Marie Antoinette and the (ahem - wholly unsupported) myth of breast-shaped champagne glasses

Bearing in mind that a fascination with all things pertaining to Versailles and 18th century French impropriety are all the rage in the UK this summer as a result of the Canal+ programme which is currently eliciting looks of smouldering allure and incandescent rage in equal proportion, it’s time to properly address one of the most enduring myths which surround any element of antique glass – Marie Antoinette and her culpability - or otherwise - for the shape of champagne coupe bowls !

To any right thinking individual, the whole thing should be dismissed as scurrilous if not faintly pathetic wittering but, in the interests of fairness it must be conceded that there is some vestige of truth behind the whole breast-related fable.

It’s not quite so crass as to have involved an artisan glassmaker eyeing up the profile of the Queen Consort of France and Navarre and deciding that he’d throw together a set of coupes mirroring the decorous curves of her décolletage and associated well-rounded accoutrements, but it does entail a soupçon of rather curious behaviour, peculiar - in both senses of the word - to the higher echelons of the aristocracy in the 18th century.

Bourbon high society may have been the very definition of the concept of the idle rich - wealthy ruling classes so far removed from the day to day travails of the rest of the population to such an extent as to quite literally prompt a revolution, such was the universal disgust at their profligate and extravagant lifestyle. Ever at a loss as how best to both fritter away their free time and spend vast amounts of money, any number of bizarre and divers entertainments were the order of the day for Marie Antoinette and her coterie. One such distraction involved the construction of L’Hameau de la Reine – the Hamlet of the Queen – at Versailles. This was a full sized collection of pastoral buildings, designed to provide a retreat for those unfortunate souls beleaguered by the appalling rigors of day to day life in the most cossetted of environments imaginable.

It was basically a working farm, complete with watermill, dovecote, cottage garden, sundry other faux rustic buildings, livestock and, of most relevance to our investigations, a dairy – or to be precise, two dairies. One was of relatively standard construction, where the produce from the farm was processed and prepared to produce cream, cheese and the other bounty of bovine fabrication whilst the other was more properly termed a laiterie d’agrément (pleasure dairy), and was a sumptuously appointed salon, all white marble, expensive paint jobs, exquisite mouldings and general decorative excess (see pictures - one of the dairy at Rambouillet and one from Versailles).

Here, Marie could entertain her guests and present all the freshly prepared fare from the working dairy next door, affording an aura of effortless arcadian abundance but, of course, without having to get her hands or expensive silk shoes dirty. The Queen also had a second pleasure diary built for her, at Château de Rambouillet, another Royal palace twenty five miles from Versailles. This sort of extravagant project was not exclusive to French nobilty, as the notion of the pleasure dairies was a common enough concept across European haute société  but, naturally, Marie’s were far more extravagant than most.

Now, anywhere such as the Queen's pleasure dairies which was required to present foodstuffs for the edification of Royal guests would, of course, have required a suitably extravagant dinner service, and with the porcelain manufactory of Sevres already under the auspices of the crown it was only natural that the establishment would be engaged to produce the requisite tableware. Specifically created as part of a sixty five piece Etruscan-style service for Rambouillet, there were four jatte teton or dite bol seins – basically, breast bowls which were designed specifically for the drinking of milk. These bowls, painted to accurately approximate breasts with coloured, moulded nipples (albeit at the base rather than to drink from) were presented on a tripod of goats’ heads, and were set in niches inside the laiterie which was designed to reflect the style of an ancient temple. The goats were a personal touch for the Queen, as they were purportedly her favourite animals amongst the menagerie which made up her pretend farm.

As it transpired, the dairy at Rambouillet was only presented to the Queen in the year immediately preceding her death at the hands of the revolutionaries, and it was one of the examples of her lavish lifestyle that was widely reported in post-revolutionary propaganda which sought to denigrate and disparage her, and reinforce the wavering egalitarian zeal that had sent her to the guillotine under the gaze of les tricoteuses.

Furthermore, the breast cups were specifically seized upon by writers, keen to overtly sexualise Marie Antoinette and portray her as little more than a decadent, insatiable courtesan who hosted depraved parties in her “temple of milk” inciting fellow celebrants to drink from cups sculpted to replicate her own breasts – and thus was the myth created of vessels which were modeled quite deliberately on the shape of les norques royale. However, as there were only a very few breast cups in existence, the reference lacked any real relevance or immediacy for the ”historians” looking to perpetuate the myth of the debauched Queen to their readership, so the idea soon became displaced on to champagne glasses with their inherent associations of bourgeois decadence, and as a far more readily identifiable item with which the fabricated slur could be associated.

In actuality, there can really be no truth behind even the most speculative attempt to establish any sort of genuine provenance for Marie’s lewdly purported career as a model for the perfectly proportioned porcelain breast bowls; the whole Rambouillet project was prepared – at the behest of the King – as a surprise for his Queen, and everything was manufactured amidst the utmost secrecy and without her prior knowledge. It’s unlikely that the paparazzi of the day had made any furtively appropriated etchings of an unrobed Marie Antoinette available to the Sevres draftsmen as design roughs, so we can only conclude that the whole contrivance is nothing more than an enduring triumph for some scurrilous 19th century propaganda – bit of a shame, really….

The  following link will take you to the page on our website which indexes all our period champagne glasses - coupes, flutes and otherwise...

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