Marie Antoinette’s Enduring Mystique

PARIS — As queen of France for less than two decades, Marie Antoinette was vilified as extravagant and frivolous. Elaborately coifed and plumed, she embodied all the excesses of the French monarchy. The immortal words “let them eat cake” stuck to her glittering veneer, though there is no proof she ever said them.

When she was 37, her life came to a violent end at the guillotine, a year after the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown by the French Revolution.

Yet for more than two centuries since, Marie Antoinette has been the subject of a relentless fascination and revisionist reinterpretations; she has been cast as a martyr of Christianity, victim of misogyny and xenophobia, patron of the arts, and modern-day princess.

Tracing her journey from detested queen to global idol is a new exhibition, “Marie Antoinette: Metamorphosis of an Image,” staged at the very Paris prison where she spent the last weeks of her life.

“Marie Antoinette was a queen we know very little about,” said Antoine de Baecque, a historian of the French Revolution and curator of the show. “She played no political role until closer to the revolution, left no personal memoir or revealing correspondence from which we could glean her true personality.”

Marie Antoinette first marched onto the pages of history on May 14, 1770, when, as an Austrian child-bride, she arrived at Versailles to marry France’s dauphin, the future Louis XVI. As queen, she was called “l’Autrichienne,” viewed with suspicion befitting a foreign consort and criticized as a spendthrift and as indifferent to the plight of the French people. On Oct. 16, 1793, when she was guillotined on the Place de la Révolution, Marie Antoinette was the most hated woman in France.

“She has always fascinated historians and artists, but there has been renewed interest in Marie Antoinette in the past 20 years, ranging from Miss Piggy in ‘The Muppet Show’ to characters in Japanese manga culture,” Mr. de Baecque said.

The exhibition, which opened Oct. 16 to coincide with the anniversary of her execution, is at the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette was jailed and tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Built on the Île de la Cité in the Seine, the site is ominous, with its Gothic architecture and medieval dungeons. Once a royal residence, it was turned into a tribunal and prison in the 14th century after King Charles V appointed a “concierge” vested with judicial powers to run it.

During the French Revolution, hundreds of prisoners, including the “widow Capet” (from the name of the medieval dynasty that ruled France) as the captive Marie Antoinette was known, transited through its holding cells.

“Marie Antoinette was transferred here on Aug. 2, 1793, under cover of the night,” Cécile Rives, administrator of the Conciergerie, said in an interview. “She spent 73 days awaiting trial in a sinister part of the building that was filthy and disease-ridden, a real antechamber of death.”

Louis XVIII, Marie Antoinette’s brother-in-law, became king in 1814 and decreed Oct. 16 a day of national mourning. On the site of her cell, he built a mourning chapel, which is open to the show’s visitors.

“Marie Antoinette became a Christian martyr when the Royalists returned to power,” Ms. Rives said. “It was the first appropriation of her image to legitimize the new monarchy.”

Her image, fueled by the imagination of artists, fashion designers, filmmakers and decorators, has continued to evolve. Antonia Fraser’s best-selling biography “Marie Antoinette: The Journey,” which offered a more humane vision of the queen, was the basis for her rebirth as a modern-day princess in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film.

Ms. Coppola “created the image of an independent, spirited princess who shunned palace protocol, raised her own children, appreciated culture and was something of a ‘poor little rich girl,’ making her own way through history,” Mr. de Baecque said.

To show how cinema has reshaped the image of Marie Antoinette, Mr. de Baecque has gathered some of the extraordinary costumes created for Kirsten Dunst, who played the queen in Ms. Coppola’s film, namely the blue dress and hat she wore when she first met the dauphin upon arriving in Versailles. (Milena Canonero won one of her four Oscars for costume design for the film.)

Mr. de Baecque also collaborated with Anne Seibel, the film’s art director, to recreate, using fabrics from the set, the ambience of the queen’s bedroom at Versailles, so that visitors could see “some of the real physical elements that have helped to construct the image of a modern-day Marie Antoinette.”

The 250-some objects in the show range from Marie Antoinette’s official portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, a painter who owed her fame to the queen’s patronage, to her stark image as the widow Capet, stripped of title and ornaments.

A cotton shirtdress she is believed to have worn and a single shoe — known as a Soulier à la St. Huberty — which she is said to have lost on her way to the guillotine, attest to her fall from grace. “It is a size 36.5, which would have been her size,” Ms. Rives said.

Her hair, piled high on her head, has inspired a cult of bouffants, as seen in a self-portrait by the photographer Kimiko Yoshida. A body holding her severed head, with papillote curls and blood dripping into a puddle, inspired “Marie Antoinette +1793” by the photographer Erwin Olaf in his “Royal Blood” series. The French artist duo Pierre et Gilles took the derision further in 2014 when they photographed Zahia Dehar, a scandalous Parisian escort turned lingerie designer, as a modern-day Marie Antoinette.

While some of her personal effects may be in the show, Marie Antoinette’s spirit is said to be nearby, roaming the halls of the 1758 Hôtel de Crillon, across the river. In happier times, she played the piano in a salon there, when it was a mansion.

When the architect Aline Asmar d’Amman was given the task of restoring it as part of a renovation, she said she took inspiration from the “free spirit” of the queen.

A new concealed door — for a touch of palace intrigue — connects the Salon Marie Antoinette with the nearly 2,000-square-foot Suite Marie Antoinette.

“Marie Antoinette’s spirit can still be felt within these walls,” Ms. Asmar d’Amman said. “So we imagined a décor where she would feel at home if she suddenly woke up and walked into the room.”

The Salon Marie Antoinette is now a grand living room that connects through a concealed “secret” door — for a touch of palace intrigue — to the new Suite Marie Antoinette, first into a flesh-toned boudoir and then into a bedroom decorated with a bust and portrait of the queen.

“I am persuaded that we don’t know the real Marie Antoinette,” Ms. Asmar d’Amman said. “What we have is an idea of her as a cultured and fashionable woman, independent and irreverent, perhaps the first among true Parisiennes.”

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