Thursday, March 26, 2009

Portraits of Marie Antoinette

Portrait of the Archduchess Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens the Younger, 1767-1768 (Schonbrunn Castle, Vienna)

In the many portraits of Marie Antoinette, she is portrayed with smooth, white skin, blonde hair, pretty blue eyes, a high forehead, and an aqualine nose. In the Portrait of the Archduchess Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens the Younger shown above, painted before she left for the French court, she seems to be perfection personified.

In spite of this lovely image, it's been said that Marie Antoinette was not considered especially beautiful. Apparently, her "Habsburg jaw and prominent nose were a bit heavy for eighteenth-century taste" (Source: "The Art of Dress" by Aileen Riberio, Yale University Press, 1995). As well, there are few images of MA in profile because she was self-conscious about her aqualine nose.

In the letters between Marie Antoinette and her mother (1770-1780), she makes several references to the portraits being painted of her and that she does not think they have achieved a proper likeness. Here are two extracts from her letters to her mother:

Marie Antoinette to Maria Theresa, 13 August 1773
"I am being painted, right now; it is true that no painter has yet caught the way I look: I would happily give all I own to anyone who could express in a portrait all the joy I would feel in seeing my dear Mama; how hard it is to be able to kiss her only by letter." (page 117).

Marie Antoinette to Marie Theresa, 16 November 1774
"The painters kill me and make me despair. I delayed the courier so as to allow my portrait to be finished; it has just been brought to me; it looks so little like me that I cannot send it. I hope to have a good one next month." (page 155)

(Source: Secrets of Marie Antoinette by Olivier Bernier, 1985)

As an artist, I know how difficult it is to achieve a likeness when painting a portrait. And even if all the features are precisely in place, considerable skill is required to capture the spirit of the sitter and translate that onto canvas. I wonder if the portrait artists mentioned in Marie Antoinette's letters failed to flatter her sufficiently to win her approval or were lacking in sufficient skill to capture her likeness.

After her mother's death, Marie Antoinette sat for several portraits with Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun. One of her portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette was exhibited at the Salon of 1783 and depicted the Queen wearing a chemise gown causing tremendous controversy. The portrait was withdrawn. To read more about Madame Vigee Le Brun, please refer to my earlier posting on the subject.

Queen Marie-Antoinette by E.L. Vigee-Lebrun, 1783, National Gallery of Art, Washington

I'd hazard a guess that Marie Antoinette would not have liked the contemporary portraits of her painted by Elizabeth Peyton.