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Larkin's research has taken him to castles and archives across Europe. Here he looks through his materials in the MSU libraries. (photo Stephen Hunts)

She never said, "Let them eat cake"

by Carol Schmidt

More than 200 years after her death, Todd Larkin is helping to clarify
Marie—Antoinette's life.

"While in Paris this summer, I listened as a museum guide told a group of French schoolchildren that Marie-Antoinette didn't like the French, which simply wasn't true" recalls Larkin, a Montana State University art history professor. Larkin has received a coveted $5,000 stipend from the National Endowment of the Humanities to do original research in Europe for his book, "Marie-Antoinette and Her Portraits: The Politics of Queenly Self- Imaging in Late Eighteenth-Century France," to be published by the University of Delaware Press.

Marie-Antoinette Photo courtesy of Todd Larkin

"I want to give Marie-Antoinette her voice back. I want to see how and why she was so misinterpreted."

"That is where it starts," Larkin said of the guide. "People are still perpetuating untruths."

Uncovering the truth about the ill-fated French queen has become a passion and a profession for Larkin, one of a handful of contemporary authorities on Marie-Antoinette. Larkin examines her life from the perspective of the art historian as he analyzes the most visible public medium available to Marie- Antoinette in the late 1700s--the portraits she commissioned of herself.

Larkin theorizes that the portraits are links to the intentions of the controversial 18th-century queen, revealing important clues about Marie-Antoinette's personality and her cultural and political agenda for herself and the French people. Larkin argues that even though she was ultimately ineffective, she was one of the first women politicians who attempted to mold public perception. The enigmatic queen was imprisoned then beheaded in 1793 by an angry, revolutionary-minded mob, and Larkin would like to know how and why Marie-Antoinette failed to sway public opinion.

"I want to give Marie-Antoinette her voice back," says Larkin of the queen who never did say, "Let them eat cake." "I want to see how and why she was so misinterpreted."

Last summer Larkin's search for the authentic Marie- Antoinette took him to her native Austria, as well as France. He visited the Hapsburg castles in Innsbruck and the Staatsarchiv (State Archive) in Vienna where he was allowed access to the more than 200-year-old unpublished letters from Marie- Antoinette to her mother, Maria Theresa, the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire.

"I held these delicate letters in my hands and they were still sandy from the substance used to blot their writing ink," Larkin said. "As I got up from my chair I brushed away from my lap the blotter Marie-Antoinette had applied with her own hand." Larkin's work has led to insights into a complex woman. Raised to be the future queen of France, she was only 14 when she left her family and powerful and influential mother in Austria to marry the crown prince of France. Four years later she became queen when her husband was crowned King Louis XVI.

"She was a young woman to have so much power." Early on, Larkin says, "She says things that are so innocent." And, her reputation for style and beauty was acquired, Larkin learned. "At first her mother writes her that she needs to take better care of herself," Larkin says. "Her mother comments about her dirty clothes, hair and teeth. So Marie-Antoinette employs the French fashion industry to help her and she becomes interested in her appearance."

Larkin's book focuses on six portraits done during her reign that trace Marie-Antoinette's history and development, analyzing her choice of artist, pose and contextual clues. Her early portraits reflect her interest in music. Another image establishes her as a tasteful, elegant consort. That changes with later portraits in which she poses in a muslin dress. Her subjects were scandalized, thinking the poses borrowed too much from portraits of infamous royal mistresses of the day, although Larkin believes they were her attempt at taste and simplicity.

Later, she sets about attempting to do damage control from the "Diamond Necklace" affair—a scam in which a con artist disguised as Marie-Antoinette humiliated a high—ranking French cardinal who thought he bought an expensive necklace to gain the queen's favor—with a portrait of herself and her children. Larkin says the French thought of the queen as "an unhappy mother," even though Larkin says his research indicates she was a good mother and a loyal friend.

The final images in Larkin's book are portraits of Marie- Antoinette painted during the French Revolution, including a stark, partially finished image done while Marie-Antoinette was in prison. Larkin said that during the Revolution, the most common images of the queen were bitingly critical caricatures.

At 6'7," the MSU professor may be one of Marie- Antoinette's tallest and biggest fans. He says his fascination with the queen began when he read her biography as a child. In 1985, at the age of 16, Larkin's portrait of Marie-Antoinette was selected by former California Congressmen Leon Panetta for the Congressional Arts Award in Washington, D.C.

After earning his bachelor's degree at San Jose State University, and advanced degrees in art history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, his dissertation was written with funding from the U.S. Congress and the French Embassy on the discrepancies between Marie-Antoinette's actions and public perceptions about her.

Larkin weaves his research into teaching art history to MSU students, and he believes his international work deepens their perspective.

"The most satisfying thing about my being in this department and teaching at the university is that art students discover how important art history is to their own work," Larkin says. And while it can be difficult researching an 18th-century French legend in Bozeman, Larkin is complimentary to the role of MSU Libraries' Interlibrary Loan.

"They've been terrific. I have these weird, obscure requests in French and German and they track them right down."

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