Mesdames: The Daughters of Louis XV and Queen Marie Leszczynska
Portrait of Louis XV / Château de Versailles
By Catherine Delors
All portraits by by Jean-Marc Nattier unless otherwise stated
NOTE: Louis XV’s son, Louis XVI, would be the last king of France before the French Revolution. All but two of the daughters died before the Revolution began. In 1789, under the pressure of the Revolution, those two left Versailles for the Château de Bellevue, the former residence of Madame de Pompadour, given to her by their father in 1774. In the 1790s, Marie-Adelaïde and Victoire de France, the last two surviving siblings, fled from the dangerous political situation to Italy. In 1800, Madame Adélaïde died in Trieste, shortly after her younger sister.
Before the Mesdames, their mother: Marie Leszczynska, France’s Polish Queen
Talleyrand, the Bishop turned diplomat extraordinaire, said of Queen Marie Leszczynska that “her virtues had something sad about them that failed to inspire sympathy.” That has remained the judgment of history, which remembers her as a dour, charmless, rather stupid but innocuous figure. This is, in my opinion, most unfair.
True, Maria Karolina Zofia Felicja Leszczynska was not destined to become the Queen consort of France. Her father, Stanislas Leszczynski, had been briefly Kind of Poland from 1704 to 1709 before being dethroned and sent into exile by one of the many convulsions in that country’s history.
Stanislas Leszczynski, an intellectual, kindly man, had limited ambitions for his daughter. He would have been happy to give her hand in marriage to any French Duke. But her dowry was so meager as to be considered nonexistent, and no candidates of suitable rank were in sight for Marie. A pity, for she has received an excellent education, and speaks five languages with perfect fluency. But that has never replaced money and connections…
As for Louis XV, then fifteen, he had been engaged since his childhood to his cousin, seven-year old Spanish princess Marie-Anne-Victoire de Bourbon. The marriage was considered such a sure thing that Marie-Anne was called the Infante-Reine (the “Infanta-Queen.”) She had lived in Versailles since the age of three.
But young Louis XV is sickly, and suddenly falls gravely ill. The Duc de Bourbon, head of the Conseil de Régence, represents that it is urgent for the King to sire an heir. Obviously for this purpose the little Infanta-Queen, at seven, will not do. The girl is thus unceremoniously shipped back to Spain. Years later, she will indeed become Queen, though of Portugal instead of France.
The choice of the Duc de Bourbon falls on Marie Leszczynska, a young woman of 22, the perfect child-bearing age, whom he had once considered, and rejected, as a potential bride. The match is greeted at first with incredulity and derision, both in Versailles and in foreign courts, where many a princess feels personally slighted by the unlikely choice of a “mere Polish young lady” as Queen of France. Vicious rumors spread through Versailles: Marie is ugly, she is epileptic, she is so deformed that she cannot bear children, she suffers from a purulent skin condition…
But Louis XV, when he meets his bride, is immediately delighted by her, a rare occurrence in royal marriages of the time. She is no stunning beauty, but she is comely, in all the glow of youth and health. At fifteen he has already reached sexual maturity and consummates the marriage with enthusiasm. His Queen is his first love, and she returns his feelings.
Less delighted with the bride, however, are the courtiers of Versailles. They sneer at the new Queen, poke fun at her age, her looks, her gowns, her French diction (it is native, as she has been given French governesses since childhood, but not deemed refined enough for a Queen.) She puts up graciously with all of this and, unlike her successor Marie-Antoinette decades later, finds help in her strict adherence to the étiquette, which at least protects her from the rudest of the courtiers’ slights.
Two years after her marriage, she gives birth to twin girls. Eight more children, the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand, the much awaited male heir, then another boy and six more girls, follow in the next ten years.
At least Marie is no longer faulted for being barren, but at age 34, after ten children and nine pregnancies, she has lost her youthful looks. Louis XV is no longer a smitten teenager, he is now a handsome young man, with the same sexual appetites as his great-grandfather Louis XIV. He is still fond of his wife, but she is beginning to look like an old lady to him. Their age difference matters now. He takes a first mistress, then a second, then many more.
Marie, however, is still very much in love with her husband, and experiences bitter pangs of jealousy. The worst comes when Louis XV asks his wife to accept his chief mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, as a lady-in-waiting. Again Marie puts up with her situation with grace and dignity. She greets her rival with all the appearances of friendliness, and seeks refuge in a small group of friends, picked for their religious leanings and intellectual affinities with her.
