Iridescence

pearl pendantNatural pearl and diamond pendant, 18th century;
set with an oval diamond supporting a diamond bow motif
and a baroque drop-shaped natural pearl measuring approximately 16 × 18 × 26mm.

A natural pearl and diamond jewel of delicately wrought beauty once belonged to history’s most glamorous scapegoats for the abuses and injustices of autocracy, the victim of nationalism and misogyny, reviled by women and men, the hated l’autrichienne, the Austrian bitch, Maria-Antonia von Habsburg-Lothringin, known as Marie Antoinette, queen of France.

Political assassination is arguably justified, character assassination is not. Of all the offensive insults thrust at her, the most hurtful, far worse than all the salacious sexual slurs, the one that cut deepest, more humiliating than being deprived of shoes and false teeth in prison, more painful than beheading, was the Tribunal’s allegation of incest with her son.

“If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to answer such a charge laid against a mother. I appeal to all mothers here present – is it true?”

Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, drawn by David, 16 October 1793. Image: Wikipedia.
She was 37 years old. Usually, press reports about celebrity women degrade them by mentioning their age, but in this case the vulgar habit of prejudging by numbers is justified by the shock of
this woman’s premature ageing due to suffering

She, who was brought up to be a dynastic pawn, a bride and mother of kings, became the Eternal Feminine demonized. She was never expected to have control of her identity; her often derided play-acting at being a fashionably Romantic shepherdess in a pastoral idyll was her attempt at self-emancipation.

The modern perception of Marie Antoinette has shifted away from the inverted fairy story heroine, the romanticized narrative of an over-privileged but misunderstood star of the diamond-studded, blood-stained Versailles reality show, to the universal figure in women’s history of wronged mother and foreigner.

Marie-Antoinette and her children by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787

While she was imprisoned, she was separated from her children. As she prepared for death, her chief anxiety was about their fate. An 18th century princess endured the kind of degradation and psychological torture that tyranny in the modern world still inflicts on female immigrants and their families.

And there’s the jewel itself, the progeny of animals and human skill, that natural pearl of iridescence beyond price, a man-made thing lovely enough to be the symbol of our atonement for our sins against nature and each other, sold for silly money, £25 million that should be spent on environmental conservation and humanitarian missions to reunite migrant families and release political prisoners.

Foreshades of Grey (5)

or Erotica and the Rational Woman

settingsun

Boucher The Setting of the Sun 1752 Oil on canvas Wallace Collection, London. Image source: WGA Mythologically disguised, Madame de Pompadour is welcoming Louis XV to bed.
In real life their sexual relationship had ended a couple of years previously. When this huge painting of mutual sexual fulfillment was first exhibited, men thought it was too shocking for their wives and daughters to see, always a good sign in the past that art was being effective.

The king’s apparent dependency on the bourgeois Madame de Pompadour made her hated by the aristocracy, who wanted complete control over the monarchy, and by the public, who wanted an infallible father figure, not one emasculated under female domination.

Her indirect influence on foreign policy was unfairly held responsible for the disasters of the Seven Years War and the suffering it brought to the nation at home – because it was easier to blame a meddling woman than incompetent men – but her direct influence on French culture and manufacturing of luxury goods was benign. She was a joy-giver who brought good taste into the soulless gambling palace of Versailles before the deluge.

This blogger defends the escapism of Madame de Pompadour and Boucher. They understood the importance of being frivolous.

Boucher’s interpretation of Rococo was meant to be a sophisticated play on lost innocence, an alternative from ghastly reality, but it came over to many contemporary artists, art critics and intellectuals as decadent and irrelevant. They were as disgusted by his cheesiness as a lot of people are today. By the 1750s he was old hat, but still employed by Madame de Pompadour, a loyal friend and patron.

Boucher was a brilliant decorator, with none of the poetic truth of Watteau a generation before, or of his own pupil Fragonard, but, seated as she was at the centre of an artifice, Versailles and the monarchy itself, Madame de Pompadour was too worldly-wise to be consoled by either ethereal visions of the ancien regime, which she was more than intelligent enough to know was destined for catastrophe, or of a neoclassical revolution in perceptions and principles. Continue reading