Marie Antoinette was the wife of the last King of France, Louis XVI, before the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy. She was known for extravagance and indulgence, and was despised by the people of France. She came to symbolise the Ancien Régime – a long-standing system where the monarchy, aristocracy and Catholic Church held absolute power and privilege over ordinary people.

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor. She was married to the future King Louis XVI of France when she was just fourteen. Marie Antoinette soon became unpopular, gaining a reputation for excessive spending on fashion, gambling and other indulgences.  It was also rumoured, when she gave birth to her first child in December 1778, that Louis was not the father.

As the reign went on, Marie Antoinette became more prominent in government affairs, which increased her unpopularity. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, she became a prime target. The royal family tried to escape from France but were arrested at Varennes, near the border, and brought back to Paris. Louis XVI was executed at the guillotine on the 21 January 1793. Marie Antoinette’s execution followed on 16th October. It sent shock waves around Europe.

This painting, by the Swedish portraitist Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, illustrates the excessive privilege of the Ancien Régime. Marie Antoinette is shown with her two elder children. Their exquisitely crafted clothes, along with Marie Antoinette’s wig and lavish hat indicate a life far removed from that of the working men and women of France. They are painted in the gardens of Le Petit Trianon, a chateau in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, which was a gift from her husband when he became King. The gift included the right to spend as much as she pleased on its renovation. Rumours soon circulated that the refurbishment was lavish, with real gold and diamonds on the walls. In the early 1790s, the paintings, sculptures, and other royal property was confiscated and either transferred to the Louvre Museum or sold at auction.

Did you know?

Marie Antoinette built a secluded village on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, where she and her ladies-in-waiting would dress up and pretend to be peasants.

Sources & acknowledgements

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