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?

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