Marie Antoinette Metamorphoses of an Image

You might love her, you might hate her, you might feel sorry for her, or think she deserved what she got but Marie Antoinette has not left the world indifferent. Her image is recognized the world over at just a glance. There was a Roger et Gallet ad in a Glamour magazine from 2017 and everyone I showed it too immediately said “that’s Marie Antoinette”. The grey up-do and some gilt in the background is all you need to recognize her. She has become one of the most visible and recognizable historical figures ever. The expo at the Conciergerie in Paris gives insight into the myriad uses of her image.

Marie Antoinette
Soulier Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, © cliché Patricia Touzard

Will we be talking about Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow or Lady Gaga 200 years after her death? Probably not but we still talk about Marie Antoinette more than 200 years after her death! Perhaps not so much in France as journalists on France Info were discussing the other day. They were wondering why anyone would want to go see an expo about this disgraceful queen who for them simply represents the time before democracy and the Republic. However outside of France, in the United States, England, Italy and Japan she is still admired and has become even an icon 226 years after her death.

Marie Antoinette


Can you think of anyone else who has influenced the world for so long? Marie Antoinette influenced society during her lifetime and she continues to influence today. Catherine De Medici was also very influential, perhaps more so than Marie Antoinette, in France and in Europe, on customs, art, music, dance, food but we talk about her contributions to the Rennaissance and to history where as Marie Antoinette influences pop-culture still today.

There has been a profusion of representations of Marie Antoinette. It is as if each era has wanted to construct “its” own queen, from foreign traitor to martyr figure, from adolescent heroine to bigoted mother, from cultured woman to fashion icon. She may have seemed to be out of step with the France of her time, which understood her little and perhaps still does not appreciate her, but her figure has subsequently blossomed in the cult imagination, and particularly in the last few years. Marie Antoinette has become the historical figure most commented on in biographies and films, most represented by contemporary artists and most recycled in furnishings, mirrors, dolls, manga, novels, advertisements and video games.

Marie Antoinette

But why this profusion of images? Why Marie Antoinette and not Catherine de Medecis? Why does the fate of this princess lend itself to the many fantasies of today? Possibly because she has become a symbol of the mistreated woman, condemned to unhappiness. Though born into the most privileged circles in Europe, her desire to live an independent “normal” life made her an unhappy exception. Then through her encounter with History, which conferred on her a political role she perhaps never wanted while condemning her future, Marie Antoinette touches a powerful emotional nerve. This has given the queen a double identity: she is not only the “poor little rich girl” who highlights the sentimentality of today, but also a persona exemplifying the construction of that ambivalent value in the public arena, the “celebrity”. Taking a historical and comparative approach, the current exhibit at the Conciergerie in Paris shows us the multitude of ways her image has influenced and been appropriated by the world. To open the exhibition there are historical objects relating to her time spent in the Conciergerie as a prisoner as well as some of her personal effects which demonstrate her influence on culture during her time in the domains of fashion, hairdressing, theater, music and of course gastronomy.

Marie Antoinette

Then the exhibition turns to more contemporary works showing her influence on artists and pop culture. There’s clothing by John Galliano. There’s a Marie Antoinette Barbie doll. Other dolls whose heads pop off. Works by Botero and other artists who have copied and re-interpretted Vigée Le Brun’s famous portrait with the rose. Television commercials and print ads have used her image to promote their products. There’s even a video of Miss Piggy dressed as Marie-Antoinette singing the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” in front of the guillotine!

Marie Antoinette

Global over-mediatisation and kitsch revival have become Marie-Antoinette’s destiny. She has a cult following.

Don’t miss, as we did, the continuation of the visit in the chapel of the Conciergerie where objects from private collections are newly presented in the displaycase dedicated to the relics of Marie-Antoinette and the atonement chapel built on the site of Marie Antoinette’s prison cell at the Conciergerie.

The Metamorphoses exhibition is open daily 9.30-6pm, late until 8.30pm on Wednesdays. Last entrance is an hour before closing. It opened 16 October 2019 (the 226th anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s death) and runs until 26 January 2020 (5 days after the 227 anniversary of Louis XVIth beheading).

Good ticket plans:

Advance tickets can be purchased online:

Marie-Antoinette Pass: If you miss this exhibition you can still enjoy a visit to the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned and spent her final hours and other Marie Antoinette sites in and around Paris. There is a special pass that can be obtained at any of the 4 sites that gives reductions at the other sites. The sites are the Chateau de Rambouillet, an architectural gem in an enchanting setting where Louis XVI built the Queen’s Dairy; the Chapelle expiatoire in Paris 9th which was erected in memory of the late royal couple and the Saint Denis Basilica where all the kings and queens of France are buried.

Joint ticket with reduction: There is a joint ticket for the Conciergerie and the Sainte-Chapelle.

Marie Antoinette

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