Madame Sophie, daughter of Louis XV
Sophie Philippe Elisabeth Justine is the most elusive of the daughters of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska. Born in 1734, one year after Victoire, Sophie was shipped to the Abbey of Fontevraud with her and their two younger sisters, Thérése, two years old, and baby Louise, only eleven months old!
Madame Sophie, even after her return to Versailles twelve years later, managed, as much as any princess could, to avoid notice. She only appeared in public when required by the étiquette. We have very few images of her beside this lovely portrait by Nattier painted while she was still at Fontevraud. She was then fourteen.
At Versailles she confined herself to the company of her sisters and shared their pleasures and concerns. Yet she lacked the domineering personality of Adélaïde, she did not relate easily to others as Victoire did so well. She did not spectacularly renounce the world as Louise did. She was lost – no doubt voluntarily – in the shadow of her sisters.
Madame Sophie still eludes us to this day. Her lovely portrait by Lié-Louis Périn-Salbreux (below) was long mistaken for a likeness of Marie-Antoinette. Sophie’s features were so little know even to art historians that she was not recognized. It was thanks to the flooring of the room that the identification was confirmed. In a nutshell, Madame Sophie is less known that the parquet of her library.
What about literary portraits? Those who knew her as a young woman are content to say that she had “an air of beauty” and that her profile much resembled that of the King her father, renowned for his good looks.
But there was one person at Versailles whose notice it was very difficult to escape: the unavoidable Madame Campan, who was then reader to the four youngest daughters of Louis XV, including -in theory at least- Sophie.
Madame Sophie was unusually ugly; writes Madame Campan in her Memoirs, I never saw anyone having such a frightened look; she walked at an extreme speed, and to acknowledge, without looking at them, the people who gave way to her, she had acquired the habit of looking sideways, in the manner of hares.
This princess was so shy that it was possible to see her everyday for years without hearing her pronounce a single word. One asserted, though, that she displayed wit, even graciousness, in the society of some favoured ladies; she studied much, but read alone; the presence of a reader would have infinitely bothered her.
Yet on occasion this princess, so unsociable, suddenly became affable, gracious and showed the most communicative kindness; it was during thunderstorms: she was afraid of them, and such was her fright that she would then approach the least important persons; whenever she saw lightning, she would press their hands, for a thunderclap she would have embraced them; but once fair weather was back, the princess went back to her stiffness, her silence, her fierce look, passed everyone without paying attention to anyone, until the next thunderstorm brought back her fear and affability.
I have already mentioned that Madame Campan’s Memoirs are to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes she embellishes for the sake of dramatization, sometimes she distorts the truth to placate those in power at the time when she is writing (under the Restoration of the Bourbons, in the 1820s) and often she is blinded by personal prejudices. Madame Campan never forgave a slight, real or imagined.
Let us take a critical look at her account. According to Madame Campan, Madame Sophie would have been “unusually ugly.” Strange, because she doesn’t look so at all on her portraits. Rather pretty, I would say. These images may have been somewhat flattered, but not to such an extent. Yet she was 42 at the time of the Périn-Salbreux portrait. She had matured quite gracefully.
Madame Campan herself gives us the key to her animosity towards Sophie: the princess “read alone.” That is, she didn’t need Madame Campan’s services as a reader. Imagine if every princess had shown similar insolence! Madame Campan, heaven forbid, would have become obsolete. She took her revenge, a petty one, by leaving us this venomous portrait of the princess.
But the memoirist would not have made up all of this from scratch. Madame Sophie was indeed very shy, and she may well have been afraid of thunderstorms. She read extensively -though alone- and was gracious and witty among the “favoured” ladies she favored with her friendship, obviously a group from which Madame Campan was excluded.
Madame Sophie died of dropsy in Versailles in 1782, at the age of 48. She passed away unnoticed, as she had lived, attended to the last by her two remaining sisters, Adélaïde and Victoire.
Links to the entire Daughters of Louis XV series: