"Je Ne Suis Plus la Reine, Je Suis Moi": Marie-Antoinette at the Salon of 1783 *

Article excerpt

Of the two hundred or so paintings exhibited at the French Royal Academy's Salon of 1783, those of Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, who had just been received into the institution as one of only four female members, generated the greatest excitement. (1) While the artist's examination piece, a patriotic allegory of Peace bringing back Abundance in the wake of the War of American Independence, received generally favorable reviews, her portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette wearing a simple muslin dress and fashioning a rose bouquet (now known primarily through an original copy, Fig. 1) was met with outright hostility. Recent scholarship on this portrait has largely explained this dissatisfaction from the artist's point of view, foregrounding Vigee Le Brun's intentions as one whose vision of unabashed femininity provided her a vehicle for asserting her genuine talent in the public sphere and identifying herself with other women of power. (2) While appreciating the usefulness of these studies in resuscitating an important and long-neglected woman artist, their primary focus on her (perhaps unwittingly) shortchanges the consort's patronage intentions and public perception of those intentions, upon which issues of politics and gender have an equal bearing.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Contemporaneous Salon literature was certainly unequivocal in pointing up Marie-Antoinette's involvement in the matter. The Memoires secrets, a popular underground journal renowned for its gossipy commentary on contemporary culture, offered the following reason for the uproar:

   The two princesses [i.e., the Queen and the Comtesse de Provence,
   who was painted in a similar dress] are wearing shifts (since this
   was written, the indecency of this costume, especially for the
   Queen, has been realized, and official orders have been received
   for the picture to be withdrawn), it is a costume which has not
   long been adopted by women. Many people consider it out of place
   that the public should be shown these distinguished persons wearing
   garments reserved for the intimacy of the palace. It is to be
   presumed that the painter was authorized to do so, and would not
   have taken such a liberty on her own account. (3)

The issue, then, seems to have been not only that Marie-Antoinette was rendered in a casual day dress rather than costly ceremonial, but also that she chose to be so represented; this was no mere formal experiment on the artist's part, but a selection dictated by the Queen herself. (4)

Sensitive to the importance of this passage as the first written evidence that cause for the failure of one of Marie-Antoinette's commissions was attributed to her own judgment rather than to that of an artist, this essay seeks to explain the scandal as a collision between two important developments of the second half of the eighteenth century: the rise of women to positions of political and cultural influence within the French monarchy and public perception of that influence as threatening to the patriarchal status quo. Marie-Antoinette's determination to design a new public identity which promoted her self-view as a powerful and independently-minded consort challenged the older model of queenly duty and passivity, and it was principally for this reason that the portrait was judged a failure.

To understand Marie-Antoinette's intention in commissioning Vigee Le Brun to paint her in such an informal manner it is necessary to consult her personal correspondence and previous patronage habits. In 1955, Versailles curator Marguerite Jallut offered a temptingly simple answer to the problem of the Queen's attire: Marie-Antoinette adopted the fashion of wearing a gaulle or simple dress of white cotton in 1783 and quite naturally "wished to be painted dressed in this way ..." (5) There are a few problems with this explanation: for one, historians have established that the consort had been clothing herself in this practical day gown at least since 1778 when pregnant with her first child; for another, only after the portrait had appeared at the Salon did modistes finally acknowledge the costume "high fashion," dubbing it the chemise a la reine; moreover, there is no extant written evidence directly connecting the Queen's very developed sense of style with any one portrait commission. …