Madame Adélaïde, Daughter of Louis XV
After the twins Madame Elisabeth and Madame Henriette, Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska had another daughter, Marie-Louise, and two sons, Louis-Ferdinand and Philippe. Marie-Louise and Philippe both died in childhood, an all too commonplace tragedy at the time. Louis-Ferdinand, the eagerly awaited Dauphin, would be the father of the future Louis XVI.
The next royal daughter to survive to adulthood was Marie-Adélaïde, born in 1732, five years after her elder twin sisters. She was Queen Marie Leszczynska’s sixth child in five years…
I have noted earlier that the atmosphere at Versailles, long before Marie-Antoinette ever set foot there, was particularly poisonous. Madame Adélaïde’s beauty did not go unnoticed, and rumor accused her of an incestuous liaison with Louis XV, her own father, by whom she was supposed to have given birth to the Comte Louis de Narbonne.
All serious historians discount this story as vicious, unsubstantiated slander. Louis de Narbonne was simply the much-pampered son of Madame Adélaïde’s favorite lady-in-waiting. He would become a diplomat and general during the Revolution and the Empire, and also one of Madame de Staël’s many lovers, but that’s another story.
Louis XV liked to give his daughters humorous nicknames. Adélaïde, for some reason, was Loque (“Rags.”) Madame Campan, who was reader to the princesses, and sounds more than a little afraid of Madame Adélaïde, notes in her Memoirs that the princess had an abrupt, domineering manner and a choleric temper, that she had “an immoderate thirst for knowledge: she played all sorts of musical instruments, from the French horn to the Jew’s harp.” In addition to music, Madame Adélaïde occupied herself with the study of Italian, English, calculus, painting, the potter’s wheel and watchmaking. A well-rounded mind, to say the least, if not an easy character.
Madame Adélaïde was very close to her brother, the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand, and with him was the head of the Parti Dévot (the “Devout Party”) at Court, strongly opposed to Madame the Pompadour ant the alliance with Austria which the latter promoted.
Louis-Ferdinand’s untimely death was a heavy blow for Adélaïde. He left all of his papers with her, to be transmitted to his son and heir, the future Louis XVI. In particular the princess was the depository of her brother’s political testament, in which he pointed out to his son the three men he deemed the only suitable candidates for the position of Prime Minister under the new reign. Louis XVI lived in the veneration of his father’s memory, and Madame Adélaïde had much political and personal influence over the young King in the early years of his reign.
After the death of her mother, Queen Marie Leszczynska, and her elder sisters, Madame Adélaïde had become the highest-ranking female in Versailles, a position she lost with the marriage of her nephew and Marie-Antoinette. This, added to her distaste for an alliance with Austria, no doubt played a part in her deep hostility towards her new niece. Madame Adélaïde was the one who coined the infamous phrase L’Autrichienne (“The Austrian Woman”) which would stick to Marie-Antoinette till the end of her life.
For a different – and warmer – view of Madame Adélaïde, one has to turn to the remarkable Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to the princess. The Comtesse de Boigne describes Madame Adélaïde as “without comparison the wittiest of the daughters of Louis XV… easygoing with her intimates… though extremely haughty.” Indeed it seems that the aging princess had taken quite a fancy to the future memoirist, then a little girl, whom she delighted in spoiling (the Countess de Boigne deserves, and will get her own post in due time.)
After Marie-Antoinette belatedly acquired much influence over Louis XVI, who then detached himself from his aunts, Madame Adélaïde left Versailles with her younger sisters. Together the princesses retired to the Château de Bellevue nearby.
There Madame Adélaïde reigned over what was called “the Old Court,” composed of those who mourned the passing of the former reign, and did not welcome the new one. Its members had no place in the heady world of Marie-Antoinette, who wondered aloud how anyone over the age of 30 dared show one’s face at Versailles. Unwise words that offended many, particularly the King’s aunts. The Old Court was, to quote the great biographer Simone Bertière, “a generation whose turn had never come” due to the premature death of the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand.
I would like to call your attention to this 1787 portrait of Madame Adélaïde (to the left) by another Adélaïde, Madame Labille-Guiard, First Painter to Mesdames, daughters of Louis XV. Madame Adélaïde would have balked at retaining the services of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette’s favorite painter.
In this work, which you can admire to this day in the Queen’s Antechamber at Versailles, the princess, now aged 55, is represented displaying a triple medallion portrait of her late father, mother and brother, which she has just completed. The inscription reads Leur image est encore the charme de ma vie (“Their images still are the happiness of my life.”) Here, in the wake of the scandal caused by the the affair of the necklace she reaffirms her allegiance to the prior reign and presents herself as the undisputed leader of the Old Court.
Then came the Revolution. Madame Adélaïde, with her only remaining sister, Madame Victoire, managed to leave France in 1791. The two elderly princesses, now refugees in Italy, had to flee before the victorious armies of the Revolution, then before those of Napoleon, from Turin to Rome, from Rome to Naples, and finally from Naples to Trieste on a small boat. Madame Adélaïde died there in 1800, the last surviving child of Louis XV.
Links to the entire Daughters of Louis XV series: