Princesse de Lamballe Portraits: Her Life in Pictures
Princesse de Lamballe portraits portray the life of the woman originally born as Maria Teresa Louisa of Savoy. She became the Princesse de Lamballe when she married Louis Alexandre de Bourbon, Prince de Lamballe. He was the son and heir of Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, Duke de Penthièvre, who was one of the richest men in France and the grandson of Louis XIV. Marrying such an important Frenchman and then becoming a friend to Marie Antoinette meant the princess would be frequently painted making her image easily familiar to ordinary French citizens.
Before she arrived in France, one of the first Princesse de Lamballe portraits was a pastel completed when she was a young girl. Although it cannot be located today, historian Mathurin de Lescure saw it at the Palais Royal in Turin and described it in 1864. He stated that it showed the elongated face of a young girl with a swan neck and narrow chest holding a lace fan, half-opened that somewhat hid her throat. Two long curls fell onto her chest with the rest piled high in a chignon and “surmounted by a pretty little diadem.”
Although royalty was regularly praised for their beauty, the Princesse de Lamballe was not necessarily beautiful in the ordinary sense:
“She had too many irregular features: an elongated neck, somewhat long nose, and sloping shoulders. But she also had some delicate aristocratic features including tranquil blue eyes and a charming, friendly smile. Moreover, she was envied for her dazzling, translucent complexion, a complex that a lady-in-waiting would one day describe as ‘delicately fair’ … [and one] person commented that her hair could easily be ‘likened to the tresses which crown, nimbus-like, the heads of Raphael’s Madonnas.’”
The princess reached Paris on 3 February 1767 and was presented to the French court four days later. One of the earliest Princesse de Lamballe portraits completed after her arrival was finished in 1768 by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier, a French Rococo portrait painter, associated with the Royal Court who is best known for the portraits he produced of Marie-Antoinette and the Duke de Penthièvre. This family painting (shown below) was perhaps created to record or honor her arrival into her husband’s family.
Charpentier shows everyone seated around a table drinking chocolate, which was a luxury item at the time. Apparently, the Duke drank chocolate every morning and perhaps the portrait portrays what a typical morning with his family might have looked like. The 19-year-old princess is placed in the center and thus is the focus of the painting. She is shown gracefully holding her cup of chocolate and giving a special treat to her little dog at her feet. It is not surprising that a dog is included in the painting as the Princesse de Lamballe was known to love animals and in her will she left an abundant amount to care for her pets after her death.
Also in the picture, to the princess’ right is her father-in-law, the Duke de Penthièvre, and her husband, the Prince de Lamballe,* who is seated behind her with his hot chocolate cooling in his saucer. Standing is the princess’ sister-in-law, Marie Adélaïde. She married Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans and become mother to Louis Philippe I, King of the French. Seated next to Marie Adélaïde is her grandmother, the Countess Toulouse, who had died on 23 September 1766 from smallpox and who never met the Princesse de Lamballe.
This painting is often referred to as “La tasse de chocolat” because of the family drinking chocolate. According to historian Sarah Grant, this portrait was also “unusual because it [was] rare to find in French family portraits from this period parents portrayed alongside adult children; this was more common in contemporary English and Dutch portraiture.” Moreover, it was highly uncommon to depict a dead person as living. Thus, “the flowers at the comtesse’s feet and her distance from the central group, in compositional limbo, are the only indication that this is a posthumous depiction.”
Another of the Princesse de Lamballe portraits is displayed at the Palais of Versailles and appears to be credited to either Antoine-François Callet in 1776 or Joseph Ducreux in 1778. It is an oil on canvas titled “Portrait of Marie Louise Thérèse de Savoie, princesse de Lamballe.” It highlights the physical characteristics of the princess and shows her holding a garland of flowers and wearing a greyish-black gown with white lace at the sleeves. A matching fichu is tied in a bow at the front as shown below.
Soon after that painting was produced another Princesse de Lamballe painting was painted by Louis-Édouard Rioult between 1780 and 1785. This painting was later published in a supplementary issue of Le Petit Journal in 1892 and is frequently seen. The princess is depicted wearing a hairstyle that French hairdresser Henri de Bysterveld of the 1860s called the Lamballe headdress. It consists of wavy curves of hair drawn backwards from her face to form large hammer curls with a large chignon also achieved. A garland of pink flowers surrounds the top and matches the pink bow on her white gown. You can also see the golden shade of her hair and her pretty complexion.
