Hello I’m your host Janelle and I’m back with the final installment of the three Louis and Versailles. As always you can view the images, transcript of this audio recording, and resources I discuss on my website www.boozyarthistorian.com. Right, now let’s get into the good stuff!
In the last episode I left us off with Marie Antoinette in the discussion of the Rococo movement and the large porcelain service Marie had made, and how that would transition into the Neoclassical movement. So let’s set the stage. Who were the successors of Louis XV? Obviously I spoiled it all for you and it’s Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The reason I mention Marie Antoinette is because she’s a great person to use when discussing the Rococo and Neoclassical movements, and you’ll see why as we progress through this episode.
Either way, we see the end of “Louis the Beloved” aka Louis XV’s end, and we have his grandson, Louis XVI become the next and last king of France. With Louis XVI we see a full 180 degree change in how the king displays himself to the people of France. Louis XIV was all about showing people his absolute right to rule through his consolidation of power, and imagery of the Sun King. Whereas we have Louis XVI who was encouraged by his tutors to be indecisive and hide his thoughts from everyone. I can’t imagine this really helped make him a successful ruler, since the king is supposed to be in control, and when you don’t have a king in control then who’s running the show?
I really do wonder if things would have been different if his parents and older brother hadn’t died from TB. It really was tragic, they all died within a few years of each other and I can only imagine how devastating that was to young Louis XVI, who also would’ve been terrified by the prospect of suddenly being next in line for the crown. As we know from contemporary events, it’s important for monarchies to have a “spare” for such situations, but many times we forget that these second sons are not trained as monarchs from the same age that their brothers are, which I think definitely didn’t help Louis XVI in his reign. I would also argue it also didn’t help that France had suffered quite a few disastrous harvests and most of the country was living in poverty.
Interestingly Louis XVI was quite a fan of the Enlightenment and wanted to create a ton of reforms to the government that would’ve helped the people of France, but of course the nobility weren’t a fan of that since it would’ve meant they would’ve lost money. When I say reforms, Louis XVI wanted to do things like abolish serfdoms, remove certain taxes on the lower classes, and even increase government tolerance towards non-Catholics. One of the reforms that he did succeed in that actually came back to bite him was his grain reform. Basically Louis deregulated the grain market right after a couple of bad grain seasons and this led to the astronomical costs of bread. It also didn’t help the country’s coffers that he gave a ton of money towards the American Revolution, but as an American I feel that I have to say I’m quite happy he did so.
So Louis really had a lot of missteps during his reign and unfortunately this also applied to his marriage to Marie Antoinette. But I feel like I do need to note that it wasn’t his or Marie’s fault that they were married. The marriage was an arrangement as part of a peace treaty between Louis XV and Maria Theresa at the end of the Seven Years’ War. Now many people really didn’t like Marie Antoinette simply by the fact that she was Austrian. Granted, she did some not so smart things during her time at Versailles, but I would argue that she was pretty much set up for failure, much like her husband.
Marie Antoinette was the 15th child born to Maria Theresa, so when most had assumed that she would just marry some high ranking noble and live a life of luxury in some grand estate, rather than actually rule a country. So she had been educated in such a manner, much like Louis XVI, she wasn’t taught to be a queen. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Marie Theresa, but I’ll save that for another time. Either way, we have two people who are supposed to be ruling the country who are really struggling to do so, since they’re just so poorly equipped to do so and it just does not go well, I mean quite obviously it doesn’t go well.
Two things that did work in Marie Antoinette’s favor is one, everyone hated Madame du Barry. So when Marie Antoinette shows up, she’s Austrian, aka the literal face of the enemy from the Seven Years War. And we have to remember, the Seven Years War is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and a lot of French citizens would’ve lost family, friends, and honestly a lot of money to the war effort. So her showing up with her famous Habsburg high forehead and dimpled chin was not working in her favor. But because everyone loathed Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s last mistress who was just plain tacky to many French courtiers, Marie wasn’t at the bottom of the list. Which she realized and used to her advantage. Basically Louis XV had to force Marie to speak to her in public, so courtiers would then follow suit and acknowledge his mistress at Versailles. It was very dramatic.