She gathers them in the private apartments allocated to her within the Palace of Versailles (the Petit Trianon is then reserved for Madame de Pompadour’s use.) Every autumn her parents visit her for a few months. Marie Leszczynska also finds comfort in artistic pursuits. She paints in watercolors and is passionately fond of music, all tastes she transmits to her daughters. She invites the famous castrate Farinelli to France to give her singing lessons.
Yet it would be a grave mistake to consider the Queen a political nonentity. Notwithstanding the low esteem of the courtiers, she is beloved by common people, and knows it. She once retorts, when told that she doesn’t dress smartly enough: “I do not need gowns when the poor have no shirts.” We are very far from the “Let them eat cake” (falsely) attributed to Marie-Antoinette.
Queen Marie’s death at the age of 65 is a disaster for the monarchy. It deprives the royal family of its most popular member. Her great rival, Madame de Pompadour, also a woman of taste and intellect, had already died a few years earlier. Louis XV is thus left to his own devices after the successive deaths of his mistress and wife. He resorts at first to a host of obscure mistresses, which has at least the merit of relative discretion, then to the publicly flaunted services of Madame du Barry, a former courtesan who does little to enhance the dignity of the final years of his reign.
So what remains of Queen Marie Leszczynska? A few portraits, including this beautiful work by Nattier (below) and very little else. Her private apartments at Versailles were destroyed during Marie-Antoinette’s remodeling of that part of the palace. The gilded rococo paneling and Boucher paintings we see in the Queen’s Bedchamber, however, are still the ones chosen by Marie Leszczynska.
Madame Elisabeth, Duchess of Parma
Louise Élisabeth and Henriette de France by Pierre Gobert, 1737 / Palace of Versailles
On August 14, 1727, Marie Leszczynska, Louis XV’s Queen, gave birth for the first time, to twin girls, the first born being Marie-Louise-Elisabeth, known as Madame Elisabeth, or simply, as the King’s eldest daughter, Madame.
Louis XV, who was only seventeen, had of course been hoping for a male heir, but he was nonetheless delighted by the birth of the girls. “People said I could not have children,” he went around repeating, “and see, I made two!”
Elisabeth is his darling, his Babette. She has never been considered pretty like her twin Henriette, but she is bright, vivacious, willful. Yet dynastic politics lead Louis XV to arrange her marriage to her cousin, Philippe de Bourbon, younger son of the King of Spain. It is considered a mediocre match for a fille de France (“daughter of France”) to marry a foreign prince unlikely to succeed to any throne, but Louis XV wants to reinforce the family ties with the Spanish Bourbons.
The bride is only twelve, and she is heartbroken when she must leave Versailles and her beloved twin, Madame Henriette. “Tis forever, my God, tis forever,” she sobs in the arms of her sister. Indeed it was often true at the time: as a rule a princess, once married abroad, never set foot again in her native country. That is, for instance, what happened to Marie-Antoinette. But, as she shall see, Madame Elisabeth will never allow herself to be bound by rules applicable to ordinary princesses.
Once in Spain, Elisabeth is not unhappy with her husband, a kind and self-effacing man, but she does not get along with her mother-in-law, Queen Isabella Farnese, another strong personality. Elisabeth is only fourteen when she gives birth to her first child, a girl named Marie-Isabelle. Elisabeth finds the Spanish Court dull after Versailles, and she is too ambitious to be satisfied with her position as wife of the King’s younger son. She intends to find her husband a throne of his own, preferably far from the Spanish court and her mother-in-law.
Her wishes come true when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, at the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession, makes available the Duchy of Parma, a small independent state in northern Italy. Elisabeth, alone, hastens to Versailles to make sure her father intervenes to secure the Duchy for her husband. Louis XV obliges.
This portrait by Nattier, representing Elisabeth, then 23, with her daughter Marie-Isabelle, is painted during this Versailles stay. Louis XV is delighted to see his dear Babette again, and the young woman is in no hurry to leave for her new Duchy of Parma.
At Versailles, Madame Elisabeth allies herself with the rising star of the time, her father’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. This causes tensions with her siblings, who hate the favorite, but Madame Elisabeth puts ambition ahead of personal preferences.
After ten months in Versailles, she must, if only for the sake of appearances, leave to join her husband in Parma. There she gives birth to two more children, a boy, Ferdinand, and another girl, Marie-Louise, in January and December of 1751, respectively.
