Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Portraits of Marie Antoinette Sparked Scandal—Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About the Royal Image

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, still manages to mesmerize the masses. Some 230 years after her grisly demise, her most powerful legacy, in many senses, is her image, with its complex and contradictory forms.

Visions and revisions of the Austrian-born Queen have inspired astounding biographies, fictions, films (including Sofia Coppola’s aughts classic), fever-pitched bidding at auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s alike, and of course, countless fashion spreads. Just now, the Getty Center in Los Angeles is hosting “Porcelain from Versailles: Vases for a King & Queen,” an exhibition devoted to two sumptuous Sèvres porcelain vases owned by the royals. This very week, a new television series Marie Antoinette, created by Deborah Davis, the writer of The Favourite, is making its U.S. debut on PBS. 

In her own lifetime, Marie Antoinette consciously constructed her public-facing image—oftentimes to her own detriment. Born Maria Antonia Anna Josepha, she was the 15th child and youngest daughter of the astute Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan of Lorraine, rulers of the Habsburg empire. Regarded as an undeniably beautiful, but somewhat frivolous child, Marie Antoinette was thrust into the public and political eye when, at the age of 11, it was agreed that the young Archduchess of Austria would marry Louis XVI, the Dauphin of France and heir to the French throne.

 Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France

Joseph Ducreux, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France (1769). Collection of the Château de Versailles.

The would-be Queen’s painted image played a pivotal role even in these earliest moments. In 1769, the French artist Joseph Ducreux traveled to Vienna to paint the young Maria Antonia and his resulting portrait, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, acted as Louis XVI’s first glimpse of his soon-to-be wife. Her visage was met with approval and, in 1770, at the tender age of 14, she was sent to France where she wed the shy 15-year-old Dauphin. 

The new Queen’s position in the court remained tenuous for over a decade, as the betrothed royals failed to consummate their marriage; Marie Antoinette was unable to produce an heir, thus making an annulment of their marriage a possibility. Her first child Marie-Thérèse wasn’t born until 1778, and Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France and heir apparent, until 1781. In the intervening years, she had become keenly aware of how she presented herself. “As long as an annulment was possible, she had to cultivate an ‘appearance of credit’ with the King,” wrote Judith Thurman in a 2006 New Yorker essay on the Queen. The young Queen, then, sought to cultivate the air of sway and power, even as she felt she had little. 

Still from Marie Antoinette, a television series with a new take on the life of the queen, which debuts on PBS in the U.S. on March 19.

Still from Marie Antoinette, a television series with a new take on the life of the Queen, which debuts on PBS in the U.S. on March 19.

Marie Antoinette favored Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the leading woman artist of her era, as a frequent court painter, in helping her bring this image to life. A celebrated portraitist, Vigée Le Brun imbued her paintings with singular naturalism and sensitivity, while embracing the pastel tones of late Rococo and elements of the emerging Neoclassical style.

Having painted her first major official portrait of Marie Antoinette in 1778, Vigée Le Brun would go on to paint some 30 portraits of the Queen over the next six years. This artistic alliance would bring the artist fame, money, and prestige, but would cost her her safety as well. In 1789, at the dawn of the revolution, Vigée Le Brun, a lifelong royalist, made the infinitely wise decision to flee France with her daughter, disguised in tattered clothes, so as to escape the consequences of her allegiance to the Queen. 

Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783), which belongs to the Palace of Versailles, is among Vigée Le Brun’s most famed portraits of the monarch. Picturing the Queen in a blue silk dress, with fantastic ostrich plumes in her hair, delicately holding a rose, the image is once imperial and naturalistic—an indelible vision of Marie Antoinette. But, as with every image of this Queen, political and cultural angling is happening right on the surface of the canvas. 

We’ve taken a closer look at Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783) and found three facts that might help you see it in a whole new light.

 It Had an Infamously ‘Austrian’ Counterpart

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress. Found in the Collection of Schloss Wolfsgarten. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Often we say there is a story behind the story. In this instance, there is a painting before the painting.

One of the premier artists of her age, and one of very few women artists in the Academy, Vigée Le Brun was invited to show in the 1783 Paris Salon. For the exhibition, the Queen agreed to have her most recent portrait—Marie Antoinette en robe de gaulle (Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress)—displayed to the public. The painting depicted the Queen in pastoral attire, donning a muslin cotton dress with a blue sash, a straw hat, and free of jewels. 

The dress had been designed by dressmaker Rose Bertin, a popular French designer and a favorite of Queen’s. Bertin, a woman born to modest means, had become a competitively sought-after marchande de modes and was dressmaker to a stylish cohort including Vigée Le Brun herself, as well as the infamous Madame du Barry, the longtime mistress of King Louis XV. Bertin’s styles were often unconventional, sending early shockwaves through more traditional circles. 

