In 1786, Marie Antoinette and her children posed for a portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (click the image above for the full version). At first glance, the resulting picture presents a happy image. Madame Royale gazes lovingly up at her mother, the infant Duc de Normandie bounces on her lap, and the Dauphin looks every inch the angelic heir to the throne of France. This is an image of the family Marie Antoinette always longed for, and a vision of the Queen as she wished herself to be seen.
But look closer and all is not quite as it should be. The young dauphin points so proudly and so invitingly, but leads our eye to a gaping hole at the centre of the picture. When the portrait was first painted, the crib was occupied by another baby, Marie Antoinette’s most recent child, Madame Sophie. Less than a year later, Madame Sophie was dead, and thoughts of her wretched life and early death caused Marie Antoinette so much pain that Sophie was painted out of the picture.
The image that was left is a haunting and somehow apt visual metaphor for Marie Antoinette’s deeply troubled relationship with children. From the first days of her own childhood to her execution, and even beyond in the murky waters of her reputation, children – both absent and present, real and imagined – seem peculiarly to have defined Marie Antoinette. It is this sometimes joyous but more often painful relationship that I will examine in the next few weeks in a series of new posts, focusing especially on the lesser-known aspects of Marie Antoinette’s story. Posts will include…
- Marie Antoinette’s adopted children – the extraordinary story of the children Marie Antoinette took into her family, and what happened to them when the Revolution began.
- The treatment of the dauphin Louis Charles when separated from his mother in the prison at the Temple.
- How the image of Marie Antoinette as a mother was dramatically subverted and used against her in her trial.
- The Legend of Louis Charles – though the official story holds that he died in prison in 1795, persistent and increasingly wild rumours emerged that he had escaped, and many figures popped up all over the world claiming to be the true Louis XVII.
- Aftermath: The story of Marie Thérèse, the eldest of Marie Antoinette’s children, and the only member of the immediate family to survive the revolution.