“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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12 Comments to ““La Petite Reine” is not Marie-Antoinette”

  1. domeny globalne says:

    fantastic post, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector don’t notice this. You should continue your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  2. Louise says:

    I so enjoyed this entry, AND the comments on it! I have long since given up watching “historical” films, because I tend to spend the time saying “that didn’t happen” or “they didn’t wear those for another twenty years” and so on. It’s pleasing to see that I’m not alone in caring about historical accuracy!

    The history of the painting you give here is fascinating (all right, unoriginal word but it fits), in particular the details of clothing and features. Several years ago I saw a miniature offered at an auction house in Melbourne, which they identified as being of Louis XV. I’m quite sure it’s not. It was done by a pastel artist (alas, I forget his name) who was in England at the time; the young man is blue-eyed and his features are far more Hanoverian than Bourbon, and he’s wearing the Order of the Garter. I take it Louis XV was not a member of that order? I had no hard evidence to back it up, but I’m sure the young man portrayed is George III before his accession.

    May I ask – when you see a portrait, in person as it were, do you feel like you’ve met an old friend? I do.

  3. Oh sure, Elena, but in terms of acting, costumes, screenplay… Gone With The Wind and this Marie Antoinette are not quite in the same league, are they?

  4. Sometimes attention to detail is what separates a mediocre film from a really great film. In GONE WITH THE WIND, they made certain that even the petticoats were authentic. Sloppiness does not lead to a classic film.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    I agree, Elisa. It does remain a lovely painting, and we have so many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, and so few of Madame Sophie!

  6. Elisa says:

    As I read this, I thought about a portrait of Katherine Parr that had long been thought to be Lady Jane Grey.
    I’m glad someone did a good re-evalution of the portrait! Still pretty though.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh sure, Elena, but I read somewhere (again I will have to research this for a new post) that there exists somewhere in the UK a giant inventory of 18th century costumes, and that those are endlessly recycled from period piece to period piece, including a number of BBC productions and Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette. They were sold en masse, I believe, a few months ago.

    So this lack of historical accuracy on the costume issue (not to mention all of the other issues, but that’s another story, and one you addressed very well in your review) may have to do with both laziness and saving money: why not reuse the same old pieces, and who cares if Marie-Antoinette didn’t dress like that, and who will notice anyway?

  8. I don’t know. It is odd, when they are going to such expense to make things look authentic. At least in the 1930’s film with Norma Shearer the paniers were wide enough so that the ladies had to go side ways through the doors.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Very much so, Elena! Look at the portrait of Marie-Antoinette in a white court dress by Madame Vigee-Lebrun.

    I still haven’t seen The Duchess, but the paniers seem very narrow in that film too. Why is this? Do modern costume designers find historically accurate court dresses unbecoming? Or is it simply a question of scrimping on yardage?

  10. VERY inaccurate in terms of the Queen’s taste. And historically, weren’t the paniers a bit wider?

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Exactly, Elena. Marie-Antoinette liked “power colors” (white, lots of deep reds.) This pale blue dress is more along the lines of Sofia Coppola’s film. One of these days I want to post about the costumes in that movie. Beautiful, but so inaccurate in terms of the Queen’s tastes.

  12. Fascinating! I always thought that the gown did not seem quite like something Marie-Antoinette would have worn at that time of her life.

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