Marie Antoinette’s jewelry case showcased the symbolic role of the Dauphine in mid-eighteenth century French Court. The status role of the Dauphine was essentially to produce an heir to the throne. However, she was also responsible for the manifestation of the stability and unity of the French royal couple as a reflection of the image of the
monarchy. In order to carry out this expectation according to strict French etiquette, Marie Antoinette “dressed to impress.” Upon her arrival at Versailles, the newly “frenchified” Marie Antoinette received a magnificent jewelry case as a gift from Louis XV prior to the official wedding. A tradition in the royal family presented the current Dauphine with the jewels of past French Dauphines and Queens. (For more information on jewels during the 18th century, refer to the Jewelry section in this exhibit). These precious jewels, stored safely in the cabinets of the case, adorned the extravagant outfits that Marie Antoinette wore to events in Versailles. To the French royalty, this collection not only functioned as material objects that were passed down, but also as a reinforcement of the role of a Dauphine, observed for many centuries in France.
A large wooden, tri-paneled set of cabinets, the jewelry box was outlined in gilt bronze trim, decorated in simple sinuous designs, and inlaid with porcelain. The detailed process of the jewelry case’s production depended largely upon the craftsmen in specialized trades, who were part of the guild system. As described in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the case was most likely to have been put together by a marchand-mercier, or an entrepreneur who contracted and commissioned works of art, after carpenters assembled the wooden frame (Figure 1). After the frame was made, a ceramist produced the porcelain, a painter designed the exterior, and a goldsmith added the distinguishing gold trim perimeter. Much emphasis in the manufacture of the jewelry case was placed on the exclusive use of French materials and labors, as a means to express nationalism and to convey Marie Antoinette’s complete French transformation.
When the jewelry case was portrayed in 18thcentury paintings, it frequently stood in the
background against the wall (Figure 2). In contrast to the small stature of jewelry boxes owned by the aristocracy, Marie Antoinette’s was comparable to a large piece of furniture. Figure 3 appropriately reflects the designs of elite jewelry cases through its elegant pattern of inlaid Sevres porcelain, a type of elaborately adorned porcelain that became widespread at the end of the 18th century. Jean- Michael Moreau le Jeune’s La Petite Toilette shows a typical scene of an upperclassmen preparing for the day. Resting on the dressing table are various objects,
including a miniature jewelry box (Figure 4). This illustration creates the distinction between the generic qualities of upper-class jewelry boxes in comparison to Marie Antoinette’s specialized and symbolic one. While the jewelry case in Figure 2 seems to disappear in the background, the adjacent portrait of Louis XVI effectively accentuates its symbolic importance. As shown distinctly in Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s family portrait, an image of the King’s crown, resting upon a plush velvet cushion, was never absent from the Dauphine’s high standing jewelry case (Figure 5). Although the figures in the artwork rarely alluded to the case, its placement acted as a constant reminder of its symbolic omnipresence in Marie Antoinette’s life at Versailles, and the powerful link between the Dauphine and her lawful duties to France.
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Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, MARQUETRY. Plate IV, vol. 4 (1770).
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