Vigée Le Brun at the Met


So, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is an exhibit going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlighting the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She was one of the most sought-after and talented portrait painters of her time, and as this previous post explains, one of her paintings played a part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Vigée Le Brun painted Queen Marie-Antoinette multiple times, and her paintings were prominent in the public mind: in addition to the portrait of the

la reine en gaulle

Marie Antoinette en Chemise [or “en gaulle”], 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Queen “en chemise” that caused a minor scandal in 1783, there was the painting of the queen with her children which didn’t entirely succeed in softening the queen’s reputation.


But Vigée Le Brun painted many more people than just Marie-Antoinette. She began painting as a young woman, was sought after among the elite of French society, escaped the French Revolution just before it exploded, moved from capital to capital painting prominent people, and continued to paint late into her life (she died at 86).

The exhibit at The Met includes 80 paintings, some of them of familiar figures to those of us familiar with late-18th-century France: Madame du Barry, the Duchesse de Polginac, Calonne, and Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire. There are also less familiar figures, some of them important men’s mistresses, some of them princes and princesses from across Europe, some of them noted intellectuals. What they all have in common, at least in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, is a vibrancy and movement that you don’t see in many portraits. There are expressions on their faces, and they all look like they’re about to do or say something. They portraits are engaging. The commentary I listened to during my walk-through of the exhibit (I spent


Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

two hours there) suggested that this was because Vigée Le Brun herself was engaging and personable, and she drew out her subjects’ personality. It’s hard to say–one suspects that a large part of it was simply her skill as an artist.

The paintings are also visually stunning. I’ve seen images of the paintings, via the Internet, but they simply don’t do justice to the originals. There is an exquisite delicacy to the way  Vigée Le Brun handled fabrics, especially sheer fabrics like muslin fichus or wraps in ladies’ hair. The white dress worn by the Comtesse de La Châtre in her portrait, for instance, has delicate matte-white dots spread across the white satin fabric below. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail.

In fact, I’d say that “beauty” more or less characterizes all of Vigée Le Brun’s work. Everything she painted has a heightened elegance to it–it’s very much like arranged flowers. This wasn’t an artist interested in capturing people “warts and all”; she was interested in aesthetically beautiful paintings.

And that is more than alright by me. I’m not fond of modern art because it feels so self-indulgent; instead of creating something pleasurable, art is supposed to make us “think” (usually about humanity’s failings). I admit to just wanting a pretty picture. And boy does Vigée Le Brun deliver those!

I should also make a note of the colors: Vigée Le Brun used the most remarkable colors. They’re bright and bold and perfectly chosen. There are blues paired with golds, dramatic reds with black and white, a punch of pastel-colored flowers amid more somber grays and blues, and forest greens paired with royals blue and vibrant whites.


Comtesse de la Châtre. 1789. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did I mention that I adored this exhibition?

It was definitely worth the five-hour drive in the pouring rain, worth braving the streets of New York City, worth the $35 for parking and the $40 in tolls (yeah . . . the I-95 corridor is expensive!). And it was definitely worth the two hours that I spent there, drooling over the beauty of it all.

I was definitely intensely pleased when I got to see Marie Antoinette en Chemise and Marie Antoinette avec une Rose side-by-side. As the audio guide explained, it’s the first time the two have been exhibited side-by-side.

Why was I so excited? Well, again, I refer you to this post, but to give a quick overview of the story behind these paintings: Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait of Marie-Antoinette “en chemise” and presented it in public at a salon in 1783. “En chemise” means that Marie was in a white muslin or “chemise” dress. Now, a chemise was an undergarment that went beneath everything else, stays (“corset”) included. It was scandalous to show the queen in a portrait in what looked like her underclothing. It was too informal, too suggestive. So Vigée Le Brun took down that painting and quickly dashed off another one, with the queen in the same pose but wearing a more appropriate/regal blue satin gown.

