Modern history




Body Politics


There was a type of oversize necklace, briefly in vogue in the 1780s, that was known as a rivière. As the name implies, it looped about the neck and fell generously over the bodice towards the waist. At a time when fashion was becoming much simpler, therivièrewas a loud item, much associated with actresses in the Palais-Royal, who might not blush to show off the generosity of their benefactors. One evening at the theater two young friends saw just such a river pouring over the décolletage of a conspicuous courtesan. “Look at that,” one of them remarked, “a rivière that flows very low.” “That’s because it’s returning to its source,” replied his companion.

Jokes about sex and jewelry were nothing new. But in 1787, readers of the gossipy Moving Tableau of Paris, where the gibe was published, would have recognized more than a smutty double entendre. For two years, the reputation of the Queen had been mired in scandal, the centerpiece of which was a diamond necklace of 647 brilliants and 2,800 carats. It had been made with Mme Du Barry in mind by the court jewelers Böhmer and Bassenge but Louis XV had died before they could deliver it. At 1.6 million livres it was a ruinous item of back inventory, and at first, Marie-Antoinette seemed a likely customer. She had already bought from the same firm a pair of “chandelier” earrings, a spray and a bracelet. When funds ran low she repeatedly went to the King, who usually indulged her. As a young woman she indulged a weakness for diamonds that was reported by a disapproving Austrian ambassador and earned her a smart rap over the knuckles from her imperial mother. “A Queen can only degrade herself,” wrote Maria Theresa, “by this sort of heedless extravagance in difficult times.”

By the 1780s, Marie-Antoinette seemed to have taken this lesson to heart, since she had become more conscious of avoiding conspicuous luxuries. At any rate she repeatedly declined to acquire the necklace. Driven to distraction (and perhaps knowing Marie-Antoinette’s weakness for tear-sodden drames bourgeois) the jeweler Böhmer had made a scene at court, sobbing his eyes out, yelling, swooning and threatening to do away with himself unless the Queen took the necklace off his hands. This tremendous performance was of no avail. Even had she been inclined to ignore official pleas for economy, the monstrosity was not to the Queen’s taste. It was altogether too much – the kind of blowsy vulgarity she associated with the Du Barry circle. Hoisting the wailing jeweler off his knees she counseled him to break up the necklace and get what he could for the separate stones.

This dinosaur of rococo jewelry would indeed be cut down to size, but not by its creator. In fact its public history had barely begun. For it became the prize in a confidence trick of breathtaking audacity. The Diamond Necklace Affair – as it became capitalized – is often treated as a scandalous sideshow to the “real” drama of empty coffers, famished peasants and growling artisans that heralded the end of the French monarchy. The cast of characters who were paraded before the French reading public as the bizarre plot unraveled in the summer of 1785 seemed perfect symbols of a regime worm-eaten with corruption: a dissolute, gullible, aristocratic cardinal; a scheming adventuress claiming descent from the Valois kings of France; a Neapolitan charlatan who said he had been born in Arabia and could tap the healing arts of the occult; an ash-blond grisette picked up in the Palais-Royal to impersonate the Queen; hapless creditors wringing their hands and cracking their knuckles; sundry jewelers from the Paris quais, from Piccadilly and Bond Street, on whose counters had fallen black velvet bags packed with diamonds the size of thrushes’ eggs. But at the very center of it all, unavoidably, was Marie-Antoinette. It was her transformation in public opinion from innocent victim to vindictive harpy, from Queen of France to the “Austrian whore” (putain autrichienne), that damaged the legitimacy of the monarchy to an incalculable degree.

There was nothing inevitable about this. Until the affair came to light, the Queen had been an oblivious bystander to the intrigue. But the phobic hysterias gathering about her, even before the plot was hatched, meant that she would be suspected of collusion, of luring others to their doom in the service of her insatiable appetite for luxure: a term that usefully compressed together opulence and libido.

In all kinds of ways, however unwittingly, Marie-Antoinette designed her own downfall. It was precisely her reputation for unaffected girlish sentimentality that made Louis, the Cardinal de Rohan, believe that he could restore his position at court through her favors, rather than by directly approaching the King. Too rich for their own good, with a long history of conspiracy, and boasting the most spectacular hôtel in the Marais, the de Rohans were kept at arm’s length by the Bourbons. De Rohan’s period as ambassador to Vienna had been equally disastrous, alienating Marie-Antoinette’s mother, the Empress Maria Theresa.

De Rohan’s well-known craving to be accepted at Versailles was exactly the windfall Jeanne de La Motte had been looking for. Born into abject and obscure rural penury, she claimed descent from one of the last Valois kings, Henri II, and it was with this tattered pedigree that she too staged fainting fits in the path of Mme Elisabeth, the King’s sister, until she got a chance to tell her story of downtrodden gentility. Smitten by her apparent sincerity, Mme Elisabeth then set her up modestly at Versailles, from which she proceeded to persuade de Rohan that she was an intimate of the Queen’s. Should he do her bidding now and again, there was a fine prospect that he might indeed one day bathe in the radiance of Marie-Antoinette’s smile. De Rohan rose like a moth to the flame, supplying Jeanne periodically with sums of money that were supposed to go to favored acts of charity but in fact usually went to her dressmaker.

