Vol. 7

KATHRYN NUERNBERGER
On Horseback

 

As an exercise in empathy and imagination, I like to walk through portrait galleries and try to know each oil painting. I do this alone. In the Brun de Versoix of 1783, Marie Antoinette is riding in trousers.

If I were the kind of person who could stand going to the outlet mall with the ladies, I might appreciate the fashion statement in and of itself and I wouldn’t be rambling in the car to bored yawns about the political gambit at stake here. The stallion is drawn up into a bold rearing stance, in imitation of the heroic and mythologizing depictions of the Sun King. Would his grandson, Louis XV, notice the homage? Would he notice it just barely and be charmed or would he really notice and be outraged?

Young Marie Antoinette loved to ride because the court could not keep up with her and because what else did she have to do with her day after day? She rode astride because she was under the impression a queen could do as she wished.

Her mother, the empress of Austria, begged her to give it up. She sent a letter every week: “Riding spoils the complexion, and in the end your waistline will suffer from it. Furthermore, if you are riding like a man, dressed like a man, as I suspect you are, I have to tell you that I find it dangerous as well as bad for bearing children—and that is what you have been called upon to do; that will be the measure of your success.”

The letters do not address the problem that the dauphin would not deflower the dauphine because something was mysteriously amiss with his penis or his mind. Nor does the letter address the war Austria fought against France when the Empress Marie-Teresa, a woman, ascended the throne. She hardly speaks of the dozen cobbled-together marriages she arranged to make grandchildren of her enemies.

The Versoix is one of a great many portraits of Marie Antoinette. There is Marie with a book and Marie beneath a tower of her own hair. Marie with her children, Marie in a peasant dress. Marie as a cartoon of a fornicating ostrich, Marie riding a dildo over Paris, Marie looking haggard in the white shift that was the last dress she ever wore.

Fewer likenesses of Theroigne de Mericourt can be found, though even now for £14.58 you can buy a print of Ambrose Tardieu’s pencil sketch from Des Maladies Mentales. There were a great many portraits of women made across the decades at Saltpetriere, the asylum for women where mental maladies were considered scientifically; the collection only begins with Tardieu’s sketches. I’ve studied most closely the photographs from a century later, which they took of hysterics, trying to understand the physiognomy of lunacy. Not me, them. I am trying to understand indifference and cruelty.

When I pull the book of these photographs out of my bag to ask if it seems like the women might be pretending these faces to give the doctors what they want, it is clear I do not understand the purpose of a ladies’ day out. I’ve been alone in a house with a baby day after day for several months now, so I don’t know how else I could determine whether the faces of hysterical madness are really madness or just compliance, but I learn once more that I am too eager with my questions.

Theroigne de Mericourt is better known as the beautiful Amazon who led a band of starving women to the assault on Versailles. She went on horseback, astride, dressed as a man, to demand an audience of the king. She was so eager people whispered she was practically St. Joan, hysterical voices and all.

Before she had been Anne-Joseph Theroigne, a child who was hungry, then later, a housemaid who was bored. She added de Mericourt as an artifice when she followed a nobleman to England and began her serious studies of etiquette and coquetry and taste. When everyone was whispering about the dauphine’s refusal to wear the corset royal, Anne-Joseph knew enough to spit in the dirt of a queen who didn’t want to be queen.

After securing her financial future and her father’s and her brother’s through arrangements with former lovers, she went to Italy to perform opera, but when the revolution came “her insolent and rebellious character responded to and incarnated the revolt and protest of the masses. The frivolous courtesan was gone never to return.” Which is to say, she made her way to the front of the crowd.

She said when she broke into the apartments of “that Austrian woman,” Princess Lamballe looked like a lampshade running in those skirts, while Marie Antoinette shed powder from her falling-down hair as she fled.

As the revolution went on it became hard to choose the right side. Theroigne went with the Brisotins against the Jacobins. The Brisotins were moderate on the subject of executions and anarchy. Of course my sentiments lean towards the Brisotins too, but isn’t it naïve to think there could be half-measures when the wealth and power of the landed gentry was at stake? We’re eating soup and salads at the Olive Garden, shopping bags in a little pile around the legs of our chairs. No one can understand why I’m still going on about this.

Once Anne had helped a mob trample a nobleman and he died under her feet. She called the women of the revolution from their homes to organize and march, to form battalions, to fight as the men fight. The women came, which caused problems with the men who wanted equality and liberty but also meant brotherhood when they said brotherhood. Anne, the traitorous Brisotin woman was only a temporary problem, though, because it was women who soon stripped her in the square and women who flogged her. When she died, it was in the Saltpetriere, where women surrounded her and it is said their cacophony of wild screams is more than anyone could bear.

Buy Vol. 7 Print

<<Previous                  Next>>

Back to Table of Contents