In both portraits, you’ll notice, the queen is holding the same thing in her left hand: a rose. Not long after this painting was displayed, in 1785, a young adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois convinced a credulous Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen (she did it to steal a very expensive necklace). To win him over, she hired a prostitute (Nicole d’Oliva) to play the part of the queen (oh dear!), dressed her  in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hand to the Cardinal. Sound familiar? It seems pretty likely that Jeanne got the idea from the portrait of the Queen en chemise. In fact, one of Jeanne’s friends, Jacques Claude Beugnot, remembered that Jeanne had a candy box with a copy of Marie Antoinette en chemise painted on the inside of its lid!

And of course, the reason I started this blog way back when was to tell more of this story. I’d written an entire novel about it, but I wasn’t nearly done. Yes, this blog has shifted focus, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an abiding interest in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and everything related to it. I was even willing to make a harrowing trip into New York City to see this exhibition, just to get a glimpse of the originals of these two paintings. I was rewarded by more beauty than I’d even imagined. I went for the pair of paintings of Marie-Antoinette, but I stayed for the 78 other exquisite pieces of art.

(I would be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a few pictures while inside the exhibit, but I don’t want to share them on principle, and they aren’t very good anyway!)



The Memoirs of Jeanne de La Motte

There’s nothing like reading the first-hand accounts of the main players in a thrilling historical drama. Or a dramatic historical thriller–you could use either to describe the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Jeanne wrote several memoirs. They came out in French and English and sometimes in more than one volume, making for a confusing array of texts.

Here are the original versions of two memoirs by Jeanne de La Motte:

Mémoires justificatifs de la Comtesse de Valois de La Motte–In French, dense, and probably not accessible for people who don’t know French very well.

The life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Countess de La Motte–An English translation published while Jeanne was in London. Much more accessible to English-speakers if you don’t mind extraneous commas.

My take on the Memoirs:

Jeanne de La Motte’s story is fascinating from beginning to end, and no one would agree more than Jeanne herself. From a very young age, Jeanne learned to tell her own story to the best of her abilities, with the aim of capturing the attention and sympathy of those around her. She told her story while begging on the streets and she told her story while trying to get noticed at the court of Versailles. When the Affair of the Diamond Necklace broke, her audience became much wider and the list of antagonists in her story increased by (at least) one: now Queen Marie-Antoinette was on the list of people out to victimize her.

You can’t take Jeanne at her word. The outline of her life is almost certainly true, as well as those details that she had no reason to lie about (for instance, the date of her arrival in Paris) or that were easily verifiable fact (for instance, the date of her birth or marriage). But, otherwise, in her memoirs Jeanne makes herself into the tragic heroine, constantly wronged by fate and, more to the point, by those around her. The first villain of Jeanne’s story is her own mother. Jeanne’s mother is presented as a gold-digger who ruined her husband (Jeanne’s good-hearted father) and never loved him in return. Jeanne’s mother constantly beat her, forced them all to go to Paris where the children had to beg on the streets, barely mourned her husband’s death, and asked her children to claim that her new lover was their father. How much of this is true, it’s hard to tell. No doubt, Jeanne’s mother would tell a very different version of the story.

After her mother abandons Jeanne, other villains continue to plague her life: the nemesis is her foster father, or the officials at court, or Madame Elisabeth, or Marie-Antoinette herself, or the police, or the monarchy at large. Throughout her memoirs, Jeanne casts herself as the victim of wicked people. And yet, all the evidence points to her as the culprit in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, no matter how poorly she was treated by how many people. It’s incredibly telling that the thief is the victim here, over and over again.

Even if Jeanne only partially believed her own tales, this was the way she chose to defend her actions: she placed herself as the victim. In her own mind, she was merely responding to a cruel world as best she could–and maybe her response wasn’t perfect, but it was no worse than could be expected in the circumstances. Underlying this is Jeanne’s assumption that she deserved much, much better. Jeanne denies ever having stolen the Diamond Necklace, but if you take it for granted that she did steal it, then you can see her memoirs as a lengthy justification for why she deserved that necklace that didn’t belong to her. Her entire unfair life led up to a point where she saw for herself the chance to get some justice. Everyone from her mother to the queen had denied her what was her right. The necklace became a chance to reclaim what she felt she deserved. When that fell through, the memoirs became her form of revenge–because her story was much more damaging to the Queen than the loss of the necklace.

