Three Famous French-ish Mothers in Art History

Crowds photographing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Paris

If you scrolled through social media over the weekend, you can’t have missed that last Sunday was Mother’s Day. Or at least, over in the US (and most other countries) it was (here in the UK we celebrate it in March, lest my fellow Brits start panicking on behalf of their neglected mums). In honour of mothers everywhere, we’re sharing some of our favourite mothers in art history. Though all of these ladies can be found at the Louvre, none of them are actually French by birth. But they’re all mothers (good or bad), and are important to the history of France in one way or another.

1)     Marie de Medici, meddling mama

In some ways, it’s tempting to feel sorry for Marie de Medici. A member of the influential and powerful Medici family, she came to France as the young second wife of the much older King, Henri IV. Things didn’t start well. The wedding was grand and lavish, with extravagant entertainment such as the newly formed art form of opera.

The only problem? Marie’s husband-to-be was not actually present, and they were married by proxy. Throughout her ten-year marriage, Marie feuded constantly with her husband’s parade of mistresses.

The children of Marie de Medici

Despite this sour marriage, the couple had six children, two of which would go on to become queens (Henrietta-Maria, who married Charles I of England, and Elisabeth, who married Philip IV of Spain). Their oldest child, Louis, was of course destined to become King Louis XIII of France.

Portrait of Marie de Medici, at the Louvre
Portrait of Marie de Medici by Frans Pourbus, at the Louvre. Image by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT via Wikimedia Commons

Regency and exile

In 1610, after ten years of marriage, King Henri was assassinated, marking the beginning of Marie’s seven-year stint as regent for her oldest son. Louis was only nine at the time of his father’s death, and would officially come of age at thirteen. His power-hungry and scheming mother, however, had no intention of ceding her power.

Louis exiled his unpleasant and unpopular mama twice, and twice she staged rebellions. Marie finally gave up her position in 1617, when Louis was sixteen. But she continued her meddling until 1628, when she was exiled from France altogether. She died in exile in Cologne in 1642, just two years before the death of the King, her oldest son.

History remembers Marie de Medici as a meddling, power-hungry viper, ready to do anything to keep her own son from the throne. However, like the rest of her family, Marie was an important patron of the arts. She constructed the marvellous Palais du Luxembourg in Paris, and commissioned a vast 21-piece series of paintings by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The series, which glorifies her life and reign, is now at the Louvre.

While Marie is unlikely to win any prizes for being a good mother, she holds an important place in art history.

2)     Mona Lisa, the most famous mother in art?

There’s probably no more famous piece of art in the world than Da Vinci’s 16th century masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. Though she’s not French, her home at the Louvre for 200 years has made this lady symbolic of France.

Who is the lady in the painting?

We don’t know a great deal about the real life of one of the most famous women in art history. The painting’s subject is an Italian noblewoman called Lisa Gherardini. Lisa was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, which is why the painting is called La Gioconda in Italian and La Joconde in French. The English name comes from Mona, a polite way of addressing a lady, similar to “ma’am” or even “my lady”.

A crowd in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris
Crowds photographing the Mona Lisa, the most famous mother in art history, at the Louvre

We know that she married her much older husband in her teens, after growing up in Florence. And we also know that she was mother to at least five children.

We don’t know exactly why the painting was commissioned, but some art historians believe it was in celebration of the birth of Lisa’s second child in 1502, after her daughter died in 1499. There’s certainly a hint of sadness in her famously “enigmatic” smile.

Conspiracy theories?

Another intriguing possibility which has been suggested several times, is that Lisa could have been pregnant when she was painted. In 1959, a British doctor published a paper claiming that the famous lady’s supposed “puffy neck” was a sure sign of an enlarged thyroid gland, suggesting her pregnancy.

I’m no doctor, but her neck looks just fine to me. Perhaps more convincingly, in 2006 the National Research Council of Canada used laser and infrared scans to get a closer look at the Mona Lisa than ever before. This revealed details previously hidden under layers of darkened paint and varnish. They discovered that her hair was originally in a bun, for example. And that Da Vinci originally had her in a slightly different pose.

