Marie Leszczynska, France’s Polish Queen
Talleyrand, the Bishop turned diplomat extraordinaire, said of Queen Marie Leszczynska that “her virtues had something sad about them that failed to inspire sympathy.” That has remained the judgment of history, which remembers her as a dour, charmless, rather stupid but innocuous figure. This is, in my opinion, most unfair.
True, Maria Karolina Zofia Felicja Leszczynska was not destined to become the Queen consort of France. Her father, Stanislas Leszczynski, had been briefly Kind of Poland from 1704 to 1709 before being dethroned and sent into exile by one of the many convulsions in that country’s history.
Stanislas Leszczynski, an intellectual, kindly man, had limited ambitions for his daughter. He would have been happy to give her hand in marriage to any French Duke. But her dowry was so meager as to be considered nonexistent, and no candidates of suitable rank were in sight for Marie. A pity, for she has received an excellent education, and speaks five languages with perfect fluency. But that has never replaced money and connections…
As for Louis XV, then fifteen, he had been engaged since his childhood to his cousin, seven-year old Spanish princess Marie-Anne-Victoire de Bourbon. The marriage was considered such a sure thing that Marie-Anne was called the Infante-Reine (the “Infanta-Queen.”) She had lived in Versailles since the age of three.
But young Louis XV is sickly, and suddenly falls gravely ill. The Duc de Bourbon, head of the Conseil de Régence, represents that it is urgent for the King to sire an heir. Obviously for this purpose the little Infanta-Queen, at seven, will not do. The girl is thus unceremoniously shipped back to Spain. Years later, she will indeed become Queen, though of Portugal instead of France.
The choice of the Duc de Bourbon falls on Marie Leszczynska, a young woman of 22, the perfect child-bearing age, whom he had once considered, and rejected, as a potential bride. The match is greeted at first with incredulity and derision, both in Versailles and in foreign courts, where many a princess feels personally slighted by the unlikely choice of a “mere Polish young lady” as Queen of France. Vicious rumors spread through Versailles: Marie is ugly, she is epileptic, she is so deformed that she cannot bear children, she suffers from a purulent skin condition…
But Louis XV, when he meets his bride, is immediately delighted by her, a rare occurrence in royal marriages of the time. She is no stunning beauty, but she is comely, in all the glow of youth and health. At fifteen he has already reached sexual maturity and consummates the marriage with enthusiasm. His Queen is his first love, and she returns his feelings.
Less delighted with the bride, however, are the courtiers of Versailles. They sneer at the new Queen, poke fun at her age, her looks, her gowns, her French diction (it is native, as she has been given French governesses since childhood, but not deemed refined enough for a Queen.) She puts up graciously with all of this and, unlike her successor Marie-Antoinette decades later, finds help in her strict adherence to the étiquette, which at least protects her from the rudest of the courtiers’ slights.
Two years after her marriage, she gives birth to twin girls. Eight more children, the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand, the much awaited male heir, then another boy and six more girls, follow in the next ten years.
At least Marie is no longer faulted for being barren, but at age 34, after ten children and nine pregnancies, she has lost her youthful looks. Louis XV is no longer a smitten teenager, he is now a handsome young man, with the same sexual appetites as his great-grandfather Louis XIV. He is still fond of his wife, but she is beginning to look like an old lady to him. Their age difference matters now. He takes a first mistress, then a second, then many more.
Marie, however, is still very much in love with her husband, and experiences bitter pangs of jealousy. The worst comes when Louis XV asks his wife to accept his chief mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, as a lady-in-waiting. Again Marie puts up with her situation with grace and dignity. She greets her rival with all the appearances of friendliness, and seeks refuge in a small group of friends, picked for their religious leanings and intellectual affinities with her.
She gathers them in the private apartments allocated to her within the Palace of Versailles (the Petit Trianon is then reserved for Madame de Pompadour’s use.) Every autumn her parents visit her for a few months. Marie Leszczynska also finds comfort in artistic pursuits. She paints in watercolors and is passionately fond of music, all tastes she transmits to her daughters. She invites the famous castrate Farinelli to France to give her singing lessons.
Yet it would be a grave mistake to consider the Queen a political nonentity. Notwithstanding the low esteem of the courtiers, she is beloved by common people, and knows it. She once retorts, when told that she doesn’t dress smartly enough: “I do not need gowns when the poor have no shirts.” We are very far from the “Let them eat cake” (falsely) attributed to Marie-Antoinette.
Queen Marie’s death at the age of 65 is a disaster for the monarchy. It deprives the royal family of its most popular member. Her great rival, Madame de Pompadour, also a woman of taste and intellect, had already died a few years earlier. Louis XV is thus left to his own devices after the successive deaths of his mistress and wife. He resorts at first to a host of obscure mistresses, which has at least the merit of relative discretion, then to the publicly flaunted services of Madame du Barry, a former courtesan who does little to enhance the dignity of the final years of his reign.
So what remains of Queen Marie Leszczynska? A few portraits, including this beautiful work by Nattier (below) and very little else. Her private apartments at Versailles were destroyed during Marie-Antoinette’s remodeling of that part of the palace. The gilded rococo paneling and Boucher paintings we see in the Queen’s Bedchamber, however, are still the ones chosen by Marie Leszczynska.