The clinching act in this comedy of persuasion was drawn straight out of The Marriage of Figaro. On the tenth of August 1784, a blond milliner (later described, not altogether fairly, as a common prostitute) Nicole Le Guay was dressed by Jeanne de La Motte in the Queen’s favored white muslin gown and ushered into the Grove of Venus in the gardens of Versailles at eleven o’clock at night. There she found the Cardinal waiting anxiously and pressed into his hand a single rose. She had one line to speak (though de Rohan later fantasized that she had uttered two) – “You know what this means” – before hurrying back into the obscurity from which she had come. Dizzy with joy at this long-awaited sign of favor, de Rohan became putty in Jeanne de La Motte’s hands. Larger and larger sums passed from the one to the other.

Display bought credibility, and in November she had the (now desperate) jewelers bring her the necklace while de Rohan was away. When he returned she convinced him that the Queen wished to acquire it and pay in four installments. A forged letter commissioning the Cardinal to act on her behalf apparently confirmed this. As an ambassador, de Rohan should have noticed that this letter was signed incorrectly “Marie-Antoinette de France,” but attentiveness had never been his strong suit. On January 29, 1785, the necklace was brought to the Palais du Cardinal and almost immediately transferred to the supposed courier of the Queen (Jeanne’s lover, de Réteaux). He broke it up and began the tricky business of fencing it around Paris. When suspicions became aroused, her complicit husband took it to London, where he sold the stones, partly for cash, partly for articles that included ruby brooches, enamel snuffboxes and a pair of silver asparagus tongs.

Surprisingly, success went to Jeanne’s head. She became imprudent. At last able to bring her property into line with her pretensions she affected the title “Baronne de La Motte de Valois” and bought a substantial estate at Bar-sur-l’Aube to which no less than forty-two cartloads of elegant loot – Adam furniture, works of art, d’Aubusson tapestries – made their way in the spring of 1785. In the meantime the Cardinal waited for the Queen to sport her new bauble and give him some sign, any sign, of grace. He was disappointed. Candlemas (for which the Queen, by letter, had said she wished to wear the necklace) came and went. Weeks and months passed. More seriously, none of the money had materialized from which de Rohan was supposed to pay the first 400,000-livre installment on the first of August. Böhmer, the histrionic jeweler, was still in blissful ignorance of these difficulties. On July 12 he thrust a note into the Queen’s hands that referred to “the most beautiful diamonds in the world adorning the greatest and best of queens.” Marie-Antoinette assumed he was off his head again and burned the note.

On the eve of the day the first payment was due, Jeanne informed de Rohan there was no money available until October. He attempted to calm the jewelers, who were themselves being pressed by creditors. Oddly resigned to the unraveling of the plot, Jeanne de La Motte then directly informed the jewelers that they had been cheated by a forged letter. They in turn went to see Mme Campan, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, on August 5. It took no time at all for the appalling truth to emerge, and on the fifteenth de Rohan was summoned to the King’s presence. He admitted being taken in by a woman claiming to act for the Queen and implored the King to conceal the scandal for the sake of his family. But Louis, understandably, was in the grip of a white rage and had the Cardinal arrested and taken to the Bastille.

While de Rohan was to be colorfully depicted by his lawyer Target as languishing in “irons” in the Bastille, he actually moved into a specially furnished apartment outside the prison towers where he spent nine months entertaining an unending stream of distinguished visitors. Oysters and champagne were laid on as a collation for guests, and the Cardinal had choice works from his library and a retinue of servants to help him overcome the hardships of incarceration.

Nonetheless, the very word Bastille (especially following the phenomenal success of Linguet’s Memoirs, which dwelled on its torments) was enough to guarantee de Rohan popular martyrdom. A great flood of pamphlets and broadsides represented him as the pathetic victim of absolutist oppression. At his trial before the Parlement of Paris, Target brilliantly played on another sympathetic motif of the late Enlightenment by claiming that the Cardinal had been brought down only by his “excess of candor” (“crédule par excès de franchise”), his simplicity of nature, his trusting good humor, his chivalrous urge to serve the Queen and so on. The defense was further helped by the fact that at least some of this was true. He was, in fact, a callow simpleton with a poor record of private morals. But that was not enough to merit the full force of royal prosecution, and the result was (though by a slender margin) his acquittal. The chorus of popular hallelujahs was so loud and so riotous that de Rohan headed straight back to the Bastille for the night until things had calmed down enough for him to make a safe exit.