The morality is suspect; just because a person was constantly abused (and there’s little doubt Jeanne was abused) doesn’t justify theft, cheating, and adultery (all of which Jeanne was almost certainly guilty of). When you take into account her motives and point of view, Jeanne’s memoirs make a fascinating study of morals and how flexible they can be.

If you are patient with language, whether its French or mind-numbingly archaic English, then I suggest you take a look at these memoirs and judge for yourself.

The Bastille and the Diamond Necklace

Since Bastille Day was just a few days ago, I am taking the chance to write about the role of the infamous, famous, and perhaps misunderstood Bastille, in particular as it concerns the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

The Bastille was famous in its day. In the public imagination, the Bastille was a dark hulk of a prison full of terror. Unlike other prisons, the inmates of the Bastille were largely important, or well-to-do, or liable to rouse the rabble. The fortress, built in the 14th century,

The Bastille

was deep, dark, mysterious, and secretive. Jeanne de La Motte referred to it as “that dread prison, the very name of which brings a shudder.” “There, countless victims of arbitrary power languished amidst groans, tears, and curses for the day that gave them birth,” according again to Jeanne (who had a tendency for melodrama when it came to her own suffering and who liked to play victim to the monarchy, justifiably or not).

Like the Tower of London, it was a place of legend, where people had a tendency to simply disappear. Like the Tower, its reputation probably wasn’t entirely earned: Less than a dozen people were executed inside the Tower, and a grand total of seven prisoners were being held in the Bastille when it fell.

But three years before the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, it was the holding pen for Cardinal Rohan, Jeanne de La Motte, Count Cagliostro, and Nicole d’Olva.

Continue reading

Acquisitions of the Palace of Versailles

I found this on the official site of the Chateau de Versailles, and was interested in the items recently acquired by the palace.

Click here to get more info on the acquisitions and see pictures.

As the page will probably be updated in the future, I’m going to quote a few of the items I found most interesting.

These elegant folding stools form part of a series of sixty-four ordered for the Games Room of Queen Marie-Antoinette in the royal residence of Compiègne, delivered in two groups to the Queen by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené (1748 – 1803). Twenty-four of these folding stools were immediately placed in the throne room of the Château de Fontainebleau where they can still be seen. These folding stools will be installed in the bedchamber of Louis XV.

I find this interesting because it’s indicative of what has been lost from the Chateau. During the Revolution, the contents of the Chateau were destroyed or sold off. These stools, for example, are from another palace entirely, but have been used to recreate part of the Chateau de Versailles. The downside of this is that 18th-century design was customized to the room. Furnishings, wall panels, and drapery were all custom designed to fit together in that particular space. When the elements are taken apart and then put together with other pieces, some of the effect will be lost. I’m not criticizing what’s been done at the Chateau in any way, I’m just commenting that over time some things are–sadly–lost and can’t be put back together.

A commode bearing the marks of the Palace of Versailles was acquired during a public sale in Lyon. These items of furniture used on a daily basis, provided in large quantities and regularly replaced, were sold during the French Revolution. This toilet seat presents itself as a rectangular chest sitting on spindle-shaped legs. The solid mahogany was chosen with care and set-off by the decorative moulding-free surfaces. The marks of the palace are found on the back board, made of oak, the W painted simply in black ink and the hot branding of a W with a crown above it. On the other hand, there is no Garde-Meuble registration number on the commode: was it on the toilet rim, which has disappeared, or did someone forget to inscribe it on the commode as it was delivered with other pieces of furniture? Paradoxically, the most basic items of furniture are those which are lacking the most today in the palace’s collections.

I found this item interesting because, well, it’s a toilet and because it’s also mentioned that the most common items are sometimes the most difficult to find centuries later. Think about it. Will they be looking in vain for rolling desk chairs in two hundred fifty years when they try to reconstruct 21st century offices?

