Much as we pose for photographs today, people in the 18th century posed for portraits. Donning their finest attire, they would sit for hours on end so that a portraitist could painstakingly capture every detail of their countenance. The purpose of a portrait was to capture a person's likeness and likes. A good painter would strive to portray their subjects accurately, including symbols which explained their interests and fancies (perhaps a Greek temple somewhere in the distance to indicate the person was enlightened and well versed in the classics). However, for the right price, a painter could be lured into exaggerating the good qualities and downplaying the bad qualities of his subject (a bulbous nose might suddenly appear aquiline; a pock-marked face might be blended to peachy perfection). These monetarily-driven alterations might have made the subjects happy, and the painters wealthy, but they altered facts, they changed the face of history. This simple fact must always be remembered when viewing historical portraits. Documented facts, gained from correspondences and other contemporary accounts, must be viewed alongside the portrait.
Painters did not come cheap. Good portraitists charged such hefty sums that only they very wealthy and elite could afford their skills. These portraits were oftentimes hung in family estates, given to influential associates, or replicated for the masses.
Early on, Marie Antoinette was praised for her beauty and grace. Portraits of her as a child surely had to have been painted, however, I am not aware of any. (Please email me if you know of any sources with childhood portraits of Marie Antoinette). In 1769, at the beginning of the marriage negotiations between Austria and France for Antoinette and Louis, several miniatures were painted of the future queen. These miniature portraits may have been painted by Pancini, though nobody is sure since they have since disappeared. During this time, a portrait of Marie Antoinette was painted for Louis XV by Joseph Ducreux. The portrait was an instant success and was copied and distributed by engravers. This portrait can be viewed on the slideshow below.
Marie-Antoinette sat for many portraits painted throughout her lifetime. The most famous of these is Marie Antoinette en Chemise (1783) by Madame Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun. This portrait, which depicts the queen in a shift-like gown and holding a rose, caused a scandal when it was first viewed. The French upper-crust could not believe their queen would allow herself to be painted in so scanty a gown. Ironically, one of the many ironies of Antoinette's life, her shift-like gown would soon become the rage, with upper-crust women clamoring to have one of their own.
Although Madame LeBrun was a talented painter who lead an interesting life in her own right, my favorite portraits of the queen are the little known ones. Riding by Krantzinger depicts Marie Antoinette in her riding habit. Marie Antoinette loved to ride, much to her mother's dismay, and this portrait shows both the sporty and rebellious side of the queen. My other favorite Marie Antoinette portrait is by Wagenschoen and shows her at the harpsichord. This portrait is wonderful as it finely displays Antoinette's tiny hands and waist, her interest in music and love for art, and her fine style. There's also a bold, engaging look about her face that I adore.
Marie Antoinette was the subject of portraits, in the form of lithographs and etchings, until the very end of her life. Several well known engravings can be seen of her imprisonment, trial, and ride to the guillotine. Her life, tragic and splendid as it was, can be traced through the wonderful portraits that remain.