Marie Antoinette was not at all accustomed to the strict rules and public element of court life when she moved to France in 1770. Her childhood had been much quieter, simpler and less formal and she yearned for privacy.
When her husband, Louis XVI, became king in 1774, he gave her a gift – the Petit Trianon. This beautiful mini palace on the grounds of Versailles would be her escape from court life – though escaping to it brought troubles of its own.
The history of the Petit Trianon
The Petit Trianon was actually built by Louis XVI’s grandfather, Louis XV. He had commissioned the palace as a gift for his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Sadly, Madame de Pompadour died before it was completed.
Louis VX’s next mistress, Madame du Barry, enjoyed the Petit Trianon in her time. However, when Louis XV died the Petit Trianon was taken from her and given to Marie Antoinette as a gift.
The Petit Trianon is essentially a cube constructed of limestone. Each side has five large bay windows to soften the exterior, giving plenty of natural light to the indoors.
Inside there were enough rooms to host a small party of friends, complete with drawing and dining rooms, dressing rooms and a staffed and functioning kitchen.
By invitation only
The queen used the Petit Trianon to escape court life, inviting only her nearest and dearest friends to stay with her there. This was not to the liking of many old courtiers – they believed they should have the right to attend. But even Louis XVI did not go to the queen’s refuge unless expressly invited, which he rarely was, but he was happy enough to let his wife have her privacy.
While there, Marie Antoinette would hold private parties in the evenings and relax away from the strict rules of court life. When her children were born, she would bring them here for quality time in private.
Her time at the Petit Trianon even caused a new fashion to be born. The queen grew tired of wearing court dresses all the time.
She began wearing simple dresses of white muslin – causing quite a stir among the old aristocracy who thought this state of undress was quite indecent. Marie Antoinette stopped wearing the corsets and panniers, instead opting for simplicity and comfort.
The Queen’s Hamlet
On the estate of the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette commissioned a little Hamlet to be built.
Inspired by the traditional rustic buildings of Normandy, this model village included a windmill and dairy, as well as living quarters for the queen.
While in the Hamlet, Marie Antoinette dressed like a shepherdess in her white muslin gowns and acted like a peasant – or what she thought peasant life was like. She even brought in farmers, milkmaids and herdsmen to act in her village so she could pretend it was the real thing.
It was, in fact, a fully functioning farm complete with chickens, fields, orchards, vineyards and vegetable gardens producing fruit and vegetables eaten at the royal table. What she didn’t realise was that whenever she announced her intention to visit her ‘village’, servants would be sent down first to clean the animals and beautify the village. Marie Antoinette never knew what a real farm smelled or looked like.
When the people of France heard that their queen was playing the peasant, they saw this as a mockery of their struggles. Marie Antoinette was accused of being a spendthrift, throwing away money on her play village that could have been used to buy food for the people.
Whatever her enemies might have said about her, for Marie Antoinette, the Petit Trianon was only ever an escape from the public life of the Court at Versailles.