Marked Louis Delanois, these were the first medallion back chairs, a style that enjoyed much success in the history of French furniture. Thanks to the sponsorship of companies like Ponthieu Rabelais, Financière de Tournon and Financière du Bac, the historical items which are recognised as “National Treasures”, will be returned to the collections of the Palace of Versailles. The chairs belong to a series of thirteen, including a higher one for the King, delivered at the end of 1769 by joiner Louis Delanois for the living room of Madame Du Barry at Versailles. The living room was also decorated with thirteen armchairs, a large settee and a screen. All covered with white satin, trimmed with green satin and embroidered with silk for the summer and velvet for the winter. Madame Du Barry, who was Louis XV’s mistress after Madame de Pompadour, lived at Versailles from 1769 until the king’s death (1774). An art lover,she supported painters and craftsmen and cultivated the neo-classical style at Versailles.

Madame du Barry was one of the more interesting personages of her time, at least to me. She must have been smart and tenacious to put herself into the position of royal mistress. It’s fairly clear she had some failings, like vanity, greed, pride, and (maybe?) lust. She clearly didn’t mind committing adultery openly, but then again it seems she and Louis XV had a genuine liking for one another. The Du Barry also has a connection to our story of the fateful diamond necklace. The necklace was originally designed with her in mind. Its gaudiness would have fit her tastes. But by the time the jewelers had assembled the diamonds to make the necklace, Louis XV had died and Madame his mistress had been exiled from Court. She had no royal lover to buy the necklace for her, so the jewelers tried to convince their new queen, Marie-Antoinette, to buy it. The rest, as they say, is history.

Marie Antoinette: The Key to the Enigma

How does a Cardinal, a senior member of the French court, come to believe that the Queen of France is willing to meet him on a scandalous midnight rendezvous? How does the public come to believe what a fabrication cooked up by an adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois?

The “key to the enigma” as Frances Mossiker puts it in The Queen’s Necklace, is the Queen’s reputation. Our friend Comte Beugnot said, “The Queen’s reputation, sad to say, provided the key to the whole diamond necklace enigma.”

Marie Antoinette has come down to us as a tragic icon of fashion and excess. She was queen, was able to indulge her extraordinary whims (like three-foot-tall hairdos and fake miniature villages), and ended up losing her head because her people didn’t like it. Of course this impression is mostly false. Although she indulged a great love of fashion and overspent tremendously, she did gravitate towards simpler (perhaps scandalously simple) dress once

Marie Antoinette as a girl

she passed her twenties. It is also important to remember that the Queen was a target for dislike and dissatisfaction for the people. She had very little to do with the financial troubles of France, despite her spending. In an ocean of debt, her expenditures were minimal, though unfortunately for her they were conspicuous.

It might be fair to say that Marie Antoinette was insensitive of her people’s suffering, or at least that she was sheltered in her palaces. But it’s very unlikely she said, “Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette may not have been fully aware of the starvation and misery of the French people, but it would be unfair to say she was unfeeling or uncaring. She set aside a great deal of money for charities of different sorts. The evidence shows that she cared for suffering set before her eyes. Other suffering might have simply missed her notice.

To many people in her own time and ours, the love life of Marie Antoinette is at least as interesting as her flair for fashion and self-indulgence. There is a long list of men that Marie Antoinette was linked to in her own day. She was accused, for instance, of having an affair with her husband’s brother, the Comte d’Artois. The underground rumor mills of Paris (which put ou pamphlet with nasty pornographic or near-pornographic images of the Queen) weren’t above linking her to her female friends, either. There were rumors she was the lover of the Comtesse de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. (Rather sadly, Lamballe was a loyal friend who remained in Paris and died very brutally during the Revolution at the hands of people who believed these rumors and butchered her body.)

Tongues wagged about the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen of Sweden. There is no firm evidence the two were lovers (and there probably never will be–in 2003 experts attempted but failed to determine what had been erased from letters between Marie Antoinette and Fersen). However, over the years, historians have concluded that they were, indeed, lovers. After all, the Queen installed him in rooms in her own domain at Versailles. Interestingly, the people who created and circulated the scurrilous pamphlets never linked her name with Fersen, probably the only serious candidate for a “lover” for the queen.