In her new Duchy, Elisabeth promotes French style, gives her son French tutors who espouse the values of the Enlightenment, and tries her best to emulate Versailles in her little Italian court. The following year, she is distraught when she receives the news of her sister Henriette’s death from smallpox. Elisabeth had remained very close to her twin in spite of their differences over Madame de Pompadour. A grieving Elisabeth leaves for Versailles for another one-year stay, before reluctantly returning to Parma.
She comes back again to Versailles a few years later, in 1757, to better arrange an alliance with Empress Maria Theresa. Elisabeth hopes to obtain from the Empress the appointment of her husband as Governor of the Austrian Netherlands. To strengthen her alliance with Austria, she negotiates the marriage of her elder daughter, Marie-Isabelle (the little girl in the Nattier portrait, who is no longer a little girl, but now a bright, beautiful teenager) with the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Joseph, future Emperor Joseph II.
Portrait of Louise Élisabeth of France by Louis-Michel van Loo / Palace of Versailles
Unfortunately Madame Elisabeth falls ill. Her mother, Queen Marie Leszczynska, nurses her, but soon it becomes clear that the princess, like her twin sister a few years earlier, has contracted smallpox. She dies at the age of 32 in her beloved Versailles.
To conclude this post, I chose a family portrait painted in Parma (below.) Elisabeth is seated on the sofa, next to her husband. After her death, no one, least of all himself, would think of another throne for hapless Philippe de Bourbon. But the marriage arranged by Elisabeth between their eldest daughter, Marie-Isabelle (standing, with a sheet of paper in her hands) and Archduke Joseph would indeed take place. Joseph would fall passionately in love with his bride, but she would never return his feelings. Marie-Isabelle would die three years later, yet another smallpox victim.
Now look closely at the two little children to the left. The boy is Ferdinand, who would succeed his father as Duke of Parma, and would be dethroned by Bonaparte during the French Revolution. See how he is dressed in a suit of bleu de France (“French blue”) embroidered with the fleur-de-lys of the French monarchy. The painting thus stresses the maternal ancestry of the heir. Of all of Louis XV’s grandchildren, he was the closest to the King, who would exchange with him a sustained and most interesting correspondence. Like his elder sister, he would marry one of Marie-Antoinette’s siblings, Archduchess Maria Amelia. He is the ancestor of the Bourbon-Parme branch of the French royal family.
The little girl , Marie-Louise, would marry her cousin King Carlos IV of Spain and be immortalized as Queen Maria Luisa in Goya’s famous portraits. Note how she has seized her brother’s sword and firmly refuses to give it back. This was a family of strong women.
Louise Élisabeth and Henriette de France by Pierre Gobert, 1737 / Palace of Versailles
Anne-Henriette de France, thanks to her beautiful portrait by Nattier with a viole de gambe (cello), sparked the idea of this series on the daughters of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska.
She was born on August 14, 1727, minutes after Madame Elisabeth. The sisters, as is obvious from their respective portraits, were fraternal twins. They had quite different personalities as well. Henriette was as reserved as Elisabeth was assertive and outgoing. Louis XV was very attached to both of his elder daughters.
The first trauma of Henriette’s life came when her twin left Versailles for Spain, apparently forever. A second ordeal came when Henriette fell in love with her second cousin, Louis-Philippe, Duc de Chartres, future head of the Orléans branch of the royal family.
Young Louis-Philippe too was in love with Henriette, and asked for her hand. Yet Louis XV, fond as he was of his daughters, never let his paternal feelings stand in the way of dynastic considerations.
The Spanish Bourbons had been outraged by the abrupt dismissal of the little Infanta-Queen when Louis XV had married Marie Leszczynska, and the marriage of Madame Elisabeth with a son of the King of Spain had been designed to soothe any lingering ill-will between France and Spain.
The Spanish royal family, as direct descendants of Louis XIV, considered then (and their descendants still do to this day) their claims to the throne of France superior to those of the Orléans, who were more descended from Louis XIV’s younger brother.
Allowing Madame Henriette to marry the future head of the Orléans line would thus have reinforced that branch’s claims to the throne in case the King died without a male heir, since Salic law prevented women from inheriting the French crown.
I hope I am not being too arcane here, but I believe it is helpful to put things into context, since another Orléans, the grandson of Madame Henriette’s rejected suitor, would indeed become King of the French under the name of Louis-Philippe I in 1830.
As for Henriette, she had no choice but to resign herself to her fate. Unlike her twin, she was never on friendly terms with their father’s favorite Madame de Pompadour. She found solace in her music and took lessons from Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Forqueray, the leading cellist of the time. Her affection for that instrument was memorialized by Nattier. She was also very close to her younger brother, the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand.
