In this painting, it’s not the depiction of the Queen and her children that interests me. Watching the excellent documentary ‘Le Fabuleux Destin d’Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, peintre de Marie-Antoinette’ by Jean-Frédéric Thibault and Arnaud Xainte, I wanted to know more about the jewel-strap in the background, almost hidden in the shadows…
By Sandrine Merle.
Much has been written about the composition of this 1787 painting: the Queen is seated, holding Louis-Charles, the future child of the Temple, on her lap. Beside her are her daughter Marie Thérèse (“Madame Royale”) and Louis-Joseph, the dauphin who died two years later. The empty cradle suggests Sophie-Béatrice’s recent death at the age of one. In the background, in the half-light, is a jewelry box (a cabinet used to store jewels, among other things) with leaves decorated with the royal coat of arms. It was commissioned by Louis XV for Marie-Antoinette’s marriage to her grandson, the future Louis XVI.
Putting the necklace affair firmly in the past
“Commissioned from the famous portrait painter Vigée Le Brun by the Bâtiments du Roi, the painting is intended to rehabilitate the queen, who has been accused of all manner of evil,” explains Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac biograph of Vigée le Brun. To make us forget her frivolity, her spending and, above all, the famous necklace affair… Since 1772, the jewelers Böhmer and Bassange have been in possession of a fabulous necklace weighing over 2,800 carats, made at the time for Madame du Barry. The commissioner, Louis XV, died before delivery, so the jewelers offered it several times, unsuccessfully, to Marie-Antoinette and then to Louis XVI. Marie-Antoinette refused again, suggesting (according to Madame Campan) that the money be used to build a ship… It was then that Jeanne de la Motte set up a huge deception compromising the Queen in order to steal it. Unmasked, Jeanne de la Motte was branded with a V for “voleur” (thief) and sentenced to life imprisonment. The necklace was never found, and although the queen was totally uninvolved in the affair, she remained guilty in the court of public opinion.
Her children, her only riches
Despite her passion for jewelry, Marie-Antoinette wears only a simple pair of earrings in this painting. A way of telling posterity that her children are her only treasures. As in this episode from Roman history: Cornelli, mother of the Gracchi, replies to a friend who has come to show her her jewels, pointing to her children, “These are my riches and my most beautiful ornaments”. But unfortunately, “even in the half-light, this piece of furniture calls to mind the the notorious necklace affair”, explains Gwenola Firmin (head heritage curator in charge of 18th-century paintings at the Château de Versailles). The rehabilitation of a spendthrift queen as a humble, loving mother was ultimately unsuccessful.
Unfortunately, all trace of this jewel-bracelet was lost after the revolutionary sales in 1793. But a visit to Versailles will give you the chance to admire another, in mahogany, made by Marie-Antoinette in 1787 – the year this painting was completed.