The briefs for the accused, their so-called mémoires, were published in large batches and made widely available to the public, as were engravings of the principal defendants, so that the proceedings became a kind of public theater in which the preposterous drama was played out before a large audience. And before very long it became rapidly apparent that what was on trial was not de Rohan, de La Motte and her co-conspirators so much as the old regime itself. Even though the chances of acquittal for some of the defendants were, to say the least, slim, some of the most powerful and eloquent of the Parlement’s lawyers rushed to take on the case because of the flattering glare of publicity. And reading the briefs, the historian can readily see that they did a brilliant job, varying their appeal depending on the particular qualities of the client, but in each case appealing to one or another of the key idées fixes of the 1780s.

How to defend Nicole Le Guay, the “Baronne d’Oliva,” as Jeanne de La Motte had generously ennobled her? The prosecution called her a common whore, but the defense represented her as a vulnerable girl, orphaned at an early age, lodged in a little room on the rue du Jour near Saint-Eustache (rather too convenient to the Palais-Royal) and working as a milliner to make ends meet, devoted to her lover and lured by de La Motte’s promise of fifteen thousand livres for impersonating the Queen. In other words she was a vulnerable child of nature, a three-dimensional painting by Greuze, recruited for a stratagem of which she had only the barest glimmer of understanding. The news that she had delivered an illegitimate baby in the Bastille only helped reinforce this impression of pathos. And so did her inability to answer any questions in court through her sobbing. It was clear, as her lawyer Blondel claimed, that the girl had de l’âme (soul). She was acquitted. Cagliostro, the infamous charlatan, had become the Cardinal’s personal prophet by claiming to commune with the deities of the Nile and the Euphrates. He had exploited his influence to convince de Rohan that he was indeed in favor with the Queen. Accused of boasting that he was thousands of years old and other absurdities, he adopted the unlikely role of Enlightenment skeptic, and immediately announced he was thirty-seven – though he exploited the taste for Orientalism by continuing to claim that he had been born and raised in Medina and Mecca and had traveled the Levant acquiring his “art.” He and his wife had also been locked up in the Bastille, and Cagliostro moved the court with heart-rending appeals to their sense of desolation at seeing such an exemplary pair of spouses separated. “The most amiable and virtuous of all women has been dragged into the same abyss; its thick walls and many bolts separating her from me… she groans and I cannot hear” and much more in this coloratura vein.

Even Jeanne de La Motte had found a usable tactic. She appealed to history, to the memory of the Valois from whom she said she was descended, and brandished elaborate genealogical charts to prove the relationship. Indeed, it may not actually have been wholly spurious. There was, in the 1780s, a growing cult of distressed chivalry, one that linked itself with the Romantic hatred of the New, of a world dominated by cash and corruption. And it was exactly that world that was Jeanne de La Motte’s natural element. She managed to represent herself as an orphan of an older France, a heroine from the sticks, an innocent gone astray like so many of the cautionary fallen girls of Restif de Bretonne’s novels. Staggering though it may seem, she pitted her own invented reputation against that of the Queen, claiming that Marie-Antoinette had indeed wanted the necklace, that she had written many letters to say so and that they were all genuine, not forged. (In his misplaced zeal to save the Queen embarrassment, de Rohan had burned all the letters he had seen, so that there was no counter-evidence with which to challenge this claim.)

In the short term this did her no good. Her husband was condemned in absentia to the galleys for life. She was convicted and sent to La Salpêtrière indefinitely, but was also condemned to a public flogging, a hanging rope about her neck, and to be branded with the letter V (for voleuse – thief). At the moment of this terrible mortification, and in the presence of a huge throng, the executioner’s hand slipped from the shoulder where the letter was to scorch her and burned instead a great mark on the underside of her breast. No one who saw that would forget it. When, two years later, Jeanne escaped from prison to London, where she launched a diatribe of phenomenal venom against the Queen, she found a ready-made audience.

The real casualty of the whole affair was its principal victim: Marie-Antoinette (though the King’s meanness in going through with the case was invidiously contrasted with the hapless Cardinal’s sense of misplaced honor). Mysteriously, it was the Queen who emerged from the business portrayed as a spendthrift and a vindictive slut who would stop at nothing to satisfy her appetites. She had deliberately set out to destroy de Rohan, it was said, because he would not respond to her indecent advances (an amazing scenario) and had spitefully manipulated de La Motte to bring him down. The more imaginative of the libelles that circulated at the time had her engaged in lesbian acts with Jeanne, whom she discarded when other sexual favorites seemed more appetizing. “What rapture,” she is made to confess of this scene. “I thought that I saw Olympus open and that I entered, for my ecstasies were not of a mortal kind.”

