The Last Queen of France
Figure 1: Kreutzinger 1771. Archduchess Maria Figure 2: Meytens 1767. Portrait of Maria Josepha.
Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France, at the age of 16 years
The Hapsburg Princess
Marie Antoinette, born Maria Antonia Josepha Joana von Habsburg-Lothringen on November 2, 1755, was an adorable, fun-loving character who enjoyed relative freedom playing with farm animals and running around castle grounds with her siblings. Her life is Vienna, Austria was very different before she married Louis XVI and entered the highly opulent and staged world at Versailles. Growing up, Antoinette was a happy child, although not quite academically gifted, she was very attracted to art and music. The young princess found academic studies boring, and would often cajole her tutors with her child-like charms to allow her to skip lessons in favour of the ballet, music and play. As a result, she lagged behind in several academic subjects.
Figure 3: Weickert 1765. Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France, is dancing ballet with her brothers Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and Archduke Maximilian Franz of Austria on a Fête organised to celebrate the marriage of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II to Princess Marie-Josèphe of Bavaria.
When the princess was ready to be married off to Louis XVI, her mother, Empress Maria Theresa was shocked to discover that Marie was not only below average in French, but also, her German was not at the expected level for a royal princess. Fearful that the marriage might be called off, Maria Theresa set out to rectify the situation with urgency. Arrangements were made to secure the best reader (tutor) from France, dentist, hair stylist and fashion designer to transform the Austrian Princess into French Royalty.
Imagine if you were a young princess, who is barely 14 years old, undergoing a series of intensive makeovers (radical dental procedures without anaesthetic) just to be accepted into French royalty society. Empress Theresa spent the equivalent of three million US dollars to fix Antoinette teeth after visiting a French diplomat commented that she had crooked teeth, unfashionable hair and dress style. Any young teenage girl today, would be mortified or maybe not. However, one can easily imagine the impact it had on Antoinette's ideology regarding her physical image, French expectations and society.
When Marie Antoinette finally married Louis XVI by proxy (her brother Joseph stood in Louis XVI's place) a common thing at the time, she was the tender age of 14. Antoinette was groomed and lectured on how to win the love and trust of her husband who would one day, be king. The young Hapsburg Princess was promised to the French Prince soon after her birth. Their pledged union was political, at the heart of it, was the necessity to forge a long-lasting peace between the once rival enemy countries. Austria and France were experiencing a time of understanding and wanted to extend that peaceful alliance. However, as enthusiastic as Antoinette was, she was not as quite prepared, for the very public life and politics at Versailles.
Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles in 1769 to a stampede of people trying to capture a glimpse of her. To the people, she was a symbol of hope, a new world with peace and prosperity. The French people had fallen in love with Antoinette. The princess later wrote to her mother that it was touching to see thousands of people who had little to eat happily cheering and chanting her name as her fleet of twenty carriages went by. A few decades later a more sinister cheering awaited Antoinette, the last Queen of France.
Life at Versailles during the 18th century was like a big brother show but without the cameras, only live spectators. The royal family were obligated to entertain members of the public; visiting diplomats witnessed the Queen's morning routine as well as other notable members of the court. Antoinette’s dressing, breakfast moments were viewed by both men and women. The lack of privacy would later play a role in the construction of the ill-fated Petit Trianon and Queen’s Hamlet. The place Antoinette often retreated with close friends, away from the main Palace.
Figure 4: Le Clercq 1781. Marie Antoinette and her Figure 5: Le Brun 1781. Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine- children. Habsbourg, Queen of France, and her children
The Birds and the Bees
When Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI, they were both clueless about sexual intercourse. It didn’t help either, that they were strangers before marrying. The young couple soon became the favourite subject of gossip among those at court; it was during this time that pornographic pamphlets began to circulate with shockingly vulgar illustrations depicting Antoinette as a sexual predator who had lesbian affairs and slept with just about anyone. Louis XVI was described as a weak and pitiful man who was at the mercy of his foreign wife. Finally, after a visit from her brother who educated the young couple about sexual intimacy, Antoinette and Louis XVI consummated the marriage, bringing an end to an astounding seven years of abstinence. Good news soon followed with Antoinette’s pregnancy, which put a stop to the pornographic pamphlets, that is of course, until, the revolution began. Antoinette and Louis XVI had four children during their marriage.
High Taxes and Political Pornography
As France’s poorest people spent close to 97% of their wages on bread, politicians at court, looking for a scapegoat, externalised their problems, increased their circulation of pornographic material aimed at solidifying Antoinette as the reason for France's problems. Depictions of the Queen with animal heads devouring everything in sight, nicknamed 'Madame Deficient', 'Austrian Woman', 'Austrian Whore' soon reached the public who were too hungry and uneducated to understand they were being played. Antoinette was viewed as a monster who indulged in every depravity known to humankind.
