Extravagant, frivolous, out-of-touch … Marie Antoinette may have been all of these things, but, there’s no doubt, this Queen had style!
Born into nobility herself, (she was the fifteenth child of the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria), she was dispatched to France to marry the Dauphin, the future King Louis XVI, at the tender age of 14. At Versailles, she found the strict protocol of the French court stifling and, in time, sought to escape from it.
Her husband was sympathetic to his wife’s need to have her own private space. A system of etiquette had evolved at Versailles based on seniority; for example, on getting up in the morning, Marie Antoinette had to stand naked in a room filled with courtiers, each one with a role to play in passing her each item of clothing.
Le Petit Trianon.
So, on his accession to the throne, Louis XVI presented the Petit Trianon, a small Château in the park of Versailles, to his wife, Marie-Antoinette. Le Petit Trianon, designed by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, had been built for the former King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, though she had never lived there. Now Marie Antoinette set about creating her own world there, populated only by her friends, where they could relax without the prying eyes of her courtiers and servants. Here all was “de par a la Reine“, by order of the Queen.
Of course, by doing so, she created more enemies – those at the Court who were not invited felt slighted, she neglected her duties as Queen and isolated herself even more from society.
But what fun to explore her world! (And I can think of more than one modern Princess who longed for privacy too.)
Marie Antoinette took an active role in the decoration and design of the house and gardens.The elegant Château is exquisitely decorated in soft pastel shades with panelling bearing the Queen’s initials.
The Queen’s love of flowers featured in the furnishings and plasterwork – lilies of the valley, jasmine,apple blossom and, her favourite, roses. Her bedroom is surprisingly small, yet elegant. Here in her apartments, she protected her privacy with mirrored panels which could be raised or lowered in front of the windows. Today, the bed is a reconstruction but it still has its original embroidered upholstery.
From her bedroom window she could look out at the gardens she created in the English Landscape style, fashionable at that time, and a contrast to the strict formality of Le Nôtre’s garden created for Louis XIV, just a quarter of a mile away. A landscape of mature trees, rolling hills, meandering canals and paths and, of course, a Temple of Love, all designed to create an impression of a natural landscape. As if she were far away from the Court.
Even her style of dress was influenced by her new freedom – out went the hooped skirts in favour of pretty white muslin dresses with blue sashes and straw hats. This looser style at first scandalised the Court who preferred their Queen to set the style in a more traditional way. And of course rumours abounded about the lifestyle of the Queen’s set at the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette.
To celebrate the completion of the Temple of Love, she organised a garden party, a fête galante, with 2300 coloured lanterns lighting the paths, with a temporarily installed fairground where the Queen dispensed lemonade.
A rustic village – the hameau.
Next, she extended this feeling of a garden escape – an imaginary rural retreat far from the Court – by creating the hameau, her idea of a rural idyll with farmhouse, dairy and dovecote. Here she would dress as a shepherdess and stroll about this ornamental village with her children and closest friends.
Many history textbooks on the causes of the French Revolution will cite le hameau as an incredulous example of how out of touch Marie Antoinette was, along with her supposed comment “Let them eat cake”, (there is no evidence that she actually said this),when the starving Paris mob descended on Versailles. But in fact, there were a number of forerunners of the hameau amongst the nobility, which reflected the thinking at the time – Rousseau’s cult of Nature. And in England, mock landscapes were being created by the likes of Capability Brown ; sometimes rustic grottoes would be inhabited by an elderly man paid to act as a picturesque hermit. So Marie Antoinette’s hameau doesn’t seem too out of context for the times.
However, it did nothing for her reputation, the economically disadvantaged feeling she was mocking their plight.
Completed in 1787, Marie Antoinette enjoyed escaping to her “country retreat” for a few short years. By 1789 the Bastille had been stormed, in 1791 the royal family attempted to escape from France but were captured and returned to the Tuileries in Paris. Later they were removed to the Temple prison.
She was executed in 1793, shortly before her 38th birthday.
Visiting the Domaine.
There is free entry to the park and gardens of Versailles. However, separate tickets must be purchased to visit either the Château of Versailles or the Queen’s Estate, (the Petit Trianon and the hameau; included in this ticket is entry to le Grand Trianon also).
Further details here : Versailles.
The definitive book on Marie Antoinette is by Antonia Fraser “Marie Antoinette : the journey”.
Sofia Coppola’s entertaining film “Marie Antoinette” starring Kirsten Dunst is based on this book.
And a “wickedly enjoyable” book by Caroline Weber is a favourite of mine :
“Queen of Fashion : what Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution”.