There are many reasons that Marie Antoinette’s behavior was viewed with so much suspicion. Her position put her in line for criticism. She was the Queen of France, which under normal circumstances is not a particularly powerful position because of the way queens were traditionally treated. They were purely there for breeding purposes, and very little gloss was put on this reality. Louis XVI, however, was not decisive and was not a born leader. He also loved his pretty wife. The result was that she had some sway over him, and that, to many eyes, she was–most unnaturally–ruling France through her husband. To compound this, Marie Antoinette had no children for the first several years of her marriage because she and Louis XVI weren’t able to consummate the marriage fully. Add to this the fact that Marie Antoinette was a foreigner from France’s old rival Austria, and there was a great deal of suspicion of the Queen. She was a powerful, foreign female, who seemed to be failing in her primary duty as a woman and queen.

Marie Antoinette’s desire for privacy and informality were suspicious, too, to her subjects. The royal family had been put on very public display since the time of Louis XIV in the mid 1600’s. Etiquette had been handed down by the Sun King, and it was expected that this etiquette would be followed to the letter. This meant waking and going to bed with an audience, dressing with an audience, and eating with an audience. While a modern person would consider this all an atrocious invasion of personal space, the French people expected to be able to view and scrutinize their sovereigns. Because Marie Antoinette tried to block this access, the people assume she was trying to hide something. She also balked at the formal rules that governed everything. For instance, she would have suppers with men in the room who were not her family, which shouldn’t have been allowed. The Queen’s desire for privacy and informality probably stems from her childhood in Austria, where her large family lived more like wealthy bourgeois than like divine beings.

Marie Antoinette was undeniably vain and spoiled. She lost great sums of money gambling, and of course she spent massive amounts on clothing and decorating. She lacked judgment, and couldn’t take advice well. Her mother and advisers warned her early and often that her behavior was offensive to the French  nobles and French people. Marie Antoinette did not heed the warnings. Though her behavior was better when she was older and had children, the damage had already been done.

Witness the Diamond Necklace Affair. If she hadn’t already damaged her reputation, no one have believed that Marie Antoinette would condescend to meet a Cardinal in the midnight gardens of Versailles. If she hadn’t gained a reputation for loving diamonds, no one would have thought her capable of duping a Cardinal and stealing from the royal jewelers. Her reputation for sexual looseness and for greed, even if unearned, were enough to condemn Marie-Antoinette in the public mind. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois was probably more clever than she realized when she orchestrated the heist of the diamond necklace. She surely knew the Queen’s reputation and used it to her advantage, but she probably had no idea just how much of her story the public would believe.

Would the French Revolution have happened if Marie Antoinette were a different person? Would the currents of politics, time, and opinion have turned against the monarchy regardless? Or did Marie Antoinette single-handedly bring down the French monarchy? Like with most things, there is no single answer. It’s a combination of all of the above. The only thing that is certain is that the Diamond Necklace Affair would never have happened under another Queen. As Frances Mossiker said, the accusations levelled at Marie Antoinette would never have stuck to a Maria Leszczynska (her predecessor as Queen of France) or a Victoria or an Elizabeth II. Not only did the culture of the day–an odd mixture of promiscuity and public prudery–create the tempest that surrounded Marie Antoinette, her own behavior gave her enemies the opportunity to accuse her of any number of things and for those accusations to be believed.

The key to the enigma–the key to why the plot to steal the necklace ultimately hurt the innocent Queen and why the Queen ended up losing her head–is her reputation. “Reputation” is a complex mixture of her actions; the appearance her actions gave; the public’s perception of her; and the fears,  anxieties, and expectations of the time. 

In the comments, someone brought up this three-part blog entry about Fersen and Marie Antoinette on the wonderful blog Tea at Trianon.

For your perusal, here is an online exhibit from The Newberry Library.

Some books worth looking up on the topic:

Chantel Thomas The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie Antoinette

Antonia Fraser Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Caroline Weber Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

The Palais de Justice and the Conciergerie

The Palais de Justice is aptly named. It is a former palace where, to this day, justice is meted out.

