I don’t know if Alexander Kucharski had left us the best portrait of Marie-Antoinette or if it is the portrait’s provenance that is playing tricks with my imagination. Suppose he just had an unfinished portrait, and then came up with the whole story ten years later? After all, during and after the Revolution he was living off the copies he and others were making of Marie-Antoinette’s portrait presumably made by him while she was locked up in the Tower, and then the same for the copies of the portraits of Louis XVII, also made by him while the boy was held a prisoner. And this is where I am tempted to ask difficult questions: How did he get in the Tower? And why would they let him mass-produce the images damaging to the cause of the Revolution? If he were Jacques Louis David, then it would be different. The official painter of Marie-Antoinette allowed in the Tower for the painting sessions? Ludicrous! He must have worked off the old sketches. How hard is it to dress a portrait into a black dress? Then he would sell it as something recent.
And this pastel wouldn’t sell, too radiant, too healthy. What he was cranking out were the portable pictures of martyrs. And this is why in the context of terror, or even years after, to finish this pastel was no longer meaningful. And so the unfinished picture was placed inside the drama of the flight of the royal family, then once again recycled for the storming of the Tueleries Palace. Too many adventures for one unfinished pastel: the crowd breaking in during his session and how he let Marie-Antoinette escape by a secret door, then the revolutionaries spitting on the picture. Not that they wouldn’t, but there are enough stories already for two or three portraits, and so many details, looks like he was spinning this tale a few times. What must have really happened was rather mundane, the old guy couldn’t paint anymore and needed a pension. And this unfinished pastel, complete with a hot-button narrative, got him exactly what he needed. By the way, did you remember Marie-Antoinette’s birthday on 2 November? No? I didn’t. Welcome to the Royal Club.