Tag Archives: France

The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Review

All week I have sneaked in moments to read Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess and I must say it was worth every minute of lost sleep.  I adored Clegg’s interpretation of Marie Antoinette, and considering that this is a review and not a gush fest, I’m going to try my best to forgo repeating just how much I think every Antoinette fan should read it.

What I loved:

Clegg really made Antoinette’s early life come alive for me.  The voice was so authentic to Antoinette’s spirit I fancied I had in my possession her long-lost diary and was gaining private insight into the misunderstood queen.  For me, this emotional engagement was huge.  Although life at Versailles and Antoinette’s reign, in particular, has always fascinated me, I usually experience dissonance between my disliking the queen and my appreciation for her as an historical character.  Her personality is full of contradictions, which generally keep my attention, but unlike her mother, history has seldom regarded her as intelligent or a master of strategy.  She was instead a leader of fashion, a spendthrift without regard for consequence, and all around girly girl.

Clegg’s novel offers a closer look at the makings of France’s infamous queen.   If you’ve wondered how Maria Antonia, an awkward, uneducated girl who was never supposed to be a queen of France, became the belle of the fashionable world, this secret diary is a marvelous imagining of Antoinette’s inner thoughts while remaining firmly rooted in research.

1769, Joseph Ducreux

As any fan of the genre knows, historical fiction first and foremost needs to be more than a recitation of facts and events.  Clegg happily succeeds in this.  Her simple yet descriptive style transported me from the palaces of Schönbrunn and Hofburg, where Antoinette spent her childhood and adolescence, to her first steps into the glittering court of Versailles.

Today Antoinette seems quintessentially French, but in her time she was thought never fully Austrian or French.  This lacking is what defines her. Austria was home, but also a place of harsh instruction and intense pressure.  On the one hand we have Antoinette’s life of silk gowns, mischief, and loving sisters and on the other, a plague of early deaths coupled with the emotional austerity of her mother, Maria Theresa.  Despite the juxtaposition of the royals’ distinct personalities, a real sense of family resonated throughout novel.  I adored Antoinette’s sisters Amalia and Christina and sympathized with Antoinette’s feeling that she lacked consequence in such a large family.  As she says early on,

“I am not witty like my sister Christina or funny like Elizabeth or interesting like Amalia or clever like our eldest sister Marianna or sweet like Josepha.  I am just me, the youngest and some might say, most insignificant daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa, the most powerful female monarch in the world.”

The Austrian Royal Family

As the ultimate goal of Maria Theresa was to marry off her daughters and concrete Austrian alliances, the novel showed a procession of arranged matches with the sisters wondering who was next and when.  Given the doubt surrounding her future, Antoinette understandably longs for direction.  She wants to please her mother by doing her duty, but suffers under constant demands, which at times seem impossible for her to meet.  She is painfully naive and undisciplined, but also modest, funny, and sweet.

The first picture of Antoinette seen by the Dauphin

Numerous improvements were required to make Antoinette suitable for Versailles.  Sharing in her resistance to (and eventual delight in) those changes was an absolute joy to read.  Clegg deftly tackles the transformation as Antoinette catches a glimpse of herself après a French hairdressing:

“I had always seen myself as the youngest, least pretty and most insignificant of Mama’s girls but now suddenly I believed that I too could be beautiful and important.  I hope I never forget how I felt at that moment: powerful.”

This steady eye on the Antoinette we all know so well makes the novel a page turner.  We know what happens at Versailles and we know the dismal end swept in by the revolution.  What Clegg does is humanize Antoinette, making her the little sister, full of hope and giddy laughter and minor rebellions, with the internal reflection long due France’s most enigmatic queen.

A much recommended read for Marie Antoinette fans but also for anyone interested in what life was really like for princesses in 18th century Europe.

You can find out more about the author Melanie Clegg by visiting her popular art, history and writing blog at http://madameguillotine.org.uk/.