Marie Antoinette holds a rose, a symbol of her Hapsburg birth.

Though idyllic from a contemporary perspective, Vigée Le Brun’s painting sparked a furor in French society for its perceived lack of dignity. To many, the muslin dress read as bold insult to the public; rather than presenting herself as a regal queen deserving of respect, she attired herself in what many deemed to be her underwear, roleplaying a country girl. 

During this era, Marie Antoinette particularly enjoyed spending time at her beloved Petit Trianon, a small château the King had gifted her on the grounds of Versailles, far from the palace and a sanctuary from the court life she deplored. There, the Queen had a functioning dairy, chickens, and other animals, and enjoyed an idyllic, if amusement-park-like, version of country life, and where she dressed informally, in-keeping with Vigée Le Brun’s portrait. 

George Romney, Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia (1787–88). Collection of the MFA Boston. The English sitter is shown in the chemise la rein style that had scandalized the public just a few years before.

George Romney, Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia (1787–88). Collection of the MFA Boston. The English sitter is shown in the chemise la rein style that had scandalized the public just a few years before.

Many saw this first painting as evidence of the Queen’s unwillingness to assimilate to French court life. The rose that appears in both portraits stands as symbol of her Hapsburg family heritage. The dress itself was scandalously made from imported cotton instead of French silk, an industry that was flailing at the time. One critic decried the image, saying it would be better titled “France Dressed as Austria, Reduced to Covering Herself with Straw.” The art historian Mary Sheriff surmised that the painting “was read as indicating the Queen’s desire to escape being French, to bring what was alien into the heart of the French realm.” With the outrage mounting, Vigée Le Brun withdrew the portrait and quickly painted Marie Antoinette with a Rose as a replacement, which was displayed before the Salon ended

Despite the public outcry, this very same chemise-style gown would soon become a fashion rage in France and England, even earning the name chemise à la reine, or nightdress of the queen, cementing the association.


The Painting Places French Fashion First

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783). Collection of the Palace of Versailles, Versailles

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783). Collection of the Palace of Versailles, Versailles

Marie Antoinette with a Rose presents our infamous monarch in a much more formal attire than its predecessor and acts as a direct artistic appeal to the public, underscoring the political muscle of Vigée Le Brun’s portraiture. 

“Vigee Lebrun’s career raises important questions about artists’ relationships to social change, for artists do not reproduce dominant ideology passively; they participate in its construction and alteration. Artists work in and also on ideology,” remarked art historian Griselda Pollock in her essay “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians.” 

“This painting represented Marie Antoinette in a blue-gray silk robe à la française and rich pearl jewelry, attributes that better attested to both her majesty and her Frenchness,” describes historian Caroline Weber. 

Detail of Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783).

Detail of Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783).

The blue silk and lace trim were both nods to France’s own industries, while, in her hair, she wears a turban set with large plumes of ostrich feathers. The bird’s feathers were a signal of great wealth, as they had to be imported from Africa—also hinting at the scope of the French empire and its conquests. In one more twist, by the beginning of the Revolution in the following years, the very robe à la française, pictured here to appease the public, would fall quickly out of favor for its associations with the aristocracy. 

These two paintings—Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress and Marie Antoinette with a Rose—together reenact on canvas a lived moment from the Queen’s young life. Upon reaching the French border, the teenage soon-to-be Queen, dressed in an opulent Austrian wedding dress, was met by members of the French court and stripped to her underwear. Crying, the Queen bid goodbyes to her friends and her beloved dog Mops, who were sent back to Austria—and she was redressed publicly in the French style. This act, a symbolic stripping of her Austrian ways and her adornment in the French, was described a process of making her “a thousand times more charming.”


A Queen—and a Painter—Caught Between Two Worlds

Caricature Showing Marie Antoinette as a Dragon, French, 18th century. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Caricature Showing Marie Antoinette as a Dragon, French, 18th century. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painting a portrait of Marie Antoinette was in many ways a double bind. During her many precarious years at the court, the young monarch had made conscious decisions about how she would attempt to preserve her perceived relevance, amid swirling rumors of the king’s infertility and more-than-whispered allegations of her supposed romantic dalliances. She chose to announce herself through fashionability, being a la mode, and with it, became a notorious spendthrift, earning the nickname Madame Déficit. 

