I’ve written before about my daughter Ava’s love for Marie Antoinette and her description of the French queen’s execution to her kindergarten teachers.
She has loved Marie Antoinette since she got a book about real (as opposed to Disney) princesses when she was four, so when we saw the National Gallery in Ottawa had an exhibition featuring her portraits, painted by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, we knew we had our next daddy-daughter date.
It was awesome!
The Marie Antoinette portraits were obviously the highlight of the exhibition and the catalyst for Vigée Le Brun’s fame, but she had a long career a
s a portraitist after she was forced into exile during the French Revolution. She painted members of the monarchy and aristocracy across Europe—and we even found one landscape (supposedly her best) that she painted of a festival in Switzerland.
As a historian, I felt the same thrill standing so close to these paintings as I did examining Sir Arthur Currie’s personal diaries and I love it that Ava shares my interest in history (as Homer Simpson said, “Kids are great, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate…). We both learned lots about the queen, Vigée Le Brun and the role her paintings played in the French public’s views of Marie Antoinette and the monarchy in the years leading up to the revolution.
Plus, Ava got to dress up like Marie Antoinette, fulfilling her No. 1 goal for the trip!
She notices the smallest details and she was studying some paintings of Marie Antoinette in one of her books before we left. On the way, she told me she hoped they had a fancy hat at the dress-up centre with feathers and ribbons on it. It turned out they had one just like that and she couldn’t have been more pleased. She spent a minute or two just holding it in her hands, examining it.
Ava was less pleased when I took a photo of her in the pannier (French for basket) that French ladies wore under their dresses at court to make them billow out. We learned that girls as young as four or five years old wore them.
The scale of some of the paintings was incredible. I think the two biggest portraits (below) were each about 12 feet high! The one on the left was commissioned by Marie Antoinette’s mother, as she hadn’t seen her daughter in years, and was the first time she was painted by Vigée Le Brun. The one on the right was painted to accentuate the queen’s qualities as a mother and help rehabilitate her public image. It has a sad backstory, though, as Marie Antoinette’s infant daughter died while it was being painted, which is why there is an empty bassinet on the right.
My favourite part of the exhibition, though, was learning that when the portrait below was first displayed publicly, it caused a scandal because Marie Antoinette was not wearing the courtly clothes expected of her and, more importantly, the dress she was wearing was imported from England and made of British cotton. Because Marie Antoinette’s fashions were so influential, she was blamed for the decline of the French silk industry.
Living in Ottawa, we sometimes take for granted the number of world-class museums 20 minutes from our house, but I’m glad we didn’t miss this exhibition—nor the Beavertails afterwards.
It’s fun to do things with all the kids together, but sometimes you just need some one-on-one time with each of them. When we got home, Michael said, “I’m feeling jealous of Ava.” He’s only four, but quite good at describing his feelings when he wants to. Anyway, he would have been bored out of his mind in five minutes at the gallery, but I told him we’ll plan a guys’ trip to a college football game in the fall.