This celebrated depiction of Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI and Queen of France, in her last days, is known from a version with minor differences in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Following the execution by guillotine of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793, Marie Antoinette was separated from her children and, on 1 August of that year, moved from the tower of the Temple fortress to the Conciergerie as 'Prisoner no. 280'. Already infamous as a prison before the French Revolution, the Conciergerie came to be known as the 'antichambre of the guillotine' during the bloody years of the Reign of Terror. Marie Antoinette was to spend little more than two months there, suspended in uncertainty until she was finally brought before a Revolutionary Tribunal on 14 October, with less than a day to prepare herself, in a brief sham trial during which list of scandalous, unfounded accusations was brough against her. After two days of deliberations, she was declared guilty of treason in the early hours of 16 October; she was driven through Paris in an open cart, dressed in a simple white shift, her hair cut publicly on the way. At 12.15, two weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday, she too died at the guillotine. The attributes surrounding her in this commemorative image - the bust of Louis XVI, the profile portrait of the Dauphin, the touching document written by her husband in anticipation of his death and the book she holds, recounting the tragic life of another executed queen (unidentified in the Carnavalet version) - all speak of her loyalty to her family, her awareness of her impending demise and her dignity as she prepares to face it.
A lady-and-waiting in happier times and a friend to the Queen, the marquise de Bréhan may have received artistic training from another court favourite, Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun. Her husband, the marquis Jean-François-René-Almaric de Bérhan (1730-1813), had married Anne-Flore Millet, daughter of the receiver general of Moulins, in 1766; twenty years her senior, he too was an amateur artist, known for his copies in oil and pastel of artists such as Fragonard and Hallé. The marquise formed a life-long attachment to her widowed brother-in-law, Elénor-François-Elie, comte de Moustier (1751-1817); when he was named ambassador to the United States in 1787, and the marquise and her son accompanied him to New York, where their relationship was to scandalise the society ladies. Invited with the comte to visit Mount Vernon in November 1788, however, she would form a friendship with George and Martha Washington; one of her finest works is a pair of delicate miniature portraits, virtuosically painted en grisaille as trompe-l'oeil cameos of Washington and his grand-daughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Curtis (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, inv. no. 1947.220). The cameo portrait of the Dauphin in the present work (of the Dauphin and one of his sisters in the Carnavalet version) is analogous in style to the Washington cameo, and it may be that Marie Antoinette possessed a similar locket or pendant from the hand of the marquise. The marquise and the comte de Moustier returned to Paris in 1789, and went into exile during the French Revolution, travelling to Moustier's ambassadorial posts in Berlin, Constantinople and London, where the marquise is thought to have completed the Carnavalet version of the portrait, based on a pastel by Alexandre Kucharsky, Marie Antoinette's last court artist. The marquise returned to France only in 1814, upon the restoration of the monarchy. The duchesse d'Abrantés described her as having 'un ravissant talent de peinture'.