She died on February 1752, at the age of 24, from smallpox. Madame Campan, who joined the Court fifteen years later as a reader to Henriette’s surviving sisters, notes in her Memoirs that the memory of the late princess was still very much alive at Versailles decades after her death. “This princess had had much influence over the King,” writes Madame Campan, “people would say that, had she lived, she would have taken pains to entertain him within his family, that she would have followed the King in his little journeys, and would have presided over the suppers he liked to give in his private apartments.” Madame Campan alludes here to the influence of Madame du Barry, the last of Louis XV’s mistresses, in the waning years of his reign. Maybe indeed Madame Henriette would have prevented the emergence, much to the discredit of the monarchy, of that new favorite.
The Duc de Chartres married one of the descendants of Louis XIV and his mistress, Madame de Montespan. It was a most unhappy union, from which was born another Louis-Philippe, future Duc d’Orléans, future Philippe Egalité. Yes, the very man who would vote in 1793 for the immediate execution of his cousin Louis XVI.
Marie-Louise, known simply as Madame Louise, or Madame Troisième (“Madame the Third”) was born in Versailles on July 28, 1728, less than one year after her twin sisters, Mesdames Elisabeth and Henriette. Everyone, most of all her parents, hoped for a boy this time, since women were not eligible to inherit the French crown in their own right. As soon as it became known that the baby was a girl, all of the celebrations that had been planned in anticipation of the birth of a Dauphin were canceled, except for a mass in at the Royal Chapel of the Palace.
We have scant information about little Madame Marie-Louise, apart from the circumstances of her untimely death. Fortunately remains this charming portrait of the princess as a toddler, by Pierre Gobert. A healthy, plump little girl, with a rather determined jawline and fearless gaze.
During the winter of 1733, when she was four and a half years old, she caught a cold. Nothing unusual for a child of that age in that season, and the princess might have survived but for the “care” she received at the hands of one of the Court physicians. To alleviate her fever, he bled her four times in a row. This in itself must have caused severe dehydration, which was aggravated by the emetic she was given. The poor little girl did not stand a chance against 18th century medicine. She was christened in haste and died a few days later, on February 19, 1733.
This concludes my Daughters of Louis XV series. So are we done with these ladies? Certainly not. While researching each sister, I discovered more about her siblings. I also have more portraits to share with you. And readers nudged me in directions I hadn’t anticipated (what about the romantic life of Madame Adélaïde, for instance?) So we will go back to these fascinating ladies in short order.
After the twins Madame Elisabeth and Madame Henriette, Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska had another daughter, Marie-Louise, and two sons, Louis-Ferdinand and Philippe. Marie-Louise and Philippe both died in childhood, an all too commonplace tragedy at the time. Louis-Ferdinand, the eagerly awaited Dauphin, would be the father of the future Louis XVI.
The next royal daughter to survive to adulthood was Marie-Adélaïde, born in 1732, five years after her elder twin sisters. She was Queen Marie Leszczynska’s sixth child in five years…
I have noted earlier that the atmosphere at Versailles, long before Marie-Antoinette ever set foot there, was particularly poisonous. Madame Adélaïde’s beauty did not go unnoticed, and rumor accused her of an incestuous liaison with Louis XV, her own father, by whom she was supposed to have given birth to the Comte Louis de Narbonne.
All serious historians discount this story as vicious, unsubstantiated slander. Louis de Narbonne was simply the much-pampered son of Madame Adélaïde’s favorite lady-in-waiting. He would become a diplomat and general during the Revolution and the Empire, and also one of Madame de Staël’s many lovers, but that’s another story.
Louis XV liked to give his daughters humorous nicknames. Adélaïde, for some reason, was Loque (“Rags.”) Madame Campan, who was reader to the princesses, and sounds more than a little afraid of Madame Adélaïde, notes in her Memoirs that the princess had an abrupt, domineering manner and a choleric temper, that she had “an immoderate thirst for knowledge: she played all sorts of musical instruments, from the French horn to the Jew’s harp.” In addition to music, Madame Adélaïde occupied herself with the study of Italian, English, calculus, painting, the potter’s wheel and watchmaking. A well-rounded mind, to say the least, if not an easy character.
Madame Adélaïde was very close to her brother, the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand, and with him was the head of the Parti Dévot (the “Devout Party”) at Court, strongly opposed to Madame the Pompadour ant the alliance with Austria which the latter promoted.
