Stefan Zweig’s The Portrait of an Average Woman, Seen Through Painting

by Judith Brown

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in Court Dress” (1778), oil on canvas, 107.5” x 76”, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in Court Dress” (1778), oil on canvas, 107.5” x 76”, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Stefan Zweig, in his famous biography of Marie Antoinette,1 published in 1932, describes her as an “average woman” (a strict translation of the original German would be “a mediocre character”).

In doing so, he is certainly not negating the extraordinary potential of her marriage as an Austrian princess, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, to the future French King Louis XVI. This personal union between the great European and often conflicting royal dynasties of the Habsburgs and Bourbons stirred hopes which form the opening pages of the book. 

Zweig’s use of “average” refers to how Marie Antoinette couldn’t find a way through historically challenging circumstances to realizing this path. She did not rise to becoming a queen of the people. Regarded as the “Austrian woman” and deemed the “fundamental adversary,”2 she failed to reach out to ordinary members of society and understand their plight, although she might have had sympathy for them. Her capture in Varennes, when she tried to flee France in June 1791, was the first time she had ever been in a bourgeois house.3 In the notorious Diamond Necklace Affair (1785), she was a victim, but people saw her as misusing valuable resources and taxpayer’s money. This was a key event that had precipitated her into deep unpopularity.4

When the queen encounters the convulsive forces of the French revolution, she proves powerless to master the storm. Zweig writes that on the day of the revolution’s eruption, with the storming of the Bastille (July 14th, 1789), King Louis went to sleep at ten o’clock as normal, despite having received messages alerting him to the events in Paris. “The King listened to the news, but did not make up his mind to do anything active.”5 As for the queen herself, although Zweig does not specify what she was doing on this night, he writes that she did not understand the historical basis for the revolution or its will. She believed that once the public were over their “disillusionment,” they would restore their allegiance to the monarch.6

A contemporary artistic observer of the fall of Bastille on July 14th, 1789, Jeanne Pierre Houel (1735-1813) entertained no similar illusions of revolutionary insignificance in his watercolor painting of the scene. The viewer cannot escape a sense of fantastic drama – heightened by the clouds of smoke and the towering prison. The smoke clouds are center stage. Although they denote destruction, the whirling shapes also convey a sense of movement, reflecting the liberation of citizens. 

This painting fits into the neoclassicism period, from 1760 to around 1850. However, there are features characteristic of the romantic movement which ran alongside neoclassicism and was in an early stage of growth in France at the time of the storming of the Bastille. The neoclassicism construction of clean, straight lines, block colors and geometric shapes is enriched by the watercolor which was a feature of British Romanticism (1770-1850), especially in paintings by JMW Turner (1775-1851). The painting is set up like a landscape, in line with both romanticism and the artist’s area of influence, Dutch painting. In his work, watercolor was employed to emphasize light and atmosphere. 

Through blending the neoclassicism and romantic qualities, Houel creates a scene which is visually realistic and humid from the smoke. Incidentally, some of the artist’s paintings had been sold to Louis XVI, but many more to the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great – certainly no average woman, though only a humble German princess. Houle’s work can be seen now at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. 

Jeanne Pierre Houel, “The Storming of the Bastille” (1789), copyright belongs to The National Gallery, The Bridgeman Art Library


In the painting, the figures of the armed men are less significant than the prison and the smoke, symbolizing chaos. One is left wondering how anyone, let alone the queen, could not have been struck by the lightning of history that day. Yet Zweig writes that in the weeks that followed they never got ahead of events, whether to turn the revolution back (as was the queen’s inclination) or to get ahead of it. The king in general passively conceded at every point.  

Zweig makes us painfully aware of the lagged response of the royal couple from the storming of the Bastille to the women’s mob three months later on October 5th, 1789, when the king and queen were forced out of Versailles. Prior to this fateful night, friends and courtiers deserted her, thinking first of their safety.7 Yet “neither the king nor the queen was aware that their world was being devastated by an earthquake.”8

There were two ways that Marie Antoinette could have dealt with the storming of the Bastille and the revolutionaries in general: reinforce the monarchical system or try to make concessions. It is clear from Zweig’s account that the queen would have preferred the former, to repress them, crushing or subverting them with loyal forces. However, the path chosen was a passive one. Her weak husband was an obstacle, and she had no base of personal popularity to override this. “It was his invariable practice to let events take their course instead of trying to guide them.”9 Even in order to meet the goal of escaping from the revolutionaries, if not reversing the revolution, there were tactical mistakes. 

