Marie Antoinette’s Most Famous Portrait Briefly Silenced her Critics

History has not been kind to Marie Antoinette. Forced to leave her native Austria at the age of 14 and become the wife of future King Louis XVI, she quickly fell under the gaze of a critical public eye. There she remained until her death by guillotine at the age of 37. It’s true that the young queen had a penchant for extravagant parties and a lavish wardrobe. Her mildest critics called her self-centered, while her harshest detractors claimed her indulgences provoked the wrath that led to the French Revolution. Yet, when the brow-beaten 27-year-old commissioned a portrait of herself wearing a simple but stylish muslin dress, the mud-slinging only intensified. Surprisingly, a new and strikingly similar portrait—this time with Marie Antoinette attired in silk, lace, and fine feathers—temporarily appeased the naysayers.

Marie Antoinette en Chemise
Marie Antoinette en Chemise, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783

Covering Up a Scandal

In August of 1783, the talented Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, exhibited her pastoral portrayal of Marie Antoinette (shown above) at the annual Paris Salon of Painting and Sculpture. Le Brun is known for the intimate portraits she created for myriad clients. Perhaps Marie Antoinette engaged Le Brun because she hoped to present herself as a friend of the people and someone who appreciated the simpler things in life. The muslin dress she chose for the tableau copied a Gallic style that was popular at the time. Sporting a straw hat and devoid of jewelry, the queen looks directly at the viewer for whom she appears to be preparing a bouquet.

However, attendees of the Salon found the painting “immodest, indecent, shocking” and in violation of moral boundaries that should be upheld between a royal court and its public. Such dresses were indeed in vogue among ladies of the court but they were only to be worn at private gatherings between close friends. Within hours, the portrait was rebaptized, “France under the influences of Austria reduced to cover itself in cheap cloth.”

Scandalized by the uproar, Louis XVI demanded that the portrait be taken down and returned to Versailles. It was imperitive that the queen’s image be restored. Retaining much of the original composition, the efficient Le Brun decided to simply redress her high-ranking friend and royal supporter in shimmering blue-grey silk and pearls. In a matter of weeks, the new politically-correct portrait replaced its scandalous predessor. Ironically, the new painting, titled Marie Antoinette à la rose, reveals significantly more bosom than the original. Yet, it apparently met the critics’ requirements for decency and went on to become the most famous portrayal of France’s last queen.

Marie Antoinette à la rose
Marie Antoinette à la rose, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783

Herstory Repeats

You would think that western society has evolved beyond such petty judgements. Yet, Michelle Obama received similarly scorching appraisals when she appeared with bare arms in her first offical portrait as First Lady. Happily, she had enough grit and self-respect to hold her ground and even chose to appear bare-armed in her final official portrait, by Amy Sherald, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. What do you think? Are women eternally doomed to be scrutinized for their appearance? Might Marie Antoinette have avoided the guillotine if she had defended the original portrayal? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. She was a lot better than portrayed if we look deeper. The history we read is written by the victors….

  2. The “original sin” of Marie-Antoinette was that she was born Austrian. If she had come from somewhere else, things may have gone very differently for her. It’s hard to imagine this now, with Austria being a little Alpine country, but for centuries it was the foremost enemy of the French nation and its ruling house controlled territories encircling France.

    Louis XV shocked everyone in 1750s by agreeing to an alliance with Austria. This was an unpopular move to begin with, and it backfired as the next war was a disaster, with the French/Austrian side losing. Louis XV pressed forward with the alliance though, and decided to marry his grandson to the young Marie-Antoinette. These moves just earned him more and more criticism and he died a very unpopular king.

    Even before she became queen, Marie-Antoinette already had the deck stacked against her. Her mere presence reminded everyone of the disastrous alliance with the traditional enemy, and she was disdainfully referred to as “L’Autrichienne.” When, as queen, she spent lavishly on herself – par for the course for a monarch back then – people were ready to pounce.

  3. The kind of people who made a fuss about how Michelle Obama dressed would have found something to whine about no matter what she did. She was also attacked for promoting healthy eating in schools, even though obesity is now at the root of more deaths in the US than any other condition (as a contributing factor to cancer, heart disease, etc). Some even accused her of being a man so they could claim Barack Obama was gay.

    Are women eternally doomed to be scrutinized for their appearance?

    It seems to be a pervasive habit in the lower-IQ 60% or so of the population. Public figures like Jill Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, etc, etc get relentlessly scrutinized and rated on their appearance and choice of clothing. Analogous attention to the looks of men in similar positions is far rarer. There are biological reasons why males pay a lot of attention to the appearance of females, but rationally speaking, this is completely irrelevant to evaluating a politician. But attitudes toward public figures tend to be vicious and mean-spirited, and in the case of women, those biological instincts shape how the mean-spiritedness is expressed.

    Might Marie Antoinette have avoided the guillotine if she had defended the original portrayal?

