is likely to have had access to the robe à la turque (Turkish dress) that Marie Antoinette is wearing in the portrait.
Wertmüller portrays the Queen in an environment where she spent much of her time: the gardens surrounding her palace Petit Trianon, near Versailles. It is the Queen’s role as a mother that is highlighted in the portrait, in the spirit of Rousseau. This is a conscious choice, part of a strategy to change the official image of Marie Antoinette from a frivolous foreigner who loved life’s luxuries to the mother of all France. Princess Marie-Thérèse Charlotte has dropped a rose on the ground. Perhaps she pricked herself on a thorn? The dress does have small flecks of blood on it. The Dauphin is holding tightly onto his mother’s dress.
Marie Antoinette was 30 years old when the portrait was painted. Louis-Joseph was four. He died three years later of tuberculosis. Marie-Thérèse Charlotte was the only member of the family to survive the Revolution.