Sitting on the Île de la Cité, the center of old Paris, the Palais de Justice has its roots in the Roman period, when the governor’s palace was there on the island. Clovis (king of the Francs) also resided there in the old fortified Roman palace. The Carolingians (ie Charlemagne and his successors) moved out of Paris, but Paris again became the center of France when the Capetian kings set up shop on the Île de la Cité, enlarging the old Roman fort/palace. By the fourteenth century, the Palais de la Cité had become one of the grandest in Europe to reflect the growing power and

The Conciergerie in the 15th century

territorial reach of the French kings. It was here that Louis IX, a saint in his own right, put his most prized holy relics, in the chapel (the Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most fantastic chapels in Europe). In the fourteenth century, the monarchs moved out of the palace, leaving it for lits de justice (a meeting of Parlement, or law courts) and official receptions. From that point until the fall of the monarchy, it was the seat of justice and became the Palais de Justice. The care of the palace was left to the king’s concierge. “Conciergerie” refers to the prison attached to the official duties on aconcierge, which were extensive. Thus, the prison attached to the Palais de Justice became known as the Conciergerie. The Palais de Justice and Conciergerie became a law court and prison stuck together in what used to be a royal palace.

Today, not a lot of the oldest building survives. Approaching it from the Metro stop that is conveniently close, you first see the big black-and-gold gates closing off the Cour du Mai and the Palais de Justice. To the left is Saint-Chapelle, and to the right is the Conciergerie. Remember, these are all interconnected–church, law court, and prison.

The Cour du Mai was, perhaps, the most interesting part of the Saint-Chapelle/Palais de Justice/Conciergerie complex. It isn’t particularly exciting when you just look at it. It’s closed off from the street and there are police there to make sure the Palais de Justice is safe. It sits between the three buildings, which more or less form three sides of the courtyard. However, what interested me was what happened here two hundred twenty-five years ago.

It’s a startling vision: in the early morning, a young(ish) woman is dragged into the courtyard from the prison. She isn’t fully dressed because she didn’t know she was being brought to be punished for her crimes–specifically, crimes of thievery and lese-majeste. The executioners (who carry out all sentences, not just death sentences) tie her up even though she fights. She’s whipped. Though she would later add a bit of melodrama to it, the beating was probably done by the books, just as it should have been. Next, she began to really fight because she saw the hot poker in the small brazier. There was a tussle, but she was stripped bare when her clothes were slashed by the executioners. The hot brand, with a v for voleuse or thief, was brought forward. She twitched at the last moment, and though it was supposed to brand her shoulder, the V was burned into her breast. Then she bit into one of the executioners, fainted, and had to be carried away.

This was, of course, the feisty heroine of our tale, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who wouldn’t go down without a fight. Jeanne had been arrested in Bar-Sur-Aube after it came to light that she’d orchestrated the jewel heist of the century, convincing a Cardinal that he was buying a necklace on behalf of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. As it turns out, the Cardinal was just acting as guarantor for a transaction between the royal jewelers and a thief (namely, Jeanne).

At first, Jeanne was kept in the Bastille, along with her accomplices. Later, they were moved to the Conciergerie prison for the convenience. For the trial, she and the others were brought over to the Palais de Justice, where they were sat upon stools–sellettes–and interrogated. Jeanne continued to claim that she was a friend of the Queen’s, that the Queen truly had authorized the sale of the diamond necklace, and that she (Jeanne) was the victim of the Queen’s plot to discredit the Cardinal. Despite her version of the story, she was convicted and sent back into the Conciergerie to await her sentence. In this place at this time, prisoners weren’t told anything, so Jeanne almost certainly had no idea when her sentence would be carried out or what it would be. Of course, her sentence was: to be flogged and branded then imprisoned for life. For the last bit, Jeanne was later transferred to the Salpêtrière, a women’s prison from which she escaped and fled to England.

