Stories

Painting the Face of Marie Antoinette

A dirty blonde with an aquiline nose and a protruding lower lip sounds like an unlikely beauty icon. Yet more than 200 years after the cries of Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort, and her execution at the guillotine, Marie Antoinette is still a figure of fascination, with “let them eat cake”, the phrase she never actually uttered, part of her over-privileged mythology.

Words and Paintings
CATHY LOMAX

Despite attempts to rescue her reputation the facts are damning. Marie Antoinette was a spoilt, pampered aristocrat who spent her time recreating a rural idyll in the grounds of Versailles, with herself cast as a shepherdess, while her subjects starved to death. Yet maybe the terrible backdrop of violence, murder, blood and grime is the key to her appeal. When juxtaposed against her innocence and gentility – that is the fluffiness, the prettiness, the rococo swags, pastel ribbons, ornate wigs and rouged cheeks – her femininity is amplified by the darkness outside the court walls. Marie Antoinette was a product of grotesque inequalities, but she was also a woman with no power, an innocent lamb heading towards inevitable slaughter. Two elaborately ornate films made about her in 1938 and 2006 brilliantly illustrate this striking dissonance between beauty and ugliness. Altogether Marie Antoinette was just too much and it is exactly this, her position as a figurehead of excessive femininity, which draws me to her and makes me want to reimagine her in my own paintings.

Marie Antoinette was born an Archduchess of Austria in 1755, the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire. In 1770, at the age of 15, she travelled to France to marry Louis-Auguste, the heir to the French throne and in 1791 when her husband was crowned Louis XVI she became Queen of France. She was initially popular with the people of France but soon came to be disliked as was considered to be extravagant and promiscuous. During the French Revolution she was put under house arrest until her ultimate fate at the guillotine in 1793.

There are many paintings of Marie Antoinette, made both during her lifetime and after, so we do have an idea of how she looked, even if this is filtered through the lens of flattery. Antonia Fraser in her doorstep sized biography writes that ‘her large, well-spaced eyes, a subtle blue-grey, were slightly short sighted. But the consequential misty look was not unattractive.’ She also had according to Fraser’s rigorous research, fair hair, a pink and white complexion, a long neck and an aquiline nose. Against these assets was the Habsburg lip, a protruding lower lip, which is apparent in portraits of the Habsburgs throughout the centuries. This gave her a slightly disdainful look and she asked artists to avoid painting her in profile in order to conceal it. Despite this flaw and with the help of hairdressers and visagistes she was, Fraser writes, considered to be pretty if not quite beautiful.

Despite the elaborate clothes and the intricately powdered and coiffed hair, arranged by the renowned Léonard Autié, Le Brun’s paintings show the queen to be wearing little makeup. Her white skin glows in an apparently natural way, with her healthily coloured cheeks and coral tinted mouth the only signs that she had embellished her face at all.

Marie Antoinette’s favourite artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun painted more than thirty portraits of the queen and her family, most of which show her in the ornate costumes and jewellery that she would have been expected to wear at the French court. Despite the elaborate clothes and the intricately powdered and coiffed hair, arranged by the renowned Léonard Autié, Le Brun’s paintings show the queen to be wearing little makeup. Her white skin glows in an apparently natural way (Le Brun said that her skin was so transparent that it allowed no shadow), with her healthily coloured cheeks and coral tinted mouth the only signs that she had embellished her face at all. By 1781 rouge was a fashion essential and it was was estimated that Frenchwomen used two million pots a year, dabbing the colour on both their cheeks and lips. Mrs Thrale a visitor at the French court wrote that Marie Antoinette was ‘the prettiest woman at court’ even better by day than she was a night (when, writes Antonia Fraser, ‘she was obliged to deface herself with the obligatory rouge’). In 1783 one of Le Brun’s paintings Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (aka Marie Antoinette en chemise), caused a scandal by showing the queen wearing a simple cotton gown known as a robe de gaulle, which was considered immodest, because it resembled underwear. It required a concerted effort including a new portrait Marie Antoinette and her Children (1787) to reassure the public that the queen was in fact a loving mother.

Marie Antoinette, the Queen of the Lot

Marie Antoinette has unsurprisingly been the subject of numerous films, each one recasting her to capture the beauty trends of the era they were made. For instance 1984’s Liberte, Egalite, Sauerkraut features Ursula Andress as a heavily made up, older Marie Antoinette with contoured cheeks and big hair, and 1929’sCagliostro has French star Suzanne Bianchetti as the French Queen complete with excessively plucked roundly arched brows and vampishly dark eye and lip makeup. I’m most interested in two films (from 1938 and 2006 respectively) both simply called Marie Antoinette, each of which reimagine the excesses of the court of Versailles with their own lavish production values.

