Saturday, 5 April 2014

Marie-Antoinette by Wertmüller

Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller Queen Marie-Antoinette of France and two of her children walking in the Park of Trianon, 1785.   Height: 2,760 mm (108.66 in). Width: 1,940 mm (76.38 in).Nationalmuseum Stockholm

 This portrait, painted by the Swedish artist Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller in 1785, was generally ill-received by contemporary critics and, to judge by Marie-Antoinette's monstrous headgear, was a bit of a turkey in more ways than one!   If  it was a flop, it was certainly a big one - at 9 feet by 6 feet plus, with lifesize figures, this is a substantial canvas.  Thanks to the Google "Cultural Institute" site you can now visit it in situ  in the Swedish Nationalmuseum -  just click on the little yellow man to be deposited at Marie-Antoinette's feet!

Definitely a disconcerting experience!  There is an almost equally large copy in Versailles, painted in 1868 by Eugène Battaille and once belonging to the Empress Eugenie.

In  the 1780s the Queen was in desperate need of a new more appealing image to counter the rising tide of popular hostility. Various artists were tried, among them, besides Vigée-Lebrun, a number of Swedes resident in France:  Alexander  and Joseph-Marie Roslin, the miniaturist Adolphe Hall and Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller. The son of a wealthy apothecary, Wertmüller (1751-1811) had first come to Paris in 1772 to study under his second cousin Roslin and later with the the famous landscape artist Joseph-Marie Vien. In 1775, he journeyed to Rome where  Vien had been made director of the French Academy.

Wertmüller.did not meet with instant success.  On his return to Paris in Spring 1781, he at first found it difficult to obtain work as a portraitist and instead earned his keep as a copyist at Roslin’s studio. Here he was discovered by the Swedish Ambassador Gustaf Filip Creutz, who secured him several important commissions. In 1784, through Creutz's influence, he was appointed First Painter apparent ("en survivance" ) to King Gustavus III of Sweden and gained admittance to the French Royal Academy of Painting.  It was in 1784 too that Gustavus visited Versailles and as a gift to mark the occasion the direction of the Bâtiments du Roi invited Wertmüller to paint a portrait of the Queen with her children, for which he was to receive a gratification of 14,000 livres.  Marie-Antoinette posed with good grace and the work was finished in time to be exhibited in the Salon of 1785.  Thus Wertmüller: 

I travelled […]to Versailles and from there to Petit Trianon, where she spent her summers.  That is where I painted portraits of her and the Princess, who was six years old at the time.  The Queen welcomed me with the greatest of kindness and distinction and gave the order that I should paint His Highness The Dauphin at La Muette while I was here” [..] “I then headed back to Paris and painted a large canvas of natural size and the full length of the person[s]” [Quoted on the Nationalmuseum notice at the link above]

King Gustav III had intended this to be Wertmüller’s ticket to a successful career in Paris, but jealousies abounded. When the picture appeared in the salon of August 1785, it was was attacked by the critics.  While a few admired the portrayal of a more maternal and complaisant Queen - no doubt the effect intended - the majority felt the pose lacked in dignity. The garden setting, far from reassuring, recalled the intrigues of the newly erupted  Diamond Necklace scandal. Marie-Antoinette herself was also unimpressed.  According to the  Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la République des lettres, she did not even recognise herself.  She was reported to have exclaimed,  “C’est moi, là?”  Payment was delayed. The artist fell into a deep depression, but recovered enough to make some necessary changes - adjusting  the angle of the Queen's head and blending the Temple of Love discreetly into the background - before the portrait was dispatched to Sweden the following year.

Maybe bulging eyes are hereditary?
 Madame Royale 
by Wertmüller, 
painted in 1786
Perhaps the detractors were a little unkind.  Madam Campan, who was a loyal friend of the artist, maintained “There is no good portrait of the Queen, save that by Werthmuller, chief painter to the King of Sweden…and that by Madame LeBrun in 1787". But critics who claimed the pose was wooden and undignified had a point.  Even Madame Campan was surprised that Wertmüller didn't ask for any further sittings.  Instead he ordered mannequins for his studio to substitute for the two royal children, which doubtless contributed to the  the puppet-like quality of the figures. He also apparently commissioned the Queen's hairdresser,  Monsieur Léonard to provide the wig and feathered headdress à la Turque  - all a bit too splendid and exaggerated. It would be nice to say that the narrow nose, heavy jaw and bulbous eyes were  truer to life that more flattering depictions of Marie-Antoinette but there is no proof.  (The bug-eyes in fact appear to be a bit of a feature of Wertmuller's work in general!)


Olivier Blanc, Portraits des femmes :  artistes et modèles à l'époque de Marie-Antoinette (2006), p.146-8.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette and her children, by Wertmuller Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Paintings of Wertmüller in Louis XVI et Marie-Antoinette à Compiègne (RMN, 2006), catalogue of an exhibition held at the Château de Compiègne  25 Oct 2006 - 29 Jan 2007. Posted on La folie XVIIIe forum.

La reine et ses enfants à Trianon, par Wertmüller" on Le forum de Marie-Antoinette
More reproductions, and details from Marguerite Jallut, Marie-Antoinette et ses peintres (1955)


  1. What an interesting portrait, never seen it before! It looks quite unflattering - was Marie Antoinette beautiful, by the standards of her time?

  2. Hello again. No, I don't think she was - even those favourably disposed towards her said she was pretty or attractive rather than conventionally beautiful. Antonia Fraser's biography has a summary of her appearance based on Maria-Theresa's assessment and other contemporary sources. According to this, she had large, well-spaced eyes, a subtle blue-grey, with an attractive misty look due to short-sightedness. Her hair was thick and a favourable light ash colour, which would darken in later years, though she suffered from a unfashionably high forehead and uneven hairline. She had an aquiline nose which could be taken as distinguished. However, there was no disguising that Hapsburg jaw with its pouty projecting lower lip. Marie-Antoinette herself apparently came to feel that she had a haughty "high-nosed" look which did not reflect her personality. Artists got round this by depicting her in profile "which is why it is much easier to comprehend the reality of Marie-Antoinette's appearance - if not her allure - from the busts" ("Marie-Antoinette" p36-7 in the pbk).