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Marie-Antoinette: a walk through the life of a queen

From her childhood in Austria to her life in Versailles, the life of France's most glamorous queen, Marie-Antoinette, is on display at the Grand Palais in Paris until the end of June.


Feckless child-queen or tragic victim of history's march? From the nursery to the scaffold, a major Paris exhibition on Marie-Antoinette takes a look at the divisive French monarch through hundreds of belongings and artworks associated with her life.

Starting with her childhood in the imperial household in Vienna, the show charts Marie-Antoinette's arrival in 1770 at the court of Louix XV, aged 14, her coming of age as France's young queen, her fall from grace and tragic end.

"So much has been said about Marie-Antoinette, so many legends and books, that it has become hard to separate true from false," said Pierre Arizzoli Clementel, director of the Chateau de Versailles, which helped put on the show at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Opening Saturday and running until June 30, it is only the second French exhibition on this scale devoted to the queen, after one at Versailles in 1955.

Some 300 artworks, ornaments, but also historical fragments such as the nightshift Marie-Antoinette wore while awaiting her execution by Revolutionaries in 1793, aim to "tell the story of a life, without bias," said curator Xavier Salmon.

"The life of a young girl polished for court life, who reaches out for greater freedom before being shattered by destiny."

The first of a series of rooms recreates Marie-Antoinette's early years in Vienna, an opulent world dominated by the formidable figure of her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa.

This is where Marie-Antoinette forged her taste for oriental arts, lacquered cabinets and Imari Japanese porcelaine -- all the rage in 18th-century Europe.

As the youngest daughter in a family of 16 children, Marie-Antoinette was never destined to rule: she was once described by her brother, the future Emperor Joseph II, as "an airhead".

-- She earned the nickname 'Madame Deficit' --

When she was promised to the French dauphin, the imperial family spent a year polishing up the accomplishments of the young archduchess, who spoke no French and could not write German.

Portraits show her studying art, music, embroidery: one exhibit is an angel she is thought to have sketched in 1770, months before leaving for Versailles.

Cut to the French court, where contemporary etchings, portraits and Marie-Antoinette's unsteady handwriting in the wedding register, bring to life her marriage to the future Louis XVI.

Among her wedding gifts: a free-standing rosewood and sycamore jewellery cabinet, inset with porcelaine, green silk and bronze, which went on to hold a treasured place in her boudoir in Versailles.

A bronze-gilded ivory clock, whose face is thought to have been turned by Louis XV himself as a gift for the young bride, is another prized exhibit.

Marie-Antoinette spent her first few years in Versailles striving to master the rules of the French court.

"But then, once she becomes queen in 1774, we sense she has a lot more freedom," said Salmon. "She creates her own world."

Over the years she put her stamp on the royal residences of Versailles, Fontainebleau, Rambouillet, commissioning ornaments, tableware and furnishings from the best craftsmen of the day.

She had "the tastes of a queen... at a time when French art was at its pinnacle," said Clementel.

The show's centrepiece is a recreation of the queen's private quarters in the Trianon Palace in Versailles, with portraits of her friends, scores of the music she loved, fabric samples from her dresses, sketches of hairstyles.

At first her youth and energy charmed Versailles, "but the trouble came later," as the state's finances worsened, and her lavish tastes started to be held against her, Clementel said.

"The court tries to salvage the queen's image, to fight the idea that she is a frivolous spendthrift, with large-scale portraits depicting her as a sovereign, as a mother," said Salmon.

"But it was too late." She had already earned the nickname "Madame Deficit."

In 1783, Marie-Antoinette was caught up in a famously elaborate scam surrounding a stolen diamond necklace -- an exact replica is on display -- which turned public opinion against her for good.

The final segment of the show, a dark room that narrows ominously towards a guillotine-like window, charts her downfall: angry pamphlets and cartoons, the last, unfinished portrait of the queen -- ripped by an angry mob -- and finally the wood-and-straw furniture of her jail cell.

And the conclusion: a sketch, drawn in profile by the painter Jacques-Louis David -- shows Marie-Antoinette being led to the scaffold, hands tied behind her back, but her head held high.

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