A Close Look: Marie Antoinette

Details in NOMA's 1788 masterpiece by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

By New Orleans Museum of Art

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (1788) by Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le BrunNew Orleans Museum of Art

Marie Antoinette

Born an archduchess of Austria in 1755, Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI of France at the Palace of Versailles. Known as a fashion icon to European courts, she was Queen of France from 1774 until the King and Queen's execution by guillotine in 1793 during the French Revolution. This online exhibit looks closely at this regal painting of Marie Antoinette held by the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

NOMA’s painting is the work of the esteemed French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, shown here in her self-portrait at the The National Gallery, London. One of the most important painters of the eighteenth century, Vigée Le Brun became one of only four women admitted to France’s Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (or “The Academy”).

Madame Grand (Noël Catherine Vorlée, 1761–1835) (1783/1783) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le BrunThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

A gifted painter, Vigée Le Brun established her career flattering French nobility and celebrities, like “Madame Grand.” In the 1780s Vigée Le Brun completed at least thirty portraits of Marie Antoinette, who she counted as one of her life-long friends.

Marie-Antoinette (after 1783) by after Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le BrunNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In 1783 Vigée Le Brun scandalously exhibited this portrait of the Queen wearing a fashionable muslin chemise. The simple white dress closely resembled period underwear, so was deemed unsuitable for royalty.

LIFE Photo Collection

The scandalous chemise painting was quickly replaced with this similar one, showing the queen in a formal "robe à la française" gown patriotically made of Lyonnaise silk.

LIFE Photo Collection

With the Queen’s popularity falling, Vigée Le Brun painted the Queen sympathetically with her three children. The 1787 painting failed to turn the tides of history, but is held as a French artistic masterpiece at Versailles.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (1788) by Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le BrunNew Orleans Museum of Art

A Regal Statement

NOMA's 1788 painting was commissioned by the Comte d’Artois, younger brother of Louis XVI. It is nearly identical to a version kept in the studio by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun that is held at Versailles today. Painted as the calls for revolution in France grew louder, Vigée Le Brun presents her friend Marie Antoinette as timeless, powerful European royalty. With cruel irony, the luxurious painting was completed during a historically severe winter that brought widespread starvation to the French countryside and bread riots to Paris. 

The scale of this nine foot tall painting is incredibly grand, suitable for palatial architecture. Indicators of power and extreme wealth are shown in every detail.

From the Queen’s large diamond earrings…

...to the rich trim and tassels (passementerie) on the floor pillow, every detail serves to elevate the Queen.

If you follow the gesture of Marie's hand, your eye sees the most obvious symbol of her rank: a jeweled crown on a velvet pillow.

The stylized lily flower, or fleur-de-lis, is seen on both the top of the crown and on the pillow.

Since ancient times the fleur-de-lis was used as a symbol, and was adopted by the French monarchy as early as the 1200s. It became closely associated with Louis XVI’s ancestry, the House of Bourbon.

The crown sits on a table covered with a thick red velvet cloth embroidered heavily with gold metallic threads.

Included in the design is the double-headed eagle symbolizing Marie’s Austrian family, the House of Habsburg.

In her lap the Queen holds a leather book embossed with her personal coats-of-arms symbolizing the European dynastic union of her marriage to Louis XVI.

One circle has three fleurs-de-lis representing the French Bourbons, and the other represents the arrangement of eagles, shield, and crown of the Habsburgs.

Another focal point reminds us of the intent of the dynastic union: to produce an heir. Artists often include flower bouquets in portraits of women to symbolize love, fertility, and femininity.

This vase of flowers is really a painting within a painting, with beautifully detailed peonies, carnations, and hyacinth.

The spray of flowers casually strewn on the table suggests that perhaps Marie herself was engaged with arranging the flowers.

The purple flowers could be “Lunaria” (commonly “Honesty,”) a native to Austria like Marie. The plant produces translucent seed pods called “money plants” or in French “Monnaie du pape” (Pope’s money.)

Décoration d'intérieur

Vigée Le Brun’s painting shows stately versions of several styles, establishing Marie Antoinette as timeless. Rococo curves tie the queen to the 18th-century height of the monarchy, but more "Modern" Neoclassical elements connect Marie to ancient cultures. The artist included the same table covering and much the same interior on an earlier (1778) painting displayed by Marie’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, now held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In Neoclassical style, the columns and architectural details reference Classic Greece and Rome. The 1780s began the shift toward the look of the Ancients, with motifs like Acanthus leaves and empire waist dresses emulated widely.

