The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has one of the most famous images of Marie Antoinette, painted by Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun in 1779. It was one of her most important paintings, and the artist herself made six copies of it. The young Queen had only reigned for five years; she still had about thirteen years of high living in store, before the Revolution and the Terror that cost her life.
It’s such a familiar image that I haven’t looked at it very carefully. What struck me on a recent visit was that it’s mostly about fine silks. All we really see of the queen is her face. The rest is window dressing.
I got to thinking that her dress actually looks like a window treatment fit for a palace.
In a way, her entire life was a kind of window dressing. She was married off as a teenager for the valuable political alliance between Austria and France. She was expected to produce royal heirs, and in her spare time, to show off the wealth and power of the French monarchy. No doubt it took at least a dozen ladies-in-waiting to get her into this dress. No doubt she would much rather have been playing house in her farm on the grounds of Versailles, where she could dress as a milkmaid and tend her shampooed sheep. But in sitting for this portrait, she was doing her duty. Sadly, her duty did not work out well for her.
I went directly from the Kunsthistorisches to the Albertina Palace, where Marie Antoinette’s sister Marie Christine got to live out her life. Marie Christine was the favorite child of the redoubtable Maria Theresa. Of all the children, Marie Christine was the only one allowed to marry for love instead of political alliance. Life is not fair.
Anyway, the window treatments in the Albertina look exactly like Marie Antoinette’s portrait gown, if you ask me.
How much of a person’s life, in history and in the present, is spent trying to strike an idealized pose? How much of a life is window dressing? It’s a question to ponder.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!