Queen of France (1755-1793)
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.
Marie-Antoinette in her intimacy
Marie-Antoinette occupied the Queen’s apartment in which she had to submit to the obligations of her position: levee, toilette, audiences, public meals, etc. But, more used to the simple ceremonial of Austrian palaces, she found it hard to put up with the pomp and ceremony of the Etiquette at Versailles and sought a more intimate life. Surrounded by friends who formed a coterie, she often took refuge in her inner Cabinets in the Petit Trianon palace given to her by Louis XVI, or in her Hamlet, a genuine and picturesque village built for her.
After eight long years of marriage, while the court awaited an heir, she finally gave birth to her first child in 1778. As the eldest daughter, her title was “Madame Royale”, and Marie-Antoinette gave her the nickname “Mousseline la sérieuse” (Serious Mousseline). Her next child was the Dauphin (the heir to the throne) Louis Joseph Xavier-François, born in 1781. Some years later she gave birth to Louis-Charles, whom she nicknamed “Chou d'amour” (Little Darling) and who became Dauphin on the death of his elder brother in 1789, and then Sophie-Béatrice.
The rejected queen
Under the influence of her mother, she tried unskilfully to play a political role but few people in the court appreciated her. Madame Adélaïde gave her the pejorative nickname “the Austrian woman” which stuck to her until her death. The queen became the prime target of scurrilous pamphlets, libels and caricatures, especially after 1785 when the “Necklace Affair”, a swindle in which she seems to have been only the victim, served as a pretext for calumnies. In her small theatre at Trianon, she dared to put on The Marriage of Figaro, the play written in 1778 by Beaumarchais and sharply critical of the society of the Ancien Régime, which the King had banned. The break with the court was final.
Her ambiguous attitude when the French Revolution broke out – she gave the impression of a queen hesitating between flight and reconciliation – accelerated her tragic end. Locked up in the Temple prison after 10 August 1792, Marie-Antoinette was transferred to the Conciergerie some time after the execution of the king in 1793. She showed very great courage in enduring her trial before the revolutionary Tribunal and at her execution on 16 October 1793, on the present place de la Concorde. In 1815, her remains were placed in the basilica of Saint-Denis, the royal crypt.