Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Daughter of France

François Hubert Drouais

Madame Sophie de France (1763)

The NGV acquired this charming portrait of Princess Sophie of France in 1963 under the terms of the Edward Studley Miller Bequest. François Hubert Drouais studied with François Boucher and was a sought-after portraitist at the Court of Louis XV.

The elegance and delicacy of the picture is typical of the rococo style of the period, with its muted palette of apricot and creamy pink, powder blues and soft greys. The princess looks up from her book with a confident and serene expression.

In the aristocratic style of the day, her silk dress is encrusted with three-dimensional flowers, and she wears a little posy of them in her powdered hair. Ironically, Madame Sophie's portrait bears close comparison with François Boucher's contemporary portrait of her father's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who was cordially detested by all the princesses. The Marquise also looks up from an open book and wears a similarly flower-strewn dress.

Princess Sophie Philippine Élisabeth Justine (1734 - 1782) was a French princess, the eighth child and sixth daughter of Louis XV of France and his Polish Queen consort, Maria Leszczyńska. As the daughter of the king, she held the rank of a Fille de France, and was initially known as Madame Sixième, in keeping with her sisters, who were Mesdames Première, Seconde, Troisième, and so on. (Not unlike the Chinese nomenclature of Second Daughter and Third Uncle!)

It becomes a bit complicated because each time one of the sisters died, all the younger ones had to move up from being called Madame Fourth to Madame Third, as the case may be. In the end they were all called Madame Sophie or whatever their first name was, except for the eldest daughter, who was "Madame Royale" or just "Madame".

The three eldest daughters and their brother, the dauphin, Louis, were raised at Versailles, but the younger princesses were sent to live at the Abbey of Fontevraud.

Madame Sophie was very close to her two older sisters Adélaïde and Victoire. The three princesses were born in successive years and grew up together at Fontevraud. They, together with their siblings, tried unsuccessfully to prevent their father's liaison with Madame de Pompadour and later with Madame du Barry. They were keenly conscious of the influence of their father's mistresses in keeping him from his family and causing the Queen a great deal of humiliation and distress.

The three princesses found a great deal of solace in music and in each other's company. Madame Adélaïde, the oldest of the three, had a forceful nature and was their leader. Madame Victoire was considered to be the most beautiful of the King's daughters, while our Sophie had a shy, reserved nature, and was thought to be ugly and uninteresting.

I don’t think she was ugly at all, despite the rather heavy Bourbon jaw (the despised Madame de Pompadour described her as "in profile as like the King as one drop of water to another") and the unfortunate coiffure. Reminds me of the time Dame Edna asked a lady, who had had the bad judgement to book a seat in the front row: "Who does your hair, Dear? The Council?"

The other premier portrait painter of the day, Jean-Marc Nattier, painted her twice, both charming portraits of a serenely pretty young lady. Court painters tend to flatter, so I don't suppose we'll ever really know exactly what Madame Sophie looked like … in 2006, she was played by the very lovely Scottish actress Shirley Henderson in the movie "Marie Antoinette" which starred Kirsten Dunst as the eponymous queen.

Despite being pretty and a princess, she, like all her sisters except the eldest, remained unmarried. The youngest, Louise Marie, became a nun. Elisabeth, Madame Royale, married the younger son of the King of Spain, cementing military and political alliances between the two countries. Theirs was an unhappy marriage.

Perhaps the reason for this regiment of spinster princesses was that very few suitors were considered good enough for them: Madame Henriette, the King's second daughter, fell in love with her cousin Louis Philippe, the Duc de Chartres and heir to the House of Orléans, but the King was outraged by the idea of a marriage between a Fille de France and a minor Bourbon prince with no hope of inheriting a throne, so nothing came of it.

Sophie was one of four royal sisters to survive their parents. The Queen died in 1768 and the King six years later in 1774. Much to the delight of the sisters, the Marquise de Pompadour's successor, Madame du Barry, was given short shrift and sent packing by the new king.

During the reign of their nephew Louis XVI, the Filles de France became the Dames de France and were allowed to remain in their apartments at Versailles. They often stayed at the Château de Bellevue which was put at their disposal – ironically, as this small, exquisite chateau was built for their nemesis Madame de Pompadour, as a retreat where she and the king could enjoy private trysts.

Madame Sophie died in 1782, a bare seven years before the Revolution. She was buried in the royal tomb at the Abbey of Saint-Denis which was plundered at the time of the French Revolution.

Her sisters Victoire and Adélaïde remained together and toured the country with their entourage, travelling in lavish style and staying in luxury, all of which helped fan the flames for the revolution. After the storming of Versailles, they took up residence at Château de Bellevue for two years, until they were allowed to leave for Rome in 1791. They stayed with aristocratic relatives in various Italian cities, until 1799 when Victoire died of breast cancer in Trieste. Adélaïde died a year later in Rome. The bodies of both princesses were later returned to France by their nephew, King Louis XVIII, and buried at the Abbey of Saint-Denis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Greetings from France, and thank you for this very informative article. A slight correction maybe, I believe that the picture you posted for "Adelaïde" is in fact a picture of Marie-Adélaïde de Savoie, mother of Louis XV and grandmother of Adelaïde de France - notice that her hair style is more in the fashion of the years 1720. There are otherwise many portraits of Adelaïde de France by Nattier, Labille-Guiard, Vigée-Lebrun to name a few.
Kind Regards,