Singerie a.k.a The Monkey Craze

The monkey craze was born out of orientalism, a close relation to chinoiserie, the other craze of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Like many aesthetic obsessions of the time, it manifested from western Europe’s fervor for all things exotic and first cemented its mark in France.  Today we can thank Claude III Audran, a designer working at the Chateau de Marly, for entertaining us with his notion that monkeys can and should sit around a table just like us humans.  Or at least, they should in paintings.  This idea of Audran’s was most likely inspired by 17th century aristocrats’ penchant for dressing their pet monkeys in outfits where the monkeys would then perform tricks for the amusement of courtiers at Versailles.

Unfortunately Audran’s designs have gone the way of the chateau, but we can the work of his successors.  Jean Berain, the Elder, a rococo artist who painted arabesque wall decorations f0r the Sun King renewed enthusiasm for the style when he added monkeys to his engravings in 1711.  I’ll leave it up to you to decipher what business the monkey is up to here.

The artist Jean Baptiste Siméon  Chardin is a also notable contributor with his singe paintings, the most famous being Le Singe Peintre (below) but many influential artists of the time dabbled in the style, including Antoine Watteau and Nicolas Lancret.

In art, as well as textiles and home furnishings, singerie eventually became the term for the humorous depiction of monkeys imitating human behavior.  Often, these simians were fashionably dressed in oriental attire and were depicted engaging in playful pursuits.  In fact, that’s where singerie comes from.  In French, it translates as “monkey trick.”   


The greatest surviving example of a room decorated in the singerie style is located in the Chateau de Chantilly.  From 1643 to 1830, it was owned by the Bourbon Condé family, cousins to Louis XIV.  For an up close look, visit Le Grand Singerie.  The images above are part of the wall paneling.  The whole of the room, formerly believed to have been painted by Watteau, is now credited to Christophe Huet.  He also painted Le Petit Singerie which functioned as a small room between the apartments of the Duc and Duchesse of Bourbon. 

For further information on singerie, see:  NY Times’ Chateau’s Monkey Room is Lovingly Restored

Liked the post?  Check out 18th Century Chinoiserie


Amedee-Francois Frezier and The Chilean Strawberry

How a Chilean Strawberry, a French Explorer, Queen Marie Antoinette, and the Contemporary Sparkling Wine, Fresita, are Mysteriously Intertwined

First, a history lesson . . .

Fraise:  French for strawberry. 

Frezier:  the evolved surname of the Frazer family whose ancester, Julius de Berry, was knighted in 916 by Charles the Simple for bearing a fistful of strawberries when visiting the king of France.  King Simple, enchanted by the sweet gift, bestowed the family with a coat of arms showing three fraises.  Fast forward to a chance discovery of Chilean strawberries 796 years later and we have a family steeped in berry tradtion. 

Allow me to introduce you to this bold-eyebrowed fellow, Amédée-François Frézier

As an explorer, a military engineer, mathematician, pyrotechnic enthusiast and reputed spy, Frezier was one busy fellow.  Among his lengthy contributions to society, however, he is most noted for introducing five new and lovely varieties of Chilean strawberries to 18th century France.  Familiar with the native woodland strawberry, which was small and delicate, the French were destined to go crazy over the large, though if not as superbly flavored, fruit for Frezier returned to the royal court in 1714 and showed Marie Antoinette his favorite way of consuming it.  A fashionable libation was thus born.      

Strawberry and Champagne by Velo Steve, Flikr

As a wise Frenchman once said, “You say no to champagne, you say no to life.”  Well, Frezier might have refined this as, “You say no to strawberries and champagne and you must be a Spanish pig-dog.”  You see, in the aims of increasing France’s importance in the New World, Frezier was sent on a mission two years earlier in 1712.  The then lieutenant-colonel sailed for Chile on a mission of the upmost importance: reconnaisance.  Traveling by way of a merchant ship, he posed as a merchant captain and set to work visiting Concepcion’s military fortifications where he conceived nefarious plans such as which ports to use to best mount an attack, where to store arms, and how to escape by secret route. Fortunately for French gourmands, part of his extensive work included recording the flora and fauna of the region, among them the Fragaria Chilenosis.  Or Chilean strawberry.

In carrying on his family’s tradition, Frezier inspired something we can enjoy today and although I’ve yet to try Fresita wine, I can just imagine myself as Marie Antoinette, delighted by a strawberry floating in a flute of champagne.