“Cultivating the appearance of virtue might have been a more politic strategy, but she chose, instead, to model her style and behavior on those of a royal paramour. The wives of Louis XIV and Louis XV had both been pious and obscure wallflowers, which is precisely what the French expected from a good queen,” wrote Thurman in her essay. 

Changing fashions—and the shifting role of women—only further scandalized the public. Bertin’s fashionable styles were adored by the Queen, but also by the actresses and prostitutes who mingled with the monarch at the Palais Royal. As stylistic boundaries dissolved, in painting and in fashion, the public grew further disoriented. 

“The resulting erosion of visible boundaries between sovereign and guttersnipe bred still more animosity against Marie Antoinette. As one underground writer noted with scorn, ‘The most elegant whore in Paris could not be more tarted up than the Queen,’” wrote Weber in her book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. 

Women’s role in society was very much in flux and as Weber notes of the Queen’s dressmaker, “Bertin’s rise to power had already generated tremendous anxiety as it seemed to indicate that the King had ceded his authority to a pack of frivolous scheming women.” Among these women was none other than Vigée Le Brun, who herself fell under the public’s scrutiny. “The painter’s iconoclastic aesthetic program led certain members of the public to perceive her as a disgrace to her sex and to qualify her as a hermaphrodite of sorts,” Thurmin explained. 

As the bourgeois family rose up with its ideal of the domestic mother, and the notion of family as dynasty collapsed, no version of Marie Antoinette that Vigée Le Brun could conjure, would appease a society in panic.

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A Look at the Subversive Art of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun—and the One Gender-Bending Portrait That Has Kept Historians Guessing

In her new book, Twelve Paintings, scholar Tal Sterngast explores Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, which is known for an exceptional collection of European paintings. She lands on twelve paintings from the collection and investigates the story behind them through important questions of today. In this chapter, called “The Creativity of Women,” Sterngast looks at the legacy of prominent French portraitist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, one of the few women artists in the Berlin state collection, asking what paradoxes exist within art that is made by women.

Born in 1755 in Paris to a painter and a hairdresser, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun achieved success in France and Europe against the norms of the time during one of the most turbulent periods in European history. Her father, who recognized the daughter’s talent and passion early on, died when she was 12. In her feminist essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” from 1971, the art historian Linda Nochlin noted that, denied access to workshops, academies, or universities, almost all women artists known to us before the 20th century had a father in the profession.

From around 2,800 paintings in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie collection made north and south of the Alps between the 13th and the 18th century, 15 were painted by nine women. With the exception of Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, all of them came from the northern countries and lived around the 18th century. Vigée-Lebrun learned to paint by looking at and copying art in Paris, and began working as a portraitist in her youth, supporting her widowed mother and brother for a time. Soon after encountering Marie Antoinette, she became her court painter, the first woman to attain this rank. Admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) at age 28, she became one of only four women members and one of the leading portraitists of the ancien régime.

Neither boy nor girl, neither adult nor child; not completely human, animal, or divine, the prince holds a laurel wreath demonstratively in the air. It is an opening waiting to be breached, whereas the phallic quiver of arrows laying partially concealed at his feet is a latent weapon, a possible complement to entering the ring. Echoing this potential intercourse or coupling, the prince’s winged figure hybridizes classic mythology with Jewish-Christian motifs. Cupid-Eros—the mischievous god of love equipped here with arrows but no bow, a reminder of the ancient knot that ties love with a wound—is combined with a Judeo-Christian angel: a cherub or seraph. The two cherubim in rabbinic literature are described as human-like entities with wings, placed on the opposite ends of the Ark of the Covenant in the inner sanctum of the temple, containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Representing a threshold between profane and sacred, between the given world and the one beyond, they guard the law. Higher in ancient Judaism and Christianity’s hierarchy of angels, the seraphim announces the sacred name of God and its distinction from its creations. These winged creatures separate and connect human and divine, man, and God.

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's Prince Heinrich Lubomirski as the Genius of Fame (1787–88). Acquired in 1874 from the Gallery. Fr. Heim, Paris. Photo: Jörg P. Anders.

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Prince Heinrich Lubomirski as the Genius
of Fame
(1787–88). Acquired in 1874 from the Gallery. Fr. Heim, Paris. Photo: Jörg P. Anders.

In Western iconography, the distinction between seraph and cherub echoes the broad division between faith and reason; cherubs, the former; seraphs, the latter. Cupid as cherub thus takes the pagan idea of a demigod and superimposes it on the Catholic notion of an angel of the sort linked with encouragement to faith as opposed to reason; the latter would be the seraph’s concern. The hybridization of Cupid and cherub may therefore point to an aspiration of synthesizing desire and faith. Could it be that the little prince’s androgyny, with the ambiguities or thresholds it captures, reverberates the zeitgeist of drastic transformations? The revolutionary program of the period was marked by—or part of—a secularization of the divine, the exchange of the metaphysics of religion with revolutionary ideas and the loss of the sacred. What exactly was Vigée-Lebrun idolizing in her Lubomirski portrait?