For example, regarding the mob of Parisian women, the king and queen were warned in advance about their intended march to Versailles. But they failed to leave Versailles to go to their palace in Rambouillet before the women arrived. In consequence, they were taken by the mob the next morning to the Tuileries palace in Paris. It is striking that Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the queen’s own portrait painter, left Paris for exile in Rome that same day, panic-stricken by the mob’s actions,10 and realizing that revolutionary forces were intensifying.

This begs the question why it took the queen almost a further two years to plan an escape. Zweig suggests that while Marie Antoinette wrestled with her husband’s passivity, her ankles were shackled.11 As an indication of his timidity, “by refraining,” Zweig writes, “from a single censure upon those who had murdered the governor of the Bastille, he recognized the Terror as the ultimate power in France.”12 The growing dissatisfaction of French citizens, without being tempered by a strategic response, became intertwined with the downfall of the king and queen. Alongside this disillusionment in the monarchy was a growing belief in individual freedom, which would be expressed through some of the paintings within the romantic movement.

This brings us to the next paintings, starting with one in the form of an engraving by a contemporary painter, Domenico Pellegrini, related to the eventual botched attempt of Marie Antoinette and Louis to flee France. This historical episode led to their catastrophic end. On the evening of  June 20th, 1791, the king and queen left the Tuileries palace secretly with their children, on the start of their journey. Axel Von Fersan, the Swedish aristocrat and lover of Marie Antoinette, had played a key role in organizing the attempted escape which involved taking the family to Montmédy, a town on the French frontier with the Spanish Netherlands, where the royal army was concentrated, led by General Bouillé.

Marino Bovi (Engraver), Domenico Pellegrini (Painter), “Louis XVI Stopped in his Flight to Varennes (1796), BIBLIOTHÈQUE NATIONALE, PARIS
Marino Bovi (Engraver), Domenico Pellegrini (Painter), “Louis XVI Stopped in his Flight to Varennes” (1796), Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris

Many errors were made in the planning of the escape. Firstly, the choice of vehicle and clothing. Fersen had urged the use of two light carriages, capable of reaching Montmédy relatively quickly. However, this would have meant splitting up the family so Antoinette decided on a single coach which was heavy and conspicuous, drawn by six horses.13 Despite an attempt to disguise themselves, “what should have been a secret flight had become a royal progress.”14 This was a clear contrast to the earlier escape of Le Brun, who arrived in Italy after acting on correct advice given to her to travel by a stagecoach as opposed to her own carriage.15

A neoclassical painting, Pellegrini’s depiction of the escape’s failure was created in 1796, during the years of the revolution. The subject of the painting is the stopping of the royal carriage by revolutionaries at Varennes, still a short distance from the intended frontier destination. It observes the practices of neoclassicism in the straight lines and geometric shapes, but there is a romantic feel to the work in that it presents the natural world at night. Romanticism sought to glorify nature and embrace individual imagination. Another theme that infused romantic works was political and social unrest. The painting depicts the happenings at the time of capture which spiraled out of identification by a postal officer of the royal carriage. Underneath it is written:  The inhabitants being informed who the travelers were, sounded the alarm, barricaded the bridge and seized the horses. The King’s attendants would have killed the fellows that stopped the carriage but the King unwilling to be the cause of bloodshed, forbad all resistance and surrendered himself to the magistrate of the town.

Of note in Zweig’s narrative about the events is the role of Von Fersen. He is almost portrayed as a romantic figure who “hastened through the streets of Paris to perfect his arrangements.”16 Interestingly, while the queen’s liaison with Fersen was unfavorable in terms of public opinion, Zweig describes the effect it produced on the queen:  “All that remained to her was her womanly love, of which no one could deprive her. It was this feeling, this passion, which gave her the strength to fight resolutely in defense of her life.”17

A British painting, not by a contemporary, but by an artist of the Victorian period (1837-1901), Thomas Falcon Marshall (1818-1878), illustrates the scene where the family have had to drive to the nearest inn, in which the mayor, “a shop keeper by trade”18 resided. Known for painting in oil and watercolor, Marshall produced history paintings, a feature of this period of art in Britain. The mayor, though a secret Royalist, under threat from the revolutionaries, prevents them from continuing their journey. Zweig describes how “lights were flaming in the windows; the town was buzzing like a wasps’ nest.”19

Thomas Falcon Marshall, “The Arrest of Louis XVI and His Family at the House of the Registrar of Passports, at Varennes, in June 1791 (1854)

Painted around 60 years after the revolution, in 1854, this work seems to accord with Zweig’s description of the scene. We notice the glaring light through the window, and the use of jarring, dark colors give the painting a threatening feel. The facial expressions are telling; the family members look fearful and fatigued. To add to the similarities with Zweig’s account, there is a crowd encroaching and we can just about note the outskirts of the town which was on high alert to the presence of the royals. The scene is presented in the format of a tragicomedy in the book; as the family stays overnight at the house of the mayor, they hope that the Royalist army, led by Bouillé, would arrive soon to enable them to escape. Having exhausted excuses such as Louis’ appetite, only thirty minutes separated them from being in the midst of a loyal army.20 When Bouillé arrives, he recognizes the diminished authority of the royals: “the fate of the monarchy had been decided by the weakness of the monarch; he knew that Louis was no longer king, and Marie Antoinette was no longer queen of France.”21

What does Zweig have to say about Marie Antoinette’s reaction to the flight’s failure, including the arrest? Here he uses poetic license to summarize her thoughts. She is an ordinary woman when she is captured and on the return journey, rather than think about the revolution, she wonders whether she will see Fersen again, and is he ok? Although no documentary proof can validate these thoughts, it would further highlight how she gained strength from the love that existed between them and their shared loyalty. It was a spiritual connection, Zweig suggests.

We could say that he implies she became extraordinary, ultimately in the sense of confronting her fate with calmness and dignity having learned that “tribulation first makes one realize what one is.”22 A historical painting of her awaiting trial, by Edward Matthew Ward (1859), picks up on this transformation. The attempted flight became the basis of charges related to treason and intended defection to the enemies of the French nation. These led to the king’s execution.

Nine months later, the queen was also tried and convicted of treason during a hearing which began on  October 14th, 1793 by a revolutionary committee, all committed to revolutionary ideals, in what Zweig describes to be largely farcical proceedings.23 Zweig tells us that with her “truly sovereign courage” she defended herself in a calm and resolute manner; however, the outcome was a foregone conclusion24 and “everyone knew how it would end.” At the age of 37, Marie Antoinette’s two-day trial led to her death sentence on October 18, 1793. 


Edward Matthew Ward, “Marie Antoinette Listening to the List of Accusations Against Her 24 hours Before Her Trial” (1859), 30½” x 25 3/8”.
Provenance: Bought as Lot 556, Simon Chorley, 10th October 2012.


In Spring of 1792 war had broken out between France and Austria and Marie Antoinette became seen as responsible for conspiring with foreign powers against the interests of her people and for trying to ignite civil war in France, according to the charges drawn against her as listed by Zweig.25

Edward Matthew Ward (1816-1879) depicts Marie Antoinette as she approaches her trial. His painting is another British Victorian work of the historical genre. The Victorian period is known for a tendency to realism, and Ward also depicted the English Civil War and displayed interest in revolutionary France. This oil on canvas painting has been described as a “grand historical picture” containing “sublimity in the expression of the unhappy queen, beautiful still in her sorrow.”26 The painting captures her alone with her thoughts, having been displaced from her role as queen. The lighting effect, its illumination on her face despite it being a dark room, infuses the atmosphere with a kind of tranquility. Finally, we notice the sense of imprisonment and her seclusion from the outside world. By this point, Zweig writes, “Life, she knew, could no longer be saved, but only honor. Her honor demanded that there should be no sign of weakness.”27

In the book, Zweig casts doubt on the charges confronting the queen, a victim of circumstance to some extent, impeded by the barrier of her husband. “To advise a course of action and to have it carried out are two very different things,” she tells the court.28 However, notwithstanding that, the revolutionary court condemned her as a treacherous influence on the king, and for conspiring against France. According to the real trial of history rather than the revolutionary trial, her fault had been failing to endear herself to the French people. She squandered the great hopes bestowed on her by a history of which Zweig is deservedly a famous narrator. 

Auguste Raffet, “The Trial of Marie Antoinette” (1845)



1. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette (London: Pushkin Press, 2010)
2. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.286
3. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.395
4. Marie-Antionette’s favorite painter, Painting, The Guardian November 15, 2015
5. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.278
6. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.283
7. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.290
8. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.281
9. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.328
10. Marie-Antionette’s favorite painter, Painting, The Guardian November 15, 2015
11. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.287
12. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.288
13. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.378
14. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.379
15. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun/Italy in Exile,
16. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.384
17. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.413
18. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.392
19. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.393
20. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.401
21. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.401
22. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.15
23. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.545
24. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.545
25. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.554
26. “Marie Antoinette Listening to the Act of Accusation the Day Before Her Trial,” 1859, Edward Matthew Ward (1819-1879),
27. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.565
28. Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette p.550