None of this would have been possible had there not already been a rich and unsavory vein of court pornography to tap. Though the genre was very old (owing something to Suetonius and later to Aretino) it evolved into a particularly ripe phase during the last years of Louis XV, when “histories” of his private brothel at Versailles, the Parc aux Cerfs (the Stag Park), were in vogue, outsold only by the innumerable versions of the anecdotes of Mme Du Barry, the prototype written by Pidanzat de Mairobert. Her support for the infamous “triumvirate” of Terray, Maupeou and d’Aiguillon made it possible for anti-Maupeou satirists to connect sex and tyranny. The standard tales of buggery, adultery, incest and promiscuity thus became a kind of metaphor for a diseased constitution. When Louis XV died rather suddenly of smallpox, it was rumored that the carrier had been a girl procured for him by Mme Du Barry.

The political constitution of France and the physical constitution of the monarch were, to the popular imagination, one and the same. The King’s body had always been a public realm, one or another of its regions privileged as the peculiar location of authority. In the flowing locks of the long-haired Merovingian Frankish kings had lain their sacred mystique. Even when the Carolingian “mayors of the palace” had stripped them of power, the Merovingians were preserved as holy totems, complete with waist-length tresses, and driven about in oxcarts to legitimate their successors. Court ritual at Versailles fetishized the royal body so that hierarchies were established according to who might pass the King’s slipper or hand the Queen her chemise. Louis XIV’s body – in reality an exceptionally impressive frame – was projected to his subjects as being invested with superhuman power. The King’s phenomenal appetite was said to be the consequence of a stomach cavity many times normal size (for unlike Louis XVI he never really grew stout) and its godlike dimensions were duly reported to the public after a postmortem.

For a dynastic regime, by far the most important region of the King’s body lay below the waistline. In contrast with many of their counterparts elsewhere, the Bourbons were a remarkable success at reproducing themselves. Disastrous rates of mortality among dauphins were offset by their ability to produce male heirs before dying off. Louis XV thus was Louis XIV’s great-grandson, and Louis XVI the grandson of his predecessor. Given the questionable circumstances of the old King’s death, much was made of Louis XVI’s decision to be inoculated. As pustules erupted on the royal trunk, bulletins announced their satisfactory progress to the world outside. Marie-Antoinette communicated the same to her mother the Empress (who was wholeheartedly in favor of the procedure), commenting on the particularly impressive pustules that had appeared on the royal nose. But while this was an admirable example to his subjects, their most pressing expectations were centered elsewhere. At the level of common consensus the King-as-Father-of-the-Patrie had three basic duties: to see that his people had bread, that his realm was victorious in battle and that it was supplied with heirs. In the years following his succession there were already doubts on the first two scores but it was in the last matter that his failure provoked most comment.

Though their first daughter was born in 1778, it was only when a dauphin was produced three years later that dynastic expectations were satisfied. A grand ball was given at the Hôtel de Ville; fireworks and feasting were celebrated in the streets of Paris; and a delegation of market women actually came to congratulate the Queen. (They would return eighteen years later in an unfriendlier mood.) The rejoicing was general just because the Queen’s ability to bear children had been a topic of caustic popular comment for some years. The real problem, however, lay with her partner. For some years (it is uncertain exactly how many), sexual relations between Louis and Marie-Antoinette were complicated, if not actually precluded, by the King’s phymosis. This is a condition in which the foreskin is deprived of its elasticity, making erections painful. Intercourse, from both the conjugal and dynastic view, was thus perfunctory and unsatisfactory. The Queen was bewildered and unhappy; the King pursued the boar and stag with all the ardor denied to him in bed. Both of the partners seem to have confided to Joseph II when he visited his sister in 1777, since he wrote a characteristically clinical report of the problem back to his brother Leopold.

[Louis] has strong, well-conditioned erections, introduces the member, stays there without moving for perhaps two minutes and withdraws without ejaculating but still erect and says goodnight; this is incomprehensible because he sometimes has nightly emissions but once in place and going at it, never – he says plainly he does it from a sense of duty.

Brotherly intervention in this delicate affair seems to have produced the minor surgery necessary to correct the abnormality. And in August – two months after Joseph’s letter – Marie-Antoinette wrote rapturously to her mother, making it plain that their marriage was now “perfectly consummated.”

The failure of a royal pregnancy to materialize for the first seven years of the marriage was enough, however, to start tongues wagging and to end the grace period that Marie-Antoinette had enjoyed on coming to France. It was her own attitude to her position, though, that caused the most serious damage. She had grown up in a Habsburg court where the excesses of traditional ceremony and protocol were being discarded in favor of a simpler, more engaged style of government. Her mother had herself come to the throne as a young girl at a catastrophic moment in the history of the Empire – the loss of Silesia to Frederick the Great – and had learned enlightened absolutism the hard way. Her brother, Joseph, was a notorious iconoclast when it came to the polite rituals of court. Yet both understood that in an age when monarchs were supposed to be “servants of the state” it was especially important to present an image of devoted self-sacrifice to their subjects.

