Marie Leszczynska, France’s Polish Queen

Marie Leszczynska Gobert

Marie Leszczynska by Gobert

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.

Louis XV Boucher

Louis-XV-young-Boucher

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.

Marie Leczinska Nattier

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28 Comments to “Marie Leszczynska, France’s Polish Queen”

  1. katerina says:

    Dear Ben
    My family name is also Leszczynska. There are many polish landed gentry families going by that name and none are related to Stanislaw Leszczynski as he was the last member of Leszczynski family of Wieniawa coat of arms.

  2. Katarzyna says:

    Apparently Polish girls are very interesting :) well, as a young art historian based abroad (from Poland), I’m extremely interested in Maria Leszczyńska’s paintings, I had no idea she was an artist at all. Great thanks to Catherine Delors for reminding the existence of her majesty to the rest of the world, as indeed she was completely forgotten. And to Sylwia, who explained so well how the political situation looked in the past. Poland used to be a great empire, and no worse than others European countries were. I think we’re gonna need decades to get over from the stereotype of the “behind the Iron Curtain” type of country…

  3. good stuff hopefully i learned from it.

  4. Oh, sure, Telynor, she was very bright. I don’t think she inspired any historical novelist so far… There is a great dual bio of her and Madame de Pompadour by Simone Bertiere (sadly not translated into English) La Reine et la Favorite.

  5. Telynor says:

    What a marvellous looking lady! Very dignified and those dark eyes are lovely, with plenty of intelligence behind them. It’s a pity that she gets so overlooked.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Monsieur de Verin! It is never too late to join in any discussion. In particular those posts included in my sidebar are my personal favorites, and meant to be “keepers”. They still regularly attract comments, to my great pleasure.

    And thank you so very much for this link to a work by the Queen. Madame Campan pokes fun at the help Marie Leszczynska received from professional artists. But the good memoirist began her career at Court after the Queen’s death, so her information on this regard is second-hand.

    I have yet to complete my posts on the daughters of Louis XV with entries on his daughters-in-law (and more posts on Mesdames). I find Dauphine Marie-Josephe de Saxe, daughter of another King of Poland, a fascinating woman. What a Queen she would have made…

  7. I know this is late in the game for this post (which is really excellent and a great start for the subsequent posts on Mesdames), but here is an image of a painting by the queen who, apparently, was helped by artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

    http://galatea.univ-tlse2.fr/pictura/UtpicturaServeur/Images/NePasOuvrir/4/A4486.jpg

  8. Clarice says:

    Yes that would be very nice. Cause she deserve a lot of attention .:)

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    You remind me, Clarice, that I need to write more posts about ML. And also about her great rival, Madame de Pompadour.

  10. Clarice says:

    >>>”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.< <<
    Yes and guess why? Its not cause the times was different, no, its cause the person was wrong. Yes ML was the best queen France ever had, like the best king Louis XVI. was. Its a pity that so less things in the Château de Versailles reminds on her. But i love the pic of her and her children – “La Gloire des Princes s’empare des enfants de France”, by Jean-François de Troy. I prefer her style than the one of MA in many ways, also if i like the style of Louis XVI. in some pieces. ;)

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    How interesting! Genealogy is always fascinating.

  12. Ben says:

    I beleive i am related to Marie Leszczynska who was the daughter of stanislav.. my family name originally was Leszczynska and i am now looking more into the possibilities of being related to her and him as so far i only have family stories and nothing concrete..

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for these precisions, Sylwia! This perfectly explains the astonishment of Versailles courtiers at the news of Louis XV’s engagement to Marie.

    You are right, at the time Poland would have been considered a Western country, very much open to foreign influences (whether cultural or unfortunately military.) Much more so than Russia, for instance. A Russian Grand-Duchess was briefly considered as a bride for Louis XV, but she was rejected as coming from a “still barbaric country.”

    Now I just read Simone Bertiere’s remarkable double bio The Queen and the Favorite about Marie and Madame de Pompadour. Bertiere asserts, quite righly IMO, that Marie brought the French monarchy two things that a “real” princess would never have been able to deliver:
    1. fresh blood, untainted by generations of inbreeding between and within the Bourbon and Hapsburg lineages. In fact “only” three of the royal couple’s children failed to reach adulthood, a remarkable feat in the 18th century.

