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 Nattier

Madame Sophie of France at Fontevraud by Nattier

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 Perin Salbreux

Madame Sophie of France by Perin Salbreux

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:

Madame Elisabeth, Duchess of Parma
Madame Henriette
Madame Marie-Louise
Madame Adélaïde
Madame Victoire
Madame Sophie
Madame Thérèse
Madame Louise (Venerable Mother Thérèse de Saint-Augustin)

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20 Comments to “Madame Sophie, daughter of Louis XV”

  1. Jane Austen says:

    Gray hair, gray eyebrows.. I never understood this fascination for having gray hair.

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    About the autism diagnosis, yes, it might fit with the portrait drawn by Madame Campan. But this is one of the instances where I have trouble following her.
    Spectacular marriages for the daughters of Louis XV? He tried, but there was a dearth of Catholic princes at the time. See what happened with Victoire and Louise: negotiations that led nowhere for political reasons. Also, the princesses themselves probably liked their lives better at Versailles and Bellevue than a gilded exile in a faraway foreign court. Perhaps he too was loath to part with his daughters.

  3. Luis says:

    At the Lucy comment of Madame Sophie being autistic: maybe she was a genius like Sheldon Cooper (of The Big Bang Theory fame, if you haven’t seen the series I recommend for it’s Comedy genius)

    Quoting Wikipedia about his autism:

    Sheldon possesses several qualities commonly associated with someone who has autism spectrum disorder, such as social ineptitude, a lack of empathy, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and many more traits which make him the most eccentric and bizarre of the characters in the show.

    Traits displayed include:

    * Obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Sheldon exhibits a strict adherence to routine, such as doing specific recreational activities on specific days of the week, eating specific food items on specific days, being unable to reconcile changes to food orders, doing laundry on a specific day and time, or knocking on the door a certain number of times while repeating the name of the person he is seeking with a particular frequency, etc.
    * Mysophobia. He is constantly worried about others touching his food, washes his hands as often as he can, and showers twice daily.[19]
    * Hypochondriasis. He is extremely worried about becoming sick. He became worried about Penny infecting him with influenza and subsequently contracted it.[30] Another time, he wanted a full medical examination by Leonard’s girlfriend, Dr. Stephanie Barnett, in order to discover the cause of a high-pitched noise in his head.[31]
    * Inability to lie. When Sheldon is complicit in a lie, he exhausts all of his efforts in his always unsuccessful attempt to make it believable.[32] Similarly, he cannot be entrusted with a secret because he develops nervous tics.[18]
    * Inability to sit in strange places. He refuses to sit anywhere other than his designated spot on the couch in his apartment, which he considers his “single point of consistency in an ever changing world”.[33] He regularly reproaches Penny and other people for sitting in his spot. Even disruptions to this location are enough to disturb him. However, he can adapt to seats with sub-optimal conditions, such as suitable cushion densities and light dispersion, provided he has the opportunity to test them.[34]
    * Intolerance of people in his bedroom. One time, he was distraught when Penny entered his room at the middle of the night.[35] On another occasion, Sheldon hesitantly let Penny in his bedroom to get a key for his desk to retrieve a USB thumbdrive.[36]
    * While perfectly comfortable speaking to small groups Sheldon cannot speak to large crowds without having a panic attack

    Of all the daughters of Louis XV, she is my favorite (it still amazes me why Louis XV didn’t procure spectacular marriages for his daughters), so I like to think she was kinda of a female 18th Century Dr. Cooper ;)

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    I do find Madame Campan a generally reliable witness (and often a very valuable one). But once in a while she likes to embellish for the sake of drama, and sometimes, as here, she is blinded by prejudice.

    The best way to check is to get a “second opinion” from another eyewitness. It is difficult to give you a list of credible sources without knowing exactly what aspect of Madame Campan interests you (fashions? politics? court intrigue?) But you can take a look at my website, where I list a few interesting sources for my novel:

    Lots of fascinating reading. Enjoy!

  5. Pascale says:

    I’ve heard a few people mention the lack of credibility of Mme Campan as a source. Who or what would be considered more credible sources for that period?

  6. Louise says:

    How intriguing about the portrait! I have only seen it once before, in a fashion book written in the 1970s, where it is identified as Marie-Antoinette. I must follow your link about that identification next.

    I’m glad you mentioned Mme Campan’s services as a reader not being required – the first thing I thought when I read that part of her account was “and didn’t that put your nose out of joint!” :) Dear, the formalities of court life – and how peeved were the courtiers (for whom they were the only sort of “power” available) when anyone tried to buck the system!