But it was precisely this rather grave demeanor that Marie-Antoinette shrugged off when she arrived at Versailles. A bride at fifteen and a queen at nineteen, like all adolescent girls of her generation she drank deep at the well of sentimental literature. Her library was full of Richardson, Rousseau, Mercier and even Restif de Bretonne. A passion for flowers, a rather merry candor and a dislike of stolid formality were, after all, the virtues in vogue. But they were supposed to be hidden behind the mask of royalty.

Almost from the outset, the Queen made no concessions to her public role. She giggled at the pecking wars of ladies-in-waiting, yawned or sighed ostentatiously at the admittedly interminable ceremonies that left her stark naked in the cold of her Versailles apartment while they went through the business of passing the royal shift or selecting the royal ribbons. Worst of all, she began to rebel against wearing stays and corsets at all. The King’s sisters were tiresome, his brothers’ wives aggressively unsympathetic and, even worse, they were pregnant. Gradually they came to understand that Marie-Antoinette was not prepared to resign herself to the customary role played by Bourbon queens and princesses: the production of heirs in meek invisibility, leaving the King to disport himself as he chose. If anything, the roles were reversed, Louis remaining awkward, secluded and retiring as his wife became more brazenly outgoing. Her brother was shocked by this impolitic defiance of convention. “She has no etiquette,” he wrote to his brother Leopold, “goes out and runs around alone or with a few people without the outward signs of her position. She looks a little improper and while this would be all right for a private person she is not doing her job…”

Joseph saw clearly that his sister wanted the privileges and indulgences of monarchy while being free to pretend that she was really a private individual. This, he predicted, was to court unpopularity, even to undermine her legitimacy. But Marie-Antoinette remained determined to design her own identity. Repudiating her officially assigned councillor, the Princesse de Noailles, she selected her own friends. The first in this galère was the Princesse de Lamballe, whose husband had died of syphilis, leaving her a widow at nineteen. She was supplemented by the Princesse de Guéménée and, finally and most disastrously, the indisputably ravishing but dimwitted Yolande de Polignac. None of this would have mattered a great deal except for the fact that the Queen used her authority to shower gifts, offices and money on her chosen favorites. Much to the horror of the economizing Malesherbes the Queen revived the redundant office of Superintendent of the Queen’s Household, carrying a stipend of 150,000 livres a year, specifically for the Princesse de Lamballe. And along with each of the favorites came a large clan of relatives and cronies who clung to the sides of the royal ship of state with the tenacity of barnacles. There were impecunious aunts, profligate brothers, scapegrace grandpas, broken-down baronies and mortgaged plantations in the Antilles, all to be satisfied and made good. So that what to the Queen seemed innocent enough – putting favors in the way of her friends – to less partial judgment looked like a gigantic network of sinecure and graft; the empire of “Madame Deficit,” as her brother-in-law Provence called her.

The more the Queen struck out for independence, the greater seemed the impropriety. Dismayed as she was by Louis’ loutish humor and his brother Provence’s total devotion to the joys of the table, the youngest brother, Artois, must have seemed a paragon of elegance, charm and conceivably even intelligence (though this is stretching credibility). But, undoubtedly, Artois did make her feel clever, graceful and – with her large eyes, protruding lower lip and shade of the Habsburg chin – even beautiful. They spent a good deal of time together at the theater, the gaming table and the concerts spirituels that were Paris’s nightly musical entertainments. They both were fanatical partisans of the composer Gluck against his foe Piccini; and both, mirabile dictu, were staunch champions of Beaumarchais. Together they created the amateur court theater at the Trianon, where they acted out Rousseau’s The Village Soothsayer and The Barber of Seville.

There were other chevaliers servants on hand to keep the Queen flattered and amused: Arthur Dillon, the Duc de Lauzun, Axel von Fersen, the Baron de Besenval, the Prince de Ligne and especially the Comte de Vaudreuil. Other than Lauzun – who flirted so outrageously with the Queen at one outing to the racetrack at the Plaine des Sablons that he was banished – none of them were from conventional noble backgrounds. For uncharitable gossips they were all conspicuous by their foreign ancestry or affiliation: the Dillons were Irish-Jacobite, Fersen was a Swedish soldier-courtier, and the Prince de Ligne came from the Habsburg Netherlands. It seems obvious that the Queen felt more comfortable with these foreigners and parvenus than with the established court hierarchy, but her favoritism courted its alienation. The whispering campaigns that dogged her reign began in the palace itself. Vaudreuil was a particular target. He came from a West Indian planter family and had made a splash in Paris society by spending his sugar fortune as freely as he could. His mistress was the Queen’s favorite, Yolande de Polignac, and that in turn opened for him not just the blessings of the Queen’s presence but a cornucopia of offices – some very lucrative, all of them high-status. In 1780 alone he was made grand falconer of France, governor of Lille and maréchal de camp. In turn, Vaudreuil looked after his own. He saw to it that Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, who in 1784 painted a portrait of the Comte weighed down with decorations, became the most important artist at court (no more than she deserved), that her brother joined the company of the secrétaires du roi, thus ennobling him, and that her dealer-husband received a constant stream of high-born and well-heeled customers. He himself reveled in being the clotheshorse of the old regime, and its best amateur actor (by general consent an inspired Almaviva). Trailing enormous debts, scrabbling for offices to pay for them and never quite succeeding, Vaudreuil was everything the revolutionaries had in mind when they characterized the court as a playpen of spoiled and greedy children.

