From the introduction by Catherine Pegard, President of the Public Establishment of the Chateau, Museum and National Estate of Versailles, to the book “A Day with Marie Antoinette,” by Hélène Delalex (Flammarion)
She was fourteen when she arrived at the French court, too young to be capable of embodying the rigid constraints of court etiquette. At the end of her life, a prisoner in the Conciergerie, she was just thirty-eight but looked like an old woman. In the carefree insouciance of her teenage years, just as in the tragic unraveling of her reign as queen, Marie Antoinette was constantly out of touch and out of step with a world that was in decline, that she disliked and that disliked her, but that she would nevertheless defend to the end. These are some of the paradoxes of the life of a queen who was oblivious to the fault lines that were about to rend French society apart and that lend the figure of Marie Antoinette the romance and enigma that still surround her to this day.
This “average woman,” according to Stefan Zweig, was destined to an extraordinay fate. To Chateaubriand, on his first meeting with her, she was “enchanted by life.” A few years later, she was to be condemned to death as a “declared enemy of the French Nation.” With time, such unequivocal With Hélène Delalex, heritage conservation manager in charge of the collections of the coach museum at Versailles, we retrace the steps of a queen who has become a universal figure, so intimately associated with two brief decades at the palace of Versailles that she yearned to change even as it was disintegrating before her eyes. Here, her influence is everywhere. She inspired the flood not only of frivolousness but also of inventiveness that shaped eighteenth-century fashion—and that continues to inspire the shades of “puce,” the panniers, and the brocades that feature in haute couture shows to this day. With her encouragement, her music master Gluck brought about a revolution in French opera. She influenced developments in theater, and herself performed at the Petit Trianon, where she and her architects contrived to reinvent court life. Her tastes steered marquetry towards new heights of refinement and nurtured a new vogue for lacquer ware. And her own story can be traced through the furniture that surrounded her: here the jewel chest for which she was castigated in the disastrous affair of the diamond necklace; there a little chair that she chose just before 1789, its original upholstery sporting a tricolor rosette added at the Revolution. Equally universal was the queen’s defiance of convention and disdain for rules and regulations. She took delight in confounding expectations and in standing entrenched codes of behavior on their heads. She defined a style that flew in the face of what was expected of a queen, and that caused a sensation throughout Europe….
Hélène Delalex follows the breathless and unsettling pace of change set by Marie Antoinette at Versailles, visiting the sumptuous palace interiors that are imbued with her memory, such as the Gilded Cabinet or the Cabinet de la Méridienne, and the Queen’s Hamlet, still so strongly marked by her presence and determination to break with the conventions of court life. Until that fateful day in October 1789, when she was forced to flee the palace of Versailles, which will always embody the ambivalences of her spirit.