Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had four children. They could not have been born at a more problematic time for the French royal family.
Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, known as Madame Royale was the only child, named after her grand-mother Empress Marie-Therese of Austria to survive the French revolution and reach adulthood. Eleven years old when the revolution erupted, in 1789, she was particularly close to her father the King.
Louis-Joseph, the first born son of the royal couple was spared the pains of revolution. He died of tuberculosis, at age seven, on the 4th of June, 1789. By all accounts a sweet child, the prince’s death added immeasurable grief to the lives of his parents the month before the revolution began.
After the death of his older brother, Louis-Charles, born in 1785 and sometimes referred to as Louis XVII, became dauphin. Subjected to the most cruel treatment by revolutionaries, the young prince was ten years old at his death in 1795.
Sophie-Beatrix was the family’s youngest child. Born in July of 1786, she died the following year – age eleven months – also of tuberculosis.
Because of the scandal of l’affaire du Collier, the ministers of the King ordered Vigée-Lebrun to do this propaganda painting, a tableau about family devotion and parental love. Though the Queen was cleared of any responsibility in the affair of the diamond necklace, the vicious press and a largely ignorant public hounded Marie-Antoinette. We know now that King Louis XVI brother, Prince Louis Stanislas Xavier, Comte de Provence was also plotting against his brother, he was encouraging rumours and did little to help his unfortunate relatives. He was able to leave France with a false British Passport for a 23 year long exile around Europe, living on the charity of various Sovereigns. Returning to France in 1814 to become Louis XVIII.
This family portrait was painted at Versailles in what is today the Salon de la Paix at the end of the Galerie des Glaces, it was then a private salon used by the Queen. If you look closely at the painting you glimpse at the Gallerie des Glaces in the left corner. See picture below as it is today.
Le Salon de la Paix, the Queen is seated to the right of the door, she is surrounded by her children. Her eldest son is pointing to the empty crib of his sister Sophie-Beatrix who died a few months before this painting was done. He is already sick with tuberculosis and will be dead in just a few months after this painting is completed. Truly a painting of tragedy. The cabinet in the background to the left of the tableau represents a strong box keeping locked up the jewels of the Queen. This is a reference to the alleged extravagance of the Queen. Marie-Antoinette herself only wears a pair of pearl hearings. This piece of furniture is almost in shadow and tucked away, not very important to the tableau, another message in this composition.
The composition of this painting also refers to a famous story in Greek antiquity of another mother and her children, who is asked what is most precious to her. Despite being wealthy, she presents her children as a reply, this is my wealth. This is the obvious symbolism of this painting. There is no doubt that the Queen was devoted to her children this was her wealth and this message had an impact on the French public at large. However by the time this painting was shown, it was too late. In 1793 at the 2 day trial of the Queen, she did not stand accuse or charge with any crime, the tribunal was divided on what to do. The revolutionaries were well aware that it would be difficult to pass a death sentence on Marie-Antoinette 37 yrs old. So without proof it was decided that she was guilty of treason, a farce by any judicial standard.
She was a mother and the public was against executing the mother with small children. On the day of her execution as she was brought to her public execution the streets were very silent and the mood of the crowd was sullen. The troops on hand were nervous and feared violence against the tribunal and the revolutionary government.
1787, Château de Versailles, la Reine Marie-Antoinette et ses enfants.
By Court painter to the Queen of France, Louise-Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (also known as Madame LeBrun) was the most-famous female painter of the 18th century. So impressed was Marie Antoinette with Vigée Le Brun’s work that she had the artist create more than thirty portraits of the Queen and her family. This large painting, remained at the Palace of Versailles after the fall of the Monarchy and only left the Palace 4 years ago for the first time ever to travel to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for a retrospective exhibit of Lebrun’s paintings.