The genius of love, disguised in a portrait of a boy, not only evokes a sense of immanentization (as Greco-Roman gods often do, anthropomorphized and restlessly intervening in human affairs) but also implies a certain diffusion or inversion within the active/passive oppositions of man and woman, artist and model, subject, and object. As a portraitist at a time when women were denied apprenticeships and forbidden from drawing nudes, Vigée-Lebrun was aware of the power relations inherent to the gaze. In her memoir, she admits to flirting with her male sitters: “As soon as I observed any intention on their part of making sheep’s eyes at me, I would paint them looking in another direction than mine, and then, at the least movement of the pupilla, would say, I am doing the eyes now.” 

Even when women were already officially permitted at the School of Fine Arts in Paris (and in other European art schools) much later at the end of the 19th century, they were still not allowed to copy the naked body. That undressed, to-be-painted body was not only standing for painting itself and the speculation of a passivity/activity dichotomy, but also to the question of truth, the naked truth. That was the time when Friedrich Nietzsche stressed how much the questions of art, style, and truth can not be dissociated from the question of the woman. An answer to the question “what is woman” cannot be found in any of the familiar modes of concept or knowledge, he noted. Yet it is impossible to resist looking for her. Men, asserts French philosopher Geneviève Fraisse, didn’t want women involved in the question of beauty, because it is married to the question of truth. It belonged to men. Copying the naked body, therefore, is also about gaining access to the truth.

Is there a difference between feminine and masculine creativity? And if there is one, how is it to be argued? Nochlin’s essay laid ground for a feminist methodology in art history, claiming that this question was the wrong one to begin with. Acknowledging that “there were no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Cézanne, Picasso, or Matisse, or even for de Kooning or Warhol,” she made the point that the fault lay not in women’s genetics, but rather in institutions and education. As well as that art is not a means of pure self-expression but rather something that involves a self-consistent language of form, given conventions, which must be learned through teaching or individual work. Women were consistently and systematically denied access to both. In addition, she criticized the myth of the innate genius as an atemporal and mysterious power, embedded in the person of the great artist, a godlike figure.

While Nochlin and much of feminist art history after her rightly stressed the importance of the institutional over the individual, the question that is asked too little today is not whether women can make art or not anymore, but if and how women can be creative without adopting masculine attributes, without being creative like a man. Does the fact that there is no female style in the works of great women artists from Artemisia Gentileschi to Agnes Martin mean that there’s nothing in common among women artists? Can a woman artist define art anew in radicality like, for example, Diego Velázquez, Marcel Duchamp, or Andy Warhol, or is it a different game altogether? Can the creativity of women extricate itself from the metaphor, from being an image; one that belongs to the sphere of mere appearances and temptation, but also to nature and motherhood?

Agnes Martin Untitled I (1985). Courtesy of Phillips.

Between its two facets—the monstrous imagination of an endless birth-giving, as opposed to a suffering of being as endurance, in absence—what are the paradoxes within which art is made by women? Corresponding to the former is much of performance art by women since the 1970s, which relates to taboo aspects of bodies: menstrual blood, childbearing, excrement, internal organs; or, differently, art made by and after Louise Bourgeois’s surrealism, vividly feeding off trauma and lending unconscious visual tropes (stairs, spiders, cages) meaning that is both narrative and therapeutic. In correlation to the latter, one can think of Agnes Martin’s repetitive grids that achieve “not what is seen, but what is known forever in the mind” unfolding contemplative states of existence. Or Vija Celmins’s detailed drawings and paintings of starry skies, spider webs, or the ocean as surfaces of spiritual solitude and retinal allure.

If the domain of modern art and artifice is understood as a substitute for fecundity, an outcome of a creativity which is in its essence masculine, what art can be made in fertility? Asking this question might risk all that women’s fight for equality has accomplished. However, not asking it might be denying the potentialities of art made by women as something that can best be described as total otherness in this given, androcentric world.

Tal Sterngast studied photography and film in Jerusalem, London, and Berlin. She has published numerous essays and articles about contemporary art and film in international newspapers and art magazines. She has organized several exhibitions. Her new book, out now in English and in German with publisher Hatje Cantz, is based on the article series Alte Meister, published in the weekend supplement of die Tageszeitung from 2017 until 2019.

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