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.
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.
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.