Political pornography was used as a weapon to destabilise political opponents by rallying crowds against them. Marie Antoinette while not the first woman to be slandered by pornography, hers was particularly cruel and obscene, the relentless onslaught would eventually stir up crowds and pitied her against the hoards of French women fighting for rights, fighting for bread to feed their children. It would be these women who marched to the Palace at Versailles and took Antoinette and her family hostage.
Figure 6: UNKNOWN. 1792. The Tuilleries.
Figure 7: Baptiste 2017. Last stand.
Marie Antoinette’s Final days
Marie Antoinette once lived a life of luxury and extravagance, a life that was ultimately used against her and contributed to her beheading. The final days of Marie Antoinette, the Last Queen of France was spent as prisoner No. 280. Marie Antoinette spent her last months and days, writing to friends, taking care of her children, at the time of their imprisonment, her children were allowed to remain with her, Louis XVI, the King, was placed in another cell. He would remain there until his execution in January 1793.
Figure 8: Wertmuller 1785. Queen Marie Antoinette of France and two of her Children Walking in The Park of Trianon.
The Queen would endure her husband's execution and the painful parting of her son Dauphin Louis Charles. Will Bashor in his novel ‘Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days’, the author paints a rather heartbreaking scene between Antoinette and her frightened young son. After an hour of trying to negotiate with prison guards, 6-year-old Louis Charles was ripped from his mother’s arms and thrown into a cold, dark cell. The boy sobbed and screamed for his mother, crying out her name. Antoinette knew her last days were near, she had hoped to be spared, hoped her children would live in freedom, but now, her hopes were covered by clouds of darkness.
Bashor’s novel goes on to describe how Antoinette would stand by her prison window for hours on end, waiting for a glimpse of her son who was allowed to walk for an hour every few days or so. The glimpses were seconds, but to her, they were an eternity. One does not have to be a parent to understand and sympathise with Antoinette.
Figure 9: Kucharski 1792. Portrait of Dauphin Louis Charles of France.
Vile Emotional Abuse
The young prince would suffer horribly in his new cell and at the hands of prison officials, away from his mother, his sisters. Louis Charles was barely fed, he became severely malnourished. Jailors would force him to look at pornographic pamphlets of his mother, to curse her loud enough that she could hear him. They even forced him to say, his mother, the Queen, had sexually abused him. The depravity of the new birth of a nation, built on the premise of equality and justice, serves as an example of how good intentions and good men can become the very evil they claim to fight against.
"Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein",
"And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche, the quote could not be more appropriate in conveying the dangers of our moral code when its besieged in challenging times.
Restoring and Rebuilding
Antoinette's rise and fall, has in it, the elements of who we are as people and the decisions we make in life and its effects on those around us. Her truth, her legacy has been tainted by the abundance of imagery that promotes a narrative of lust, sex and excess. Removed are her years of motherhood, her reduced spending many years before her death, the adoption and education of a non-white child, her donations of food to the poor, her love of family, friends and people, music, her laughter, her cheerful disposition. Removed are her moments of despair, struggles, her imprisonment, loss of husband, children, freedom and fortune. As a society, particularly the photography society, we should no longer define the last Queen of France by her teenage years or by the decadent narrative that was promoted by political rivals. It’s time we actively promote and acknowledge a visually, more reflective narrative of Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France.
Figure 1. KREUTZINGER, JOSEPH. 1771. Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France, at the age of 16 years [pastel on parchment]. Vienna: Schönbrunn Palace.
Figure 2. MEYTENS, MARTIN. 1767. Portrait of Maria Josepha. Vienna: Schönbrunn Palace.
Figure 3. WEICKERT, JOHANN GEORG. 1765. Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France, is dancing ballet with her brothers Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and Archduke Maximilian Franz of Austria on a Fête organized to celebrate the marriage of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. to Princess Marie-Josèphe of Bavaria [Oil on canvas].
Figure 4. LE CLERCQ, CHARLES. 1781. Marie Antoinette and her children [oil]. Château de Sassenage.
Figure 5. VIGÉE LE BRUN, ÉLISABETH. 1787. Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, Queen of France, and her children [Oil on canvas]. Versailles: Château de Versailles.
Figure 6. UNKNOWN. 1792. The Tuilleries [Oil].
Figure 7. BAPTISTE, Mandisa. 2017. Last stand.
Figure 8: WERTMÜLLER, ADOLF ULRIK. 1785. Queen Marie Antoinette of France and two of her Children Walking in The Park of Trianon [Oil on canvas]. Stockholm: Nationalmuseum.
Figure 9. KUCHARSKI, ALEXANDER. 1792. Portrait of Dauphin Louis Charles of France [Oil on canvas]. Versailles: Château de Versailles.
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