It seems improbable that any of these men (other, perhaps, than Fersen and that, much later) were anything more than companionable flatterers for the Queen. But the informal manner she promoted and the visibility she courted at all three of Paris’s major theaters – the Comédie-Française, the Opéra and the Comédie Italienne (against the express wishes of the King) – were bound to play into the hands of the scandalmongers and pornographers. Marie-Antoinette was hopelessly unprepared for the kind of criticism to which she opened herself by redesigning the royal identity. Nature was the word in vogue by the 1780s and she blithely assumed that by acting “naturally” she would be taken for the innocent she mostly was. But what seemed spontaneous to her appeared as shockingly licentious to many of her subjects. And there was, in their angry, visceral response, more than an element of psychosexual anxiety. Marie-Antoinette – though she could hardly have dreamed of it – represented a threat to the settled system of gender relations. If the King was supposed to be the emblematic head of a patriarchal order, by the same token his wife was supposed to show a face of especial obedience, humility and submission. This had not always been the case in French history, of course, and it is not surprising to find a sudden crop of “histories” appearing in the 1780s of other wayward (that is, headstrong and independent) queens – especially Anne of Austria (the widow of Louis XIII) and even more infamously Catherine de Medici – each with thinly veiled analogies to the present incumbent.

Most important is the directness with which the Queen represented her own femininity. What had been permissible, even expected, in a mistress of the monarch was somehow intolerable in a queen. It made matters even worse that this femininity was candidly presented and designed, more or less exclusively, by other women. Rose Bertin, the Queen’s dressmaker, became one of the most influential women in France, and it was she who encouraged Marie-Antoinette to abandon the stiffness (both material and figurative) of formal court dress for the loose, simple gowns of white lawn, cotton and muslin that she came to favor. Formal appearances, complete with hooped panier dresses and piled coiffeur, were restricted to “Sunday courts” and even then, as Mme de La Tour du Pin recalled, it had become fashionable to complain of the dreariness of the routine. Certainly, it was the more unconventional face of the monarchy, displayed in the paintings of the Queen’s other most important friend, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, that provoked further comment.

Though much of her work is of manifestly spectacular quality, Vigée-Lebrun has, until quite recently, been written off as just another light entertainer of the ancien régime: a lady-in-waiting with brush and palette. And she has suffered as much from sentimental nostalgia for the old regime as from dismissive neoclassicism. But in her time she was correctly recognized as a phenomenon, exhibiting no less than forty paintings at the biennial Salons. In 1783, the year she became one of two women admitted to the Royal Academy (the other being her rival Adelaide Labille-Guiard), the Mémoires Secrètes testified to her influence and renown:

When someone announces that he has just come from the Salon, the first thing he is asked is: have you seen Mme Le Brun? What do you think of Mme Le Brun? And immediately the answer suggested is: Mme Le Brun – is she not astonishing?… the works of the modern Minerva are the first to attract the eyes of the spectator, call him back repeatedly, take hold of him, possess him, elicit from him exclamations of pleasure and admiration… the paintings in question are also the most highly praised, talked about topics of conversation in Paris.

Part of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s appeal lay in the person as much as the art. The daughter of a minor portraitist and a hairdresser mother from peasant stock, she was largely self-trained following her father’s death when she was twelve. Using models from her own family but presenting them in a bold, expressive manner in which the brilliance of her color matched the flamboyance of poses and composition, she made a reputation as a prodigy. At nineteen she was already enrolled in the painters’ academy of Saint-Luc. Marrying her mother’s landlord, the dealer Lebrun, propelled her into Paris society and gave her a ready-made showcase for her talent in the galleries and soirées held at their town house. She was clever, articulate and strikingly beautiful: a winning combination in the Paris of the 1780s. And she succeeded in differentiating herself from the mass of dull academicians or pseudo-Bouchers by promoting, in her social life as well as her art, the cult of the unaffected. Her soirées served nothing other than fish, fowl and salad. At the famous souper au grec she stripped Lebrun of his pretensions by “wiping off his powder, undoing his side curls and putting a wreath of laurel about his head” as honey cake with Corinth raisins was served together with a Cypriot wine.

