Imagine arriving in a strange country to marry some guy you don't know, and suddenly being hated by everyone around you. I'd probably turn to frivolity and luxury as well.
“Let them eat cake.”
No matter how many times we've been told that this phrase was never uttered, still it remains ingrained in our historical memory, associated to Marie-Antoinette, probably one of the most iconic characters in history, and one of the most hated as well. The image of the eccentric, selfish, despot queen who squandered all the money of France on frivolities when people were starving lives on more than two centuries after her death. In fact, she's a regular reference in modern pop culture, from the witty joke in Toy Story about a headless doll to Queen’s “Killer Queen” song. The reason? Well, there might not be another character as complex and fascinating as her that keeps captivating people as she did at her official presentation in court.
What has always intrigued me is how this image of an egocentric and careless royal still prevails when historians and even filmmakers have tried to show a more objective side of the story? Perhaps it isn’t the best movie in the world but it's the that drew me to the story of this character as a teenager. Sofia Coppola’s biopic Marie-Antoinette, shows what we've blindly kept forgetting over the years: the fact that both Marie-Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, were really young when they had to take the crown. Yes, I know that back then people were considered adults at a very early age, but still, neither of them was ready to take on such an important role at such a difficult and critical moment in France’s history. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the life of this controversial character through the portraits that were made of her (which were actually quite a lot, considering the time).
Archduchess Maria Antonia - Jean-Étienne Liotard (1762)
Portrait of Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria at the Age of 7 Years - Jean-Étienne Liotard (1762)
Portrait of Marie-Antoinette - Martin von Meytens (1767-68)
Marie-Antoinette, born in 1755 in Austria, was the youngest daughter of Empress Marie-Thérèse and Emperor Francis I. The most important point about this part of her story is her upbringing. Her father didn’t count much neither in his household nor in his empire, so Marie-Thérèse was the one who actually ruled in every sense of the word, making this a normal scenario for the young Marie-Antoinette. Naturally, as it was the custom at the time, she was raised to be married to an important sovereign, and for that matter, her mother didn’t spare any expenses to make her the most refined and cultivated woman of her time.
When she was only one year old, most European powers became involved in the Seven Years’ War. This was primarily a conflict between Britain and France over some territories in America. France had given their support to India to prevent the British from taking over Bengal. As the conflict worsened, other European states decided to take sides based on their own interests in recovering territories they'd lost in previous years. That was the case of Austria, who decided to join their historical rival, France, in order to recover Silesia from the Prussians who had allied with Britain during the war. Long story short, the war ended in 1763, when Marie-Antoinette was seven years old. Her mother, the Empress, wanted to strengthen the alliance with France, so she proposed to King Louis XV a marriage between their heirs, which he agreed to but didn’t make it formal until years later. Little did they know that this alliance would change their life and the world in unimaginable ways.
Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the Later Queen Marie-Antoinette of France - Joseph Ducreaux (1769)
Marie-Antoinette in Hunting Attire - Joseph Krantzinger (1771)
Archduke Maximilian Francis Visits Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI - Joseph Hauzinger (1775)
In 1770, the King formally requested the princess’s hand for her to marry his grandson, the Dauphin Louis-Auguste, and some months later in April, when she was only 14 years old, she married by proxy in Austria. One month later, she was sent to France to meet her husband, and a formal ceremony took place at the Palace of Versailles. Now, to understand a bit more about the role Marie-Antoinette in the French court, first we have to see how she was welcomed from the beginning (something that Coppola’s movie captures very well). The news of a marriage alliance with Austria wasn’t well received by most, since they had been bitter rivals in the past. So, when the young bride arrived at the court, many ignored her or treated her really badly. They believed that behind that innocent face hid the Empress, who wanted to infiltrate French politics only to get benefits for the Empire. However, before long Marie-Antoinette's beauty and sweet personality had won the hearts of her subjects, who saw her only as a nice girl who would give France the heirs they wanted (let’s remember that all of the King’s sons had already died, so his grandson was the heir to the crown).
Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour - Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1775)
Marie-Antoinette Playing the Harp at the French Court - Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1777)
Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress - Louise-Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778)
Only four years after her arrival, the King died, and at only twenty and nineteen years old respectively, Louis and Marie-Antoinette became King and Queen of France and Navarre. Being used to women taking part of the politics of the country, she tried to get involved in state matters, but was forbidden to do so, which led her to spend her first years as queen enjoying the luxuries of court life. In other words, while most people believe that she was the one who brought the over-the-top, expensive customs to the French court, she actually only adapted to the libertine lifestyle that was already the norm there.
In addition, the new king didn’t seem to be very interested in having sex with the Queen, and apparently, neither did she, so each one chose to focus on their own matters while the country's economy (which was already down when she arrived) got worse. One of the things that started to change people’s perception of her was precisely this: the fact that she hadn't produced an heir yet, not because she couldn’t, but because they hadn't consummated the marriage yet. The rumors of this story were an insult to the people of France, and to make matters worse, the stories of her spending money on vain desires infuriated a country who was literally begging on the streets for bread (hence, the fake popular phrase).
When pamphlets arrived in Austria, Archduke Maximilian Francis decided to pay a visit to his sister and brother-in-law to convince them that they needed to distract the public by giving them an heir. And so they did, and for a short period of time that tense environment disappeared. As time went by, Marie-Antoinette was allowed to get more involved in the politics of the country, something that royal detractors saw as an Austrian imposition over the French crown. But probably, what made things even worse was the fact that she had managed to convince Louis to join the American independence efforts, something that would backfire a few years later since the French revolutionary cause was based in part on the success of the American independence war.
Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress - Louise-Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1783)
Marie-Antoinette and her Children - Louise-Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1787): This painting was exhibited to the public to show how she wasn't the selfish, vain woman people believed, but rather a devoted and caring mother. The empty crib represents the recent death of her baby.
Marie-Antoinette and here Children Facing the Mob that Broke into the Tuileries Palace - Anonymous (1792)
As France's economy plummeted from all the money being spent on the American war of independence, and rumors spread about Marie-Antoinette's lavish lifestyle, discontent grew to the point that it was too much to bear. As you might know from your history classes, the revolution reached its highest peak on July 14th, 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille. By October, and after a failed attempt by the Queen to flee with her three children, the royal family was forced to move into the Tuileries Palace as a form of house arrest. Two years later, after many plots to help her and her children escape (which she refused to do because she didn’t want to leave the King behind), in June 1791, the entire royal family was arrested and taken to Paris.
In September of the following year, the monarchy was formally abolished, giving way to the First French Republic. In early 1793, Louis was separated from his family, and after a trial, he was sentenced to die by the preferred execution method at the time: the guillotine. Devastated as she was by her husband's death, Marie-Antoinette still hoped that other European powers (including her own) would at least save her son the Dauphin, so that one day he could rule France like his father had done. Meanwhile, her own fate was being discussed at the Convention. Some wanted her executed like her husband was, while others proposed life-imprisonment or exile in the Americas. In August of that year, she was transferred to a cell at the Conciergerie. Finally, in October, she was tried at the Revolutionary Tribunal, where she was sentenced to die by the guillotine in one of the goriest and creepiest scenes in history. (To make it even creepier, it’s said that Madame Tussaud used her head to make one of her famous masks.)
Marie-Antoinette at the Temple Tower - Alexander Kucharski (1792-93): She was portrayed as older and emaciated, but she was only 37 years old.
Marie-Antoinette Being Taken to her Execution - William Hamilton (1793)
Marie-Antoinette's Execution - Anonymous (1793)
Now, I'm not saying that Marie-Antoinette was a saint or a martyr, but I've always been fascinated by the fact that even though her lifestyle was very excessive, she was used by the monarchy's detractors as a scapegoat for people to let out all their discontent. At the end of the day, she became one of the first characters to actually become the center of controversy and gossip, and all of these stories led to ingrained beliefs that we still carry with us to this day.
For more history and art take a look at these: