Marie Louise Josephine de Savoie
Comtesse de Provence (1753-1810)
Madame Vigée Le Brun was renowned for her uncanny ability to create convincing but subtly flattering likeness. Yet, the critic of Messieurs, ami de tout le monde was surely being politic when he observed that in addition to displaying "considerable work on the heads and considerable skill in the details" and "draperies painted with ...lightness," both the portraits of Monsieur and Madame have the merit of appearing lifelike" and showing considerable "verisimilitude," The Comtesse de Provence was admired for her intelligence and wit (qualities she shared with her bookish husband), but she was no beauty, and Vigée Le Brun must have employed considerable genius to render her sitter with the grace and physical charm evident in the portrait while still making it recognizable as Marie Josephine. Short and dark, with a dusky complexion, long face, large nose, and bushy eyebrows, the Comtesse de Provence was, as Madame du Barry bluntly remarked, "ugly and she smelled." Her reluctance to wash, wear perfume or have her eyebrows plucked was regarded with such concern that two years into her marriage , her father, the King of Sardinia, wrote to her imploring that she try to please her husband and pay attention to her toilette (26 February 1773). Her lack of hygiene, in addition to her inability to bear children, finally drove Provence to abandon the marriage bed; by 1781 he was openly living at the Petit Luxembourg Palace, and her relationship with her husband sank - in the words of Philip Mansel, Louis XVIII's most recent biographer - to a level of "fairly amiable mutual endurance."
Throughout the 1770's and 1780's, the duties of a royal heir and his wife kept the couple busy - if unsatisfied - and at each other's side most of the time: an almost constant round of receptions, balls, operas and plays framed by levers and couchers. Provence was an ardent art collector and by 1781, the year of his portrait, he owned 180 paintings and more than 3500 drawings (almost all Dutch or Flemish). He was also Jacob Freres best client and between 1781 and 1786 bought 574 beds alone. As can be easily imagined, he rode up debts to the nearly bankrupt crown of over five million livres.
In addition to the seasonal court moves from Versailles to Fontainbleau to Compiegne, the Comte and Comtesse de Provence had their own Chateaux at Brunoy, Grosbois and L'Isle Adam. The architect Chalgrin built the enchanting Folie de Madame for the Comtesse near Versailles in 1784: a small, white pavilion with a central rotunda decorated with trompe-l'oeil wildflowers, it was the place to which she increasingly retreated as her marriage decayed.
Unfortunately, the remaining thirty years of Madame's life were not happy. She turned increasingly to drink, no doubt largely because she had so little else with which to occupy her time. Her reputation has long been surrounded by rumors that she was a lesbian. Although impossible to substantiate, she did have a passionate attachment until her death with her Lectrice de la Chambre, Madame de Gourbillon. Their correspondence was intimate and during one of the many separations forced on them by Provence, who had grown to hate Gourbillon, the Comtesse wrote her friend that though her husband was "the master in my house, he is not master of my heart - he has never had it." Even from her deathbed, she continued to send daily love letters to Gourbillon. After Marie Josephine's death, Madame de Gourbillon sold the implicating letters to the widower, then by King Louis XVIII, in exchange for a substantial annual pension.
Madame became further isolated at court because of her barely concealed hatred for Marie Antoinette, a loathing she shared with the revolutionaries of 1789. She and her husband escaped Paris on 20 June 1791, the same evening as the King and his entourage, but in a different carriage. Unlike the Royal couple, who were captured, the Comte and Comtesse de Provence arrived without incident in the Austrian low lands, and traveled from there to Coblenz, where Provence and his younger brother, the Comte d'Artois, organized open resistance to the French government and encouraged foreign intervention to restore the monarchy. this effort would continue unabated for the next 24 years.
When the King was executed in January 1793, the Comte de Provence declared himself Regent. In June 1795, at the death of his nephew Louis XVII, he assumed the title of Louis XVIII. Over the next two decades he would lead a peripatetic existence, residing in Italy, Germany, Latvia and Lithuania before settling in England in 1807; throughout, his wife, now Queen of France in exile, was rarely with him. Neglected, she had left Coblentz in April 1792 to live with her father in Turin. However, in a splendid flourish of revenge she insisted that, of course, her lady in waiting - the King's mistress, Madame de Balbi - should go with her, leaving Louis "more time for politics." they would not see him again until 1799. When Marie Josephine landed in England in October 1808 to join her husband (who arrived ten months earlier), she was a tiny crooked old woman reported to have gone black with age. The royal couple rented Hartwell House outside of Aylesbury, but the Queen grew increasingly ill and isolated, her condition made worse by the English weather.
Marie Josephine died in exile, from hydropsy, on 12 November 1810 at the age of 57. Surrounded in her final days by most of the French court, she begged for forgiveness for any wrongs she might have done them, especially Louis, who she assures she harbored no ill will toward. Her funeral was a magnificent occasion to which the whole Emigration turned out, their names recorded by police spies and reported back to Napolean. The funeral cortege was followed by the carriage of the British royal family, and Marie Josephine was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. (Her body was removed a year later on Louis's orders and buried in the Kingdom of Sardinia; it is today in Cagliari Cathedral.)
The King was restored to the French throne briefly in 1814 and then permanently after Napolean's final defeat at waterloo the following year; he never remarried. Louis XVIII died in 1824 and was succeeded by the Comte d'Artois, who ruled as Charles X.
P. & D. Colnaghi & Co. Ltd., London
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