Described by her brother, the emperor Joseph II, as “likeable and honest”, Marie-Antoinette, Austrian princess and wife of Louis XVI, remains one of the most fascinating figures of the history of Versailles. Dedicated to the organisation of the court’s entertainments, surrounded by her coterie and reluctant to observe the ceremonial niceties imposed by her function, the queen progressively attracted the scorn of public opinion up to her tragic death during the French Revolution.
Daughter to Francis I of Lorraine, emperor of the German Holy Empire, and Maria Theresa of Habsburg, archiduchess of Austria, Marie-Antoinette was born in Vienna on 2 November 1755. Her marriage to the future Louis XVI, on 16 May 1770, was partly the work of the Minister Choiseul, one of the principal players in the Franco-Austrian reconciliation. But this union was greeted with some reticence by public opinion, marked by the long years of war against Austria. The wedding ceremonies coincided with the inauguration in Versailles of the royal Opera room where, years later, she was to meet her supposed lover Axel de Fersen.
A queen at the court
Louis XVI entrusted her with the task of entertaining the court. With her flair for entertaining, the queen organised theatrical performances two or three times a week and revived the grand balls. She also led the court in play in the Salon de la Paix and played billiards and cards with great enthusiasm. Marie-Antoinette was a music-lover and played the harp. An art-lover also, she took under her protection the cabinet-maker Riesener, the celebrated supplier of furniture, as well as the painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun who largely owed her career as portrait painter to the queen and painted thirty portraits of her patroness. The queen also devoted a lot of her time to fashion and received daily advice on the choice of her dresses from her dressmaker and designer Rose Bertin. Her hairdresser, Leonard, devised the hairstyles decorated with feathers that she adored.