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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13 Comments to “Marie Antoinette naked?”

  1. [...] mentioned yesterday the remarkable exhibition Miniatures from the Time of Marie Antoinette at the Philip Mould [...]

  2. Susan Higginbotham says:

    It’s lovely!

  3. Kate Warren says:

    Beautiful miniature. The symbolism does hold up in favor of the idea that it is the queen. When I read that she’s leaning on a fish I thought, that doesn’t look like a fish, more like a dolphin who’s missing his nose.

    Didn’t know that skinny-dipping in the Seine was illegal. I’ll have to remember that if I ever get to France. ;)

  4. She appears to be represented as a sea nymph, which is very much in keeping with Marie-Antoinette’s love of the mythical and enchanting.

  5. Yes, Elena Maria, and it makes me wonder about the context. Unlike her statue as Venus, this is obviously a private, even intimate image. Whom was this meant for? Louis XVI? The Princesse de Lamballe? The Duchesse de Polignac?

  6. Before the days of animal shows on TV, representations of dolphins might be based on fanciful images. :) Indeed, if you come to France (great idea if and when you can) skinny-dipping in Paris is not something I recommend.

  7. I am beginning to wonder if she is indeed supposed to represent Venus, since coral has a classical association with that goddess. And Venus was the wife of Vulcan, god of the forge. Perhaps it was a gift for Louis, whom she once liked to Vulcan?

  8. Excellent idea, Elena, since Venus was also the goddess of motherhood! I need to find an image that statue of Marie Antoinette as Venus I saw at the Grand Palais exhibition. It is a pity it is not better known. I love the portraits of the Queen by Vigee Lebrun, but they have sadly overshadowed most other images.

  9. Yes, I agree. And I would love to see that statue. I am looking for the brochure you sent me from the exhibit to see if it is in there. Thank you, Catherine, for finding this portrait. It is truly remarkable. I am thinking that if it was not intended as a gift for Louis, then perhaps it was given to one of the close friends or attendants who assisted at the birth of the Dauphin, such as Madame de Lamballe, as you suggested. Belonging to someone outside the royal family might also explain how it survived. However, I am also recalling how Louis interrupted Marie-Antoinette during her bath the day they finally fully consummated their marriage. The portrait might have a cheerful connection with that happy event, which makes me wonder if it was indeed a gift for Louis XVI from his queen.

  10. Kaitlyn says:

    How interesting! This is a beautiful portrait. But Marie Antoinette was a modest and proper woman, so if this is indeed a painting of the queen then it must have been a gift for her husband. And I love the tidbit about the marriage being consummated as she was rising from her bath. I have heard this detail before and was wondering if this appears in any specific biographies? I know that Ms. Naslund includes this scene in her novel “Abundance” (a wonderful book, by the way, I highly recommend it) but I thought she made it up. Perhaps not. It is a charming detail nonetheless and I hope there is some truth in it.

  11. Kaitlyn, I have not read it in any biography, but then I cannot claim to have read them all. If indeed that were the case, it would give this miniature a very personal meaning.

  12. Kaitlyn says:

    Indeed it would. And it has not appeared in any biographies I have read either but it is an interesting “fact” regardless.