Last year, for the Marie-Antoinette exhibition at the Conciergerie, the challenge was made much more explicit. This time it was Philippe Bordes's authority that was to the fore. The work was not by David: according to the dossier pédagogique: "Today the legend is refuted. The art historian Philippe Bordes attributes it to the fervent Revolutionary Dominique Vivant Denon".
Portrait de Marie Antoinette reine de France conduite au supplice; dessinée à la plume par David spectateur du convoi, & placé sur la fenêtre avec la citoyenne Jullien épouse du représentant Jullien, de qui je tiens cette pièce.
Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, queen of France, being taken to the scaffold. Drawn by the pen of David, witness to the convoy, at the window with Citizeness Jullien, wife of the Representative Jullien, from whom I acquired this picture.
Can we trust Soullavie's annotation?
The annotation is said to be in Soullavie's own handwriting and is the only direct written evidence we have.
Thanks to Anne Duprat, who has edited her letters, we now know a fair amount about Rosalie Ducroy, Madame Jullien. Her voluminous correspondence with members of her family, particularly her son who was an agent of the Committee of Public Safety, shows that she was a staunch supporter of Robespierre though after Thermidor she carefully distanced herself from his memory. In all honesty, there is nothing to suggest she would have deliberately fabricated the story.
In the rue Saint-Honoré?
In the café Régence?
Would David have used pen-and-ink?
It is a minor but significant point that an artist working at speed would be unlikely to use pen-and-ink. David commonly sketched in pencil.
THE CASE FOR VIVANT DENON
There is no new documentary evidence to back up an attribution to Denon, but there is a fair amount of educated connoisseurship.
Sadly, if Denon is accepted as the artist, the sketch cannot really be "from life" (but I guess we really knew that all along?). Denon was expelled from Venice in July 1793 as a Convention spy, but did not return to Paris until mid-December, almost two months after Marie-Antoinette's execution.
I do not have access to the catalogue of the 2020 exhibition, but according to a post on the Marie Antoinette discussion forum, it takes a firm stance in favour of Denon as the artist: The entry is by Alain Chevalier, director of the Musée de Vizille.
Chevalier cites the authority of Philippe Brodes to support the view that the drawing is not in David's style but that of Vivant Denon. Since Denon was not present at the execution, the sketch is entirely an invention ("un croquis inventé de toute pièce").
According to the new interpretation, Denon, a fervent revolutionary, hated Marie-Antoinette who had him recalled from his post in Naples in 1785 and created the portrait to assuage his hatred "pour assouvir sa détestation"
Even if the ascription to Denon is accepted, I am not so sure the drawing straightforwardly expresses "detestation". As with other Revolutionary images by Denon, it has a strange moral ambivalence - no doubt the origin of much of its fascination. Perhaps it would be more accurate to see it as deliberately amoral? Whilst some observers have interpreted it only as vindictively realistic, others, perhaps equally legitimately, have felt that it preserved a sense of Marie-Antoinette's dignity in death.
The Goncourt Brothers championed the obvious view; it was a mean work, which expressed only hatred:
[David's sketch is] "something dreadful and ignoble; a child's drawing for a cheap engraving, a republican grotesque by a painter, the lackey of Marat and Napoleon, who could only lend his pencil to hideous caricature for the agony of Marie-Antoinette.The Goncourt Brothers in their Journal for 1858-60.
In a trice [David] had sketched the Queen as she was passing, a cruelly magnificent drawing, made from the life with sinister skill; the picture of a woman prematurely old, no longer beautiful, to whom nothing but pride remains. Her mouth is arrogantly closed; her expression is one of profound indifference; with her hands tied behind her back she sits as challengingly upright on the wooden seat of the tumbril as if she were seated upon a throne. Every line of her stony countenance speaks disdain, and her pose is one of invincible resolution. Suffering transformed into defiance, pain metamorphosed into energy, give her tortured face a new and dreadful majesty. Not even hatred, which made this picture, can deny the awful dignity with which Marie Antoinette endured the shame of her drive to the place of execution.Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette: the portrait of an average woman (Originally published 1932; this English transl.2013)David was at the window. A few strokes of the pen sufficed him to capture the tragic figure, seated upright, a bonnet over her roughly cut hair. Her nose is arched, her lip curled in distain of human insults, her eyes lowered so as to see nothing of this world that she is leaving. In the eyes of the painter, she is noble and proud as she goes towards death.Marguerite Jallut, Marie Antoinette et ses peintres (1955)The painter David, watching the Austrian woman from a window, drew her on her final journey in order to illustrate once and for all the contempt of the Hapsburg Archduchess with her haughty expression and her pouting lips....Yet prolonged humiliation can in the end damage those who try to inflict it. Just as David's celebrated drawing can be interpreted as a final image of disdain - or unalterable calm dignity, depending on the point of view. Every account, every eyewitness, agreed on the unassailable composure with which Marie-Antoinette went to her death.Antonia Fraser, Marie-Antoinette: the journey (2001)Whether by David or another....this ink sketch is of a rare intensity. Sitting upright, hands tied behind her back, Marie-Antoinette presents an austere profile; her eyes and mouth are closed, a few locks of stiff straight hair escape from her bonnet. The mouth is bitter, the face unreadable, as though closed in on itself, oblivious to the outside world. This is the last glimpse of the stiff silhouette of the once pretty queen, now condemned to death. The sketch imprints itself on everyone's memory, an implacable allegory of the destiny which reduced the brilliant queen celebrated by madame Vignée-Lebrun into a miserable woman on her way to the scaffold.Anne Duprat, Marie-Antoinette 1755-1793: images et visages d'une reine (2013), p.135.
"Marie-Antoinette conduite à l'échafaud", Article in Wikipedia.fr