Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Professor Junko Takeda
Professor Dennis Romano
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
European History | History
Early modern representations of Marie Antoinette, the infamous Queen of France, show a very confused picture. One hand, she has been portrayed as the woman who caused the French Revolution of 1789, squandering her kingdom’s fortunes on outrageous clothing and gambling. However, she has also been portrayed as the Revolution’s martyr, her death symbolizing the end of Old Regime absolutism in France. With so many contrasting views, how can we determine which shows the most accurate portrait of the ill-fated queen? I argue that no singular representation depicts Marie Antoinette as she truly was. Secondly, I argue that while Marie Antoinette’s behavior did contribute to the deterioration of her reputation as Queen, other political and social factors were truly responsible for her decline. Finally, I argue that changing gender roles in 18th century France led to the treatment of the Queen as a “bad woman”, chastised for her alleged sexual affairs and involvement in public politics.
To answer these questions I will analyze three major primary sources: the political pornography of the Enlightenment underground, the trial of Marie Antoinette and the memoirs of Madame Campan. While political pornography and the trial both show Marie Antoinette as a scandalous woman with loose morals, Madam Campan provides on of the only surviving positive renderings of the Queen. In discussing the political pornography of, it is also necessary to analyze the rise of a reading public 18th century France as well as the history of clandestine literature. A discussion of the trial of Marie Antoinette, however, focuses on a comparison of her trial to that of her husband King Louis XVI, exploring the context in which each trial took place and how this led each trial to be conducted very differently from the other. Finally, The Memoirs of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan, a post-revolutionary document, shows how Marie Antoinette’s legacy was reshaped following the Bourbon Restoration.
Ultimately, none of these sources show the “true” Marie Antoinette, as each is biased by the opinions of its author. However, it is the sources’ bias that makes them important; each demonstrates how Marie Antoinette became a symbol or a tool used to achieve another’s political end. Political pornography condemned Marie Antoinette to demonize the Old Regime as a whole, while Robespierre tried and executed Marie Antoinette for not fitting 18th century gender roles. Finally, Campan uses Marie Antoinette as a foil for herself, to demonstrate her loyalty to the restored Bourbon monarchy. Thus, it is less important who Marie Antoinette was, and more important to understand what it is she came to symbolize.
McLaren, Brittany A., "The Many Faces of Marie Antoinette: Rewriting the Portrait of a Queen through the Enlightenment, Political Pornography and the French Revolution" (2011). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 301.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.