1938’s Marie Antoinette was directed by W.S Van Dyke, and is considered to be one of the most elaborate eighteenth century period films ever made. The film was conceived by MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, as a project for his wife, Norma Shearer. To create the film’s 98 sets, the art department, under Cedric Gibbons, documented 11,000 photographs sent from Versailles to Hollywood, collected 2,500 books and visual elements and bought rooms full of 18th century furniture. Publicity around the film focussed on the excesses of the film’s production, which mirrored the excesses of the court of Versailles and generated headlines such as ‘Royal Robe Uses 2500 Ermine Pelts’. The premiere in Hollywood featured a scale replica of the gardens of Versailles, complete with fountains, a 30-piece orchestra, antique statues and hundreds of flowers.

Despite this scenic excess it is the costumes, hair and makeup that are arguably the film’s most striking feature. Robert Morley, who played Louis XVI, was reportedly so annoyed with this focus on the look of the film (it was his first role) that he nicknamed the production ‘Marie and Toilette.’ The film’s 1,200 costumes included 34 ‘gowns by Adrian’ for Norma Shearer. While Max Factor & Co. made 903 ornate white wigs and another 1,2000 more restrained wigs for extras. Norma Shearer herself wore 18 different extravagant wigs designed for her by MGM’s chief hairstylist, Sydney Guilaroff, which chart the development of Marie Antoinette from Dauphine to condemned Queen. Her early wigs have a youthful quality, which quickly subsides as they become more and more elaborate with plumes and birdcages incorporated into the hair – details that although correct for the period, were exaggerated for the screen. Although concessions were made to 1930s fashions and to what suited Shearer (such as the lack of period width on the sides of the wigs), costume scholar Alicia Annas notes that: “Overall Shearer’s wigs were masterpieces of the Hollywood hairdresser’s art and proved to be amazingly compatible with her elaborate 1930s formula makeup, including spiked lashes, heart-shaped beauty mark, and coloured nail polish.”

The famous birdcage wig still survives and was displayed in 2009 at an Irving Thalberg exhibition hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LA.  

The Pastel tones of Ladurée Macaroons

The 2006 version of Marie Antoinette, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is notable for the way it incorporates contemporary references such as a post-punk soundtrack (including Adam and the Ants), and designer clothing (the shoes were made by Manolo Blahnik), into the film’s mise en scene. Rather than making a costume drama, which is what the 1938 version is, Coppola calls her film a ‘fashion film’ with her aim being to exemplify a number of conceptual points about the disempowerment of young women rather than to slavishly reproduce the looks of the past. Fiona Handyside in Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood, explains that Coppola “gives us the tone and feel, the sensibility, of how we might imagine the decadent luxury of eighteenth century Versailles not despite but because of the decision to feature contemporary designer goods, a post-punk soundtrack and a range of natural accents.”

Rather than making a costume drama, Coppola calls her film a ‘fashion film’ with her aim being to exemplify a number of conceptual points about the disempowerment of young women rather than to slavishly reproduce the looks of the past.

In other words Coppola wants to update Versailles so that rather than it being a historical reference it becomes relevant by its translation into the visual language of today.

Although there are many authentic period details (much of the film was actually shot in Versailles) the film’s costume designer Milena Canonero (who won an Oscar) said that it was ‘in the colours, the coordination with the makeup and hair,’ that she took particular liberties. The film’s extravagant, richly coloured clothing (a palette which is seemingly inspired by the Ladurée Macaroons piled up on groaning tables of teatime treats) indicates that although Marie Antoinette has the money and power to create herself as a spectacle, she has little voice, and for this reason costumes, hair and makeup take on a particularly important function. Just as Norma Shearer’s wigs in the 1938 film chart Marie Antoinette’s passage from ingénue to tragic queen, in this film the style, colour, cut, coiffure, accessories, and even necklines, communicate the complexities of Marie Antoinette’s social position, her relation to her courtiers and the state of her erotic and internal life.

Marie Antoinette Today

By taking references from the past, and focussing on well know historical figures it is possible to construct arguments that relate to contemporary audiences. In many ways Marie Antoinette is no different from Marilyn Monroe, in that she has become an idea of a certain kind of woman with an image that can be adapted and manipulated to illustrate ideas about the role of women in any era.

Both the 1938 and 2006 Marie Antoinette films are lavish historical spectacles but they can also be seen very much as documents of their time. To add another time layer, I have made my own series of miniature Marie Antoinette paintings, which were displayed for one evening only in 2018 at the Wallace Collection alongside paintings by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and furniture from Marie Antoinette’s own apartment at Versaille. They are inspired by Norma Shearer and Kirsten Dunst’s versions of Marie Antoinette and show her made up in washy layers of oil paint, her coloured eye shadow and brightly rouged lips and cheeks inspired more by the visuals of Technicolor film than by the palette of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.


Cathy Lomax is an artist and winner of the 2016 Contemporary British Painting Prize. She is also the director of Transition Gallery and is currently researching Hollywood star makeup for a PhD at Queen Mary University of London.