Marie-Antoinette and Eugénie: the Queen and the Empress

Empress Eugénie felt a deep connection between her own destiny and that of Marie-Antoinette. Eugénie’ father was a Spanish grandee. Her maternal ancestry was less aristocratic: her maternal grandfather was a Scottish wine merchant who had settled in Malaga, in Southern Spain. Her mother, the Countess de Montijo, traveled to France and England after her widowhood to find advantageous matches for her daughters. The eldest, Maria Francisca, married very well: she wed the Duke of Alba, head of one of the first families of Spain. But Eugénie, in spite of her beauty, was pushing dangerously into old-maidenhood.

Here is how the writer Maxime du Camp describes Eugénie: “Superstitious, superficial, not adverse to lewd language, always preoccupied by the impression she made, trying shoulder and bosom poses, her hair dyed, her face rouged, her eyes lined in black, her lips painted red.”

Napoléon III had long been attracted to Eugénie, and hoped to make her one of his mistresses. But after his efforts to marry a niece of Queen Victoria were rebuffed, his choice settled on Eugénie, then 27. As Empress, she became a fashion icon and presided over the cultural life of the Second Empire. In spite of her husband’s many affairs, she acquired a considerable political influence. In particular she strongly supported the disastrous Mexican expedition and the still more calamitous war with Prussia, which led to a crushing French defeat and the fall of the regime in 1870.

Exiled in England, widowed, she now avoided politics and dedicated herself to the education of her son. He would become a British officer and die, at the age of 23, in South Africa during a skirmish with the Zulus. Eugénie survived him by many years and would not die until 1920, six years short of her 100th birthday.

Personally I fail to see any striking similarities between the fates and personalities of the Queen and the Empress. Nevertheless Eugénie felt otherwise. She avidly collected anything related to Marie-Antoinette, and made the late Queen and her style fashionable again in the second half of the 19th century. Look no further that this portrait of Eugénie holding in her lap her only child, the Prince Impérial (who sports a somewhat overstated likeness to a middle-aged Napoléon I.)

Eugenie Holding Louis Napoleon Winterhalter

Eugenie holding Louis Napoleon by Winterhalter

This representation of Eugénie and her son emulates the famous portrait of Marie-Antoinette and her children by Madame Vigée-Lebrun. Same red velvet dress, same dark fur trim, same thoughtful expression.

Marie Antoinette and children Vigee Lebrun

Marie Antoinette and children Vigee Lebrun

And finally we have Eugénie, her hair powdered, dressed in her interpretation of an 18th century Court gown (the panniers are too rounded and not wide enough to be accurate, though.) Note the lilacs blossoms, one of Marie-Antoinette’s favorite flowers and decorative motifs.

Eugenie as Marie Antoinette Winterhalter

Eugenie as Marie Antoinette Winterhalter

So what do you think of the similarities between Marie-Antoinette and Eugénie?


15 Comments to “Marie-Antoinette and Eugénie: the Queen and the Empress”

  1. Penny Klein says:

    Ma Chere Catherine,
    I don’t see a major similarity. it seems rather superficial to me. i wish i knew why tragic figures often become such icons.

  2. Eva says:

    I can understand why she’d identify herself with Marie Antoinette-it made her downfall much more romantic. And if she was one of those women without a strong sense of self (from du Camp’s description), it would help. That’s sad about her son-I wonder what she did for so many years after his death.

  3. Lucy says:

    I personally think that besides royalty, the two have nothing in common. Eugénie has always struck me as being overly ambitious in her attempts to wanting to be just like Marie-Antoinette. There is such authenticity in Marie-Antoinette, that I think is lacking in Eugénie.

  4. Judith says:

    Wonderful post! Great to see you back Catherine! Your subject has long been a favorite of mine. I also do not see the similarities, however, growing up with the horrific tales of the Revolution, she was probably romanticizing her own role or scared of her fate! I would be! Looking forward to your future posts!
    xoxo
    Judith~

  5. Felio Vasa says:

    Empress Eugenie did keep Queen Marie Antoinette’s spirit & contributions alive when so few did. And because of this didn’t she revitalize Marie Antoinette’s legacy/cult?

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Penny, Eva, Lucy, Judith – I agree in that I don’t find any striking similarities.
    And Felio, Eugenie certainly deserves credit for bringing back the memory of Marie-Antoinette to life.

  7. James Noel says:

    Hi Catherine!

    Thank you for the wonderful hours I’ve been able to spend reading your blog!

    I have read somewhere that the Empress was most influential in bringing the rounded hoop skirt into fashion during the mid-nineteenth century.

    Just last night I browsed through an old book I own, filled with photographs of 19th century royalty. The section on the Empress was really sad. The photos were taken after the death of her son- she looked so sad and lonely. I want to know more about her.

    Kind regards- James

  8. Louis de la Pau says:

    An interesting view of Eugenie and very balanced. Thank you.
    Just one thing – as a child my grandmother was taken to England to see Eugenie as she was dying and cherished the memory of the old lady up to her own dying day. The Empress was very well-respected in Europe following the death of the Prince Imperial and a certain amount of reconsideration of her character took place at the time. Apparently the house where she died was filled with representatives of European royal families and politicians eager to say a proper “adieu” to Eugenie.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh certainly, it would be impossible not to feel a great deal of sympathy for a widowed Engenie after she lost her only child in dramatic circumstances. She deserves much more than this cursory post, which was simply meant to highlight her fascination for Marie-Antoinette.

    Like Marie-Antoinette, she had much influence on the fashions of her times. I greatly enjoyed the Crinolines show at Galliera. http://blog.catherinedelors.com/2009/01/21/empire-of-the-crinolines.aspx

  10. Clarice says:

    Well similar…yes and no.
    >>Superstitious, superficial, not adverse to lewd language, always preoccupied by the impression she made, trying shoulder and bosom poses, her hair dyed, her face rouged, her eyes lined in black, her lips painted red< <
    Well MA didn´t such extremely make up later, but she care in the same way a lot of the way she looks. Ok, she actually never used lewd language, but MA was superficial (and that her mind changed in the Revolution, in the Temple/Conciergerie well thats nothing you can praise her to the skies).

    >>As Empress, she became a fashion icon and presided over the cultural life of the Second Empire. < <
    And her you read it very well by yourself. A empress/queen is automatic or become automatic a fashion icon. It was the same with MA. And not cause she was such an incredible beauty. LOL
    Look at the wife of Obama now… Sometimes more, sometimes less. The empress Maria Theresia also used and admired the hairstyle of ML which you can see on the picture of the empress when she was young.

    For me the destiny of Eugénie and MA was just maybe in the behavior similar, but not in there life…
    Eugénie was a “old kind of a modern freak” and blind of MA.
    But yes i admit that i also like some pieces of MA dresses resp. the style of Louis XVI. ;) But just such things in the combination with MA.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Do all Empresses, Queens and First Ladies become fashion icons? They are not equal in this regard. If you look at the US, Jackie Kennedy was more of a fashion icon then, say, Laura Bush. In France, Carla Bruni is more of a fashion icon than her immediate predecessor, Bernadette Chirac.

    I think Marie-Antoinette and Eugenie both loved clothes, and being admired for their elegance. That, added to their prominent status, made them fashion icons. Eugenie made the 18th century fashionable again, and she deserves credit for that.

  12. Clarice says:

    Well surely not everyone of them becomes very “popular”, but the world was looking on it anyhow on events…

    And well i think to give a note of it yes, sure, but a credit they deserve, well, for me its more important that a person (in that case queen/empress) is a good and graceful ruler as a fashion icon. And at least MA wasn´t the first. She was a shame for these postion, in my eyes. :S A maybe not soo good example but = Paris Hilton was/is such a icon too and sorry the is just a spoiled brat, but people loves her anyhow… finally for nothing.

    Well i don´t know enough of Eugénie cause i´m not interested in her, so i will not judge about her in that way, but i know MA pretty well….sadly….
    And well i guess thats really (at least today) a kind of taste if you find her elegance. Cause i don´t. ;) She is actually nothing important in french history…just as a very bad example, then yes…. ;)

  13. WST says:

    Hello,
    I’ve found an original photograph, where Eugenie is displayed exactly the same as in the pose on the last picture. Amazing how nice it was painted on the canvas, as in the photo. It shows the Empress as she posed for the Winterhalter portrait à la Marie Antoinette.
    Here is the address of Photography:

    http://www.upload-your-life.com/files/fac21wys7ph9gc87q5i5.jpg

    Greetings from Germany

  14. john johnson says:

    It’s a pity the quote by Maxime du Camp is given prominence as if to sum up the character of Eugenie. Although conservative politically she was a trendsetter in areas such as technology; was a marvellous patron of the arts ; set the trend in fashion and possesse a good deal of intelligence and most certainly charm.

  15. Yes, Eugenie was a trendsetter, well beyond the realm of fashion. An early feminist too and a bright, warm, kind woman. Yet she was an adventuress, which is a great part of her charm. It was simply not proper in her time for an “honest” woman to wear eye make-up and dye her hair. She didn’t mind in the least. Politically I think she was far less conservative than her reputation. One thing is sure: she deserves more posts on this blog.