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Evolution of Royal Portraiture

“The representation of the Queen with her children was meant to offset her scandalous reputation as a woman of extravagant tastes, haughty demeanor, and insatiable appetites” (Schama 177-178). 

Louis XIV as the Sun God from the gate of Versailles

Louis XIV as the Sun God from the gate of Versailles

The change in royal portraiture during the eighteenth century demonstrates how this widespread emphasis on motherhood and the importance of family affected the royal families of Europe as well as the populace. Emphasizing the monarch’s family in portraiture gave the monarch a more positive public image. Because of this, Marie Antoinette attempted to use maternal depictions of herself with her children in paintings to help improve her public image. As motherhood and domesticity in women reached a new height of importance in the eighteenth century, depicting Marie Antoinette as a good mother was one of the most common defenses for her, during her life and after. During this time period, the family was becoming the center of society, and this extended to the royal family as well.

"The Family of Louis XIV" as Roman deities, painted in 1670 by Jean Nocret.

"The Family of Louis XIV" as Roman deities, painted in 1670 by Jean Nocret

In the 1670s, the prevalence of the royal family had not taken hold, and the monarch was still the main focus. By the nineteenth century, though, “the identification between dynasty and family had become a serviceable cliché” (Schama 155). The royal family became a source of pride for the nation, and monarchs used these new concerns about the importance of family to create a positive public image for themselves. Now, the monarchs were not only rulers, they were also seen as mothers and fathers. Royal families were expected to be the model family for the nations they ruled and serve as an example for their citizens to follow. Using this new emphasis on the royal family and the glorification of motherhood, Marie Antoinette sought to represent herself according to these new values through portraiture. Royal portraiture became increasingly informal and inclusive of the entire family in the time period surrounding Marie Antoinette’s life compared to earlier centuries.  

During the reign of Louis XIV, the portraits of the royal family were meant to portray the dynasty’s absolute power. In the portraits, the king and his family members were often painted as deities (Schama 158). There is a portrait of Louis XIV’s mother, Anne of Austria, as Cybele, matriarch of the gods, and Louis XIV wanted himself represented as Apollo, the sun god, whose imagery is present all over Versailles (Schama 158). 

"Louis XIV and his Family" by Nicolas Largilliere, 1711

"Louis XIV and his Family" by Nicolas Largilliere, 1711

By the end of his reign, some artists, including Nicolas de Largillierre who painted The Family of Louis XIV, started painting more informal royal portraits with fewer allusions to deities (Schama 167). The Family of Louis XIV had only minimal references to the “Sun King” in the form Apollo’s chariot on the wall (Schama 167). In 1687 the French Grand Dauphin had the first portrait, by Pierre Mignard, that included no mythological references (Schama 167). While the mythological representations of royalty aimed to present their absolute power, the more informal portraits that encompassed the whole family made the royal family more relatable and aligned them with the nation’s growing emphasis on family in the eighteenth century. The mythological portraits made the monarchs seem distant and unapproachable, but the family portraits made the royal family seem not all that different from any other family in the nation.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1779

Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1779

Vigee-Lebrun painted several portraits of Marie Antoinette and the royal family during Louis XVI’s reign. An earlier portrait she completed of Marie Antoinette in 1779 was typical of French royal portraiture: highly formalized and decadent (Schama 177). In this painting, Marie Antoinette stands formally posed in a large gown of bows and lace with a length of fabric trailing behind her. Her surroundings are typical of the glamour of Versailles with large columns and a table covered in red velvet with flowers in a vase placed on top. 

Portrait of Marie Antoinette

"Marie Antoinette en Chemise" by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun

The portraits following this became much more informal and often included her children.  A portrait of the queen from 1783, Marie Antoinette en Chemise, depicts her wearing a simple chemise and straw hat while holding a flower in one hand, which is a very natural pose compared to earlier portraits. These informal portraits, which became popular throughout Europe, were meant to help subjects feel closer to their rulers (Schama 157). Many of these informal paintings of Marie Antoinette went to friends and ambassadors, becoming important points of political propaganda (Schama 177). This, then, was likely how the Queen wished to be represented publicly.

"Marie Antoinette and her Children" by Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun, 1788

"Marie Antoinette and her Children" by

Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1788

The later portraits of Marie Antoinette, along with the growing informality, often included her children, such as the painting from 1788, Marie Antoinette and her Children, also by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. In this portrait, Marie Antoinette is sitting down, holding her youngest child, while her oldest daughter lovingly holds onto one arm and looks up at her mother’s face. Her son, the dauphin, stands at her side. Here, the royal family is sitting in what appears to be a private bedroom at Versailles, instead of in one of the more public, opulent rooms like in previous paintings. These more informal portraits with her children were meant to portray the Queen as “the incarnation of maternal tenderness,” and help remedy the negative image of her that prevailed in France (Schama 178).