Hot Chocolate in the 18th Century

La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768

Around 1657 a Frenchman opened a shop on Gracechurch Street in London where he sold chocolate, exotically advertised “as a West Indian drink [which] cures and preserves the body of many diseases.”   The French, ever more sophisticated than the English, had been drinking chocolate since the early 17th century, touting it as a remedy for many ailments.   Not everyone was a fan, however.  Madame de Sevigne commented on its excessive popularity throughout the court at Versailles in a letter to her pregnant daughter during the year 1671, warning “the Marquise de Coëtlogon drank so much when she was expecting that she gave birth to a little boy, black as the devil, who died.”  Clearly, a woman of sound sense.

Despite such declarations, hot chocolate was an exalted beverage among the upper classes.  It was taken daily by Louis IV during his public morning ablutions and Madame du Barry notably gave the aphrodisiac, mixed with amber, to stimulate her lovers.  Marie Antoinette likewise indulged, arriving on French soil with a personal chocolate maker in tow.  Adhering to a common 18th century recipe circulated among the wealthy, vanilla and sugar were mixed with cocoa paste to create a sweet, drinkable chocolate similar to today’s darkest chocolate, if a little more bitter.  It wasn’t until 1727 that milk was added, creating the creamy confection we know as milk chocolate.


Variation in chocolate recipes is almost endless, but many were imbibed for their powers of remedying illness or seducing would-be lovers.  Marie Antoinette created a most noble position at court, Chocolate Maker to the Queen, and as such had quite the arsenal at her disposal.   Her recipes included, “chocolate mixed with orchid bulb for strength, chocolate with orange blossom to calm the nerves, or chocolate with sweet almond milk to aid the digestion.”   “Chocolate a la capucine,” though not credited to Antoinette, would have proved useful to French court ladies, who were beginning to suffer abuse over fattening their bottoms with too much chocolate.   All one needed to become svelte was “4 oz. of chocolate, 6 oz. sugar, eggs beaten well and a good half-litre of Madeira!”   Consume at breakfast and don’t eat until dinner. . . because you have probably passed out. (The Temptation of Chocolate).

Among the weirdest recipes recorded: the Marquis de Sade’s “chocolate cantharnidine”, a toxic, aphrodisiacal blend derived from beetles mixed with cacao.  Needless to say, formal complaints soon followed at court and the debauched Sade received a royal scolding.

Chocolate Houses

Back in England, coffee houses were rivaled only by chocolate houses, tea having yet to fully hit the scene.  One of the most famous establishments was Cocoa Tree, a gentleman’s club at 64 James’s Street.  Of note, the 19th century poet Lord Byron was a distinguished member, as well as a number of prominent Whigs in the earlier part of the 18th century.  White’s Chocolate House, as seen below, was also fashionable among the younger set.

Consumption of chocolate, along with every other luxury enjoyed by the rich, dwindled in France during the French Revolution.  Still, during the royal family’s Flight to Varennes in 1791, Marie Antoinette refused to part with her silver chocolatière.  The original service contained “one hundred items made of silver, crystal, porcelain, ivory, ebony and steel.” Spectacularly useful after the loss of one’s head, I’m told.

For more, make sure to check out:

Chocolate at Versailles

Hot Chocolate, 18th to 19th Century Style

Chocolatier to the Kings of France, particularly Pistoles of Marie Antoinette

Rèunion des Musees Nationaux, Chocolate Related Museum Pieces

Oh, where art thou from Watteau?

Ever wondered where watteau style gowns got their name from? 

This cheeky fellow . . .

Or at least we’ll imagine he’s cheeky.  He looks more depressed to me but since he did die from tuberculosis laryngitis within the year this portrait was painted, I imagine he had good reason to be dour.  He was only 36.

The short of it is,  Antoine Watteau had a thing for sack back gowns, those über-fahsionable loose dresses worn over a tight bodice with vertical pleats extending from shoulder to hem.  You may know them better as the robe à la française as they were commonly worn throughout 1715 to 1775 by french ladies. 

