Welcome! Today, let’s stroll down a garden path to the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s place of escape from the rigid rules and etiquette of French court.
Let’s peek into the private life and secluded residence of Marie Antoinette.
The Petit Trianon
The history of the Petit Trianon, designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, is an interesting one as well. Built between 1762 and 1768 during the reign of Louis XV for his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, the Madame unfortunately died before the Petit Trianon was completed. The private residence was then occupied by Madame du Barry, the King’s next official mistress.
When Louis XVI took over the French throne in 1774, he gifted the Petit Trianon to Queen Marie Antoinette.
Aerial View of The Petit Trianon and Gardens
The Pavillon frais (“Cool Pavilion”), Petit Trianon
Why did the Queen take herself away from the gilded Palace of Versailles to the Petit Trianon? Let’s take a moment to see how the Palace of Versailles, originally built as a small hunting lodge in 1629, grew to the grand Palace that became the stage for the seeds of the French Revolution in 1789. The expansion of the grand Palace of Versailles, the ostentatious exhibition of the King’s wealth, was one of the compelling reasons that fueled the financial woes of the French nation and the anger of the starving lower class people. The exorbitant lifestyle and excessive indulgences of the young queen, Marie Antoinette, infuriated the revolutionaries and earned the Queen the name of “Madame Deficit.”
Versailles, from Louis XIII to the French Revolution
Click here for the History of Versailles from 1624 to 1789
Versailles was a court of the strictest etiquette and the stage upon which royalty were viewed, much to Marie Antoinette’s dismay. King Louis XVI, an introvert who preferred his privacy, often went hunting to escape the eyes of court. Similar to the King’s Lever, every morning Marie Antoinette received ladies of the court at her Lever. After the Queen’s Lever, Marie Antoinette would retreat to her own private rooms in an alcove behind the walls of her public bed chambers.
The young Queen, having grown up in a less formal and more private home in Austria, soon began to feel the pressure of being on display 24/7. Scrutinized and criticized for her lavish dress and Austrian ways, earning her the nickname of the “L’Autrichienne,” (the Austrian), this was a serious insult to be seen as an outsider yet be the Queen of France. Although the members of court obeyed the strict rituals initially established by King Louis IV and continued by King Louis XVI, one of the most intrusive and striking exhibitions of a lack of privacy was the birth of a royal.
As a young queen still in her teens, Queen Marie Antoinette was required to give birth in front of a crowd of onlookers in the bed pictured below, proving that the heir was a true prince or princess of the blood. During the long hours of childbirth, the Queen’s bedroom was said to have been so over-crowded and stifling that King Louis XVI himself pushed through the crowd to open the window shutters to give the pale and suffering Queen some air. After a long and difficulty delivery, the Queen fell into unconsciousness upon delivering her daughter without knowing the baby’s gender or whether she had fulfilled her most important role of giving the King an heir to the throne.
In this same bedroom chamber, a secret panel on the left reveals an access to a hidden staircase to the Kings chambers. This secret door is the same passage through which the Queen escaped from the bloodthirsty revolutionaries when they stormed the Palace searching to kill the Queen in 1789. The Queen escaped through this hidden door and safely reached her children and the King, hiding until the Palace Guards secured their safety.
Under mounting pressure and constant criticism that she was unable to bear King Louis XVI a son and heir, the Queen retreated from the palace to the Petit Trianon, nearly absenting her presence from Versailles altogether.
Away from the watchful and eyes and criticisms of court, Marie Antoinette created her own private world. No one was permitted on the Petit Trianon grounds unless “de par la Reine” (by order of the Queen). Here, the Queen created her own social entertainments and was the happiest among her favored guests, said to include the queen’s “inner circle” of the Princess de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac. At the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette replicated the same feeling of freedom for her own children that she had growing up at her home in Austria. Within the private retreat, the Queen adorned its walls with paintings that reminded Marie Antoinette of her childhood in Vienna. The Queen even banished the necessity of curtsying to her, permitting all guests to call her by her first name.
In defiance of strict court dress, at the Petit Trianon Marie Antoinette wore cotton dresses similar to those worn by peasants depicted in the painting below. As mentioned in my prior blog post Life in the Time of Marie Antoinette at the Palace of Versailles, this painting caused quite a scandal and was replaced with a similar painting of the Queen in formal court dress.
Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress
If one looks closely in the paintings above and many other portraits of the Queen, you will notice the frequent presence of a pink rose, a favorite of Marie Antoinette’s. Below is the Rosa Petit Trianon, a rose named after the Petit Trianon.
The Rosa Petit Trianon
The Petit Trianon is also where Marie Antoinette retreated to care for her daughter, Marie Therese, who suffered from a convulsion and a fever for three weeks when teething. Marie Antoinette believed that the fresh air was the reason for her daughter’s improvement in health and used this reasoning to remain at the Petit Trianon.
Marie Therese, a blonde, fair skinned, laughing child played daily in the gardens at the Petit Trianon and the Hameau. The Hameau was a working farm commissioned by the Queen, complete with chickens, cows and sheep. Worried that the strict life at Versailles didn’t afford her children the freedom that she grew up with in Austria, the Queen and her children often played at being peasants at the Hameau.
Le Petit Hameau
The Petit Trianon was also the location where Marie Antoinette played at matchmaking for her daughter, Marie Therese, affectionately nicknamed Mousseline La Sérieuse due to her serious demeanor. The King’s daughter was the most eligible female in France, and so the Queen invited a potential suitor, Gustavus Adolphus, the future King of Sweden to visit at the Petit Trianon. The future King traveled incognito as the Count of Haga to the Petit Trianon in 1784 when Marie Therese was just six years old. At the Petit Trianon, the future King of Sweden attended informal family garden parties and was impressively entertained by illuminations of hot air balloons emblazoned with the name of France’s King and Queen.
The Queen also entertained her privileged visitors at the theater de la Reine, where Marie Antoinette herself performed on stage with the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen.
Théâtre de la Reine
Rumors abounded that the Swedish Count, Axel von Fersen, was Marie Antoinette’s lover. The Count was also a key organizer behind the Queen’s and King’s escape from Paris known as the infamous Flight to Varennes, which ended up in the royal family being recognized, caught and returned to Paris to be placed in the Temple Tower Prison. Although historians have never been able to confirm or deny the widespread rumors of the Queen’s infidelity with Count Axel von Fersen, the damage to the Queen’s reputation as an immoral adulterer was one of the many accusations brought against the Queen during the trial just that led to her beheading on the guillotine.
Swedish Count Axel von Fersen
Some of the secrecy and rumors surrounding the Petit Trianon came about due to the rare privacy that was afforded the Queen and her guests there, as well as in the gardens and the Hameau.
To provide privacy within the Petit Trianon, the tables were mechanically lowered and raised through the floorboards so that the servants below could set the tables without being seen. To provide extra privacy within Marie Antoinette’s apartment, mirrored panels were mechanically raised or lowered to obscure the windows.
The Royal Dog Kennel
And not to be forgotten, even the Queen’s pet had its own luxurious residence. Sadly, the 14-year-old royal bride, Marie Antoinette, was forced to leave behind everything from her home country of Austria, including her darling dog Mops, when she was delivered to the French on an island in the middle of the Rhine River. Happily, the future Queen later was known to have many pets including those she kept at the Hameau farm.
For Your Viewing Pleasure
For those of you who might enjoy a more whimsical interpretation of Marie Antoinette’s life as Queen of France, you might view the film Marie Antoinette (2006) in which Kirsten Dunst portrays the young Queen. The movie, directed by Sofia Coppola, won several awards including an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (2007). I personally found the movie to be very imaginative and enjoyed the scenery and costumes tremendously. Kirsten’s role as Marie Antoinette artfully portrays how one would imagine a frivolous queen who cares more for her own pleasures than others who are less fortunate.
Next on Lorrie Anne’s Blog
Did the Queen go too far in escaping the French court and spending lavishly to create her own secluded and privileged life of leisure?
Next is the story of the Hope Diamond and its curse, once owned by Marie Antoinette and its disappearance during the French Revolution.
Lorrie Anne is an award winning historical author who loves palaces, balls with beautiful French gowns, eating tea and crumpets, and basically anything a royal princess would do. More information about Lorrie Anne can be found on her website at LorrieAnne.com, Facebook, and Twitter. She is always glad to hear from readers and history enthusiasts. She is fascinated with Marie Antoinette, Queen Victoria, and the Empress Sissi of Austria. She loves traveling around Europe and writing about the places she visits to share the fascinating stories of history with you.