Sunday, 14 September 2014

Marie-Antoinette's final portrait

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette
by Alexander Kucharski
24 x 18 cm
Apart from David's famous sketch of the Queen on her way to the scafford,  this portrait, by the former Court painter, Kucharski, is the very last portrait of Marie-Antoinette from life.

It was posed for a short time after Louis's execution in January 1793, not as sometimes claimed, when Marie-Antoinette was being held at the Conciergerie.  At this time letters were still exchanged with the royal prisoners and discreet visits to the Temple could be arranged; it is possible that Kucharski was himself somehow involved in an abortive attempt at flight orchestrated by the Queen's femme de chambre Madame Reynier de Jarjayes, for the night of 9th-10th March 1793. The administer Michonis who was subsequently arrested and interrogated at the beginning of September 1793 admitted allowing entry to "various people", among them a "painter". Marie-Antoinette herself explained that the Kucharski had simply come to paint a pastel - his Polish name was so badly transcribed that he was not identified at the time. According to the Prince d'Arenberg Kucharski saw Marie-Antoinette twice, on both occasions incognito.  (The legend is unsubstantiated that he disguised himself as a National Guardsman, a ruse which was certainly used by the artist Laurent Dabos to enter the Temple to paint Louis XVI and his son. Significantly, on 1st April 1793 the Commune decreed that no-one guarding the Temple or anything else could engage in drawing under pain of arrest.)  The existence of Kucharski's work was known among émigrés from 1793: Ferson looked for it ("All that came from her will be precious to me"). The dating suggests, therefore, that the picture was sketched between the end of January and the beginning of March, then finished off at a later point in Kucharski's studio, rue du Coq-Héron.

There are a number of different versions and copies of the portrait. The oil from  Versailles, reproduced at the top of this post, is one of the best quality copies accessible to view, and is generally attributed to Kucharski himself.  The one above, a pastel, first published in the comte Walsh de Serrant 's Souvenirs de la Révolution  in 1901, is held by Olivier Blanc to be the original.  Dimensions are unknown. The manuscript annotation, by Louis d'Uzès,  affirms that the portrait was made at the Temple after the death of Louis XVI and was intended for his aunt, the Princesse de Tarente,  who had escaped the September Massacres and taken refuge in London.  At the time of publication in 1901 the picture was still in the family; according to Olivier Blanc it may still be extant.

Jallut, fig.29
and photograph, Bibl.Nat. 28cm x22 cm

A different - and noticeably less square-faced - version was published as the original by the older French expert Marguerite Jallut in an article of 1939 and in her book on Marie-Antoinette and her painters in 1955. This picture, again a pastel, belonged to M. Dubois de Chefdebien in Paris in 1939 but, according to Marguerite Jallut,  was destroyed in the Second World War.  It too was accompanied by a manuscript note (see photo left): "Portrait of Marie-Antoinette by Koharski who, taking service as a National Guard in the Temple after the death of Louis XVI, contrived to see the Queen.  He had already painted her in 1780.  He sketched this picture down to the smallest details of her mourning clothes." (see Jallut, p.262.)

A third "original", this time an oil painting on a canvas mounted on wood, belonged to the collection of Prince Auguste d'Arenberg  in Brussels.  According to the d'Arenberg Galerie catalogue of 1829 Kucharski had kept it hidden for a long time and finally gave it to Prince Auguste d'Arenberg, during a trip the latter made to Paris in 1805.

An inscription on the back read as follows:
"Portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette when she was at the Temple, very exact in its detail, down to the pin which held her fichu, as she was dressed shortly before her transfer to the Conciergerie.  This picture was painted by Koharski who had painted the portrait of this unhappy princess in 1780;  he became a national guard in the service of the Temple, saw the queen, studied her with great attention, and, going back to his studio, drew her from memory.  He was in the service of the Temple a second time, studied the queen again and, returning to his studio, finished the portrait. I obtained it from Koharski himself, I knew it to have been painted by him and he knew how much I was attached to the queen.  This painting  is the original; several other copies were subsequently made by Koharski himself and then by others." Signed Auguste Arenberg
(Jallut (1939) p.262; See also the e-version of the D'Arenberg catalogue (1859), p.112

Oil on canvas, wood mount, 25cm x 20cm.
 Formerly Collection d’Arenberg, Bruxelles.
Photograph in the Bibl. Nat:

 This text is very similar in wording to the note with the first portrait described by Marguerite Jallut, though there is no direct evidence that the Prince d'Arenberg was author of both.  Presumably the suggestion (quite reasonably) is that the pastel represented a preliminary study and the oil a more finished version.  In reality there is no definite means of establishing priority between the early pictures - especially since in all three cases the originals are lost.


Notice From JOCONDE of the Versailles portrait:

Olivier Blanc, Portraits de femmes : Artistes et modèles à l'époque de Marie-Antoinette  
(2006), p.172-4.

Cosmos Raminez, "Marie-Antoinette en deuil, par Kucharsky" on Le forum de Marie-Antoinette  21/12/2013.  This post has a comprehensive set of illustrations of known versions of the picture.

Marguerite Jallut, "Kucharski, dernier peintre de Marie-Antoinette", in Revue d'Histoire de la Philosophie et d'Histoire générale de la Civilisation, Lille, juillet-décembre 1939, p.251-271.

"KUCHARSKI, Alexandre" in Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800 [online edition. Updated 12 Feb 2014]


  1. It is inconceivable that this portrait is a Kucharski.. the quality of his verified works speaks against this as being by the same hand..I understand that it is said he did this from memory, but [even so] he was a FAR better portraitist than whoever painted this comically crude painting...

    1. I take your point, certainly about the Versailles portrait. Do you think that the existing versions are all copies, or are you saying Kucharski didn't paint this pose at all?


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