Musee Carnavalet: Treasures of the Past

Musee Carnavalet, once the private residence of the famous letter writer, Madame de Sevigne, is my favorite museum in Paris. The building has changed very little since Madame de Sevigne was in residence. As I stepped on the creaky wooden parquet floors and explored the grand rooms, I could very well imagine life in the era of Louis XIV.

It was a delight to visit the home of a woman that was sensitive, politically aware, generous, and intellectually gifted. Madame de Sevigne, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, lived during the reign of Louis XIV. In a series of letters written to her daughter, she unwittingly documented life during her time. Her letters, compiled in a wonderful book by Frances Mossiker, are engaging, prolific, and witty. The letters illustrate the social conditions of those living in Paris during the 17th century and referenced by historians and authors researching that time period.

The Museum also houses one of the most impressive collections of Revolutionary artifacts. Pamphlets, flags, furniture, sketches and paintings from that turbulent time are on display. One room, within the labyrinth of rooms that make up this museum, stands out among the rest: The Marie Antoinette Room.

Upon The Walls
Throughout Musee Carnavalet, the walls are adorned with period-appropriate wall paper, cloth, or molding. In Marie Antoinette's room, the walls are covered with yellow and blue striped fabric. Hanging upon the walls are rare portraits of the Queen, some of them painted posthumously. One painting depicts her final moments with her son. It is a tragic, stirring painting. The queen is about to faint while her young son stands bravely allowing himself to be lead away by the revolutionaries. Another, shows the royal family saying their good-byes to Louis XVI. There are three sympathetic portraits of the queen, showing her in widow's garb with a mournful expression upon her face. These are striking images of the queen, as they clearly depict the misery she suffered and the radical change it produced both physically and mentally. Gone are her flowing locks, now tucked behind a severe widow's cap. Her once beautiful complexion, previously painted in gentle shades of peach and pink, has faded to a sallow yellow. Her eyes are what capture you though. Marie Antoinette's eyes, in the portraits painted by Vigee-Lebrun, always appeared to be sparkling and brooding, as if she knew something you did not know and was eager to share it with you. Her eyes in these final portraits are ringed with worry lines and appear flat and dull, utterly emotionless. I am reminded of the words she spoke shortly before her death, "I have seen all, I have heard all, I have forgotten all." The portraits accurately depict a woman who is hollow and emotionless, beyond pain and suffering.

Little Soldiers All In A Row

Revolutionary rhetoric, cries for independence and freedom, drowned out the cries of the victims the struggle. Great human suffering took place during the French Revolution. Many innocent people lost their lives on the guillotine, families were torn asunder, fortunes and homes were lost forever. Most people have an opinion about Marie Antoinette. Many of them feel she met with a deserved fate, that the harsh punishment fit her crime of selfish and flamboyant spending. Few, like myself, have taken the time to learn more about the Queen and her enormous propensity for generosity and compassion. Regardless of one's personal feelings about Marie Antoinette, it is impossible to view the items at Musee Carnavalet and not feel sadness. It is here we get a sense of Marie Antoinette the mother. Looking at the tiny toy soldiers once played with by her son, we get a glimpse of regularity in a world gone awry. The little soldiers, battered but still lined up within their case, were obviously treasured toys of the dauphin. Perhaps they had been a gift from his mother? Marie Antoinette was a caring mother, this can not be disputed. Her letters are a testament to her maternal feelings and worries. Seeing the her son's playthings remind me of my own son and the times I have purchased him a much desired toy. How significant would a toy become to a child if everything familiar and comforting was taken away from him? Shortly before her execution, Marie Antoinette was separated from her children, placed in an isolated cell. Her son played in a courtyard near her cell. Marie Antoinette, desperate to catch even a glimpse of her son, would climb upon a chair and peer out her tiny barred window. She would strain to hear the sounds of his play, hoping for lyrical notes of his happy laughter. I have read that the dauphin often played with the little soldiers in that courtyard. Perhaps they gave him comfort, like a talisman, reminding him of his days before imprisonment. Perhaps the soldiers, a gift from his mother, helped him to feel closer to her.

A Lock Of Hair, To Remember Me By

A lock of the queen's hair is preserved within a mourning brooch at Musee Carnavalet. Mourning jewelry, popular hundreds of years ago, were used to signify mourning for the loss of a loved one. Oftentimes, mourning jewelry was given as a gift, to show sympathy or to pay tribute to the deceased. The relative or friend would wear a cameo type brooch or a ring with a lock of the deceased's hair within it. The hair preserved in the brooch at Musee Carnavalet is thick and of a reddish-blonde hue. It is curled around, forming a perfect loop. As I stood looking at the tiny, perfect loop of hair, I could easily imagine Marie Antoinette self consciously pulling the widow's cap from her head. I could see her thick hair spilling down her back, like a cascade of liquid gold. I imagined the shiver that ran down her spine as the executioner lifted her heavy locks and roughly sheared them off her head. I wondered what she felt as she was made bald. Did she stand with her eyes downcast, watching the ringlets float fall to the ground and pile up around her? Did she, perhaps, kick a few errant strands off her plum colored shoes?  Or, did she stand with resolute pride? Did she keep her eyes focused forward, projecting herself through the block wall and into a happier time and place?

It was interesting to view Marie Antoinette's hair. Numerous authors have written about Marie Antoinette's hair loss before her execution. They have stated her hair turned gray "nearly overnight." The hair I saw was thick and far from gray.

Fickle French

It was a bit odd to see Marie Antoinette so immortalized in a French Museum. When Marie Antoinette arrived in France, she was the toast of the town. Her style and affectations were copied by anyone and everyone who was fashionable. But, then the tides turned and her popularity sharply declined. During Louis XVI's reign, she was immensely unpopular and was the target of horrid pornography (see my article about Marie Antoinette's Dildo) and painful gossip that helped pave her road to the guillotine. Even as she bumped along in the cart carrying her to the executioner's stand, the French taunted and humiliated her. Once again, shortly after her death, the tides turned again. The Fickle French, perhaps feeling remorse at their shameful and blood-thirsty behavior, attempted to sanctify the once very vilified queen. Whatever the motivation, it is good to see that history is attempting to paint the much maligned and misunderstood queen with a more generous and gentle brush.

Musee Carnavalet is a treat for any aficionado of 17th and 18th Century French Art and Society. For the Marie Antoinette lover, it is an absolute must see museum.

Have you been to Musee Carnavalet?  If not, what is your favorite museum?
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  1. Gorgeous website and blog, Leah! I love it!!! And what interesting tidbits! I can't wait to catch up with them all! Congrats and I'm so proud of you!!!!

  2. Gorgeous website and blog, Leah! And what interesting tidbits!! I'm looking forward to catching up with them all!

  3. This is, indeed, a great looking blog, and with so much valuable information. You would make Marie Antoinette so proud! :)

  4. "They have stated her hair turned gray "nearly overnight." The hair I saw was thick and far from gray."

    This is because the hair in this brooch was cut not at the execution but way before the royal family's imprisonment, and given to Madame de Tourzel by Marie Antoinette herself, as a token to remember her by ;)

  5. The "petite Palais" just off the Champs Elysee should be a must vist when in Paris

  6. Yes, I have been to the Musee Carnavalet. Since I seem to have a(n inexplicable) connection to late 18th century France, it was a real treat for me to see all the artwork, the models, and the collection of 'ordinary' objects such as plates and cups. Quite impressive. That's one museum I'll never forget.


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