Louis-Ferdinand’s untimely death was a heavy blow for Adélaïde. He left all of his papers with her, to be transmitted to his son and heir, the future Louis XVI. In particular the princess was the depository of her brother’s political testament, in which he pointed out to his son the three men he deemed the only suitable candidates for the position of Prime Minister under the new reign. Louis XVI lived in the veneration of his father’s memory, and Madame Adélaïde had much political and personal influence over the young King in the early years of his reign.
After the death of her mother, Queen Marie Leszczynska, and her elder sisters, Madame Adélaïde had become the highest-ranking female in Versailles, a position she lost with the marriage of her nephew and Marie-Antoinette. This, added to her distaste for an alliance with Austria, no doubt played a part in her deep hostility towards her new niece. Madame Adélaïde was the one who coined the infamous phrase L’Autrichienne (“The Austrian Woman”) which would stick to Marie-Antoinette till the end of her life.
For a different – and warmer – view of Madame Adélaïde, one has to turn to the remarkable Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to the princess. The Comtesse de Boigne describes Madame Adélaïde as “without comparison the wittiest of the daughters of Louis XV… easygoing with her intimates… though extremely haughty.” Indeed it seems that the aging princess had taken quite a fancy to the future memoirist, then a little girl, whom she delighted in spoiling (the Countess de Boigne deserves, and will get her own post in due time.)
After Marie-Antoinette belatedly acquired much influence over Louis XVI, who then detached himself from his aunts, Madame Adélaïde left Versailles with her younger sisters. Together the princesses retired to the Château de Bellevue nearby.
There Madame Adélaïde reigned over what was called “the Old Court,” composed of those who mourned the passing of the former reign, and did not welcome the new one. Its members had no place in the heady world of Marie-Antoinette, who wondered aloud how anyone over the age of 30 dared show one’s face at Versailles. Unwise words that offended many, particularly the King’s aunts. The Old Court was, to quote the great biographer Simone Bertière, “a generation whose turn had never come” due to the premature death of the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand.
I would like to call your attention to this 1787 portrait of Madame Adélaïde (to the left) by another Adélaïde, Madame Labille-Guiard, First Painter to Mesdames, daughters of Louis XV. Madame Adélaïde would have balked at retaining the services of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette’s favorite painter.
In this work, which you can admire to this day in the Queen’s Antechamber at Versailles, the princess, now aged 55, is represented displaying a triple medallion portrait of her late father, mother and brother, which she has just completed. The inscription reads Leur image est encore the charme de ma vie (“Their images still are the happiness of my life.”) Here, in the wake of the scandal caused by the the affair of the necklace she reaffirms her allegiance to the prior reign and presents herself as the undisputed leader of the Old Court.
Then came the Revolution. Madame Adélaïde, with her only remaining sister, Madame Victoire, managed to leave France in 1791. The two elderly princesses, now refugees in Italy, had to flee before the victorious armies of the Revolution, then before those of Napoleon, from Turin to Rome, from Rome to Naples, and finally from Naples to Trieste on a small boat. Madame Adélaïde died there in 1800, the last surviving child of Louis XV.
The Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud, Anjou, France / Wikimedia Commons
Yet another daughter of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska. Though she was born in 1733, and thus only one year younger than her sister Adélaïde, Marie-Louise-Thérèse-Victoire was raised quite differently. What had happened? Budget troubles already. If Madame Victoire and her three younger sisters had grown up in Versailles, each princess would have required her own maison (household.) Hundreds of servants and attendants, an enormous expense.
So Louis XV’s Prime Minister, Cardinal de Fleury, chose to send Madame Victoire, then only five, and her younger sisters to the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud. It was an ancient and prestigious institution, the “Queen of the Abbeys,” founded by the Plantagenêts in the heart of the Loire Valley, before they became Kings of England. There were buried King Henri II Plantagenêt, his wife Aliénor d’Aquitaine and their son Richard Cœur de Lion (the Lionheart for his English subjects.) But Fontevraud, beautiful as it was – and still is – was no teaching establishment. Madame Campan, in her Memoirs, harshly criticizes this decision to send the four little princesses, “as mere boarders, to a convent eighty leagues from the Court,” to be raised by “provincial nuns”.
“Madame Victoire,” continues Madame Campan, “attributed the terror attacks she had never been able to overcome to the violent fears she felt at the Abbey of Fontevraud, every time she was sent, as a punishment, to pray alone in the nuns’ burial crypt. No salutary foresight have protected these princesses from the fateful impressions that the least informed mother knows how to keep away from her children.” One can wonder whether the nuns, though of course honored by the confidence placed in them by Louis XV and Cardinal de Fleury, were very happy to have four little princesses thus unexpectedly foisted upon them.