Either way the second thing that worked in Marie’s favor was her style. She understood straight away that her power would come from fashion and taste. So we see her quickly immersing herself into the arts of the time, which was the Rococo movement. There’s this great portrait of her which I love because it shows how wonderfully decadent she is. She’s wearing the latest hairstyle, which if you want to know more about these types of hairstyles, go listen to my “But I Digress” episode on hair dos in Versailles. She’s also wearing this wonderfully Rococo like dress, it’s got tons of bows, it's elaborate, decadent and looks so soft.
And what I didn’t mention in the last episode, but I quickly mentioned earlier in this episode, was the Enlightenment movement which is running parallel to the Rococo movement. For those of you who don’t remember the Enlightenment from history class, here's a quick summary per Wikipedia. The Enlightenment, more formally referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, was “an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries” and included ideas that revolved around the value of human happiness, using reason and evidence of the senses when pursuing knowledge, one of my favorites, the separation of church and state.
Some major minds behind the Enlightenment were Francis Bacon (not to be confused with the famous contemporary artist), John Lock, René Descarts, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant. Usually historians can agree the Enlightenment started in France roughly around the end of Louis XIV’s reign and came into full swing towards the end of Louis XVI’s reign. Now what is particularly important to art history is the Enlightenment is what sparks a shift in taste away from the filly Rococo and into the more somber Neoclassical movement.
The Neoclassical movement, in its entirety, so including literature, theater, and music, starts roughly around the same time as the Enlightenment. The visual arts part starts roughly in the mid to late 1700s. What I find particularly interesting is there are quite a few primary sources where people in France mock the Rococo movement and consider it ridiculous and gaudy, so the Neoclassical movement is a very clear response to that sentiment. The Neoclassical movement is all about looking back at Ancient Greece and the 16th century Renaissance Classicism. Hence why it’s called Neo aka “new” classical. It’s from the Neoclassical movement that we get the Empire style, which is the later part of the Neoclassical movement which is most commonly associated with Napoleon (think Pride & Prejudice).
Some famous Neoclassical artists include Angelica Kuaffmann, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Jacques-Louis David, Nicolas Poussin, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, just to name a few. Angelica Kauffmann is actually a really great example of how we see the shift in female portraiture from the big overdone look seen in Marie Antoinette’s portrait into this type of softer more relaxed looking portrait.Angelica Kauffmann was a Swiss born painter who actually was one of two women who helped found the Royal Academy, which some of you may remember from my Bridgerton episodes in Season 1.
Angelica Kauffmann spent the majority of her life traveling and studying all over Europe and ran in very influential circles. For example, Sir Joshua Reynolds was a good friend of hers. But either way, another Neoclassical female artists I want to discuss is Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who is best known for her portraits of Marie Antoinette. You can see one of the most well known portraits she did of Marie in Image 4
We can also see the shift in taste at Versaille quite easily through the two portraits of Marie Antoinette. It was during this time that Marie Antoinette is living mostly at the Petit Trianon, a small estate that was built by Louis XV for Madame de Pompadour, who unfortunately died before being gifted the estate. If you go to Versailles today you can see it in all of its restored splendor, as well as the stunning gardens around it. What I find particularly amusing is we see Marie Antoinette and her favorites embracing the Neoclassical movement and having a more “simple life” which included a massive series of follies (aka small houses that actually didn’t house anyone) that looked like small cottages and they had sheep and gardens that roamed around these follies to make it feel more “back to the basics”. Which honestly is just as outrageous as it sounds. Especially considering their back to basics was still more costly than an entire village’s income during this time period.
Either way, Marie Antoinette is making a very obvious decision to go with what was in style and hired a woman who was incredibly good at creating these beautiful stylish portraits. Élisabeth Louis Vigée Le Brun was French and for those of you who are wondering why the name Le Brun sounds familiar, the great-great-niece of Charles Le Brun, the head painter to Louis XIV. She was a very notable court painter at Versailles, and painted over 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette, making her the sort of unofficial portraitist to the Queen.Just a quick heads up I’m about to talk about miscarriages for the next few minutes so if you find that is a sensitive subject for you or anyone listening around you please jump ahead by 2 minutes.
