← Marie Antoinette Portraits
This portrait of Marie Antoinette is subdued. The artist uses a neutral, earth-toned palette, forgoing the bright blues and reds present in many other royal portraits. Like the colors, the background is simple; it is darkly colored with little detail. The accoutrements are understated as well, a dark table with some simple gold trim and a smattering of deep hued roses. Marie Antoinette’s dress is white muslin with a few poufs on the sleeves and a wide but modest frilly collar. Around her waist she wears a sheer peach colored ribbon tied in a simple bow at her back. Her hair is pulled back and curled, though most of it is obscured by her hat, a plain straw sun-hat with a silky dust blue ribbon tied around it and a few lush grey feathers sprouting from the top. The modesty of the painting serves to draw attention to Marie Antoinette herself. Unlike many of her other portraits, where lavish clothes and décor upstage Marie, and display her position and wealth rather than herself, this painting is truly of Marie Antoinette.
What is equally interesting about this painting is what is missing. There is little in the picture to suggest her royalty; She is not dressed in blue and white, there is no fleur de lys nor a crown in the picture, and she does not appear to be in a palace. The absence of these elements was a conscious decision made by Marie Antoinette when she commissioned this painting in 1783. She wanted a painting of herself, not of the Queen of France.
When Portrait a la rose was first shown in a royal gallery, it caused quite a scandal. Not only has Marie Antoinette forgone the french-made silks and velvets popular at the time for a gown made of British muslin, but she is wearing a stylized version of the slips women wore underneath their dresses. She had essentially been painted in her underwear. Along with her scandalous dress, many members of the royal court did not like that Marie does not look like a queen. France lavished large sums of money upon the royal family, and in return expected the queen to be extraordinary. They did not want to see an average woman, they wanted magnificence, and in this portrait, Marie Antoinette does not deliver.
This oil portrait, in contrast to many other portraits of the infamous French queen Marie Antoinette, feels informal. The Queen herself takes up the majority of the frame, and the eye is immediately drawn to her face, which is enhanced by the oval “frame” that her hat and neckline create. In this particular painting, the viewer is undistracted by extravagant clothing or accouterments, and the composition of the painting aids in making the Queen the center of attention. The background is dark, and the light illuminates her body from the left, making her the focus. It is likely that Marie Antoinette sat for this painting outside. Her face, posture, and the placement of her arms seem quite relaxed, gentle; her expression and hands are soft, and the only accessory is a small bouquet of flowers. It is of note here that The standout flower is a rose, which, in addition to historically connoting love and beauty, was also the flower of Austria’s Hapsburg Empire, subtly connecting her with her heritage. She gazes sidelong at the viewer, though her gaze remains direct, and her eyes and smile seem open and content rather than tight or suspicious. Her coloring in this painting is much less artificial than was typical for more formal or state portraits of the time, with hair less coiffed, skin less powdered, and naturally rosy cheeks. Gone are the complicated, extravagant coiffures and circles of rouge so popular in the French Court.
Her costume here is also important: this style of gown is nearly the antithesis of French Court fashion. The gown is quite relaxed and contrasts starkly with the usual huge, stiff, structured gowns favored by French royalty at Versailles. It lacks a prominent corseted front and doesn’t boast any jewels or expensive trim to speak of. Her relatively simple woven straw hat is an extension of this more casual fashion. Marie Antoinette popularized this style when she began spending time at her garden château on the grounds of Versailles, Petit Trianon, but it was not without controversy. Not only does the style of the gown hail from England, France’s rival at the time, but the very fabric is English as well. It would be cut from muslin, which is made of cotton, and was not produced in 18th-century France. Marie Antoinette began spending more time at her private home in the late 1770s and early 1780s, which indicates that she was likely in her mid- to late-twenties at the time this portrait was created.
All of these factors combine to present an image of the young Queen that opposes the image of her that predominated by the time of her death. This portrait shows a fresh, happy, young woman; there is no trace of the haughty, greedy, selfish beauty queen she was reputed to be towards the end of her life. She looks wealthy, certainly, but one might not look at this painting and assume it depicted a queen if one did not know the subject. This “undressed” portrait of the Queen shocked the French public. She looks relatable, almost common – it is likely that this was the aim of the artist, Madame Vigée Le Brun, or, perhaps, of Marie herself, who commissioned this painting. The painting’s effect has carried through the centuries, and imprints the same message on a 21st-century viewer as it might have on a viewer three hundred years ago: France’s great Queen was not entirely as she seemed.
In Vigee Le Brun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette en Chemise, painted in 1783, Marie Antoinette sports a hat, wears a white muslin gown, and holds a bouquet. This painting differs from other paintings of the queen in that she appears ordinary rather than royal. The oil brings out the puffiness of the dress as well as the ripples and folds of the ribbons such as the sash on her dress as well as the ribbon she uses to tie the bouquet. Contrary to her other portraits, she is not wearing a large, formal and elaborately embellished silk gown that is adorned in jewels or lace. The picture looks natural and was most likely painted outside because she is wearing a cool spring dress. There are shadows of flowers in the lower right-hand corner. The dress suggests that she is outside enjoying the fresh air or having a picnic, and the flowers that she holds can only have been picked from the outside. Overall, her attire is simple despite the frills on her collar and the large feather in her sun hat.
Marie Antoinette’s hair and complexion are also different from what we would expect in portraits of a queen. She wears a tint of rouge on her cheeks and a small smile, but no other makeup. Her hair is not coiffed and powdered as was the fashion back then, but instead, is let loose in its natural strawberry blonde tresses. Her complexion looks fresh and youthful, and she directs her gaze straight towards the viewer in front of her.
Her pose suggests that we caught her attention while she was admiring her roses and she slightly twists her torso to meet our eyes. Holding a bouquet, Marie Antoinette must have the time to stop and smell the roses often. At first glance, she appears to be a wealthy, feminine woman. Her relaxed expression and her flawless skin reveal her carefree outlook and positive attitude. Although her attire suggests wealth, her disposition does not make her seem haughty. On the contrary, the queen here appears outside her serious and high status role: friendly and a little naïve with neither the signs of her rank nor the regality exuding from her many state portraits.
– Ji Park
Very nice. I especially like your focus on what is NOT shown in this portrait, and thereby stripping Marie Antoinette of all the royal symbolism and presenting her as a pretty, but ordinary woman.
Lovely description of Marie Antoinette, her dress and pose and the naturalness of this portrait that contrasts with almost every other portrait of her.
Very nice observation of Marie Antoinette’s action in this portrait–picking flowers for a bouquet–and how that action associates her with nature rather than the artifice of the court.
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