The Wallace Collection

Portraits of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (S392–3)
Treasure of the Month - November 2005

Portraits of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (S392–3)

Louis XVI (1754-1793) succeeded his grandfather as king of France in 1774 and was to reign as the last monarch of the ancien regime, until swept from power by the French Revolution and executed in 1793.

Louis shared both the glorious years of his reign and its bitter end with his Austrian wife, Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), whom he married in 1770, when his bride was still only fourteen. She was guillotined in October 1793, some nine months after her husband.

These reliefs are among the most sophisticated portraits of the monarch and his consort in the Wallace Collection. They were created shortly after Louis’ coronation in 1774, when there was a huge demand for portraits of the young couple. The reliefs are very much formal official portraits and, as such, very different in nature from, for example, Vigée-Lebrun’s more informal portraits of the Queen. These classicising reliefs depict the King and Queen in strict profile, with tiny fleurs-de-lis studding the frames and the knotted branches of laurel supporting the ovals providing further reminders of the imperial ambitions of the Bourbon dynasty. King Louis prominently displays the riband and star of the elite royal order of the Saint-Esprit (Holy Ghost). The image of Marie-Antoinette possibly derives from a larger marble relief in Versailles, made in 1774.

Although we do not know anything about the history of the Wallace Collection reliefs until they appear in Sir Richard Wallace’s collection in 1872, another almost identical pair now in the British Library (India Office Collection) demonstrate the importance of state portraits of this type in the power politics of the period. Louis XVI was keen to repeat the success of the American War of Independence by driving the British out of India. He gave the pair of portraits now in The British Library to one of his potential allies on the subcontinent, Haidar Ali (1721-1782) of Mysore who, with his son Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), provided such stiff resistance to the British until Tipu’s defeat and death at Seringapatam in 1799. The two reliefs were found in the palace in Seringapatam.

The relief of King Louis XVI is signed F.P. LEBRUN under the shoulder. The British Library relief of Marie-Antoinette is signed simply LEBRUN and dated 1775. The Lebrun were a dynasty of goldsmiths working in Paris in the second half of the 18th century and, since F.P. may well mean ‘made by’ (fait par), it is difficult to identify the maker with any certainty. The most likely candidate is Antoine-François Lebrun, who became a Master in 1776. It has been suggested that the Wallace Collection Marie-Antoinette, the quality of which is not quite as high as that of its pair, might have been made later to make up the pair.

Further Reading

  • *James Mann, Wallace Collection Catalogues: Sculpture, 2nd edition, London 1981
  • Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, London 2001
  • Ann Buddle, The Tiger and the Thistle. Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India 1760-1800, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh 1999