Wannabe Queens

Madame de Maintenon
portrait attributed to Claude-François Vignon (Paris 1633-id. 1703)
(auctionned in Paris on December 09 2009 for €20 000).

Madame de Maintenon is wearing the "grand habit", the ceremonial dress ladies of high lineage had to wear at the court on very codified occasions.

Some details are revealing :
- the cross around her neck. She had many reasons to claim her faith. She was born to a protestant family and her grandfather, Agrippa d'Aubigné, was the author of the most violent pamphlet ever written against the French monarchy. She had to make amend for that part of her history. The Catholic Church also played a major part in her raise and in her mariage to Louis XIV. The mariage being kept secret, wearing the cross on an official portrait was also sending the message that she was not living in sin.
- the blue velvet coat lined with ermine. The ermine coat was a privilege reserved for the royal family. The king, queen, dauphins and dauphines wore it with golden lilies embroided. Portrayed with that symbol, madame de Maintenon was announcing a huge change of status.
- the jewels, displayed on her dress (saphires and emeralds) and on the table reveal a now forgotten aspect of Maintenon's personality : she had been a fancy woman, loving jewels and beautiful things.

At this stage of her life, Madame Louis XIV was enjoying being powerful and wealthy. The ermine coat was a silent but effective way to tell she was the new queen and she had to be treated as such - a message easily deciphered by her contemporaries.

She kept on wearing the ermine on her official portraits, even on the painting by Mignard (ca. 1694) who portrayed her as Saint Francesca of Rome - a detail which evidences that her claimed modesty had some very precise and strong limits : those set by her need to show her social achievement. Even in a picture where she was supposed to identify with a saint, she could not resist the temptation of displaying the symbol of her earthly importance. That "deluxe" saint speaks volumes about the real woman.

The portraits reveal Maintenon's other face : a proud, ambitious and strong-minded woman, who was enjoying every bit of the position she had conquered. Someone very different from the selfless and humble devout she was shaping out, for the posterity, in her letters.


Madame de Montespan and her Children

Here is another interesting portrait with the ermine coat. Madame de Montespan, who was Louis XIV's mistress, had, in theory, no right to the ermine. That is certainly why she had her reasons to wear it portrayed by her side : her children, legitimated by their royal father.

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