So what was special about Monsieur Watteau?  Throughout his career, he was the man with the plan to create scenes of fêtes galantes, essentially what you would spend your time doing if you were rich, idle, and oh-so-fabulous.  Afternoon parties among pastures, courting and dancing, you say?  Ha, I think not.  But, if we are to take Watteau’s paintings with any literal merit, instead of say, metaphorical, we shall have to surmise otherwise.  I say, court on!

What’s interesting about Watteau is that his work was never commissioned by an aristocrat.  Although his paintings showcased more than a handful of lords and ladies and he did create the fête galante genre, he was an artiste to the bourgeois.  As such,  his paintings bear a certain melancholy, an underlining dissipation that refuses to be dispelled by worldly charms. 

But I digress. 

I told you I would show you watteau gowns showcased by Watteau and I will.   One particular detail to note is how often we see the posterior of sack back gowns rather than the anterior. 

 from Rendez-vous de chasse (hunting party), Watteau, 1720

Gersaint’s Shop Sign, Watteau, 1721

Thursday’s Obsession – Eugene Atget

A 19th century French photographer with an eye for the secret, mist driven Paris, Atget was a master of brume and shadow.  His photographs are evocative of an older, decaying Paris, a lost city somewhere between night and dawn, a city of light and yet without. 

Parc de Sceau

Notre Dame


More, more, more of ethereal Paris, you say?

Support dead artists: buy the book.

More on Pandora Dolls

A few posts ago I blogged about pandoras, those exquisite little fashion dolls so essential to 18th century style.  Well, I found a website where you can acquire one of your own, albeit modernly made, but none the less fabulous  They are inspired by a mixture period drawings, actual garments, and Queen Anne Style wooden dolls. 

A great gift for the 18th century connoisseur or doll collector in your life.  Visit Susan Parris’ site to check out the dolls.

Francois Boucher, Pompadour, and The Four Seasons

François Boucher was the most prolific French painter of his time.  Beloved by the Marquise de Pompadour, whom he painted numerous times, his works include oil paintings, Beauvais tapestry designs, reproductions on porcelain, and the now obsolete decorations for festivities at Versailles.

The Four Seasons, below, were once believed to have commissioned forLouix XV’s favored mistress to display in chateau at Crecy.  Now, they are suspected to have been created by Boucher for an unknown patron, although they belonged to her at the time of her death in 1764.  They were then bequeathed to her brother, who sold them in 1782.  Today they are a part of the permanent art collection at the Frick Museum, New York.  Rumor has it, Pompadour is the woman in winter.





To see The Four Seasons at their Frick home, see this video by NY public media.


The Confessions of Catherine De Medici – A Review

I like reading new-to-me authors.  Part of this experience lies in the thrill of the unexpected, the possibility of finding that fresh turn of phrase, that je ne sais quoi of writing: voice.  But voice is tricky and in many novels, especially first person historical novels, it falls flat.  Le’ts just say Gortner very much surprised me.

The Review:

So, first on the bigot disclosure (my own, of course):  I was reticent about reading this book because 1) given Catherine’s bad rep, portraying her as sympathetic is a Mount Everest worthy endeavor and 2) a fictionalized account of this raging she-serpent  was written by a man. 

This hesitation, however, was not uncommon for I soon discovered my female friends reacted in a similar vein.  In memory there is one male writer whom I thought has inhabited the female mind flawlessly and that’s Wally Lamb.  Well, C.W. Gortner, you now belong in that exclusive club because I believed every word you wrote as if it came out of Catherine’s mouth directly!  I am ashamed of my prejudice.  I not only sympathized with Catherine, I liked her.  I felt her hate for Diane, her frustration over her children’s ineptitudes and the equal force of her love for them.  Her connection with her son, Henri, sparkled off the pages. 

From the beginning she came across as a multi-textured woman—shrewd and ruthless, but also passionate and resilient, at odds with her time.  This revision of Catherine is one I can live with, not the Medusa, the deadly queen mother, but instead a powerful Medici through and through. 

The account below of Catherine by Henry IV (formerly Henri of Navarre) as reported by Brantôme, a French historian of her time, seems to ring true:

 “I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown—our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse.”

 I felt this when reading Gortner’s version of the tale.  Who could blame Catherine?  Who, to save her children, herself, might not do the same?


