Love and Friendship: Part One

By Susan Broomhall, The University of Western Australia

Box in the form of a dog on stand
Box in the form of a dog on stand, Japan 18th century wood, lacquer, glass © RMN-Grand Palais (Chateau de Versailles) / Thierry Ollivier.


The current ‘Versailles: Treasures from the Palace’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, which runs until 17 April 2017, brings a vast array of unique visual and material artefacts from the French royal court to Australia. These gilded memories document a sumptuous antediluvian age, enjoyed by some at least. Importantly, the exhibition’s focus extends from painted and embroidered representations of the magnificence of French power to the intimacy of quietly revered spiritual objects.

For the historian of emotions, these objects are also drivers for, manifestations of, and responses to many diverse feelings. One that caught my eye was a little maki-e dog. This was part of Marie-Antoinette’s extensive Japanese lacquerware collection, much of which had been given, or bequested, to her by her mother Maria Theresia, Empress of Austria. In December 1778, to celebrate the arrival of her granddaughter, Maria Theresia had sent her daughter Marie-Antoinette a urushi box, a present that symbolised a mother’s ongoing commitment to her married daughter in a foreign land.

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria
Figure 2: Martin van Meytens, Empress Maria Theresia of Austria, 1759. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

This maki-e dog reflects two of Marie-Antoinette’s well-documented passions: lap dogs and Asian exotica. At Schloss Schönbrunn, the imperial summer residence that Marie-Antoinette knew well from her childhood, there were exquisitely crafted accents inspired by the exotic east – porcelain, lacquer panels and silk wallpapers. Maria Theresia displayed life-sized portraits of her far-flung children, the exotic and the domestic side-by-side, in intimate spaces to which only a few people in the palace had access. The portrait that Marie Antoinette eventually sent her mother to join this collection, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s 1779–1780 full-length image of the French queen in court dress, remains in the Austrian collection today, although a contemporary copy is on display at the NGA exhibition. Maria Theresia’s lacquerware gifts were, therefore, not just a sign of her knowledge of her daughter; they were also a call to home.

Queen Marie-Antoinette
Queen Marie-Antoinette, Elisabeth Louise VIGÉE LE BRUN (1755 – 1842), France 1783, oil on canvas. © RMN-Grand Palais (Chateau de Versailles) /Thierry Ollivier.

Such presents were not isolated pleas for Marie-Antoinette to think of home; obligations to her family and her nation of birth permeated Maria Theresia’s letters to her daughter. Just a year after her arrival at the court, Maria Theresia chastised her daughter for not paying particular attention to the man whom Maria Theresia perceived should be one of Marie-Antoinette’s key friends and supports, the Austrian ambassador Florimond-Claude, Count of Mercy-Argenteau. Moreover, Maria Theresia reminded her daughter of her particular duties of friendship and

protection that you have for Germans. … Give a distinct welcome to the highest ranked, and generosity to all Germans, especially my subjects and from the best houses, and to the least, those who do have access to the Court here, kindness, affection and protection. … It is not your beauty, which is hardly great, nor your talents or learning (you know very well that you have none), but the goodness of your heart, this frankness, these attentions applied with careful judgement.[i]

Marie-Antoinette’s letters in return insisted upon her warm welcome of Germans at the French court. These missives regularly professed her respect and duty towards her mother, and the pair continued to exchange letters twice a month from the time of Marie Antoinette’s departure until her mother’s death. In 1778, Marie-Antoinette’s first-born child, Marie-Thérèse, would be named in honour of her mother.

Correspondence reveals the complex entanglement of feelings between powerful mothers and their powerful daughters – daughters whom they wanted to see become strong and confident influences in their new homelands, but whom they also often expected to secure natal interests.

Heart and Understanding

Two centuries earlier, Catherine de Medici was carefully negotiating similar challenges with her eldest daughter, Elisabeth, who had left her homeland, just as Marie-Antoinette had, as a 14-year-old, to become Isabel, queen consort of Philip II of Spain.

