Described by her brother, Emperor Joseph II, as “honest and lovable,” Marie-Antoinette was an Austrian princess and the wife of King Louis XVI. She remains one of the most fascinating characters in Versailles’ rich history. Devoting her attentions to organising elaborate entertainment at court, keeping to the company of her close friends and shrinking from the pomp and ceremony associated with her position, the queen sank gradually lower in the public esteem and ultimately met a tragic end during the French Revolution.
Marie-Antoinette was born in Vienna on 2 November 1755, the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. Her marriage with the future Louis XVI, celebrated on 16 May 1770, was partly the work of French minister Choiseul, one of the principal architects of the reconciliation between France and Austria. The marriage nonetheless met with a lukewarm reception from the French public, who had not forgotten the years of war with Austria. The wedding festivities were timed to coincide with the inauguration of the Royal Opera House at the Palace of Versailles. A few years later, it was at the opera that she would meet her presumed lover Axel von Fersen.
Louis XVI entrusted her with the task of organising entertainment for the court. The queen was a great fan of entertaining, and she put on plays two or three times per week and also revived the tradition of grand balls.
A queen at the court
Louis XVI entrusted her with organising entertainment for the court. The queen took to this job with zeal, putting on plays two or three times a week and reviving the tradition of grand balls. She also converted the Peace Room into a games room and became a keen player of billiards and cards. Marie-Antoinette was a music-lover too, and played the harp. She was also a great patron of the arts, with a particular fondness for the cabinetmaker and royal furniture supplier Riesener, and the painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, whose successful career as a portraitist artist owed much to the queen’s support, and who produced around thirty portraits of her. The queen also devoted much of her time to fashion, being advised daily on what to wear by her favourite designer and stylist, Rose Bertin. Her hairdresser, Léonard, came up with elaborate new hairstyles which she adored.
Marie-Antoinette in private
Marie-Antoinette lived in the Queen’s Chambers and was bound by the official rituals of her royal position: the waking-up ceremony, the elaborate preparations, royal audiences, public meals, etc. Having grown up with the less elaborate ceremonial routine of Austria’s royal palaces, she had a hard time adapting to Versailles’ complex etiquette and longed for a more private life. Surrounded by a coterie of close friends, she often sought refuge in her Private Chambers at the Petit Trianon, bestowed on her by Louis XVI, or else in her Hamlet, a picturesque model village built especially for her.
After eight long years of marriage, and with the court eagerly awaiting the arrival of an heir, she finally gave birth to her first child in 1778. This first child was a daughter, “Madame Royale”, whom Marie-Antoinette nicknamed “Mousseline la Sérieuse”. She was soon joined by the Dauphin Louis Joseph Xavier-François, born in 1781. A few years later she gave birth to Louis-Charles, whom she nicknamed “Chou d’amour”, and who would go on to become Dauphin after the death of his brother in 1789. Marie-Antoinette gave birth to one more daughter, Sophie-Béatrice, who died after just a few months.
A contested queen
Under the influence of her mother, she made clumsy attempts to get involved with politics, which were met with scorn by the court. Madame Adélaïde, aunt of Louis XVI, disdainfully referred to her as “the Austrian”, a nickname which would stick with her until her untimely demise. The queen became the target of numerous pamphlets, libels, and caricatures. These attacks intensified after the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785, a swindle of which she was an innocent victim, but which provided a pretext for further slanders. In her private theatre in Le Trianon, she even dared to put on The Marriage of Figaro, a play written in 1778 by Beaumarchais and containing some strident criticisms of Ancien Régime society, so much so that the king had it banned. The split between queen and court was now irremediable.
Marie-Antoinette’s ambiguous attitude at the outbreak of the French Revolution – she seemed uncertain whether to run away or seek reconciliation – accelerated her tragic demise. She was transferred to the Temple on 10 August 1792, then moved to the Conciergerie shortly after the execution of the king in 1793. She demonstrated great courage during her trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal and at her execution on 16 October 1793 on what is now the Place de la Concorde. In 1815 her remains, along with those of Louis XVI, were transferred to the royal crypt in the basilica of Saint-Denis.