Victoire was only five when she was sent to Fontevraud, and she did not return to Versailles until 1748, ten years later. This beautiful portrait by Nattier was painted one year before she left the Abbey. She had inherited her father’s dark eyes and hair, long lashes, and obviously his good looks.
Victoire’s eldest sister Madame Elisabeth tried to arrange a marriage with her brother-in-law, King Ferdinand VI of Spain. But there was the small matter of Ferdinand being already married, and his wife, though sickly, taking an inconvenient time to die… When the Queen of Spain finally passed away in 1758, Ferdinand himself was dying.
Victoire was already over 25, and it does not seem that any other marriage plans were made for her. She remained in Versailles with her mother and sisters and was particularly close to Louise, the youngest. When the latter left the Court to become a Carmelite, “she shed many a silent tear on her abandonment,” Madame Campan informs us.
Yet she found solace in what was left to her: good food, of which she was very fond, the downy comfort of her favorite easy chair, and mostly the company of her remaining sisters Adélaïde and Sophie. In their château of Bellevue, away from Versailles, they enjoyed the company of a small but devoted circle of intimates. I have mentioned in in another post the part Madame Victoire may unwittingly have played in the Let them eat cake wrongly attributed to Marie-Antoinette. It was certainly said without any malice, for everyone agrees on her kindness and concern for the unfortunates.
By the time of the Revolution, the only surviving children of Louis XV were Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire. From then on they were inseparable. Together they left France for Italy in 1791, a few months before the disastrous and failed flight of the rest of the royal family to Varennes. Together they moved from town to town, fleeing the advance of the French troops.
Then in 1799, after eight years of wanderings. Victoire died in Trieste of breast cancer. Adélaïde survived only eight months.
Sophie Philippe Elisabeth Justine is the most elusive of the daughters of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska. Born in 1734, one year after Victoire, Sophie was shipped to the Abbey of Fontevraud with her and their two younger sisters, Thérése, two years old, and baby Louise, only eleven months old!
Madame Sophie, even after her return to Versailles twelve years later, managed, as much as any princess could, to avoid notice. She only appeared in public when required by the étiquette. We have very few images of her beside this lovely portrait by Nattier painted while she was still at Fontevraud. She was then fourteen.
At Versailles she confined herself to the company of her sisters and shared their pleasures and concerns. Yet she lacked the domineering personality of Adélaïde, she did not relate easily to others as Victoire did so well. She did not spectacularly renounce the world as Louise did. She was lost – no doubt voluntarily – in the shadow of her sisters.
Madame Sophie still eludes us to this day. Her lovely portrait by Lié-Louis Périn-Salbreux (below) was long mistaken for a likeness of Marie-Antoinette. Sophie’s features were so little know even to art historians that she was not recognized. It was thanks to the flooring of the room that the identification was confirmed. In a nutshell, Madame Sophie is less known that the parquet of her library.
What about literary portraits? Those who knew her as a young woman are content to say that she had “an air of beauty” and that her profile much resembled that of the King her father, renowned for his good looks.
But there was one person at Versailles whose notice it was very difficult to escape: the unavoidable Madame Campan, who was then reader to the four youngest daughters of Louis XV, including -in theory at least- Sophie.
Madame Campan writes in her Memoirs:
Madame Sophie was unusually ugly; writes Madame Campan in her Memoirs, I never saw anyone having such a frightened look; she walked at an extreme speed, and to acknowledge, without looking at them, the people who gave way to her, she had acquired the habit of looking sideways, in the manner of hares.
This princess was so shy that it was possible to see her everyday for years without hearing her pronounce a single word. One asserted, though, that she displayed wit, even graciousness, in the society of some favoured ladies; she studied much, but read alone; the presence of a reader would have infinitely bothered her.
Yet on occasion this princess, so unsociable, suddenly became affable, gracious and showed the most communicative kindness; it was during thunderstorms: she was afraid of them, and such was her fright that she would then approach the least important persons; whenever she saw lightning, she would press their hands, for a thunderclap she would have embraced them; but once fair weather was back, the princess went back to her stiffness, her silence, her fierce look, passed everyone without paying attention to anyone, until the next thunderstorm brought back her fear and affability.
