Condemned to death at the guillotine, a sleepless Marie Antoinette scrawled a farewell message to her son and daughter in her prayer book. "My eyes have no more tears to weep for you, my poor children; adieu, adieu!"
Was Marie Antoinette really the haughty, scatterbrained spendthrift she is often remembered as? A fascinating new exhibit in Paris uses artifacts and portraits to trace the life of a frivolous girl who became a patroness of the decorative arts and a loving mother.
Highlights of "Marie Antoinette," which opens Saturday at the Grand Palais, include the queen's childhood sketches, the refined furniture and porcelain she commissioned and revolutionary pamphlets portraying her as a sex-crazed monster. One of the final exhibits is the prayer book, where she wrote a note begging God's pity and saying goodbye to her children at 4:30 a.m. as she awaited execution, at age 37.
The curators say they conceived the exhibit as a tragedy in three acts: Marie Antoinette's girlhood in Austria, the early years of her marriage to Louis XVI and the dark path to her beheading in 1793.
One gallery uses painted stage backdrops to suggest the moonlit garden of the Trianon at Versailles. As visitors enter the rooms chronicling Marie Antoinette's times of trouble, a broken mirror casts haunting shadows.
Marie Antoinette was brought to Versailles to be the future Louis XVI's bride in 1770 at age 14. The event was depicted by Andre Basset, showing her in a golden carriage proceeded by trumpeters and horses in royal finery.
After the wedding, she spent her time riding horses, going to balls and hunting. One portrait shows her looking boyish in a red hunting jacket. Her new husband pronounced her "lively but rather childish," and her mother wrote to scold her for doing "nothing solid or useful."
To fill the emptiness, Marie Antoinette commissioned furniture and interiors that became the standard for elegance and modernity. The curators hope to show how she shaped French style.
"She was always changing her tastes. She liked to be an icon of fashion — that's why I think she's so popular now in our days, because she seems like a diva," said Pierre Arizzoli-Clementel, who co-curated the exhibit with Xavier Salmon. "She made so many commissions in a very short period. It seems capricious but it wasn't. The idea of renewal was in the air of that period."
Marie Antoinette also found fulfillment in her children, though the first did not come until eight years after her marriage, after the queen's brother came to have a man-to-man talk with her young husband.
The exhibit includes many portraits of the queen with her children, some of them commissioned as a public relations move to counter the public resentment that stemmed from her Austrian roots and her lavish lifestyle while France suffered.
One oil by the queen's official portraitist, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, shows Marie Antoinette with her three children and an empty cradle to signify the death of her infant daughter. One son died several years later, and another outlived his mother but died in a revolutionary prison. Only one child, daughter Marie Therese Charlotte, survived the revolution.
If Marie Antoinette's official portraits were royal propaganda, revolutionaries produced their own as the queen grew more unpopular. One pamphlet portrayed the queen lifting her skirts to a lover to satisfy her "uterine furies."
The exhibit's final dark room gives a glimpse into the royal family's life in prison before their demise. On display is a board game they used to distract themselves, Marie Antoinette's simple white gown and a black mourning headband that she wore after the king was beheaded.
After all the paintings of Marie Antoinette in lace and pearls, her hair piled high, her final portrait is shocking in its starkness. The hurried ink sketch by the painter Jacques-Louis David shows the queen awaiting the scaffold, clothed in a simple white vestment, her hands bound behind her back and her eyes lowered.
"Marie Antoinette" runs at the Grand Palais in Paris until June 30.