Marie Antoinette Gets a Makeover

Marie Antoinette

What a difference time can make.

At the end of the 18th century Marie Antoinette was perhaps the most hated woman in France. She went from living the high life as Queen Consort to King Louis XVI to a lonely prison cell, and ultimately, the guillotine.

During the French Revolution the unfortunate queen was the target of the mob’s hatred, which rose to a fever pitch during the Terror. To the blood-thirsty revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette and her extravagant lifestyle represented the excesses of the old way of government, the “Ancien RĂ©gime," and a despised symbol of the monarchial system they were determined to destroy. 

Her insensitivity became a legend. Just about anyone who’s heard of the French Revolution has also heard the phrase attributed to Marie Antoinette, something she supposedly said upon hearing the starving poor had no bread to eat. “Then let them eat cake,” was her haughty reply. 

That sure sounded like her, or so her subjects thought. The only problem is there's zero evidence she ever actually uttered those words.

Sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to
the guillotine  by Jacques-Louis David,
probably an eye-witness
It took a couple of centuries, but time has softened the harshness of the way the queen was once viewed. There's no question that in recent years Marie Antoinette's reputation has begun to undergo a remarkable rehabilitation. 

Now, Marie Antoinette is the most famous woman in French history. She’s being hailed as a global icon, and her name and pre-Revolution glamorous image are popping up all over the country that once loathed her.

Excuse me?? This is the same woman who was ignominiously shoved into a tumbrel and spat upon as she was driven to the guillotine, where she was decapitated in front of a jeering mob?

But it seems that history has revised its opinion. Modern Frenchmen are proving to be kinder to Marie Antoinette than her contemporaries were during the French Revolution. 

And an exhibit opening in Paris this week just confirms this changing outlook.

That the show opens this month is not a random coincidence. The opening marks a grim anniversary. Marie Antoinette was executed 226 years ago this week, on October 16, 1793. And it’s also no coincidence that the exhibit is being held at the Conciergerie, the former prison along the River Seine where Marie Antoinette spent the final days of her life.

What prompted this sea change in how France is presenting its last queen? Could it be guilt over the inhumane treatment Marie Antoinette was forced to endure? Or, in a more cynical view, has she just become too valuable as a tourist attraction and advertising logo to ignore?

Princess Diana
Surprisingly, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times the curator of the exhibit, historian Antoine DeBaecque, suggests that the death of Princess Diana, who died in a 1997 car crash in Paris, is one of the factors that's prompting the French to reconsider Marie Antoinette's legacy. 

The historian argues that like the Princess of Wales, Marie Antoinette was a fashion leader and "emancipated woman" struggling to free herself from the traditions that bound her in her royal role. 

According to this line of thought, both women may have made mistakes, but were really just victims, naive young women caught up in events beyond their control. 

Whatever. Perhaps the French feel remorse over the tremendous suffering the revolutionary leaders and the mob imposed on their once-frivolous and beautiful queen. 

Before her death, Marie Antoinette was accused, often falsely, of every sort of crime her adversaries could imagine, including incest with her son. She endured the execution of her husband and separation from her children, who in turn were forced to denounce their mother. 

Portrait of Marie Antoinette in 1792
when she was imprisoned in the
Temple Tower
Looking at portraits made at the end of her life, It’s hard to believe Marie Antoinette was only 37 when she died. (In another coincidence, Princess Diana died at 36, about the same age as the doomed queen.) 

Though she was still a young woman when she died, Marie Antoinette looked decades older. According to folklore, acute stress and suffering caused her blonde hair to turn prematurely white during her captivity, in what’s become known as the Marie Antoinette Syndrome.

You get the feeling that when death came for the queen on that autumn day, it was a welcome end to her misery. 

There was no public mourning following her execution. Her head was displayed on a pike like a trophy. But, 23 years later in 1815 when the Bourbon monarchy was briefly restored to the French throne, the bodies of Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI were exhumed and reburied in at a church, the Basilica of St. Denis, north of Paris, where they remain.

Today, there's an ever-increasing amount of media and literature about Marie Antoinette, including manga. She's often shown as either a teenage rebel (after all, she was only 15 when she left her Austrian home to marry the future King of France) or a tragic heroine. 

A good example of this new perspective is Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, Marie Antoinette, a quasi-modern take on the queen's life starring Kirsten Dunst.

Kirsten Dunst as a young Marie Antoinette
No doubt the new Paris exhibit will burnish Marie’s Antoinette’s image even further. 

The exhibit includes some 200 works of art, along with letters and other personal effects. As befits a fashion icon, even some of Marie Antoinette's gorgeous clothes are on display.

On your way out of the Conciergerie, you can stop by the gift shop, where all sorts of Marie Antoinette souvenirs are for sale - everything from glittery snow globes to chocolates bars and mugs. You may even find a Marie Antoinette Barbie doll. 

Of course, the exhibit does have its critics. There are those who see the exhibit and other efforts to rehabilitate Marie Antoinette's reputation as "royalist propaganda" and a history-ignoring attempt to make a martyr out of a royal whose outrageous spending and disdain for the lower classes made the Revolution all but inevitable.  

"The Metamorphosis of Marie Antoinette Exhibition" at the Conciergerie in Paris opens October 16 and runs through January 26, 2020. But if you can’t make it to Paris here’s a brief video graphically showing the major events in Marie Antoinette’s life. The video is in French, but the pictures need no translation. 

 Sources for this post include:

 “The Marie Antoinette you never knew: a ‘modern icon’ and ‘emancipated woman’,” by Kim Willsher, The Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2019. 

And also by Kim Willsher, Oct. 15, 2019: “From hated queen to21st-century icon: Paris exhibition celebrates life of Marie-Antoinette,” The Guardian.

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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