The silver vase has a quintessential Classical urn shape on a pedestal base. It is ornamented with only a simple band, to focus on geometric shape rather than applied decoration.

The exuberant Rococo style originated in the court of Louis XV in the 1730s and was fashionable for the next thirty years. Rococo included curves, asymmetry, lighter colors, and natural elements like the rock- and shell-work (Rocaille, in French) that gave the style its name.

The floral Rococo carpet is likely French. The light ground, pastel colors, and flowers point to Aubusson in Central France, where workshops were established in 1743 to produce carpets for the nobility.

Marie Antoinette sits in a perfect icon of the French Rococo, a “Louis XV” style armchair called a "fauteuil à la reine" in French. Covered in ornament, the chair features leaves, shells, C-scrolls, and garlands in abundance.

Certainly of Parisian manufacture, this ornate chair was the work of a chairmaker (menuisier) working with other regulated specialty makers-- designers, carvers, painter-gilders, bronze mount makers, and upholsterers (tapissier-garnisseur).

Likely a chair of this sophistication would have been signed or stamped on the seat rails by the menuisiers.

Robe à la mode

One of history’s greatest fashion icons, Marie Antoinette’s clothing has been thoroughly analyzed from her time to now. Criticized (and doomed) by her excessive spending on silks, gowns and jewels, Marie Antoinette’s adornment nonetheless carried political and personal messages in fashion, one of the only communication modes available to an 18th-century French Queen.

In this painting, Marie wears a rich blue velvet manteau (gown) trimmed with Russian sable fur that continues onto the white satin underskirt, or petticoat.

The gown is the creation of Rose Bertin, the Queen’s dressmaker and “Minister of Fashion,” who possibly made this ensemble for Marie during her first pregnancy in 1781.

The looser fit was unrestricting by the court standards of the 18th century. The ensemble together is a type of "robe à la lévite," an outfit associated with a supple gown and close-fitting long sleeves.

The “robe à la lévite” has a relaxed collar instead of the plumped up décolletage of formal gowns. Marie wears a light fichu (handkerchief) that makes the neckline less revealing. Ironically the loose neckline was more controversial because it allowed access to a woman's body.

The lévite’s wrist-length sleeves, likewise, presented controversy for their association with masculine horse-riding jackets. Marie was an avid equestrian, known for riding astride rather than side saddle.

The fabric gathers at the bent elbow shows a relative loose fit that allowed The Queen movement.

While stately to modern eyes and lustrous by any standards, here Marie Antoinette presents a relaxed domestic appearance in not wearing the wide side panniers or a boned bodice more usual to traditional French court styles.

Marie Antoinette pioneered towering “pouf” hairstyles in the 1770s with her famed hairdresser, Léonard Autié. The fashion had tamed somewhat by the 1780s, but did not go out of fashion until the fall of the monarchy.

The sable fur trim of the gown is found again on the large turban-style “toque” headpiece.

Her aigrette (head plume) has a vertical egret feather and two swooping ostrich feathers, anchored by diamonds.

Ostrich plumes were the latest fashion, and tremendously expensive, available at the time only by hunting wild birds in Saharan Africa.

Marie Antoinette wears her powdered hair in “la coiffure à l'enfant,” a casual style she pioneered after the birth of her children. In place of towering “poufs,” hair was cut short around the face and teased, leaving full curls hanging in the back.

Pièce de résistance 

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s 1788 painting served as political propaganda in support of Marie Antoinette, a Queen soon to be overthrown by democratic Revolution and assigned a legacy of spendthrift corruption that doomed a historical monarchy.  Le Brun carefully constructed the image of the Queen to be naturally regal and timeless, yet without forsaking her celebrated fashion notoriety. From the royal blue of her gown to the pillow elevating her feet, Marie Antoinette’s status is emphasized by the inclusion of luxurious objects and references to European royalty.

Credits: Story

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, 1755 – 1842), Portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, 1788. Oil on canvas, 109 ½ x 75 ½ in. New Orleans Museum of Art, Women’s Volunteer Committee and Carrie Heiderich Funds, 85.90

Story compiled and written by Mel Buchanan, Curator of Decorative Arts & Design, NOMA.

Research credit to Kelsey M. Brosnan and Tracy Kennan.

Reference:

Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (Henry Holt and Co., 2006)

"Fashion History Timeline" © 2021 Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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