The painter carried these airs of ostentatious simplicity right into the court. In her (doubtless idealized) memoirs Elisabeth recalled improvised Grétry song duets with the Queen. On another occasion she looked on admiringly as Marie-Antoinette obliged her six-year-old princess to dine with (indeed to wait on) a peasant girl of her own age. Hair powder, elaborately structured coiffures, stays and hoop petticoats were all banished except for formal ceremonies. Instead hair was encouraged to fall in natural curls over the shoulders; flowers and grasses were used for ornament on straw bonnets and wide-brimmed rustic hats. The natural line of the body was exposed beneath diaphanous, shiftlike dresses of white or ivory-colored cotton lawn gathered below the breast, and fastened loosely with a ribbon. The Duchesse de Polignac, who was, by any standard, strikingly comely, was painted in this new uniform looking like some freshly harvested and luscious fruit. Even when sitters were reluctant to go the whole way towards informality, Vigée-Lebrun found ways of making their attitudes less monumental.

As I despised the costume then worn by women I tried in every way to make it more picturesque and I was delighted when I obtained the confidence of my sitters, who allowed me to drape them as I pleased. Shawls were not yet the fashion but I made use of large scarves lightly woven about the body and over the arms with which I attempted to imitate the beautiful style of Raphael and Domenichino.

This was all presented as the costume of natural innocence, but like some of the poses of the Greuze girls, of whom it was reminiscent, it had unmistakable erotic power. In Vigée-Lebrun’s Bacchante, painted in the year of the Diamond Necklace scandal, this was explicit, but some of the elements in this sexually charged design were transferred to portraiture: the highlighted teeth of an open-mouthed smile or the upward-rolled pupils in the painting of the “maintained” actress Catherine Grand, later Talleyrand’s wife. The Grand painting, though, is an exception in presenting a woman as a kind of sexual property. For the most part the great series of female portraits done by Vigée-Lebrun in the 1780s are strikingly free from rococo voyeurism. Instead of having their heads turned from the beholder and bodies exposed, the women depicted here – not least the artist – stare directly back in expressions of challenging independence. They are often seen in groups of friends or with their children in uninhibited poses of affection and embrace. It was this refusal to ingratiate that contemporaries found simultaneously exciting and alarming.

When it came to representing the Queen, of course, some special concerns intervened between Vigée-Lebrun’s “natural” manner and the commission. First summoned to court in 1778, when she was just twenty-three years old, she dutifully turned out a wholly traditional image, face seen in three-quarters profile, decorated with feathers and costumed in an enormous tanklike robe à panier. By 1783, a transformation had taken place and the portrait of the Queen that appeared in the Salon showed her in a simple muslin dress, holding a rose. Others in the same vein followed, many of them copied for French embassies abroad and for private clients.

None of this helped arrest the deterioration of the Queen’s reputation. In fact it might have hastened it by appearing to confirm an image of casual disregard for propriety. At any rate, by the Salon of 1785 there was concern as to how Marie-Antoinette ought to be represented before the public. The painting displayed that year was by the Swedish court artist Wertmuller and showed her walking in the park at Versailles with her children. It was presumably expected to appeal to the vogue for sentimental family groups. But it was so awkwardly rendered and stiff as to reinforce the uncharitable view that domestic propaganda concealed private libertinism. The painting was removed and a replacement commissioned from Vigée-Lebrun, who exploited sympathy for the Queen’s loss of a child by having her seated with her surviving children in front of a significantly empty crib. Spectacular though the work was, it too suffered from an ideological defensiveness that sat uneasily with the painting’s domestic platitudes. For if there was an effort to show Marie-Antoinette as Mother, placing her nursery immediately in front of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and enveloping her in a formal velour dress was bound to signal that she also remained Queen. Exhibited in the Salon of 1787, it met with a mixed reception.

By the time that this grand portrait went on view, the Salon was the only place that the Queen could be seen outside court. Wounded by the barrage of violent pornography – of which she was certainly aware – she shrank from the public gaze. On the few occasions she ventured to the theater she was greeted with frosty silence or even hisses. In contrast with this silence were the cheerfully insulting songs that could be heard around the Paris cafés and on the Pont Neuf:

Notre lubrique reine

Our lascivious Queen

DArtois le débaucbé

With Artois the debauched

Tous deux sans moindre peine

Together with no trouble

Font ce joli péché

Commit the sweet sin

Eh! mais oui-da

But what of it

Comment peut-on trouver du mal à ça?

How could one find harm in that?

Cette belle alliance

This fine pair

Nous a bien convaincu

Have certainly convinced us

Que le grand Roi de France

That the great King of France

Est un parfait cocu

Is a perfect cuckold

Eh! mais oui-da

But what of it

Comment peut-on trouver du mal à ça?

How could one find harm in that?

Others speculated on the size of the King’s equipment and/or its potency, or the number of the Queen’s lovers of either sex and the chronology of their favors. A coin was actually minted at Strasbourg showing the King’s profile with an unmistakable pair of cuckold’s horns attached to his head. The gutter literature was even more brazen. One popular item, Les Amours de Charlot [Artois] et Toinette, began with Marie-Antoinette masturbating and proceeding to the usual orgy.

