A contrast to Versailles

22 March 2010

You don’t have to look far to work out where Marie Antoinette got her taste for informality and a cosy, intimate ‘normal’ family life, that the snobs of Versailles disapproved of so thoroughly. This charming painting by the Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria (‘Mimi’) shows the Imperial family at their leisure on Christmas Day 1762. In front of the fire sits the Emperor Franz-Stephen, still dressed in his dressing gown, night cap and slippers, while behind him stands the dread Empress Maria Theresa herself, looking thoroughly unregal in a plain blue dress.

On the floor lies Maximilian, the youngest of the Imperial children, enjoying a plate heaped with gingerbread biscuits, while behind stands Maria Antonia, proudly holding aloft a new doll, clearly a gift from St Nicholas. Maria Christina chose to paint herself in the work, dressed in a pretty pink dress and playing the part of a teasing, yet affectionate elder sister as she asks a crying Archduke Ferdinand to choose between the treat of some biscuits or the punishment of some birches inside a shoe. The paper that the Emperor holds in his hand is probably a list of the unfortunate Ferdinand’s misdeeds throughout the year and he is caught as he is about to pronounce sentence. Which will it be?

This other painting by Maria Christina, shows another intimate scene, this time the birth of her niece, the Archduchess Maria Theresa on the 20th March 1762. The new baby’s proud parents, the Archduke Josef (later Joseph II) and his adored wife, Isabella of Parma, the granddaughter of Louis XV of France. The young couple look thrilled and exhausted: Josef is wearing a dressing gown and night cap and is wholly and proudly concentrated on his wife, while she looks back at him fondly as she eats some sustaining and restorative gruel with a long handled spoon.

Again, Maria Christina has painted herself into the domestic scene and watches proudly, dressed in blue, as a wet nurse feeds the baby some milk with a spoon.

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