Another of the Princesse de Lamballe portraits was produced by Antoine Vestier, an artist born in Burgundy who was a French miniaturist and portrait painter. He trained under Jean-Baptiste Pierre before being admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1785. Besides painting the Princesse de Lamballe, Vestier also painted such people as Jean Henri Riesener (the royal cabinet-maker), Jean Thurel (a fusilier in the French Army whose career spanned over 90 years), and Madame de Montesson (mistress to Louis Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans, who ultimately became his wife).
Vestier’s portrait of the princess is particularly interesting because it was involved in a famous art heist in the 1980s. At the time of the theft the portrait of the princess was owned by Afred Beit, who also owned other paintings that were also stolen in the heist. A notorious Dublin criminal named Martin Cahill and his gang were determined to be responsible, and, fortunately, on 2 September 1993, seven years after the theft, the painting of the princess was recovered in an Antwerp airport parking lot from the trunk of a car.
Many of the Princesse de Lamballe portraits were also engravings or prints. Such images of the princess were available in the thousands and because they were inexpensive and regular French citizens could easily buy them. The one shown below identifies the princess as “Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie Carignan, princesse de Lamballe.” It was published between 1780 and 1790, probably in Paris, and shows the princess facing right wearing her hair in à l’enfant style. This was a fashion popularized by the Queen and involved curls piled high, short curls covering the ears, and long loose curls at the nape. In the print, the princess appears in an oval and is surrounded by clouds.
This image also resembles the one found on a jasperware medallion of Wedgwood basalt created in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century by Josiah Wedgwood. Grant theorizes that the image Wedgewood used was based on a medal, stating, “the obverse of a medal matching Wedgwood’s composition exactly was reproduced in Augustin Cabanès’s 1922 biography of the princess where it was listed in the private collection of Otto Friedrichs.”
Even though Wedgwood did not record the source of his image for the princess, Grant points out that medals were often struck to celebrate an event and that this image may have been a medal created in celebration of the Princesse de Lamballe being appointed Superintendent of the Household by Marie Antoinette in 1775. However, the famous medal and medallion creators of the times, Jean Martin Renaud (1746-1821) and Jean-Baptiste Nini (1717-1786), have no records of this image in their catalogs and so the creator is unknown.
Another of the Princesse de Lamballe portraits that portrays the life of the princess is associated with Rambouillet, the magnificent estate that belonged to her father-in-law that was later purchased by Louis XVI. Rambouillet was 30 miles away from Paris and surrounded by green forests and quiet solitude. It was here that the princess came to live with the Duke after her husband’s death and it was here that he built her a shell cottage, Chaumière des Coquillages, as a get-away for her to read and relax. The engraving below is titled “Balancoire a Rambouillet.” It shows the princess swinging through the air from a contraption that is pulled and operated by a worker in her employ. Grant notes that, “Representations of swinging women in the eighteenth-century … rapidly became an established motif of ‘the leisurely life’ as well as a general evocation of romance or erotic feeling.”
Élisabeth Louis Vigée Lebrun, known to be a favorite portraitist of the Queen and a prolific portrait painter who is estimated to have produced over 600 paintings, was also among those who painted one of the many Princesse de Lamballe portraits created of her in the 1700s. She created three portraits of the princess with one portrait showing the princess facing forward and dressed in yellow and blue with blue ribbons on her gown. It was painted in 1781.
A second portrait of the princess produced by Vigée Lebrun was completed a year later, in 1782. In this oil on canvas, the princess is wearing a white gown with a blue ribbon tied at the front, blue ribbons on her sleeves, and a blue sash. Atop her head is a large yellow straw hat with gray feathers. Despite the princess’ hair looking somewhat gray in this portrait, as stated in my book about the princess:
“People … admired Marie Thérèse’s glossy hair. Long, luxurious, and of an indescribable golden hue, her hair fell in cascading waves when let down from its cap. Madame le Brun … claimed Marie Thérèse had ‘the most beautiful blond hair imaginable.’”
Another of the Princesse de Lamballe portraits is a three-quarter length miniature on ivory by Pierre Adolphe Hall. It shows a dark background with her seated, wearing a hairstyle from about 1786 and wearing a white cap. The pink ribbon in the cap matches the pink sash tied around her waist. In her right hand she is holding a handkerchief while her left arm rests on a carved table. This would have been painted around the time that the Countess de la Motte was found guilty in the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace,” an incident that occurred between 1784 and 1785 at King Louis XVI’s court that implicated the Queen, despite her lack of involvement. The incident further undermined and ruined Marie Antoinette’s reputation because she was accused of participating in a crime to defraud the crown jewelers of a very expensive diamond necklace.
