“La Petite Reine” is not Marie-Antoinette

Don’t feel bad if you believed otherwise: I did too, along with many curators and art historians. Of course I thought the face was rounder than in most of Marie-Antoinette’s portraits, the nose pointy instead of aquiline. The expression was not quite right either, lacking in boldness and character. But the Queen herself complained that most painters, unlike sculptors, could not capture her likeness.

Madame Sophie Perin Salbreux

Marie Antoinette Madame Sophie Perin Salbreux

Last spring, while visiting the Marie-Antoinette exhibition at the Grand Palais, I saw this lovely, diminutive (21 by 25 inches) painting, traditionally known as La Petite Reine (“The Little Queen. “) But it was displayed with a mention that it did not represent the Marie-Antoinette. I was amazed. What had happened?

The painting belongs to the Musée de Reims (yes, right in the middle of Champagne country) and the curators there took a close look at the eyes of the subject. They were brownish green! This in itself ruled out Marie-Antoinette, whose eyes were undoubtedly blue. The artist, Lié-Louis Périn-Salbreux, had been commissioned to paint portraits of several members of the royal family, and he would not have misrepresented such an important detail.

Furthermore the neck-high lace palatine (kerchief) worn by the model was typical of the attire of mature ladies. The date of the painting is attested as 1776. Marie-Antoinette was 21 then, and very fond of youthful attributes, clothing and companions. She would certainly never have sat for her portrait in what we would call “old lady’s clothes.”

So who is this lady in the blue dress? The setting of the portrait would seem to be the little library built at Versailles for Madame Sophie, daughter of Louis XV and aunt of Louis XVI. The room no longer exists, but its distinctive flooring was identified thanks to various engravings. So this is now considered a portrait of Madame Sophie, then aged 42. She died in 1782, a few years before the Revolution.

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