I have already mentioned that Madame Campan’s Memoirs are to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes she embellishes for the sake of dramatization, sometimes she distorts the truth to placate those in power at the time when she is writing (under the Restoration of the Bourbons, in the 1820s) and often she is blinded by personal prejudices. Madame Campan never forgave a slight, real or imagined.
Let us take a critical look at her account. According to Madame Campan, Madame Sophie would have been “unusually ugly.” Strange, because she doesn’t look so at all on her portraits. Rather pretty, I would say. These images may have been somewhat flattered, but not to such an extent. Yet she was 42 at the time of the Périn-Salbreux portrait. She had matured quite gracefully.
Madame Campan herself gives us the key to her animosity towards Sophie: the princess “read alone.” That is, she didn’t need Madame Campan’s services as a reader. Imagine if every princess had shown similar insolence! Madame Campan, heaven forbid, would have become obsolete. She took her revenge, a petty one, by leaving us this venomous portrait of the princess.
But the memoirist would not have made up all of this from scratch. Madame Sophie was indeed very shy, and she may well have been afraid of thunderstorms. She read extensively -though alone- and was gracious and witty among the “favoured” ladies she favored with her friendship, obviously a group from which Madame Campan was excluded.
Madame Sophie died of dropsy in Versailles in 1782, at the age of 48. She passed away unnoticed, as she had lived, attended to the last by her two remaining sisters, Adélaïde and Victoire.
Funeral monument of Alénor d’Aquitaine at Fontevraud / Wikimedia Commons
At first I had planned to limit this series on the daughters of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska to those who had reached adulthood. Then a reader mentioned privately that she hoped I would include the little princesses who had died as children. Indeed in their own sad way they too illustrate life and death in the 18th century.
Thérèse-Félicité was born in Versailles on the 16th of May 1736, the ninth of the royal children. She was barely two when, with her sisters Victoire, Sophie and baby Louise, she left, never to return, for the Abbey of Fontevraud under the supervision of an under-governess.
Little Thérése did not adapt well to the humid climate of the Loire Valley. The Abbess of Fontevraud noted that she was often sick. At the end of September 1744, the princess’s health deteriorated dramatically. This time is was not a mere cold, but the dreaded smallpox. She received full baptism then, with her nurse and a valet as godparents, and died on the next day, at the age of eight. She was buried in the crypt of the Abbey, among the Plantegenêts. Royal tombs, though not those of her family. Louis XV was then very sick, the country feared for his life and no one paid much attention to the death of one of the King’s many daughters, exiled far from Paris.
I could not find any portrait of the Madame Thérèse. Indeed none may have been painted during her short life. So I will be content to post a picture of the funeral monument of Alénor d’Aquitaine at Fontevraud. The mighty Queen of France and England keeps the forgotten little princess company in her last earthly rest.
Madame Louise, Venerable Mother Thérèse de Saint-Augustin
Born on July 15, 1737, Louise-Marie was the last of the children of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska. She was only eleven months old when, with her elder sisters Victoire, Sophie and Thérèse, she left Versailles for the faraway the Abbey of Fontevraud. That is to say she knew of no other world than the convent where she spent all of her childhood.
Did this early religious influence shape her later choices? What is certain is that she had no illusions as to the academic quality of the education she received at Fontevraud. She later said frankly that, upon her return to Versailles at the age of 13, she could not read fluently. Again Fontevraud, prestigious as it was, was not a teaching institution.
She was ten when this lovely portrait was painted in Fontevraud by Nattier (as the same time as those of Victoire and Sophie, reproduced in their respective posts.) When the portrait was brought back to Marie Leszczynska, the poor Queen, who had last seen her daughter as an infant, exclaimed that she had “a singular face: touching, sweet and witty.” The future would prove Marie Leszczynska quite right.
When Louise returned to Versailles at last, she immediately realized the deficiencies of her education and set out on a thorough, one could almost say a passionate course of reading, in particular on history.
This is where we meet again the ubiquitous Madame Campan, who was precisely reader to the royal daughters. Madame Louise, unlike her sister Madame Sophie, did not make the mistake of offending Madame Campan by reading alone in the privacy of her apartments.
The great memoirist describes Louise as “deformed and very short.” Madame Campan somewhat forces the trait, but it is true that Louise suffered from scoliosis, and she deliberately emphasized the problem. She had long felt a religious vocation and feared nothing more than being forced into marriage. It seems that Louis XV considered Charles Edward Stuart, pretender to the English throne. Madame Louise, however, was utterly immune to the romantic appeal of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She is reported to have said: “Don’t I have good reason to be worried to be destined to a husband, when I want no other than Jesus Christ?”
