Life in the time of Marie Antoinette at the Palace of Versailles Court by Lorrie Anne
Bonjour! Welcome to the Palace of Versailles, the country residence of the notorious Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI.
As you promenade the full length of the 239.5 feet Hall of Mirrors to pay your respects at the foot of the throne of King Louis XVI, you are awed by the 17 magnificent archways accented with 357 mirrors and 30 artistic ceiling paintings that take your breath away. You are among the privileged rulers of Persia (1715) and the Ottoman Empire (1742), who have promenaded the length of the gallery while members of the French court look down upon you as they sit in amphitheater style seating on either side in a show of superior wealth and power.
As a portrait below attests, Marie, the Archduchess of Austria, was a beautiful child and indulged by her royal Hapsburg parents. By the age of twenty-two, after having become Queen of France, Marie often sat for repeated portrait paintings, complaining that no artist was able to capture her true image.
As Queen of France, the extravagant Marie Antoinette would change clothing several times a day. Her wardrobe included twelve ceremonial outfits, twelve frocks, and twelve elaborate full dresses. Wearing white linen was considered a display of cleanliness, whereas commoners wore hemp. Shirts, bed linens and table linens were extremely expensive and seen as a possession of the rich. In the portrait painted by Vigée-Lebrun, Marie is wearing a white silk court gown with panniers— quite daring given the gauze and airy lightness of the dress in comparison to styles of the time.
Known for her fashion setting court dresses and foot-high hairstyles, Marie rebelled against the strict rules of court and wore scandalous cotton dresses at Trianon. The painting of Marie Antoinette en chemise became a scandal since the Queen was publicly displayed not in grand habit. The painting and dress Marie were considered indecent, and quickly replaced with the portrait on the right.
Versailles with its strict court etiquette was stifling to Marie Antoinette, so she escaped to the Petite Trianon, where the scented orange blossom trees and flower gardens provided freedom. In contrast to the formal palace gardens, the Trianon offered meandering paths, hills and streams, a working farm with live animals and a neo-Classical Temple of Love. Known for her extravagant indulgences, Marie Antoinette had her own theater installed in the Trianon, where she and her devoted friends acted out plays while the King attended to his duties at the Palace.
King Louis XVI was awakened every morning at 8:30 a.m. and given a dry bath in public, a wiping down with a white cloth, beginning his daily schedule according to strict court etiquette. Only the highest members of the court (nobles, cardinals, archbishops, ambassadors, dukes, peers, etc.) were permitted to watch the king dress, a ceremony known as the grand lever. The privileged stood encircled around the royal bed as the highest-ranking prince gave the King his clothing.
The Queen and King also attended mass in the Gothic Chapel Royal, which was dedicated to St. Louis (King Louis IX, the ancestor of the royal house). The Chapel Royal is where Marie Antoinette and the Dauphin Louis XVI were married.
The Wall of Royal Portraits of the Ruling Kings and Ancestors of France
While the royals lived and dined in opulence, a revolution was brewing beyond the Palace walls where the people of France were starving from a shortage of bread and basic staples. Marie Antoinette was rumored to have said, “Let them eat cake,” a statement that has not been factually attributed to the Queen.
The King and Queen’s Dining Room at The Palace of Versailles
The King and Queen’s serving dishes at The Palace of Versailles
Ceiling Panoramas at the Palace of Versailles
After dining, guests would stroll in the gardens for fresh air.
Bathing ranged from every eight days to once a year, where royalty often partook of the spa. Cleanliness meant “having good breath and feet that didn’t smell” Toute L’Histoire (2017). Stories abound of a dirty Versailles with “members of the court relieving themselves in the corner of stairwells, of a King holding audiences on his throne, a chair with a hole in the seat…” (Toute L’Histoire, 2017). Sign up for Lorrie’s future blog posts to see the King’s two private toilets.
Perfumes were used to mask the smells and were seen as cleansing the person from within. The court of Louis XIV became known as “the perfumed court.” King Louis XIV preferred the smell of oranges and had his fountains scented with orange blossom and jasmine water (Toute L’Histoire, 2017).
The King’s valets sprayed the palace with the scent of orange blossoms, which were believed to be an aphrodisiac. Scents were applied daily to the skin, clothing, fans, and furniture. King Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, had her naked body rubbed with perfumes, which the King later believed was the cause of his migraines when she fell out of favor.
Perfumes were used to cast spells, hide smells, and as a disinfectant to dispel the plague. Perfume burners were placed in hospitals to purify the air. Perfume transformed the wearer and cleansed their health.
The ladies of court sought Jean-Louis Fargeon, Marie Antoinette’s perfumer, to concoct cosmetics, rouges, soaps and creams to whiten their hands and face, powders and opiate elixirs for their teeth, and tablets and rinses to perfume the mouth (Feydeau, 2004, p. 34). Oils, colored powders, and dyes were used to color the hair, while perfumed gloves were believed to be beneficial to the skin. Marie Antoinette had more than 18 pairs of perfumed kidskin gloves made each month.
Perfumes were decanted in small porcelain bottles decorated with gold or silver art motifs. Marie Antoinette preferred perfumes and toilet waters, such as the eau de fleur d’orange, also known as eau do Roi or the King’s water. She took great care of her skin with pomades scented with roses, vanilla, and other flowers. Marie’s perfumer also made rouge pomade to enhance her lips. Perfume soon became a sign of wealth, where a different scent was worn every day, even during the French Revolution, when “Parfum a la Guillotine” was created!
For the next installment of Life in the time of Marie Antoinette, sign up for Lorrie Anne’s next newsletter at lorrieanne.com.
Lorrie Anne is a historical author who loves palaces, balls with beautiful French gowns, eating tea and crumpets, and basically anything a royal princess would do.
She is fascinated with Marie Antoinette, Queen Victoria, and the Empress Sissi of Austria. She loves traveling around Europe and writing about the many places she visits to share the fascinating stories of history with you.
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.
Versailles picture 1: By Kimberly Vardeman (Flickr: Versailles) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Versailles picture 2: By Wikiwee (Digital camera shot on vacation.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Versailles picture 3: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Picture 4: Jean-Étienne Liotard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Picture 5: Vigée-Lebrun painting of Marie Antoinette. Photo: Wikipedia/public domain
Picture 6 & 7: Left: Marie Antoinette en chemise, 1783 portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain
Right: Marie-Antoinette, painting by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 18th century; in the Versailles Museum.© Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection
Picture 15: By Copyleft (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All other images are credited to Lorrie Anne