    I really doubt it would have made any difference. The hatred for the monarchy — natural and inevitable given the historical circumstances — was too powerful to do anything less than sweep away the whole system eventually. Marie Antoinette was collateral damage, like the family of Nicholas II of Russia who were shot alongside him. It’s hard to see how anything she did could have changed that.

    • Excellent analysis Infidel. Thanks for your mindful commentary.

      That is a fabulous quote from Mark Twain that you linked too! I’ve got to record that in multiple places. Thanks.

  4. Not a great era for portraits.

    • Le Brun was clearly a talented painter; it was hardly her fault that rich people in the late 18th century dressed like that. 🙂

      • Yes. I love Le Brun’s portraits and she clearly worked at trying to get people to look as relaxed and natural as possible. She too fell under the dark shadow of court disapproval for producing portraits of women smiling in which their mouths were just slightly open to the extent that you could see a minor fraction of their teeth. This was considered terribly vulgar. Nowadays, these are some of her most flattering pieces. This is how she often painted herself.

        I was horrified to learn that nearly 2 centuries later Simone de Beauvoir criticized Le Brun for what she felt were insipid self depictions. De Beauvoir completely discounted Le Brun’s massive accomplishments as a self-taught and financially independent painter and instead chose to describe her as vain and shallow. She especially disliked Le Brun’s self portraits with her daughter. De Beauvoir looked upon motherhood as a dead end trap and unworthy of glorification compared to professions dominated by men—a surprisingly misogynistic attitude from someone regarded as an early feminist.

        • I like Vigée-Le Brun too. Nice portraits. Hadn’t noticed the “smiles” though. I will look closer.
          As for “Simone”, she had good and dubious points. Who doesn’t?
          Nice post. Merci

          • You’re right Brieuc. I know very little about de Beauvoir but was disappointed to learn this about her. Feminism has evolved. Had she been born 50 years later, she might never have had such a negative attitude toward women who followed traditional paths. I think she also viewed Le Brun’s portraits the way you or I might view the cover of Vogue today. It’s a poor reflection of how real people look—valuing society’s ideals of digitized perfection above reality. Still, a lot of hard work, ingenuity, and talent go into creating such images.

          • She was a complex character. In such cases I prefer to take the positive and let the rest lie low. Case of Sartre, I like most his plays, I dislike his political views. But as you may know in those days many people said “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Camus.” (I prefer Camus)
            Now, Vigée-Le Brun? She was very talented and ahead of her time. Chapeau bas to her.

          • I like your attitude. I know so little about de Beauvoir that I’m unqualified to criticize her in any meaningful way. I too prefer Camus but I’m not sure I understand the citation. Can you explain?

          • Haha. Actually I mixed the citation. It was “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with (Raymond) Aron.” Aron and Sartre were in Normale Sup together. And friends. The Ecole Normale Supérieure was and still is THE school for aspiring philosophers in France. (To keep it short).
            Aron (who was jewish) soon developed a center-right approach to politics and economics. He was generally “right” in his analysis. Sartre evolved to the left then extrem left. He supported the Soviet Union, Mao DzeDong, Castro, etc. Even when little by little all the crimes those committed came to light he never stopped his support.
            So many intellectuals from the Left preferred to side with Sartre, basically because “Communism was the future and salvation of mankind”, than accept the realities that Aron exposed.
            Sadly still today, anti-Americanism in France is stronger than… anti-Putinism… A legacy of the very strong hold of Marxism on France…
            Voilà. A bit too long? (Hope not)

          • Interesting. Thanks for the explanation.

          • J’espère que c’était clair?

          • Bon “ouiquande”.

          • PS, and about my “attiutude”, I am increasingly ill at ease with a growing tendency to judge and review past events and people with today’s lenses. Very common in parts of Academia. Beauvoir was Beauvoir, and a product of her time and History. So yeah, let’s keep the good and throw away the rest.
            (Love those exchanges…)

          • In my mind, no part of history should be erased, just set in the proper context. I’m not opposed, for example, to leaving statues up of people like Colbert or Thomas Jefferson as long as efforts are made to expose both positive and negative aspects of their conduct and beliefs. People should have easy access to the full story.

          • Agreed. The whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    • That’s for sure. If I was good at photoshop, I’d be tempted to give them all real hair to see what they actually looked like.

  5. Unfortunately for her Marie-Antoinette was doomed the. minute she convinced Louis XVI to flee until they were recognized in Varennes.
    As for appearance… sadly Daughter #2 just completed a study on gender bias affecting journalists in Latin America. Female journalists are systematically attacked on the way they look, accused of being sluts, and threatened through their families… (And by authorities of course). Male journalists are attacked too. (And killed) but never on the same aspects… Sigh.

  6. Jonathan Goldberg

    I just came across this blog and the really interesting articles it contains. Carol Seidl seems to be a woman of very many talents. Kudos for providing this wonderful platform of French culture.

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