Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 14, 2023
Susan Taylor-Leduc Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy: The Politics of French Garden Patronage and Picturesque Design,1775–1867 Amsterdam University Press, 2022. 316 pp. € 123.00 (9789048552634)

Susan Taylor-Leduc begins with a question that readers in the field of eighteenth-century studies may have already wondered: why another book dedicated to Marie-Antoinette (12)? Taylor-Leduc answers by sidestepping overworked themes in the rococo queen’s world: explorations of Marie-Antoinette’s biography, examinations of garden aesthetics, and correlations between royal patronage and contemporary politics. Instead, she creates an interdisciplinary framework that unites garden history with spatial, anthropological, and cultural memory studies to reassess Marie-Antoinette’s pivotal role in defining the French picturesque garden style at the Petit Trianon. Moreover, Taylor-Leduc traces the lasting effects of the queen’s garden legacy across three generations of French imperial consorts as Empresses Joséphine, Marie-Louise, and Eugénie asserted their own agency through garden spaces that echoed aspects of their predecessor’s innovations. Taylor-Leduc concludes that the gardens at the Petit Trianon and, later, Malmaison were not extravagant personal spaces for dissimulation or frivolity. Rather, these carefully curated landscapes carved out spaces for women consorts’ empowerment and celebrity while upholding societal and court expectations of femininity and etiquette.

The gardens addressed in this book engaged with Enlightenment discourses on corporality and offered new sensorial experiences through visual, auditory, and tactile delights. At the Petit Trianon, for instance, cascading water over craggy rocks created musical sounds and played with ever-changing light and color reflections (75–76). These environments encouraged visitors to experience the body’s movements anew, thereby participating in current debates on the relationship between nature and the self. Building on early modern art historical and architectural sensory studies, Taylor-Leduc’s application of this methodology to garden history and the embodied stroll helps readers envision Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon and its living legacy in an entirely novel and vivid way. This theoretical approach also provides a pathway into Taylor-Leduc’s reconsideration of period fashions—women consorts developed and promoted new cosmetics, dresses, and other luxury sartorial accessories that transformed the garden-strolling experience into a sensorial encounter and spontaneous communion with nature.

Predictably, the book’s prologue opens with a summary of the institution of queenship according to French absolutism and Salic Law. What’s new to this discussion, however, is Taylor-Leduc’s close reading of the consorts’ marriage contracts to determine the legal scope of these women’s patronages (29). Due to “gifts of usufruct,” wives had legal rights to maintain their own spaces that existed separately within their husbands’ royal and imperial domains. Such properties were liminal zones that oscillated between public and private life, enabling these consort-patrons to construct a sense of self at court and within the natural world at large.

Taylor-Leduc challenges a long-held belief in French picturesque historiography that neither Marie-Antoinette nor Joséphine had deep interests in garden theory. By examining the inventories of both women’s personal libraries, Taylor-Leduc suggests that these women were both learned patrons in their own right. They collected books on garden design, natural history, agriculture, and geography (49). Marie-Antoinette and Josephine, but also Marie-Louise, and Eugénie, studied floriculture and its implications for various industries, ranging from beauty to the decorative arts. A critical inspection of Marie-Antoinette’s libraries shows that the queen enjoyed reading across all genres, not just titillating novels that subsequently fanned the Petit Trianon’s libertine reputation. Marie-Antoinette owned dictionaries that identified plant species, wellness manuals that named plants for hygiene, and collections of recipes for elixirs and perfumes. Taylor-Leduc also calls attention to Marie-Antoinette’s interest in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophies on natural living. As a garden patron, the queen may have envisioned herself as Julie, Rousseau’s heroine from his popular 1761 novel, Julie, où la nouvelle Héloïse (50–51). Like Julie, Marie-Antoinette pictured an alternative garden style to evoke her agency, alongside the notion that fictive landscapes inspired real emotions and desires.

Chapter one reinterprets Marie-Antoinette’s Jardin de la Reine and the Hameau at the Petit Trianon from 1775 to 1789. Taylor-Leduc positions Marie-Antoinette as a visionary in her creation and dissemination of the French picturesque. She argues that the queen transformed this seductive landscape—historically associated with royal favor and exclusivity—into a living gamescape, which helped Marie-Antoinette craft her own version of queenship in a liminal space where gender and identity politics, as well as power relations, economic anxieties, and court alliances converged (65).

Taylor-Leduc’s argument relies upon a major concept in eighteenth-century garden theory that emphasizes “surprising effects” that created “beautiful disorder” in nature. This idea of surprise, playful behavior, and memories of unique views established the queen’s garden as a “never boring” immersive experience (68–69). In this approach to garden design, Taylor-Leduc uncovers parallels to high-stakes gambling sessions, which generally induced feelings of shock and wonder. The queen had strong preferences for shared moments that emphasized emotional pleasure, the unexpected, and sensory thrills that others would later emulate.