Jeanne (and her friends, such as Nicole d’Oliva) was hardly the most famous prisoner to pass through the Conciergerie. In latter years, it was known as the waiting room of the Revolution. It held many, many victims of the Terror. Perhaps ironically, one of those prisoners was the Widow Capet–Marie Antoinette. During the September Massacres, victims in the Conciergerie were put to death in the Cour des Femmes/Women’s Courtyard (if I had realized that when I was standing in that courtyard, I would have been duly creeped out). Victims were eventually sentenced in batches. The condemned were taken away immediately in a tumbrel to be executed in the Place de Greve.

Today, when you visit the Conciergerie, you enter into the Salle de Gendarmes. Above this in bygone days was the Grand’Salle of the King’s Chambers. Today it is an impressive,open medieval hall. This and the adjoining, smaller Salle des Gardes were part of the service areas of the medieval palace. The Salle de Gendarmes was the hall where the many servants attendant on the king would dine. Above the Salle des Gardes (not to be confused with the larger Salle de Gendarmes) was the Grand’Chambre. In the Grand’Chambre, the king entertained lavishly in medieval times. During the Revolution, this was where the Revolutionary Court–the one that sentenced all those people to the guillotine–sat and passed judgment. Fire destroyed these upper chambers in the 19th century, and today they belong to the Palais de Justice.

Aside from seeing these remnants of the medieval palace, by going left at the end of the Salle de Gendarmes, you come to the area that has been reconstructed as the Revolutionary prison. Here there are lists of all those beheaded by the Revolution, including Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI, Madame Elisabeth, Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins. There are also some “cells” to show how a prisoner might have been kept. The conditions were generally very poor. There is a cell set up to simulate the one where Marie-Antoinette was kept. There are mannequins. A black-clad Marie-Antoinette sits at her desk, while at her back her two guards are standing behind a screen and watching her (she was perpetually watched by guards). Just beyond this, you can go out into the women’s courtyard, where the lady prisoners could take some air. Presumably, Jeanne de La Motte came here on many occasions. It was here, as I mentioned, that so many were murdered during the September Massacre, after Jeanne had escaped to England. Today, it’s quite peaceful. There is a fountain in the corner where women could wash their clothes.

With that, the tour of the Conciergerie comes to an end.


The Epilogue–Part 2

The people who took part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace were some of the most extraordinary people ever thrown together into one of the most bizarre moments in history. Soothsayers, prostitute, queen, cardinal, jewelers . . . when the trial took place in 1786, they even brought in a clockmaker to give testimony. The lasting consequences of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace brought on the fall of the monarchy in France. So what happened to this amazing cast of (real-life) characters when the Revolution swept across France?

Jacques Clause Beugnot, later Comte Beugnot, was an old friend of Madame de La Motte. He had known her from her less prosperous days in Bar-sur-Aube and had probably been romantically involved with her before she married Nicolas de La Motte. There is some evidence that Beugnot was at least partially involved in the aftermath of the theft of the necklace. He was amongst a group of La Motte friends and family who convened after the first arrests were made, trying to decide what was to be done now. He also, apparently, ended up with a diamonds ring, according to Frances Mossiker. He was shrewd enough to stay out of sight and out of mind when the storm hit. In prison, Madame de La Motte asked him to be her legal counsel, but he wisely did not accept the offer. He was already too closely associated with Madame de La Motte for his own good. Madame de La Motte, for her part, never mentioned Beugnot’s name either during the interrogations or later, when she was writing tell-all memoirs from London. This could be contrued either as an insult (he had been her friend, after all, at the very least) or as a sign of her affection for him (she was making sure suspicion never touched his name).beugnot

Beugnot was arrested in 1793 as the Revolution took over Paris. He had been part of the National Assembly, but the Revolutionary fervor was at such a pitch that today’s heroes were tomorrow’s villains. He was let out through a web of hazy connections–his wife’s uncle knew someone who knew someone, and he was let out of prison without falling under the blade of Doctor Guillotine’s machine. He was given the title of Comte (it was clearly not hereditary) and held several posts under the restored monarchy: director general of the national police, Marine Minister, Postmaster General, and Minister of State. He became quite a respectable and respected figure, and it seems very few remembered the hints of the scandal that had almost clung to him. He must have been grateful, to his dying day, that Madame de La Motte had not spoken his name.

