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The history behind "Marie-Antoinette à la rose" by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783)

Marie-Antoinette dressed in a Gaulle by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1783.

Breaking with tradition and in tune with the return-to-nature fashion so prevalent in the 1780s among ladies of the aristocracy, the Queen is wearing a simple white muslin dress and a straw hat, like a country maid.

The painter's great attention to details, the almost translucent quality of the dress, immaculate, with its thin layers of delicate material and ruffles, the delicate sash around the waist were meant to make Marie-Antoinette more human, by offering the viewer a greater intimacy. The straw hat helps convey the idea of authenticity and simplicity, but the feather and ribbon are there to remind everyone of the Queen's position at the apex of society. The whiteness of the skin, brilliant and almost transparent, the way the Queen holds the rose in her hands, with the smaller finger extended, the dark background with only an elaborate table decorated with gilt bronze mounts, all indicate Marie-Antoinette has picked the flower from a bouquet rather from a field.

Presented at the annual Salon in 1783, there was enormous public outrage, for the dress looked like "a chemise", in other words a piece of female undergarment. "Madame Lebrun exposed a portrait of the Queen wearing a chemise dress," the Literary Gazette wrote. Many people have found inappropriate the idea of offering to the public a picture of the Queen wearing such a garment [...] In any case, Her Majesty is very well; she has adopted that simple demeanour she prefers over the inopportunity of Court presentation." The critic was subtle, yet reflective of the public uproar. One day, someone audaciously wrote on the wall next to the painting : "France under the features of Austria, reduced to covering herself with a rag". The scandal was such that the painting was promptly removed and replaced by one of Marie-Antoinette's iconic portraits: Marie-Antoinette is holding a rose. and wearing a blue satin gown and a headdress more becoming a queen of France. But the damage was done.

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