Tuesday, 19 November 2019

The Scandalous Beauty of the Duchesse de Berry

The favoured daughter of the Regent, Philippe II d'Orléans, had been married to the third son of the Grand Dauphin as thus became the Duchesse de Berry. Marie Louise Élisabeth would soon prove herself to be quite unmanageable and caused scandal after scandal. Soon, everyone knew of the escapades of the Duchesse de Berry - but what did this lady, fated to the die young from her excesses, look like?

Prior to her marriage, Marie Louise was on the heavy side. It is said, that once she heard that Louis XIV had objected to her frame, she immediately began - and completed - a diet. It should be said that she was 14 years at this point. The king's concern was not cosmetic. He was more worried that a young girl who was already over-weight would become more so and thus find it harder to conceive a child. Once she reached adulthood, her figure was noted to be good but her large appetite - a characteristic of all Bourbons - caused her to sometimes gain a little too much weight.

Still, this was an age that - much unlike our own - considered the female form to be "prettier" if more voluptuous. The Duc de Saint-Simon remarked that she was "tall, handsome and very well made".  It should be noted that other sources describe her as rather short - perhaps the Duc de Saint-Simon was not the tallest man himself? 

Billedresultat for duchesse de berry"
Detail of a portrait from 1710

This grand-daughter of Madame de Montespan, had dark, sparkling eyes with perched eyebrows. She had inherited her grandmother's blonde hair and otherwise "light complexion". Some described her forehead as "bulbous" which could perhaps be attributed to her shifting weight. 

Her obliging bridegroom is said to have claimed that she was the "prettiest person in the world and the Helen (of Troy) was not half so beautiful". Others completely disagreed. Madame (Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate) had little praise for the appearance of Marie Louise:
"... she is thick-set, with long arms and short hips; she walks badly ... is marked by small-pox; has red eyes - light blue in the iris, a ruddy complexion and looks much older than she is..."
However, even Madame had something good to say about her as well. She admitted that Marie Louise did have perfectly white and well-formed hands, arms and throat. It would seem that the Duchesse de Berry was well aware of her assets. She is said to have used her arms and hands to gesticulate - often dramatically - when she spoke. Strangely enough, from the critique Madame gives it sounds almost as if Marie Louise's eyes were like those of an albino. Yet, no one else mentions these "red eyes" so perhaps it was in the eyes of the beholder.

That she had scars from small-pox was inevitable. She had caught the disease at the age of 10 but had managed to survive. As all survivors, she was left marked by her ordeal but exactly how much is uncertain. It does seem unlikely that she was completely disfigured by smallpox scars. Not only Saint-Simon but the celebrated actor and singing teacher, Cauchereau, praised her "beautiful, white complexion".

Billedresultat for duchesse de berry"
This portrait by Gobert shows a fine complexion indeed

Marie Louise's lips were thick and quite red which was admired. Unlike many others at the time, her teeth were remarkably good. Madame described them as being like "pearls" in 1718 - consequently, Marie Louise must have been able to keep most of her teeth up until her death. Her feet and ankles were admitted to be admirable as well. It was therefore her good fortune that she loved to dance which gave an excellent view of her feet.

It is interesting to note that Madame mentions the Duchesse de Berry's walk. There can be more than one explanation for this "bad walking". One could be traced back to the prodigious drinking of the Duchesse. Again according to Madame, she was often tipsy which would definitely impact her walk. However, it could simply be a matter of defying the then-reigning fashions. The "Versailles-glide" was known throughout Europe as the effortless way ladies went through the gilded hall; they did not seem to walk, but rather glided. This was not the case with Marie Louise Élisabeth. She was constantly in a hurry and would walk with "flurried steps" - in the eyes of a rather old-fashioned observer (such as Madame) this would have been very unbecoming of a lady.

1 comment:

  1. Most humans with albinism (as they generally prefer to be called, not just "albinos") don't have red eyes; more blue, grey, or purplish. I'm sure the Madame meant by "red eyes" that the whites were bloodshot. To be fair to the confusion on her eye color, I personally forget my own family's eye colors a lot (and I live in a time where I can just pull up a photo on my phone to check).