Retaux de Villette was literally kicked out of France after being exiled by the Parlement de Paris. He was, as tradition dictated, given a loaf of bread and was booted in the ass. He went to Venice, where he claimed in his memoirs to have languished, though he also made some pretty outrageous claims about his romantic life. In 1790, those memoirs were published, and nothing more was heard of him (at least, it seems Frances Mossiker could find no more information on him, and neither could I).

Marie-Antoinette of course was the guillotine’s most famous victim. When she arrived from Austria to France as the new, young, pretty Dauphine, she was well-received. Of course, this all turned very sour in the coming years. Was it all because of her own behavior–her extravagance and the appearance of callous uncaring about her starving subjects? Or was she the scapegoat of the coming revolution, which would have come with or without her? In either case, she was widely reviled as Madame Deficit, La Autrichienne (the Austrian bitch), and many other rude and crude things. Her image was used in pornographic pamphlets as well as in fashion plates. The Affair of the Necklace was a huge blow to her reputation. More accurately, it was the Parlement’s refusal to convict Cardinal Rohan for criminal presumption. The Parlement was, in effect, saying that Marie-Antoinette was so dishonorable and had such a bad reputation that the Cardinal was perfectly justified in believing he had arranged a midnight rendezvous with her. All the nasty rumors and tales were given official sanction. This was a very, very bad outcome for the Queen. Indeed, she somehow sensed that the verdict was a disaster and she collapsed in tears.

Shortly before Marie-Antoinette’s execution, the topic of Madame de La Motte was brought up by Public Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville:

Question: Was it not at the Petit Trianon that you knew the woman La Motte?

Answer: I have never seen her.

Question: Was she not your victim in the famous affair of the diamond necklace?

Answer: She cannot have been, since I did not know her.

Question: Then you persist in your system of denial?

Answer: I have n system of denial. It is the truth I have spoken and will persist in speaking.

Toussaint de Beausire was the young man who was arrested alongside Nicol d’Oliva in Brussels, Belgium. The two of them had left Paris because Brussels was much cheaper and Toussaint was deeply, deeply in debt. [Naturally, I give this a slightly different spin in the work of fiction I’m slaving away at: they flee Paris because they hear everyone connected with the Comtesse de La Motte is being arrested, and they want to avoid being arrested; obviously, they fail.] Toussaint was a failed architect who had gotten into debt very early in life and never actually made it through school because he kept pulling very bad pranks and swindling people. His family threatened to put him in a mental asylum by declaring him mentally incompetent.

After being put in the Bastille for a short time, Beausire was let go because it was fairly clear he had no direct knowledge of what had happened concerning the La Mottes and the diamond necklace. He had simply been there when the police found Mademoiselle d’Oliva. His family promptly did as they had threatened, putting him in an asylum. He was released from there as well a little later on.

Beausire probably married Nicole d’Oliva at some point–Frances Mossiker refers to them as being man and wife though she never specifies when and where it happened. It might well be that Mossiker, writing in the 60’s, said they were married because they had a child (who was later legitimized). In any case, they certainly ended up together, though it was far from a happy reunion. Beausire was not a great guy; according to reports that quoted Nicole d’Oliva herself, he kept his wife and son in a squalid back room while he enjoyed himself in the front room with lots of women. Lots and lots of fishy stories pop up here and there about the characters in the affair of the necklace, so you can judge the veracity of this story for yourself. In any case, Nicole died shortly thereafter at a convent, leaving Beausire free to remarry, which he did (producing six children in the process).

Beausire was one of the people who brought down the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He became a firebrand of the Revolution and made quite a name for himself. Of course, no one was safe as the tides changed day by day during the Revolution, and Beausire ended up in jail. It is perhaps unsurprising, given his character, that he turned informant, saving his own ass and getting a hated relative (one of those who had put him in an asylum) guillotined. Beausire was tried but acquitted and lived until 1818. Good guys finish last, I guess.