But Charles Stuart’s failure to regain the English throne led Louis XV to abandon any matrimonial plans between the Pretender and Madame Louise, who was no doubt very relieved. She remained quietly in Versailles in the company of her elder sisters, Mesdames Adélaïde, Victoire and Sophie. Madame Campan left us an affectionate portrait of the gentle tyranny imposed by Louise:
I read to her five hours a day. My voice frequently betrayed the exhaustion of my lungs; the Princess would then prepare sugared water for me, place it by me, and apologize for making me read so long, on the score of having
prescribed a course of reading for herself.
Her aspirations were lofty; she loved everything sublime; often while I was reading she would interrupt me to exclaim: “This is beautiful! This is noble!” There was but one brilliant action that she could perform,–to quit a palace for a cell, and rich garments for a nun’s habit. She achieved it!
Indeed, Louise took her devoted reader, and everyone else except her father King Louis XV, by surprise one fine day in 1770. Let’s listen again to Madame Campan:
One evening, while I was reading, she was informed that M. Bertin [one of Louis XV’s ministers] wished to speak with her; she left out abruptly, returned, resumed her silks and embroidery, and made me resume my book; when I retired she ordered me to be in her salon the next morning at eleven o’clock.
When I got there the Princess was gone; I learnt that she had left at seven in the morning for the Convent of the Carmelites of Saint-Denis, where she wished to take the veil. I went to Madame Victoire; there I heard that the King alone had been acquainted with Madame Louise’s project; that he had kept it faithfully secret, and that, having long previously opposed her wish, he had only on the preceding evening sent her his consent; that she had gone alone into the convent, where she had been expected; and that a few minutes afterwards she had made her appearance at the grating, to show to the Princesse de Guistel, who had accompanied her to the convent gate, and to her equerry, the King’s order to leave her at the convent.
This is, by the way, Madame Campan at her best, as a witness to the inner workings of the royal family. Mighty Adélaïde throwing a tantrum (are you surprised?) and taking her father to task for keeping Louise’s secret, dear Victoire bemoaning her own weakness for her downy chair…But let’s go back to our memoirist’s account:
As soon as I obtained permission to do so, I went to Saint-Denis to see my former mistress; she deigned to receive me with her face uncovered, in her private parlor; she told me she had just left the laundry room, and that it was her turn that day to attend to the linen. “I much abused your youthful lungs for two years before the execution of my project,” added she. “I knew that here I could read none but books tending to our salvation, and I wished to review all the historians that had interested me.”
She told me that the King’s consent for her to go to Saint-Denis had been brought to her while I was reading; she prided herself, rightly so, upon having returned to her room without the slightest mark of agitation, though she said she felt so keenly that she could scarcely regain her chair.
She added that moralists were right when they said happiness does not dwell in palaces; that she had proved it; and that, if I wanted to be happy, she advised me to come and enjoy a retreat in which the liveliest imagination might find full exercise in the contemplation of a better world. I had no palace, no earthly grandeur to sacrifice to God; nothing but the bosom of a united family; and it is precisely there that the moralists whom she cited have placed true happiness… The Princess said no more on the subject.
I must say the idea of Madame Campan as a Carmelite strikes me as rather odd… Madame Louise took her final vows one year later, in 1771, under the name of Sister Thérèse de Saint-Augustin. Later she was elected Mother Superior of her community. She did not hesitate to use her connection with the royal family to help those she deemed deserving. Marie-Antoinette in particular, according to Madame Campan, seemed to have manifested some exasperation at Louise’s frequent requests.
She [Louise] continued to solicit favors, as I knew from the complaints of the Queen, who often said to me, “Here is another letter from my Aunt Louise. She is certainly the most scheming little Carmelite in the kingdom.”
The Court went to visit her about three times a year, and I recollect that the Queen, intending to take her daughter there, ordered me to get a doll dressed like a Carmelite for her, that the young Princess could be accustomed, before she went into the convent, to her aunt’s nun habit.
I saw Madame Louise two or three times more at the grating. I was informed of her death by Louis XVI. “My Aunt Louise,” said he to me, “your old mistress, is just dead at St. Denis. I have this moment received intelligence of it. Her piety and resignation were admirable,
and yet the delirium of my good aunt recalled to her recollection that she was a princess, for her last words were, ’To paradise, haste, haste, full speed.’ No doubt she thought she was again giving orders to her equerry.