Rehabilitating Marie-Antoinette’s favourite: the princesse de Lamballe

Open any book on the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette or the French Revolution and the reader will invariably find one or two sentences recounting the grisly manner of the princesse de Lamballe’s death during the September massacres.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie-Carignan, the princesse de Lamballe (1749-1792), once a central figure of Marie-Antoinette’s court, is today largely forgotten, reduced to a fittingly sensational anecdote illustrating the bloodshed that ensued in Paris during the last turbulent years of the eighteenth century. The princess’s true character and activities have long been lost in the mawkish narratives peddled by the wave of nineteenth-century biographies that succeeded her death. This sentimental revival of interest in her person was closely interwoven with the propaganda that attended the royalist cult of Marie-Antoinette and has coloured all subsequent interpretations.

My research focuses on the portraiture and patronage of the princesse, and through an examination of the many portraits the princess sat for and her role as patron and collector, I hope to redress these longstanding lacunae and recover something of her former influence and contribution. An accomplished noble amateur, traveller, bibliophile, freemason, salonnière, patron and collector, not to mention the highest ranking courtier in the queen’s household, Lamballe presents an ideal case study, particularly as her widowed, childless, professional and independent status presents a rare alternative to the more orthodox paradigms within her milieu.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In determining the governing ideologies in the princess’s iconographical programme and by tracing the mechanics of her engagement with different groups of artists and craftsmen, I hope to identify a wider range of motives and cultural meaning than has previously been ascribed to female court portraiture and patronage of this period and to cast further light on the taste of her mistress, Marie-Antoinette.

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation Travel Grant/BSECS Travelling Award I was able to travel to Paris to visit archives, libraries and critical sites pertaining to the princess. Among these were Rambouillet and the Parc Monceau. English gardens were perhaps the most expansive example of Lamballe’s patronage, and she was almost certainly influenced in this taste by the example of her brother-in-law, the duc de Chartres, with his English gardens at the château de Raincy and Monceau.

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The colonnade at the Parc Monceau. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In 1779-1780 Lamballe’s father-in-law, the duc de Penthièvre, commissioned a jardin anglais for her in the grounds at Rambouillet, his birthplace and favourite residence, at an easy distance from Paris where the princess frequently joined him when released from her duties in the city or at court. This new endeavour took its cue from, and overlapped with, the planning of her mistress and friend Marie-Antoinette’s jardin anglo-chinois in the grounds of the Petit Trianon created between 1777-1781.

– Sarah Grant

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