Marie-Antoinette in Temple Tower.
A couple of months ago I was looking up some information in Simon
Schama's brilliant book Citizens, a history of the French Revolution.
While there I came across an illustration that I had evidently not
paid much attention to across the years. It is a painting by the
Marquise De Brehan of Marie-Antoinette in Temple Tower, painted
just after the execution of her husband Louis in 1793.
She is dressed in black mourning attire. A bust of Louis is in the
background. Her hair is more significantly blonde than it appeared
in the painting of her by Alexandre Kucharsky* done just prior to
the Revolution in 1792, where is was decidedly grey. She is wearing
a cameo, most likely by De Brehan. It doesn't seem to fit into the
rest of the painting, leading me to wonder whether it was a later
addition. There is an wisp of a smile on Antoinette's face, odd
for a mourning portrait. Although appointments are basic, they are
certainly better than the conditions she would soon have to endure
in the abysmal Conciergerie.
She is also holding a book. And I can't help wondering — what book?
The book is red and has some raised leather pattern on the front cover.
Estimating, it seems to be about 7" by 4-1/2" in size, and probably was
about 200 pages given the paper thicknesses of the period.
The spine is also red, perhaps trimmed with gold. There are two separate
black rectangular areas on the upper spine. It is difficult to imagine a
purpose for these black areas if they did not contain text. There may have
been some printing also on the lower spine — it is difficult to tell.
Given that Antoinette was a Christian, perhaps the most likely book for
a mourning portrait would be The Bible. But why would a Bible need so
much printing on the side? In my opinion, it doesn't fit in with a simple
Bible — too much text, as well as the rather decorative raised leather
on the front cover.
So, what other book would it be? Possibly it could be a favorite book of
Louis, which Antoinette chose to hold in her hand in his memory. The
plays of Moliere? A history of France? Who knows, but of course that is
exactly the question and it is tough for me to leave it at that.
I think it safe to say that it wasn't Voltaire or Beaumarchais.
I wish I could see the original painting, which evidently is housed in
the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. Perhaps a close-up view would provide
I've been reading history since I was a very young man. And across
all the years there was always this or that book on history close-by
that I was working on. But what interests me most now is not the
large sweep of events that I concentrated on when I was younger.
Now it is the little mysteries, the lost details: A book, a dress, a
pair of shoes, an unmarked grave…
*Kucharsky also painted two portraits of Antoinette in Temple Tower,
thought they were not painted until 1815. The two paintings are currently
at the Musée Caranavalet, Paris.