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Marie Antoinette
By Nora Kirkeby
Nov 10, 2007, 20:16 PST

Despite having a poor reputation as soon she became the queen of France, Marie Antoinette is not at all what you might think. She is in effect, the singular victim of one of the largest public relations nightmares in history.

It all started as soon as she was born. She was the daughter of the Austrian empress Maria Theresa. She was married to the King of France, Louis XV, but never forgot that while he was from the family of kings, her mother controlled an empire. The public relations problems started with a gift from her new husband. Louis gave her le Petite Trianon, a “small” chateau (at least compared to the main palace), which had formerly been the residence of the old king’s mistress. Naturally this stirred up a lot of gossip, and the people of Paris took to calling her the Austrian whore.

Since Marie married very young (she was only fifteen), she was still very impressionable. The French court of the time was a nest of vipers and political intrigues, where fashion was important. As queen, Marie naturally became a trendsetter, and the lavish portraits of her costly gowns fueled public hatred in a time when the lower-class citizens of Paris were starving. The public, then as now, is oftentimes hypocritical. When a portrait was painted of Marie Antoinette in 1780 (a painting we now refer to as Marie Antoinette en Chemise), that showed her in a simple dress and a straw hat, the public revolted saying that it was unseemly for the queen to appear in such simple, "undressed" state. It seemed that whatever she did, Marie couldn’t win.

It took her eight years to get pregnant, which caused a great stir among the public. This was one of the principle duties of Queen, afterall. However, Marie Antoinette had come to her marriage innocent of the ways of adults, and her husbands was even more ignorant. It wasn’t until her brother came to visit, and explained things to both Marie and her husband, that she was able to have relations and become pregnant. She eventually had four children, and was a loving mother to all of them.

As a queen she worked to change things. Marie Antoinette was a huge advocate of female artists, and she went out of her way to have several major state portraits of herself painted by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. She also instituted several social changes within the court, such as the abolition of segregated dining areas.

Finally, the ultimate scandal was commonly known as the affair of the diamond necklace. Essentially, an extraordinarily expensive necklace was created by the jewelers of Boehmer and Bassenge. The necklace had been commissioned by Jeanne, Comtesse de Lamotte-Valois, and then purchased using forged signatures in Marie Antoinette’s name. Naturally these people never paid for the necklace. The case was eventually brought into the Courts of Paris where the whole thing exploded. It did the maximum damage to Marie Antoinette’s reputation and standing in the eyes of the public.

The Comtesse de Lamotte-Valois claimed that the queen had had an affair with the Cardinal, Rohan (who was in fact the Comtesse’s lover). Despite the fact that the Cardinal and the Comtesse were found at fault, imprisoned, branded and thieves, and held subject to the confiscation of their property, the public still blamed the queen. The necklace, an obscenely expensive piece of jewelry, seemed to the public a symbol of the opulent lifestyle that the nobility lived in while the poor of Paris suffered. The French Revolution followed a mere three years later.

So there it is. The opulent portrait portrayed of Marie Antoinette in popular culture, such as the recent movie by Sophia Coppolla, is hardly the whole story. Marie was a young and impressionable woman, whose life was cut short by bad public relations, which has lasted over 200 years since her death.

Interested in learning more about Marie Antoinette? The Legion of Honor in San Francisco, California has an exhibit that’s all about her. The exhibit, which is on loan from the Petit Trianon in France, includes several of the portraits mentioned in this article, as well has a replica of the necklace that was part of the famous affair.

© Copyright 2007 by

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