Loyal and devout, the Polish queen of France, Marie Leszczynska (1703–1768), was the longest reigning queen at Versailles, spending more than 42 years leading France. She made quite an impact—not politically, as she was left out of politics, but on the life of the people.
Leading by example, she was unconditionally devoted to her husband, King Louis XV; her children; and the people of France. She was just as devoted to her faith; Marie attended Mass twice a day and confession once a day.
“By her own good example, she turned a dissolute court into one devoted to religious observance, without detracting from its gaiety or majesty,” Charles Jean-François Hénault (1685–1770) wrote in his memoirs. Hénault, the president of the Parliament of Paris, was Marie’s adviser and manager.
Every afternoon, after performing her royal duties at the court, Marie would retire to her private apartments, where she kept company with a small circle of family and close confidants, including writers, philosophers, and ministers.
The queen’s vast apartments consisted of an oratory where she practiced her private devotion, the Green Gallery, the Bath Chamber, the Rest Chamber, and even the Poets’ Chamber. The Poets’ Chamber was an “extremely small space,” where Marie stored her poetry collection, wrote Charles-Philippe d’Albert, the Duke of Luynes, in his memoirs.
The apartments spilled out onto a number of elegant terraces and balconies hung with garlands of flowers. Marie also enjoyed gardens containing lead sculptures and a rockery framing Monseigneur’s courtyard, a small spot named after Louis XIV and Marie Thérèse’s son.
These private apartments were her sanctuary. It was within these confines that she would read, rest, pray, or work on a needlepoint or painting. Despite the fact that her father, the king of Poland, was dethroned, Marie was educated as a princess, learning languages, dancing, singing, musical instruments, painting, and more. In the Green Gallery, she would draw, paint, play music, and print using her own printing press.
A selection of 50 paintings, some by the queen herself, and other art is on display as part of an exhibition at Versailles, “The Taste of Marie Leszczynska: Marie Leszczynska, an Unknown Queen,” that opened on April 16 and runs until spring 2020. The exhibition was curated by Gwenola Firmin and Marie-Laure de Rochebrune, who are both head curators at the National Museum of the Palace of Versailles and the Trianon, and they were assisted by Vincent Bastien, doctor of art history.
Much of the art featured in the exhibition reflects Marie’s love for her family, God, and beauty.
Many of the paintings throughout Marie’s apartments were of her 10 children, all born between 1727 and 1737. When the first boy, the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand, was born, Marie commissioned Alexis-Simon Belle (1674–1734) to paint his portrait. The painting was hung in Marie’s Bath Chamber. She was so fond of it that she commissioned Belle again, but this time to paint her with the dauphin.
The painting of Marie and her son Louis Ferdinand was likely painted just a year after the dauphin’s birth.
In the painting, Marie is sitting upright and poised, embodying the “elegant spirit” that Madame Campan said Marie had in her youth. Madame Campan was a reader for Marie’s younger daughters. Diamonds are woven throughout Marie’s hair, echoing the jewels that are set in what looks like elaborate metallic embroidery on her gold dress. She gently holds her son’s hand. The dauphin, still only a babe, mirrors his mother’s facial expression with an air of royalty that belies his tender age. Perhaps he knows his fate. The gold crown on the chaise lounge certainly signals what his future will be. He sits on a cloak, fur-lined and with a fleur-de-lis pattern, which he will wear once he is king.
Similar symbols and finery can be seen in the portrait of the dauphin’s father, Louis XV (1710–1774), the king of France, painted around 1728 by an unknown artist. Here, King Louis wears the collar of the Order of the Holy Spirit, and the fleur-de-lis cloak that the dauphin sat on in the portrait with his mother. On the table to his right are the king’s crown, scepter, and Charlemagne’s Hand of Justice, which is a French type of scepter with its finial showing the hand of God in a gesture of blessing.
Queen Marie’s Practice of Art
Marie was not naturally gifted at drawing, according to her friend the Duke of Luynes. But she could paint quite well. She “draws much amusement from it,” he wrote.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) was one of Marie’s favorite painters. She copied one of his paintings that her son, the dauphin, had commissioned. On her canvas “A Farm, After Jean-Baptiste Oudry,” a serene scene shows a bountiful harvest and hardworking farm hands in a rural landscape. It is thought that Étienne Jeaurat, one of the king’s court painters, assisted her in its execution. Jeaurat mentored the queen in painting for a period of 15 years.
In 1761, Marie and five of the painters who worked on the king’s state apartments painted a series of chinoiserie canvases called “The Chinese Chamber.” The series is painted from the bird’s-eye view as per the Chinese style, with exquisite detailing of the architecture, dress, and landscape. Various scenes are shown, such as a tea ceremony, evangelism by Jesuits, and a fair at Nankin.
Versailles acquired “The Chinese Chamber” paintings in 2018. The paintings had been in the care of the family of the queen’s lady-in-waiting, the Comtesse de Noailles, since the queen bequeathed the paintings to her in 1768.
Saint Francis Xavier and Death
Marie had a strong desire to relieve the suffering of others. She was reported to have said “I have no need for dresses; the poor do not even have shirts.” She supported hospices, clinics, and charitable foundations, dedicating herself to helping those in need. She founded a convent in Versailles for educating poor girls, which was inaugurated after her death.
Marie’s Christian faith featured strongly in her apartments, in the books she read, and also the art she consumed.
She favored themes and stories about the early Christian martyrs and Jesuits. At the time, Jesuits were actively being expelled from France.
Marie was particularly interested in St. Francis Xavier. The Jesuit had spent time in India and was on route to mainland China in 1552 to evangelize, but before he could do so, he passed away on Sangchuan Island, off the coast of Guangdong. She commissioned “The Death of Saint Francis Xavier,” painted in 1749 by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694–1752), for private devotion.
The dark tones of St. Francis’s lifeless body on the earth almost divides the painting in half: The darkness of death is met by the divine light of the angels beckoning and welcoming the Jesuit to heaven.
To find out more about “The Taste of Marie Leszczynska: Marie Leszczynska, an Unknown Queen,” visit ChateauVersailles.fr