Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Queen

Magnet # 384: Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun's Portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Me

On this day in 1755, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, gave birth to the fifteenth of her sixteen children.  She named the child, her yougest daughter, Maria Antonia, but the world now knows her by a different name - Marie Antoinette.  The girl may not have been her mother's favorite, growing up somewhat neglected as Maria Theresa foucsed on marrying off Maria Antonia's older siblings in the best matches possible.  But, as she grew, she was not without charms of her own - she had beauty, incredible poise and grace, and became a talented dancer and musician.  Interestingly enough, Maria Antonia ended up advancing when members of her family died off from smallpox.  As she had caught the disease early in life, she was immune.  And because Maria Theresa wanted to marry off one of her daughters to the fourteen-year-old Louis Auguste, the Dauphin of France and heir to the throne, Maria Antonia was the only option left.  She married Louis in April of 1770 at the age of fourteen without ever meeting him, performing the ceremony by proxy in Vienna with her brother standing in for the groom.  It was then that she became known as Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France.  By May, she had been sent to France, where she took part in a ceremonial wedding on the 16th.  As is well-known, the pair didn't consummate their union for over seven years, a fact which brought the young bride a great deal of grief.  Her mother, who had become Holy Roman Empress, wrote to her often, berating her for failing to tempt her husband, and even went so far as to suggest she had lost her beauty and grace.  She became a source of stress for her daughter rather than one of comfort.  And combined with her husband's neglect, these difficulties drove Marie Antoinette to drown her sorrows in gambling and spending considerable sums of money on clothing and accessories.  Many of the French elite , who had a longtime distrust of Austria, had wanted Louis to marry a Saxon princess instead.  But initially, the people of France did find her charming.  However, when Louis XV died and her husband was crowned King Louis XVI in 1775, the pair still hadn't produced a child, and rumors of Marie Antoinette's indiscretions ran wild, prompting her to become even more frivolous in her spending.  Her husband gave her Petit Trianon, a small chateau on the grounds of Versailles which had once belonged to Madame de Pompadour and soon, there were claims that she was covering its walls with diamonds and gold.  But finally, in 1777 her older brother, now Holy Roman Emperor Joseph came for a visit Versailles and he spoke privately with the King about the fact that he hadn't sired an heir.  Thanks to his intervention, Marie Antoinette gave birth to the couple's first child in 1778.  She went on to have more children, and her oldest son died, but by then, the people of France had firmly turned against the monarchy.  Although the Queen likely never suggested they eat cake - that remark is now believed to have been made by Louis XIV's wife Marie Therese - she did continue to spend with gusto.  She also gave her husband political advice, but it usually backfired.  The family finally fled in 1791, but they were discovered and brought back.  Even then, Marie Antoinette continued to communicate with Austria, giving them secrets and hoping that her brother would save them.  But, of course, that never happened - a mob threw them in prison on August 10th of 1792 and Louis XVI was beheaded less than half a year later.  The former Queen was tried and accused with outrageous charges, then given almost no time to mount a defense.  Worst of all, her son was beaten and forced to claim that the two had engaged in unnatural relations.  At this, even some of the women who had demanded her death took her side.  Still, she was found guilty and sentenced to death.  Even until the end, Marie Antoinette maintained her dignity and her final words were an apology to the executioner when she stepped on his foot.  Years later, she and her husband received a proper Christian burial when at the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris.  Life had both blessed this woman and given her great difficulties, and her grace under some of the worst of pressures is still inspirational.

The artist who painted this portrait of Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, is actually the most famous female painter of the eighteenth century.  Her father, an artist, first taught her how to draw, but died when she was only twelve.  But she continued to practice, eventually producing professional portraits and becoming a member of the Academie.  She wisely married a painter and art dealer and her paintings of the French nobility caught Marie Antoinette's attention.  Over a six year period, she created over thirty portraits of the Queen and her royal family, eventually becoming known as Marie Antoinette's  official portraitist.  With her husband, Vigee Le Brun toured northern Europe, learning from works by the Flemish masters and painting portraits of the local royalty.  When she returned to France, Marie Antoinette's patronage proved to be of great importance, opening doors to organizations that might have otherwise remained shut.  But when the monarch fell, Vigee Le BrunVigee Le Brun would have ever elevated to such a high degree without the patronage of Marie Antoinette.  Though many have slandered her during her life and after, this slain monarch is clearly more complicated than many have given her credit for.  Be she saint, sinner, or something in between, she continues to fascinate us all these years after her birth.  Not only has her legend outshone that of all her fifteen siblings, she's even more famous than her formidable mother, and our interest in Marie Antoinette will keep this troubled, yet determined, figure with us for many years to come.

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