These mothers wanted to be respected, perhaps even a little feared, by their daughters, if it would give them emotional and political leverage. Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, recalled that Elisabeth ‘honoured, respected and feared her [Catherine] such that I heard it said that she had never received a letter from the queen her mother without trembling and being afraid that she was angry with her or would write harsh words to her’.[ii]

Catherine de Medici,
Figure 4: François Clouet, Catherine de Medici, c.1560. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

When rumours (spread by the Guise faction) suggesting that Catherine’s Catholic convictions were suspect reached Spanish ears, she explicitly articulated her pain and frustration to Elisabeth: ‘Madame my daughter, you will see by my other letter how they torment me, and their desire to bring me down (even though I live as I always have, and I have not changed nor wish to change religion)’.[iii] Catherine repeated her use of ‘torment’ in imagining how she would feel should Elisabeth not succeed in her mission (as Catherine saw it) to speak to Philip on her mother’s behalf: ‘my daughter, you must do all you can to persuade him by all the ways that you can think of to do this for me; otherwise it will torment me and all those who join with him’.[iv] Catherine’s explicit referencing of her feelings aimed to impel her daughter to act in her mother’s defence. She insisted that Elisabeth prioritise the information provided by her own correspondence, rather than that even of the French ambassadors at the Spanish court:

my daughter, my dear, if you love me and if you wish for my wellbeing, I beg you neither to fear nor believe the ambassador or others, and do what I ask, which is that, when you are with the king your husband, say to him: ‘Monsieur, do not find it out of place if the queen my mother writes to you … and also if I speak of it.’[v]

Isabel Queen Consort of Spain
Figure 5: Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Elisabeth de Valois; Isabel Queen Consort of Spain.           Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

At the same time, however, Elisabeth also pushed back, asking her mother what precisely she was doing to stamp out Protestantism, as had her father Henri II and brother François II. This she broached as the love of a daughter for her mother, desiring her happiness and offering the support from Spain that Catherine would need to enact such a policy:

I dare to tell you all this, being reassured that you won’t find it amiss, knowing that what I say about it comes from the affection I have to your service, and by your commandment, and also that other than the honour that I have to be your daughter, I have duties that I would be remiss in if I did not write to you of all that I hear, think, and pick up. I beg you most humbly to pardon me if I go too far.[vi]

Through their changing relationship as epistolary interlocutors and as political protagonists in their kingdoms, Catherine and Elisabeth juggled their feelings of love and loyalty to each other as mother and daughter, with the expectations upon each to act in the interests of the kingdoms and dynasties into which they had married.

These were written testaments to negotiated love and power. Catherine, as a woman married into a dynasty that she sought to protect and defend throughout her life, was uniquely placed to understand her daughter’s similar experiences in Hapsburg Spain. Elisabeth was at once the queen, her daughter, her love and her friend, and she desired Elisabeth’s intellectual and political development. When, in July 1567, it looked as if Philip might appoint his wife regent, Catherine instructed her ambassador to tell Elisabeth:

in the event that he leaves her as regent in Spain, tell her, from me, that she must show herself worthy of this role and not let herself be led by those around her, but in being the mistress, she ought to do service to the king her lord. … She must no longer be led as if she is still in training, for she will be seen as lacking heart and understanding, and I am certain that she has both of these.[vii]

Just a few years after Marie-Antoinette and Marie Theresia had concluded their correspondence, another powerful woman, Wilhelmine von Preußen, wife of Willem V, Prince of Orange, began to foster a correspondence structured as an intimate friendship with her daughter, Frederica Louise Wilhelmina.

(To be continued next week…)

[i] Marie-Antoinette, Correspondance (1770–1793), edited by Évelyne Lever (Paris: Tallandier, 2005), 8 May 1771.

[ii] Oeuvres complètes de Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme, edited by Ludovic de Lalanne, 11 vols (Paris: Mme Ve Jules Renouard, 1864–1882), vol. 8 (1875), p. 13. These letters are explored in more depth in Susan Broomhall, ‘“My daughter, my dear”: The Correspondence of Catherine de Médicis and Elisabeth de Valois’, Women’s History Review 24.4 (2015): 548–69.

[iii] Négociations, lettres et pièces diverses relatives au règne de François II, tirés du portefeuille de Sébastien de l’Aubespine, évêque de Limoges, edited by Louis Paris (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1841),p. 831.

[iv] Ibid., p. 831.

[v] Ibid., p. 852.

[vi] Dépêches du sieur de Fourquevaux, ambassadeur du roi Charles IX, 1565–1572, edited by Charles Douais, 3 vols (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1896–1904), vol. 3 (1904), p. xliv.

[vii] Lettres de Catherine de Médicis, edited by Hector de La Ferrière-Percy, 11 vols (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1880–1943),vol. 3 (1887), p. 47.

Susan Broomhall is Professor of History at The University of Western Australia and Director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. She was a Foundation Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. She became an Honorary Chief Investigator in 2014, having taken up an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. She is currently working on a study of emotions in the letters of Catherine de Medici.


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