The ideas from chapter one are foundational for the book’s remaining narrative, as Taylor-Leduc explores how future royal wives referenced, modified, and memorialized Marie-Antoinette’s garden patronage to shape their selfhood. But first, chapter two deals with the Revolutionary era (1789–1804) and the queen’s trial, where the new government regarded Marie-Antoinette’s garden patronage to be material evidence of her corruption and a threat to republicanism (141). Trial transcripts are Taylor-Leduc’s key source for assessing how perceptions of the Petit Trianon as a space for deception originated and (mis)informed Marie-Antoinette’s legacy. After the queen’s 1793 execution, her gardens faced similar questions of fate: did they symbolize monarchical depravity or could they represent a new space for the nation (153)? By 1795, entrepreneurs redesigned Marie-Antoinette’s gamescapes into jardin spectacles, or entertainment-like venues, that offered immersive experiences that could help visitors sublimate violent memories of the Terror (163). In this new context, the Petit Trianon lost its association with aristocratic luxury, and the queen’s legacy as a learned botanist was erased from collective memory. Naturalists transferred plants from Marie-Antoinette’s gardens to the newly founded Jardin des Plantes, a Republican institution dedicated to scientific pursuits. This garden became a site for revolutionary reform and cutting-edge botanical discovery but overseen by men. As Taylor-Leduc discusses in chapter three, Joséphine, an avid supporter of botanical knowledge and illustration, inserted herself into this scholarly world, recalling Marie-Antoinette’s role at the Petit Trianon.

This chapter is arguably the most exciting and groundbreaking here, as it offers a total reappraisal of Joséphine’s garden patronage at Malmaison in the context of her political and personal agency. Once thought to be a space that evoked the empress’s nostalgia for her native Martinique, Taylor-Leduc demonstrates that Joséphine created a sophisticated garden program that sustained Napoleon’s imperialist agenda. She carved out a leading role for herself in economic, political, and diplomatic power structures without overstepping the bounds of her rank and sex. Joséphine’s picturesque gardens masked the horrors of plantation slavery while promoting her husband’s colonial ambitions in the Atlantic and Pacific (169–72). Her investments in animal husbandry, especially Merino sheep, advanced a regenerated agro-landscape while contributing to France’s textile industry and postrevolutionary agrarian reform (188–90). Like Marie-Antoinette, Joséphine cast herself as a fashion influencer, but with an imperialist twist. Her strolling wardrobe—namely the collection of cashmere scarves—was an emblem of her noble birthright and colonial connections (207–13).

Chapter four considers the aftermath of Joséphine’s 1809 divorce from Napoleon, when the emperor supported his ex-wife’s patronage at Malmaison and Navarre while installing Marie-Louise, his second wife and Marie-Antoinette’s grandniece, at the Petit Trianon. Taylor-Leduc analyzes how, collectively, Napoleon, Joséphine, and Marie-Louise continued to develop the picturesque garden into spaces for aesthetic surprises and imperial politics (235–36). Importantly, this chapter includes an examination of Marie-Louise’s self-fashioning at the Petit Trianon and Hameau, where the empress embraced Marie-Antoinette’s memory to establish her own political identity (243–49). Taylor-Leduc contributes to the growing scholarship on Marie-Louise’s artistic patronage which, until recently, had been long overshadowed by the allure of her predecessors’ celebrity glamour.

Taylor-Leduc ends with Eugénie’s restoration of the gardens at Malmaison and the Petit Trianon for the 1867 Universal Exposition. The empress hoped to reestablish her predecessors’ reputations by recasting their gardens as interconnected spaces of “living patrimony” (269). Eugénie’s patronage of these picturesque gardens launched her own political, personal, and cultural clout at a time when her husband, Napoléon III, had begun to integrate picturesque aesthetics into Parisian public parks (271).

This brief review only skims the surface of this book’s rich research findings and contributions to art and garden history, feminist and environmental studies, discourses on French colonialism, etc. In her epilogue, Taylor-Leduc observes how assumptions about gender identity in French garden historiography have marginalized women patrons from the garden history canon (305–11). This book is an important step in dismantling these biased historical narratives to place women’s voices at the helm. The author also demonstrates the existence of networks of women patron-artists that influenced one another over time and space, expressing their agency and value in numerous artforms, cultural and creative activities, and intellectual pursuits. Most significantly, Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy reminds us that there’s no such thing as an over-researched topic—instead, there is always space for new angles, fresh comparisons, and original approaches to increase our understanding even of the most popular subjects.

Amanda Strasik
Associate Professor of Art History, School of Art & Design, Eastern Kentucky University