    King Louis was quite shy, was he not? Perhaps it was another family trait, if shyness can be. Again it puts me in mind of their ancestor Louis XIII – uncomfortable with the crowds of courtiers.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Perhaps not as much as threat as a deep irritant…

  8. Penny Klein says:

    She is indeed the most mysterious. I keep coming back and staring at her facial expression wondering what was on her mind. I could daze at her face, ignore the rest for days. she must have been an intelligent woman and of course a possible threat to Madam Campan.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    The sad thing, Amy, is that Madame Campan’s comments on Madame Sophie have been quoted time and again, generally without any critical analysis. Personally I find the fact that Sophie insisted on reading by herself quite endearing.

  10. I’d say Campan’s words sound a little suspect and not without bitterness. Princess Sophie must have been a horror – reading on her own! Gasp! And she looks very pretty in those paintings.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Lucy, who knows? Still one can be shy without being autistic, or sad without being clinically depressed. Autism is a complex subject, and it covers such a broad spectrum, from high-functioning to near-complete disability. It is dauntingly difficult to diagnose centuries after the fact. But the fact that you heard it mentioned is interesting in itself: it shows some interest at last in Madame Sophie!

  12. Lucy says:

    Thanks Catherine. You’re right about Mme. Campan making sure this would be news for all…maybe, at the time, it was just 20th century speculation- who knows.

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Lucy – Certainly extreme shyness and mild forms of autism can overlap. However I am somewhat leery of this kind of posthumous diagnosis. Madame Sophie had some close friends. And, had she displayed any of the characteristic mannerisms/rituals of autism, Madame Campan would have made sure that we knew all about it. I find the fact that Madame Sophie chose to read by herself seems more natural than having someone else read aloud to her. It must have provided a more intimate, direct contact with the books she loved.

    Penny – Yes, Madame Sophie lacked the qualities required to be a success at Versailles. Let’s not forget that she spent her childhood and her early teenage in a faraway convent.

    Mademoiselle M. Merci! I love choosing the paintings for my posts. Sharing these beautiful images with my readers is the most pleasurable part of blogging.

  14. Such an interesting article, I always learn so much when I visit your blog! The paintings are so divine too…

  15. Penny says:

    I have been trying to post. to succeed in Versaille, would the person have to be fluent in French(no wrong accents), a great dancer,very fashionable dresser,charming and my personal favorite make you feel as if you are the only person in the room.?

  16. Lucy says:

    Hello, Catherine. Maybe you can clarify this for me..Somehow, in my distant memory (maybe 20 or more years ago- I was on an exchange history course in France), I learnded somewhere about Sophie, that she was suspected of having, what we would call today, a mild form of autism..which would explain her keeping to herself; abnormal fears, not able to focus or make eye contace- and the need to be alone. It’s just now that I read your post that this memory of having heard this before, came to me. Your thoughts?

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Elena – Thank you for the link to your excellent post on Madame Campan. Indeed it is probably no coincidence that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette named their second daughter Sophie.

    Elisa – There are more daughters of Louis XV coming! Madame Louise, of course, who may be the most interesting yet, and also I decided to also dedicate posts to Mesdames Marie-Louise and Therese-Felicite, who both died as children.

    Penny – Why was Madame Sophie so shy? We will never know, precisely because she was so adept at protecting her privacy. And yes, Madame Campan was sometimes vindictive. On the hand, she is an indispensable source. People are complex… 

  18. Penny says:

    I agree she looks quite pretty in this picture. is there any reason she was so shy or was this just naturally shy? thunderstorms must have been terrifying to one so small. Madame Campan sounds like a vindictive wanna be, a sycophant and I guess Sophie did not confide in her and could that be a reason for a dislike? Madame Campan did not include her into the “in crowd”

  19. Elisa says:

    Merci! I’ve learned a lot about the royal aunts.

  20. Thank you for bringing this forgotten princess to light, Catherine. Very interesting! With Madame Campan, yes, she is such an invaluable resource on so many fronts, as long as one keeps in mind that she was prone to exaggerate her role, particularly in the case of the diamond necklace scandal. She is sometimes found to be off base when compared to other sources, although for the overall volume of information she offers, she can’t be ignored, as we have discussed before.
    Also, as you say, she did not forget slights easily.

    I am so glad that you discovered that the Périn-Salbreux portrait is really of Madame Sophie, not Marie-Antoinette. I believe that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette named their youngest daughter for Madame Sophie, which is also interesting.

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