So we know all about the fascinating and complex Marie Antoinette, right? She loved fashion, spent extravagantly, was devoted to her family, and stood bravely in the face of imprisonment and execution. But did you also know she loved dolls?
In the 18th century, dolls were created for two different reasons. First, as you might guess, they were playthings. Such toys might be made of rags, corn husks, or other simple materials. As you can imagine, most of these are lost to the ravages of time.
But if you were wealthy enough, dolls meant something else to you: receiving a doll was akin to sitting in the front row at a fashion show. A tiny replica of whatever the modiste proposed to make for you was placed on the doll. In this way, you could see and touch the fabric up close, although it probably wasn’t the greatest representation of how it would look on a human form.
Dolls of the 18th century were carved of hardwood with their facial features painted on. Nicer dolls might have glass eyes inserted into carved eye sockets. Hair was fashioned into a wig from flax or wool and glued down. Some dolls were fairly rough jobs, others were very meticulously crafted. But for a fashion doll, the emphasis was always on the couture. Marie Antoinette had an entire set of dolls presented to her as a means for selecting her wedding trousseau. Doesn’t that sound fun? I can imagine her as a young teenager, lining them up in a window sill, and deciding which ones pleased her enough that she would want their dresses recreated for her.
Once she’d left her native Austria for France, Marie Antoinette sent dolls to her sister, Maria Carolina, who herself became Queen of Naples. Maria Carolina liked to paint, and in 1760 created a scene of the Austrian royal family. Notice that her sister, Marie Antoinette, is holding up a doll in the painting.
We frequently refer to these wooden dolls of the 18th century as “Queen Anne dolls,” because Queen Anne (Stuart, not Boleyn!) loved them and frequently gave them away as gifts. I was thrilled when I visited Lullingstone Castle in Kent, England, in 2006. They had recently discovered a Queen Anne doll that had been stored in a trunk somewhere in an attic. The doll was in such good shape that you could tell that her dress had been a lovely shade of pink. The owner of the castle gave me a copy of the V&A Museum’s provenance report on the doll, which indicated they believed that the doll may have actually been a gift from Queen Anne to one of the Hart-Dyke family members. If only I had been allowed to photograph the precious doll!
It is interesting to note that the wax, china, and composition dolls that we think of today as “antique” dolls did not come into production until the early 19th century, so Marie Antoinette would have never known anything but wooden dolls. Handcrafted dolls such as the one Marie Antoinette would have owned are very unusual today, but there are still doll artists out there who do this painstaking work. Do you have an old doll that is well loved or very collectible?
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