The book was so well executed I’m having trouble recalling Gortner’s writing style—it was transparent in the way that all first person narratives should be.   I never detected the writer within and I think that’s the greatest compliment when it comes to this genre (or perhaps any).   Historical fiction can be laden with superfluous details thereby forcing the characters to take a back seat.  Not so here.

My only complaint regarding Confessions of Catherine De Medici was I wished the book were longer.  Since Catherine lived to 69, outliving her husband and two of her reigning sons, as well as surviving the Catholic-Huguenot wars and several other ordeals, her life was rich with anecdotes and adventure.  I would have liked to further entrench myself in her experiences, but then again, publishing demands brevity nowadays and I would not blame this minor fault on Gortner. 

The Bottom Line: 

The book was a delight.  I highly recommend it and based on reviews I will definitely be checking out Gortner’s other historicals, The Last Queen and The Secret Lion.

Confesssion Book Trailer

Reviewed as part of the Oh-La-La French Historical Challenge.

Fragonard’s Progress of Love

Historical evidence suggests Du Barry paid for her paintings and upon their return to Fragonard, allowed him to keep both the works and the money.  After all, it wasn’t his fault her love with Louis XV floundered with his death or that she could no longer bear to look at the paintings.  This account of her refusal is conjecture, of course.  No one truly knows why Du Barry opted to use another artist.  Some claim Fragonard’s paintings reminded her of her lover, gone, and others say she simply changed her mind, choosing Joseph-Marie Vien, the classical painter, over Fragonard, who embodied the Rococco, a style that fell out of favor with the resurgence of classicism.  Out with old, in with the new!

I like the tragic romance story better.  Du Barry seems capricious to have rejected the work based on trends, but she was a hated royal mistress and therefore reasonably considered an opportunist.  

But let’s get on to Fragonard’s Progress of Love:

Painting #1, The Pursuit

The young lady in pursuit is leaping over a wall, her ladies around her.  The lover is beseeching, a rose in hand, while the young lady has a curiously vacant look in her eyes.  Her skirts are in wild disarray, her hands outstreched suggesting a flight in earnest.   Does she wanted to be courted?  Is she coyly interested in this young man?  Notice the dark cupids on the upper right corner.  They are in half shadow.  The dolphin beneath them looks almost serpentine as his mouth pours water into the fountain below. 

Painting #2, The Meeting

The young lady appears alarmed, her left arm extended toward her lover–is she about to get caught in the middle of her assignation?  The lover is crouched, his hand perched upon a ladder, his knee resting on the balcony.  He looks wary, yet less concerned, definitely not enough to leave.  The statuary in this piece is a woman and child rather than two cupids in the first painting.  Curiously, the child looks as though he’s falling away from his mother, his arms outstretched, his little mouth rounded in panic, while the mother fists the cloth draped around her. 

Painting #3, The Love Letters

By far the most idyllic of the four, The Love Letters is sweet, adoring.  The lover rests his head on his lady’s shoulder, his posture relaxed.  The young lady is still prim, her ankles crossed, but she seems more serene in the glow of his adoration.  Again, the statuary is ironic.  The cupid is in a panic, reaching for the mother/woman.   The woman casts her gaze down at him, disdainful.  She’s not going to pick him up. As the encroaching darkness of the trees suggests, their window of love is closing.

Notice the lover’s hand curving around the young lady’s bosom.  Her left hand is slung over his shoulder–not exactly amorous in kind.  The lover’s expression is ardent, obsessive.  The young lady’s is contemplative and yet detached. 


Painting #4, The Lover Crowned

Again with the moody statuary here.  The statue looks like a fallen angel and is distinctly a man versus a cupid, child, or woman.  The young lady is aloof, playful perhaps, but putting on more of a show crowning the lover than basking in his adoration.  The lover is arching toward his crown while an artist looks on–hardly an intimate scene.  One gets a sense of whimsy.  What has she given her lover already?  Why is she so aloof?  Are her intentions sincere?  Are his?

Guess we’ll never know what Fragonard had in mind.  He painted the Luviciennes panels at the Chateau, though few were permitted to witness their progress.  You can see them today at the Chateau (and online here) in the Salon Fragonard.

Hope you enjoyed!