The Duchess of Berry, painted by Nicolas de Largillière as "Flora," was renowned for her profligate ways and for her frequent changes of raiment. photo photo

Fraught couture

The French lady and the fashion tyrant

By Satn Tymorek


Marie de’ Medici liked to picture herself hanging out with the gods. In 1621, when she was queen of France, she commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint 21 pictures illustrating the key incidents in her life. The Greek and Roman deities appear in the 14-foot-tall paintings as often as siblings in a family photo album. Her birth is attended by a river god representing the Arno River, which runs through her native Florence. This Queen of Self Esteem probably didn’t object to Rubens painting a halo around her infant self’s head.

“The Education of the Princess,” an early version of  American schools’ Picture Day, shows the young Marie reading intently while Apollo, Athena and Hermes, forming a sort of divine study group, look on. In “The Debarkation at Marseilles,” there isn’t a porter in sight. If there were, he’d be upstaged, as the queen herself is, by Neptune and three voluptuous, naked Sirens rising from the sea. They apparently guided the ship on a safe passage, and now seem ready to unload the Queen’s baggage, if she so desires.

Marie de’ Medici had Rubens’ paintings of her life installed in the Luxembourg Palace, in Paris, while it was still being built for her. About 90 years later, the mistress of the palace, the Duchess of Berry, led a life that was light years away from Marie’s baroque, mythological splendor. If this interloper in the Luxembourg had commissioned paintings of the better-

known episodes in her life, the series would have to include “Drunk Again at the Weekly Palace Orgy,” “In Seclusion for Another Clandestine Pregnancy,” and “Walking in the Luxembourg Gardens in Disguise and Getting So Angry Over Soldiers’ Advances that She Closed the Gardens to the Public, Who Hated Her For It.”

Born Marie Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans, the Duchess of Berry was a “legitimized” granddaughter of Louis XIV, who allowed her to live in the Luxembourg Palace after her husband died in 1714. She was also “one of the most odious young women whom the Court of France had ever seen.” That’s the blunt assessment of H. Noel Williams, who in his book Unruly Daughters (1913) goes on to say: “She had all her mother’s arrogance and deceit; all her father’s irreligion and licentiousness, to which she joined a violent temper, drunkenness, gluttony, a contemptuous disregard of ordinary decency and a most foul tongue.”

In other words, the Duchess was hardly a sympathetic character. Yet I can’t help feeling sorry for her because she became so infatuated with one Sicaire Antonin Armand Auguste Nicolas d’Aydie, the Chevalier de Rions (aka Rion) that she allowed him to dictate what she should wear. Even worse, as Stendhal writes in Love (1818), he did this for kicks ...

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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