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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 162-172
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"Quoi! C'est Marie-Antoinette, là?":
Reflections on the Recent Exhibition in Bordeaux
T. Lawrence Larkin
In the autumn of 1774, Gobelins master tapissier Pierre-François Cozette reported to the Directeur des Bâtiments, the Comte d'Angiviller, that he was having difficulty carrying out a tapestry portrait of Marie-Antoinette for the Paris banker Nicolas Beaujon, who had already obtained three matching half-lengths representing Louis XV, Marie Leczinska, and Louis XVI. Cozette, frustrated at the few, poor likenesses of Marie-Antoinette then available for copying, soon found a viable solution in supplementing a portrait by François-Hubert Drouais with evidence gleaned from watching the queen at dinner. The idea of a likeness perfected only after repeated comparison with nature is a well-worn trope in the artistic literature of the period; the resulting image (Figure 1) departs from Drouais's prototype in revealing a somewhat more softened and gracious woman richly festooned with pink ribbons, lace, and diamonds. Recently incorporated into the exhibition "Marie-Antoinette à Versailles: Le goût d'une reine" at the Musée des arts décoratifs, Bordeaux, the tapestry was alternately disparaged as "pas très resemblent" and testimony of Marie-Antoinette's early infatuation with diamonds. So is it empty decoration or valuable document? Because the queen left few papers attesting to her cultural motives, the issue of historical accuracy largely misses the point; rather, it would be better to ascertain how effectively such objects served her as signs of a positive identity. Thus, in place of treading the well-worn path of what constitutes an authentic Marie-Antoinette, it might be better to ask what these objects have to say about the resources available to a late eighteenth-century consort bent on [End Page 162] exercising her patronage prerogatives to shape a modern self-image. The intricate weave of the Gobelins tapestry becomes a useful metaphor for the difficulty of bringing the various strands of the queen's cultural legacy together at Bordeaux, an interpretive exercise the usefulness of which is bound to lie at the intersection of archival research and modern interpretation.
Click for larger view
| Figure 1 |
Pierre-François Cozette, Marie-Antoinette, 1774, tapisserie de Gobelins, Collection Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie, Bordeaux.
The rationale behind the decision to show Versailles artifacts at Bordeaux was revealed in opening remarks to the curators' tour, public colloquium, and catalogue, which noted the timeliness of the exhibition in marking the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of Marie-Antoinette's birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Musée des arts décoratifs in the Hôtel de Lalande, Etienne Laclotte's stately neoclassical edifice built for parliamentarian Pierre de Raymond de Lalande between 1775 and 1779. The shift of venue from the royal palace (which [End Page 163] had marked the Marie-Antoinette bicentennial of 1955 with the display of more than a thousand objects from Austria, Germany, Sweden, and Britain) to the modest townhouse did not escape the inevitable political and economic ironies. As the Director-General of the Museum and Domain of Versailles Pierre Arizzoli-Clémentel wryly observed, the polarized scholarly opinions about Marie-Antoinette have only increased public fascination with her cultural legacy, which has been gratified in the restoration of several key interiors at Versailles; these efforts are likely to become the focus of more (substantial?) tributes to the queen's taste in the near future. For his part, Bordeaux's Deputy Mayor Hugues Martin declaimed that Marie-Antoinette may not have been liked as a queen, but she did manifest exceptionally good taste, which contributed immensely...