    2. the province of Lorraine. When Stanislas lost the throne of Poland for the second time, the peace treaty that ensued gave him for life the Duchy of Lorraine. After his death Lorraine reverted to France, of which it has remained a part to this day, apart from the 1870-1918 hiatus.

    So actually the marriage of Louis XV to Marie was an excellent deal for France, apart from the personal and “professional” qualilties she brought as a Queen. Certainly this aspect of the marriage is worth a separate post.

    And another daughter of a King of Poland (Augustus the Strong) almost became Queen of France! She was Marie-Josephe of Saxony, mother of Louis XVI. A remarkable woman, who will get her own post someday.

  14. Sylwia says:

    Thank you for such a warm post about Maria Leszczyńska, Catherine. I truly felt for her losing her husband’s affections. It must have been easier to tolerate mistresses in a marriage where there was no love to begin with.

    Actually her father was the king of Poland twice. The second time from 1733 to 1736. He was very unlucky, but he had more real support than his rival – Augustus the Strong, just the countries that supported him, France included, didn’t send enough army to stand to Russia.

    To answer Penny’s question. I think that the hostility had nothing to do with Maria’s not being from a Western country (especially that the division into West and East is fairly new – it comes from the outcome of WWII), only with her not being a princess. A daughter of a Polish king wasn’t a princess by any stretch. Even in Poland she’d be called ‘królewna’ (a king’s daughter) and not ‘księżniczka’ (a royal family daughter). Polish kings were elected just like presidents are, so she was not more a princess than a daughter of a president would be. In Poland it didn’t matter because all nobles were equal. If someone had a title of a prince it was most likely foreign and used only as a courtesy, but it didn’t give any privileges, and any noble had equal chances to become a king. I imagine that in France, where one had to be born in a royal family, it did matter.

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    No indeed, Penny, she never had a chance at Versailles. But she managed to find a sort of happiness in the people things she loved.

  16. Penny says:

    Thank You for this. i like the pictures.she really does not look so ugly. If she were from any other western country, would the court have been so hostile to her? she spoke the language, she was interested in the arts, she must have been an interesting woman to talk to after all, her husband was in love with her once. but i can see how the age difference would be a problem but the court did not give her a chance, did they?

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Elizabeth! You are quite right, Queen Marie was overshadowed by the Marquise de Pompadour during her lifetime, and by Marie-Antoinette afterwards. A pity. Stay tuned, we will have a post her eldest daughter, Madame Elisabeth, later this week.

  18. What a wonderful post. I confess I knew nothing about Marie apart from her name. She seems to be the forgotten Queen, overshadowed by Marie Antoinette, and Louis XV’s mistresses.

  19. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Catherine! I am delighted to see that Queen Marie is meeting with such an affectionate welcome, which she entirely deserves. She has been so overshadowed by Marie-Antoinette.

    Now I visited your blog and found it absolutely beautiful. This Halloween costume is a dream…

  20. C. Andrako says:

    Such dignity! I think I have a new favorite! I look forward to reading more about her. Wonderful post.
    Catherine

  21. Catherine Delors says:

    Welcome to Versailles and more, Judith! Delighted to me you.

    I have to say my eyes popped when I saw your Chenonceau post. I will link to it this coming week, with a little 18th century twist to fit this blog’s mood. It turns out that I will go to my uncle’s place in Tours for the holidays, and it reminded me that I need to go back to Chenonceau.

    I loved your Orangerie post as well. It will take me a while to explore the nooks and crannies of your blog too…

  22. Judith says:

    Hello Catherine! Thank you for your lovely comment. I was so excited so I jumped over to your page & I fell in love! Your posts are amazing! Every post is magical! I am eager to go through and browse the older posts and soak it all in! You have a big fan over here! I can’t wait to get my hands on your novel as well! Thank you! Thank you!

  23. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Elisa! The purpose of this post was precisely to pull Marie from the shadows.

  24. Elisa says:

    Merci! I don’t know much about her. Unfortunate how she’s been regulated to the sidelines…

  25. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Felio! Indeed I too find Queen Marie very attractive (so did Louis XV at the beginning, and he was quite a connaisseur…)

  26. Felio Vasa says:

    She was actually very pretty by these paintings. It’s funny how these Queens took libel abuse. And I didn’t know that she was into the arts- I would love to see some of her watercolors.
    I love your post (& Elena’s too) because I always learn something new!

  27. Catherine Delors says:

    Elena, you are fast! Thank you, your approval means a lot to me.

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