Part III: Character Assassination and the Fall of Louis XVI

By Mikayla Knutson

Louis XVI attempted his own projects of image enhancement. But even royal portraits now garnered public backlash. Unhappy with her initial portraits, Queen Marie-Antionette commissioned painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun to complete more natural images of her in 1778. Le Brun’s first portrait depicted the queen in court dress, but her 1783 Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress drew public attacks. Exhibited in the Salon, it depicted the queen in a simple muslin dress and straw hat. Critics voiced offense at seeing the queen inappropriately depicted in domestic attire. Le Brun removed the portrait and presented a larger, more formal portrait of Marie Antoinette in lace-trimmed gown. The second portrait’s presentation earned substantial praise and the creation of several replicas.

Louis XVI’s reign saw the older forms of image enhancement known under Louis XIV (and even Louis XV) undermined as the rise of the public sphere coalesced with the emergence of Enlightenment critiques of monarchy. His last vestiges of control over public perception were lost in part because of the failure of censorship that had served Louis XIV so well. By Louis XVI’s reign, attacks on the king (for his supposed impotence) and the queen (for her supposed sexual lasciviousness) proliferated. French police sent agents to printers in Brussels and Vienna, and continuously raided Paris bookstores, but slander appeared on the market faster than it could be destroyed at the press. Because the regime could no longer control printed works or regulate the flow of information, subversive ideas proliferated, and Louis XVI lost control of public opinion.

It is worthy of note that personal attacks on Louis XIV differed from those levelled against Louis XVI. Louis XIV was “attacked for his politics”, but “Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were attacked for their sex lives, supposed or real.” As the influence of popular culture and sentiment rose, the effectiveness of royally prescribed images and presentations decreased.

Further, the king failed to participate in the public sphere and attempted the retention of Quatorzian indifference to public opinion. In December 1784, the Estates of Brittany voted to raise a monument to Louis XVI as a symbol of appreciation. The monument, intended for Brest, was to be visible from the harbor – a key naval base. But Louis stumbled as he attempted to build his royal image; his architect and sculptors disagreed over the best design and style for the monument. Brest elected to construct a warehouse in place of the king’s statue in 1787. Sensing his loss of control, on the eve of calling the Estates General in 1789, Louis XVI ordered the cahiers de doléances (list of grievances) drawn up – a symbolic concession and acknowledgement of the importance of engaging with public opinion. Louis XIV would not have approved of the cahiers, as his regime was unconcerned with public opinion of government and the monarchy; the Sun King expected the public to follow the sovereign’s direction.

As Louis XVI’s own attempts to project his power failed, he attempted to revive older representations of authority. He convened the Estates General – which had not met since 1614, during the reign of Louis XIII – in an attempt to re-establish the monarch’s status over the state and citizens. In May 1789, nearly one thousand delegates from across France gathered at Versailles in Louis XVI’s presence. The spectacle was crafted to represent traditional political and social state hierarchies and ceremonies performed during Louis XIII’s reign. Louis XVI attempted to recreate the court drama of the Sun King. But the subsequent creation of the National Assembly – a wholesale rejection of Louis XVI and the Estate General’s legitimacy, represented the lost salience of Louis XIV-era pageantry by the late eighteenth century. In the British Isles, Edmund Burke concluded that beholding the splendor of nobility was no longer enough to inspire popular reverence and veneration.

Louis XIV adeptly employed symbolism, imagery, and censorship to shape public opinion, but by 1789, Versailles no longer operated as an isolated space for the court and the monarchy. The court lived in the Paris orbit, affected by social change, and printed images and newspapers. Over the eighteenth century, protocol lost influence and meaning. Character enhancement via image dissemination diminished as competing images and ideas were disbursed and Louis XV and Louis XVI developed separate private lives out of the public eye and ceremonial space.

Louis XVI’s and Marie Antionette’s unpopularity (in part due to character assassination by their opponents) became their undoing. Anti-monarchical and anti-clerical political propaganda proliferated, with the revolutionaries in full control of art and the press, through to the king and queen’s trials and executions. Even at Louis XVI’s execution, the revolutionaries cut short his final speech – a full reversal of Louis XIV who, a century earlier, ritualized every aspect of his life into a theatrical performance, projecting his unassailable power.

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