She also painted this famous painting of Marie Antoinette after a miscarriage, as a way to help her not so favorable image with the public. Some of you may be wondering how on earth this theme is being conveyed, and basically people are not a fan of the monarchy and especially not Marie since she’s all about conspicuous consumption and is a sort of lighting rod for any dislike of the monarchy overall. So she uses her style aka portraits in this case, as a way to try and gain sympathy from the people. Many women had, and have miscarriages, and she had hoped by showing that she too suffered such a loss that it would help people ease off and stop hating her so much. In the portrait we have Marie sitting in what she would’ve considered a more modest dress with her three children around her and next to her is a cradle with a black cloth covering the top of it. The black color of the cloth signals to us the viewers that the family is mourning a loss. Her son, Louis, pulls back this black cloth to point into the cradle to show us that there isn’t a baby inside, signaling the loss of a child. As much as I think this is blatant propaganda, it is an effective portrait and speaks volumes to the artistic talents of Le Brun.
But I’m getting off topic. The next artist I want to discuss is Jacques Louis David, who is a bit of a rollercoaster of a character. First he started off as a French painter who worked with Neoclassical themes, as we can see in Image 6, where we have the classic Greek story of “The Oat of Horatti”. It’s also a great example for showing the Greek influence on the movement. If you look at the women in the far right you can see the drapery of their dresses are influenced heavily by Greek statues clothing.
So what makes David such a rollercoaster of an individual, is he goes from painting Neoclassical works for the upper echelons of French society, which you can see a wonderful example of in Image 7, to being a so called dictator of the arts during the French Revolution, and was very much against letting the King live after the overthrow of the government. He was very close friends with Robispierre, Marat, and other powerful people in the French Revolution. He’s the artist who drew the famous Tennis Court Oath, which you can see in Image 8. After the mess that was the end of the French Revolution, David aligned himself with Napoleon and painted the famous, Coronation of Napoleon, which isn’t the actual coronation of Napoleon but rather of his wife Josephine. I also love the little detail in the back where we can see Napoleon's mom, who wasn’t able to attend in real life so Napoleon basically had David photoshop her into the group. After the fall of Napoleon, David went into a self exile in Belgium where he remained for the rest of his life. Like I said, David is a rollercoaster of a historical figure.
One artist that I think is a worthwhile mention, even if he isn’t always at the top of the Neoclassical frontrunner list, is Joseph Wright of Derby. Joseph Wright of Derby was an English landscape and portrait painter and ran in illustrious circles. For example Josiah Wedgwood (of Wedgwood porcelain) and Richard Arkwright (the creator of the factory system and cotton industry) were two of his most predominant patrons over the course of his career. Joseph Wright’s works usually depicted the British Enlightenment which was roughly the same time as the French Enlightenment. Image 10 is a great example of this, and honestly a great depiction of the Enlightenment overall.
Here we have An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which shows a man performing an experiment where the bird has temporarily been deprived of oxygen to show the viewers that there are in fact invisible molecules around us. We can see this late Renaissance/Baroque use of dramatic light to show the people around the experiment. Which acts not only as dramatic lighting but also visually represents the knowledge, which is represented as light touching everyone who is viewing the experiment. I love the detail of the two young girls who are quite obviously distressed at the experiment and the assumed fate of the poor bird. While their father tries to explain to them that the bird is in fact alright, and has just temporarily passed out.
Again we’re seeing this fascination with the sciences and using the recently formalized scientific method in the Enlightenment and better understanding the world around us. Which is the key takeaway for the telltale signs if a work belongs to the Neoclassical movement. Does it involve science? Does it involve Greek and Roman influence? Are the colors darker and more dramatic? Then it’s most likely Neoclassical.
And that leads us to the end of our time at Versailles! Next we’ll be moving on to another country and another monarchy, which I think you all will enjoy immensely. You can find hints on my Instagram account @boozyarthistorian. As always should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you can DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian. If you want access to the “But I Digress” mini episodes, you can find me on Patreon or use the link on my website www.boozyarthistorian.com.
Thanks for listening in and see you next time!