The prototype for many of these productions was the Essai Historique sur la Vie de Marie-Antoinette, first published in 1781, again in 1783 and then with annual revisions to keep up with events right through to her execution in 1793. Five hundred and thirty-four copies were burned by the public hangman at the Bastille in 1783 but it was still a favorite item of the clandestine book smugglers and widely distributed in Paris. Its form was that of autobiographical confession, which at times seemed to anticipate precisely the most vitriolic revolutionary indictments:

Catherine de Medici, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Messalina, my deeds have surpassed yours, and if the memory of your infamies still provokes a shudder, if its frightful detail makes the hair stand on end and tears pour from the eyes, what sentiments will issue from knowledge of the cruel and lascivious life of Marie-Antoinette… barbaric Queen, adulterous wife, woman without morals, soiled with crime and debauchery, these are the titles that are my decorations.

The “life” that follows is that, as she herself confesses, of “a despicable prostitute”: spending the night before the coronation in 1775 on the Porte Neuve at Reims, an “islet of love,” dressed as a Bacchante, copulating for three hours with a selected “Hercules”; learning new positions from Artois at the Trianon; experimenting at will with her ladies of the household, and especially with the Polignac. The three most featured vices of this literature were masturbation, lesbianism and insatiable nymphomania. This was not accidental, since each of these also figured prominently in the medical literature of the 1780s, written up in both the scientific genre and the more predictable vulgarized versions: titillation masquerading as edification. The confessional account of Marie-Antoinette’s sexual appetite in the libelles featured exactly the sort of symptoms readers of Bienville’s very popular Nymphomania, or a Treatise on the Uterine Fury were told to recognize in the compulsive nymphomaniac. “At the mere sight of a handsome man or beautiful woman, my body became restless, an expression of pleasurable possession spread over my face; I could scarcely conceal the violence of my desires.”

The Marie-Antoinette of the libelles was a sexual monster, infected with disease from sleeping with a dissolute cardinal, and since lesbianism was known as “the German vice,” an alien presence in the body politic. Her sexual perversions, then, were often treated as political stratagems.

In 1785 a crisis blew up when her brother the Austrian Emperor Joseph II attempted to force open the estuary of the river Scheldt so that he could expand freedom of navigation from the Austrian Netherlands ports of Ostend and Antwerp. This was in violation of treaty commitments France had made with the Dutch Republic, which stood to lose from the change, and since the two powers had been allies in the American war, the logical move would have been to resist the Austrian maneuver, if necessary with threats of war. Distressed by this possibility the Queen actively intervened and persuaded the King to moderate the French position. Though the crisis defused itself, the interference was taken by those hostile to the Queen as another instance of her colonizing the court in the interests of a foreign power. She became, more than ever, Marie-Antoinette of Austria.

All of these sexual demonologies – of the spy-whore, the King’s dominatrix, the infector of the constitution – were stirred up into a richly poisonous polemic and undoubtedly contributed to the phenomenally rapid erosion of royal authority in the late 1780s. Early on in the Revolution, when the Queen took a more aggressive part in politics and was widely suspected of fomenting military plots against the National Assembly, her critics invoked yet another source of monstrosity to graft on to the already repulsive image. In the mid-1780s, stories circulated of a “harpy” – a winged creature of savage appetites and brutal talons – said to have been discovered at Santa Fe in Peru. The engravers of popular prints, always looking for novelties, made much of it, and predictably in 1791 the Queen duly appeared in the guise of the fabled horror, clutching “The Rights of Man” in her claws.

The deconstruction of her image was a pathetic thing. She had stripped herself of the mask of royalty in the interests of Nature and Humanity (as well as her own predilections) only to end up represented as, of all women, unnatural and inhuman. When, finally, the “Widow Capet” was arraigned before the revolutionary tribunal, the conflation of sexual and political crime was made explicit. Insulted very much in the language of the libelles as “immoral in every respect, a new Agrippina”; accused of being in league with the Emperor and (before the Revolution) secretly smuggling two hundred million livres to him, she was finally accused by the editor of the newspaper Le Père Duchesne and the President of the Paris revolutionary Commune, Jacques-René Hébert, of sexually abusing her own son, the wretched ex-Dauphin, then about eleven years old. She and Mme Elisabeth, her sister-in-law, were said (on the boy’s confession) to have made him sleep between them “in which situation he had been accustomed to the most abominable indulgences.” They had taught him to masturbate but not, Hébert thought, simply for their own pleasure but for even more sinister political purposes. Drawing on the grim prognosis of the effects of masturbation set out in Dr. Tissot’s Onania, the accusation was that they meant to “enervate the constitution of the child in order that they might acquire an ascendancy over his mind.”

Harassed into making a response to those charges, Marie-Antoinette replied, “I remain silent on that subject because nature holds all such crimes in abhorrence.” But her final retort was in the manner of the Vigée-Lebrun painting of a maternal queen: “I appeal to all mothers who are present in this room – is such a crime possible?”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!