L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sisters, sisters-in-law - three royal portraits by Gautier-Dagoty

The comtesse de Provence, circa 1775. The comtesse gestures toward a bust of her husband and a portrait of her father.
The comtesse d'Artois, 1775. The comtesse directs our gaze toward a bust of her husband and a portrait of her mother.
Queen Marie Antoinette, 1775. Her first state portrait as Queen; Gautier-Dagoty would soon - thankfully - be supplanted by Vigée Le Brun.

Three French brothers, three brothers who would all be king of France in turn. (Although a revolution and a certain Corsican would interrupt the timeline.) And three foreign born brides, two of them sisters, only one who would be queen.


In May of 1770, at the age of fourteen, recently married by proxy while still in Vienna, Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles, the bride of the dauphin Louis Auguste who, four years later, would succeed his grandfather as Louis XVI. Pretty, vivacious, ill-educated and naïve, she charmed everyone, but was soon drawn into dangerous palace intrigues. And, far more troubling, for seven years, mostly through sexual ignorance, their marriage went unconsummated. The court and country were confounded at the lack of an heir and blamed the Autrichienne (which translates as "Austrian woman", but chienne is also the French word for female dog, or bitch) for her apparent barrenness, while the teenage girl - dauphine and then Queen - buried the very real disappointments of her marriage in a ceaseless round of entertainments. Innocent enough, but by the time her first child was born at the end of 1778 the damage to her reputation was irreparable. Marie Antoinette would have three more children... ah, but I think we all know the rest of her story....

Marie Joséphine of Savoy arrived at Versailles in May of 1771, almost exactly a year after her new sister-in-law, Marie Antoinette. The granddaughter of the King of Sardinia, she was eighteen, had also already been married by proxy, and was now the comtesse de Provence, bride of Louis Stanislas, younger brother of the dauphin - and who, after many years of exile, would become Louis XVIII in 1814. She did not make a good impression upon her arrival at Versailles, and was described as small, plain, with heavy eyebrows and a sallow skin, and what the groom's grandfather Louis XV called "a villainous nose". She had to be educated as to what was expected at the French court regarding hygiene and the necessity for a careful toilette, in particular with regard to her teeth and hair. Although she later claimed two miscarriages, it is almost certain that the couple's marriage was never consummated, and the marriage remained childless. She and her husband had a friendly relationship with the dauphin and dauphine until Louis XV died and the two succeeded to the throne, after which their relations soured. The Provence couple would live largely separate lives. The comtesse preferred to reside at her private estate, the Pavillon Madame in Montreuil, on which she spent lavishly, and where she had constructed a model village along the lines of Marie Antoinette's hameau at the Petit Trianon. It was rumored that she was alcoholic and, in spite of the strenuous objections of her husband - who had his own extra-marital, though probably non-physical relationships - she had an intense and steadfast romantic relationship with her lady-in-waiting, Marguerite de Gourbillon. Gourbillon would follow her mistress into exile until, in 1799, at the instigation of the comte de Provence, she was forcibly separated from the comtesse, who reacted with a public protest in front of the whole court; the scene caused a public scandal. She died in exile in England at the age of fifty-seven,

Marie Thérèse of Savoy, the younger sister of the comtesse de Provence was married to the youngest brother of the dauphin, Charles Philippe, comte d'Artois, at Versailles in November of 1773; she was not quite eighteen. She, too, had already been married in a proxy ceremony, at the palace of Stupinigi in Savoy. Like her sister before her, on arrival at the French court her appearance was judged harshly. She was described as small, ill-shaped, clumsy, with a long nose, and only her complexion attracted any admiration. She was regarded as "not distinguished in any sense", but nevertheless goodhearted; Marie Antoinette's brother, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, called her "a complete idiot". Like the Provence couple, the comte and comtesse d'Artois were among the circle of friends about the dauphin and dauphine; likewise, their friendship gradually deteriorated after the succession of Louis XVI to the throne in 1774. The following year, the comtesse d'Artois had her first child, a son, an event that further inflamed resentment against the Queen for her inability to produce an heir. The comtesse delivered two more children before the Queen had her first; there would be four children born to the Artois couple, but the two daughters would die in childhood. They left France three days after the fall of the Bastille, taking refuge in Savoy, but two years later, the comte d'Artois left his wife, eventually settling with his mistress, the comtesse de Polastron, in Great Britain. The comtesse d'Artois lived the last twelve years of her life in Graz, Austria, where she died at the age of forty-nine. Nineteen years later, her husband would ascend the throne as Charles X, though he only lasted a disastrous six years before being forced, once again, into exile.



Decidedly more charming than his state portrait of the Queen, though no less insipid and ill-drawn than any of his other work, this gouache was painted as a memento of his sittings for that painting. The Queen is seen in her state bedroom - somehow shrunken down by the artist - wearing her wrapper, and seated at her beloved harp. She is surrounded by friends and attendants, and appears to be in the midst of her toilette. The artist leans out of frame at right; the canvas he works at is clearly the state portrait though, with "artistic license", the format is oval here, rather than the rectangular of the finished piece.


  1. great post as always...love the commentary.

  2. When I was growing up in South America, as long as I remember, whenever they taught me in school about Marie Antoinette, the teachers referred to her as Marie Antoinette de Lorraine, never of Austria. Seems like the rest of the world got used to calling her the way the French always did. And thus, hinting that she was an outsider, a foreigner?

    How unjust and insulting that is? Was she not half French? After all, she was the daughter of Francis de Lorraine, a descendant of the French nobility.
    Just saying...
    Divine posts, all of them as always!
    Thank you, Stephen.