Because Parisians began to dislike the Queen and because her reputation became tainted, her relationship with the Princesse de Lamballe also came to have unpleasant overtones. The Queen had also made friends with Yolande de Polastron, Madame de Polignac. Although the Queen hoped that de Polignac and the princess would be great friends, the women did not get along and never became friends.
Rumors about the Queen and two women began partly because of the belief among courtiers that whoever was the Queen’s favorite received extra favors and advantages. The princess and Madame de Polignac’s rivalry exacerbated the situation and reports were that they were behaving more like “two jealous suitors completing for a lover’s hand than two favourites vying for social supremacy.” Before long gossip of lesbianism were rampant and the rumors targeted the Queen, madame de Polignac, and the princess.
“One particularly slanderous piece depicted them in a five-act play titled, La Galleries des Dames Françaises. The play was reputedly written by French journalist, essayist, and theatre manager Marquis de Luchet. His diatribe focused on the madame de Polignac, represented as ‘Tenesis’, and the princesse de Lamballe, represented as ‘Balzais’.”
Although Madame de Polignac and the princess may not have gotten along, it doesn’t mean that history always portrayed them that way. In 1900, Le Petit Français Illustré’s cover was a drawing of Hameau de la Reine, an idyllic farm finished in 1788, where a stream turned a mill wheel, where an artificial lake served as home to ducks and geese, and where twelve rustic cottages with their leaded glass windows were sprinkled around a lake. It shows of Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe, and Madame de Polignac feeding ducks amidst a herd of sheep.
A year after Hameau de la Reine was finished, the French Revolution broke out. The Royal Family, the Princesse de Lamballe, and some servants were forced to move to the Tuileries Palais to be nearer to the people. As the revolution moved into high gear, the royal family tried to escape but failed. From that point forward the end of the French monarchy was a foregone conclusion. When the 10 August storming of Tuileries happened, the Royal Family and some servants, along with the Princesse de Lamballe, were imprisoned at the Temple.
The princess did not remain there long. She was separated from the Royal Family and placed in La Force, a prison that housed those who were thought to be supportive of the monarchy or against the revolution. While there, Madame Tussaud seems to have visited her and produced the following wax portrait.
Shortly after being taken to La Force, the Princesse de Lamballe was taken before a tribunal. They request that she denounce the king, the queen, and the monarchy and swear that she loved liberty and equality. She refused to do so and was killed by a mob that waited outside to impose the tribunal’s decree of death.
“They would ‘strike, hack, tear with any kind of weapon at the helpless victim till he fell, pierced and torn, upon a heap of naked mutilated corpses by the gate.’ Greeted by such carnage, the princesse de Lamballe shrieked in horror. She also shrank back from the arms of the soldiers, who now propelled her forward. … The descriptions surrounding [her death] … are highly contradictory. An often repeated story claims that the princess advanced but a few steps before ‘a journeyman barber, staggering with intoxication and infuriated with carnage, endeavoured in a kind of brutal jesting to strike her cap from her head with his long pike. The blow fell upon her forehead, cutting a deep gash, and the blood gushed over her face.’ As she quivered unsteadily from the blow … A second vicious blow … knocked her dead to the pavement. She was then possible ran through with a sword. One brute seized her by the hair, and with his sabre decapitated her head with one blow. Reportedly, a frenzy ensued: Her white garments were ripped off, ‘her thighs were cut across, and her bowels and heart torn from her.’”
A depiction of her death was forever immortalized in a painting more than a hundred years later. Léon Maxime Faivre, a French painter who exhibited at the Salon of the Society of French Artists between 1877 and 1932, provided the 1908 depiction below of her demise. It is titled, “Death of the Princesse de Lamballe.”
*The Prince de Lamballe was a womanizer and after five months of marriage to the princess returned to his dissolute ways. He contracted syphilis in September 1767 and was dead by 6 May 1768.
-  A. M. de Lescure, La princesse de Lamballe, Marie-Thérèse-Louise de Savoie-Carignan (Paris: H. Plon, 1864), p. 465.
-  G. Walton, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe (London: Pen and Sword History, 2016), p. 7.
-  S. Grant, Female Portraiture and Patronage in Marie-Antoinette’s Court (New York: Routledge, 2019), p. 12.
-  S. Grant. 2019, p. 15.
-  Ibid., p. 92.
-  Ibid., p. 100.
-  G. Walton. 2016, p. 7.
-  S. Grant. 2019, p. 69.
-  G. Walton. 2016, p. 153.
-  Ibid., p. 196–97.
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