Detail of the folded arms of the Mona Lisa, Louvre, Paris
Detail of the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous woman in art history. Could this famous lady have been pregnant?

The scans also showed a particular kind of gauze dress, which was commonly worn by pregnant women in 16th century Italy. Sadly, historians have largely debunked this theory. But you have to admit that there’s something quite pleasing about the most famous mother in art’s pregnancy being revealed with a scan, just like a real mama-to-be.

3)     Marie Antoinette, a misunderstood queen?

In 1793, Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI of France was accused by a revolutionary tribunal of committing an “acte incestueux” with her 8-year-old son. No need to be a language scholar to translate that one. So horrified was she by this suggestion that she at first refused to answer.

Nature refuses to answer such a charge made to a mother,” she said, appealing “to all mothers present”.

Supposedly, the crowd – particularly the women – applauded the queen and hissed at the revolutionaries for having gone too far. Given that the same crowd would be perfectly happy with the same lady being paraded through the streets of Paris and executed the next day, this story seems somewhat doubtful.

But in any case, it raises a question. Today, we remember the Austrian-born queen for her frivolity, lavish lifestyle and total ignorance of the suffering of the poor. But we also know that she was mother to four children. So, was Marie Antoinette a good mother?

Portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children at Versailles, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
Portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children at Versailles, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Lebrun painted over 30 portraits of the Queen, making her one of the most prominent women in art history of the late 18th century. This painting, now housed at Versailles, was a PR effort to shift the public’s view of Marie Antoinette to one of a caring mother, instead of a frivolous, empty-headed queen. Note the empty bassinet, signifying the recent death of her fourth child.

The children of Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, were only 13 and 14 when they were married. It took a while for them to begin having children. It’s likely that this was due in a large part to the young king’s sexual ineptitude. He confided to his wife’s brother (of all people) when he was 22 that he usually “introduced the member”, then “stays there without moving for about two minutes” before bidding his wife goodnight.

After a chat about the birds and bees from his brother-in-law, Louis eventually figured it out. The couple had their first child in 1778. They went on the have three more children, though their firstborn, Marie Thérèse, was the only one to reach adulthood.

More unusually, Marie Antoinette also adopted four children. These included a poor orphan who had run out in front of the Queen’s carriage, a Senegalese slave boy given to the Queen as a present, but who she instead baptised, adopted and cared for, and the daughter of two servants at Versailles, where the royals lived.

We can’t really argue with Marie Antoinette’s frivolity and penchant for lavish dresses (we can argue that looking nice and being fashionable was basically her job, but that’s another matter). But it’s possible that this misunderstood lady had a softer side.

On the eve of her execution, she wrote to her sister, “I grieve bitterly at leaving my poor children; you know that I existed but for them and you”. We can’t know whether she included her four adopted children in this statement. But it’s clear that while Marie Antoinette might not have understood the issues faced by the masses on a national scale, she did seemingly love her children, and had a thing for adopting hungry-looking orphans on the side of the road.

(And no, she didn’t say “let them eat cake”, brioche or anything else.)   

The Marie Antoinette Room at the Louvre.
The Marie Antoinette Room at the Louvre, Paris

Want more on these ladies?

All three of these ladies appear in our treasure hunts, both at the Louvre or in the streets of Paris. The Mona Lisa is, of course, the centrepiece of several of our Louvre hunts. Marie de Medici features in our Latin Quarter THATRue (which begins at her former residence, the Palais du Luxembourg). And both she and Marie Antoinette feature in our Kings and Leaders themed hunt at the Louvre.

Of course, we can’t get to museums to host your treasure hunts right now. But we do have more content here on the blog on the treasures of our museums, the history of Paris, London and more, and plenty of tips on things to do while you’re stuck at home. To get our latest posts direct to your inbox in one convenient, weekly email, sign up to our mailing list!

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