Marie Antoinette naked?

Marie Antoinette naked miniature

Miniature of Marie Antoinette naked?

Would this miniature represent the young Queen of France, only dressed in a sheer veil? This is the intriguing question begged by the superb exhibition of late 18th century miniatures at Philip Mould Gallery in London.

The exhibition Miniatures from the Time of Marie Antoinette offers an exceptional opportunity to view the delicate treasures of Tansey Collection, kept in Germany and usually closed to the public.

So by all means if you happen to be in London, and have any interest in 18th century art and history, pay the Philip Mould gallery a visit. Be prompt too, because the show closes very soon, on 13 November!

To go back to the alleged Marie Antoinette miniature, what are the grounds for the identification of the sitter with the Queen? For one thing, it is the work of court miniaturist Ignazio Pio Vittoriano Campana, known to have painted portraits of ladies of Marie Antoinette’s close circle.

More to the point, the nautical character of the work is obvious: the branch of coral and bunch of rushes held by the lady, the seascape in the background, and the fish on which she rests her arm. All quite unusual for a miniature. This one is dated as of 1781, the year when Marie Antoinette gave birth to the heir to the throne, the Dauphin Louis-Joseph. “Dauphin” in French was the title given to the heir to the throne, and also the name of the dolphin. So here the “fish” wouldn’t be a fish at all, but a dolphin, and the allegory of the long-awaited achievement of the royal couple: the birth of a male heir. Some artifacts around the time of Louis-Joseph’s birth reflect the form of a dolphin to celebrate the momentous event.

What about the resemblance? The portrait does recall other idealized images of the Queen. The eyes are blue, and the blonde hair consistent with the “cheveux de la Reine” colour.

Some may be surprised that the young Queen (she was then 26) allowed herself to be painted naked. However, it was not unusual in the 18th century for aristocratic ladies to be painted in various states of undress, under cover, so to speak, of an allegory or a mythological character. Well, this even happened to Gabrielle, the heroine of my first novel, Mistress of the Revolution. In the great Marie-Antoinette exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris a few years ago, a nude statuette of a young Marie Antoinette as the goddess Venus was on display. We should be careful not to project our own concepts of nudity and modesty onto our 18th century ancestors.

Let us not forget that it was the French Revolution that forbade skinny-dipping in the Seine River…

Philip Mould & Company 

29 Dover Street, London

Until 13 November 2012

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