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Revolution to Empire

The Old Regime

The Three Estates

King Louis XVI ruled France from the palace at Versailles, where the court had been established to keep the nobility close and to discourage subversive plotting. The France of King Louis XVI was a country divided. French society comprised three Estates, the aristocracy, the clergy and the bourgeoisie and working classes, over which the King had absolute sovereignty. The First and Second Estates were exempted from most taxes. The Third Estate retained the burden of producing the wealth for the two privileged Estates and also the responsibility of paying nearly all of the taxes. The First and Second Estates had direct representation in the Parlements – the chief judicial body of the regime – while the voice of the Third Estate often remained unheard.

Tension and Conflict

In the 1780s ongoing crop failures caused famine and deprivation throughout the country. Spending to support wars such as the American War of Independence crippled the economy further.

Tensions intensified with growing pressure on the populace. Between 1787 and 1788 the price of bread almost doubled due to grain shortages. Accusations that the nobility were hoarding grain aggravated the resentment between the classes. This situation was compounded in 1789 with a famine nicknamed la disette, which claimed hundreds of lives.

Estates General

In response to the grave economic predicament of the French government, a meeting of the Estates-General was called for in May 1789, including delegates from each of the Estates. The strict social protocols set out at the last general assembly in 1614 meant that each Estate would have a collective single vote.

Whereas the King sought tax reform, the First and Second Estates sought to protect their power and privilege. The Third Estate wanted greater representation and greater political power to address issues of inequality. After weeks of dissent, no agreement was reached and the meeting of the Estates-General was disbanded.

Élisabeth Louise VIGÉE-LE BRUN (after)
Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) in a hoop skirt dress (La reine Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) en robe à paniers (after 1778)
oil on canvas
223.0 x 158.0 cm
Versailles, musée national du château (MV 3892)
© RMN (Château de Versailles) - Gérard Blot
Above: Marie-Antoinette was the fifteenth child of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Franz I of Austria. In a political alliance between France and Austria, she married Louis-Auguste in 1770. Read more

Above: Marie-Antoinette was the fifteenth child of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Franz I of Austria. In a political alliance between France and Austria, she married Louis-Auguste in 1770.
Removed from politics, Marie-Antoinette indulged in the many amusements of court life. Her lifestyle epitomised the shameless excesses of the nobility. By 1786 she was more commonly known as Madame Deficit based on her habit of overspending her generous allowance.

Her unrestrained extravagance, initial inability to provide an heir to the throne and her unwillingness to follow the traditional customary role as Bourbon Queen strengthened public opinion against her. This opinion ultimately escalated to exaggerated rumours of sexual depravity regularly published in the gossip sheets of the time.

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun’s early portrait of Marie-Antoinette depicts a young and confident Queen. As an historical document it communicates the obvious wealth and privilege of the monarchy and, by association, the nobility. Painted ten years before the Revolution, it does not suggest the mounting social and political tensions; rather the portrait exemplifies unity, order and formality. It does not foreshadow the impending doom of either the monarchy or the destruction of the aristocracy, but reinforces the dignity and honour of a regime and social order in control.

  • MANUFACTURE DE SÈVRES (manufacturer)
    France est. 1756
    Jean-Jacques LAGRENÉE, the younger (decorator)
    France 1739-1821
    Nipple-cup known as the Breast bowl (Jatte-téton, dite bol sein) (1788)
    porcelain (hard-paste)
    12.5 x 12.2 x 13.3cm
    Sèvres Cité de la Céramique
    (inv. MNC 23400)
    © RMN (Sèvres, Citè de la cèramique) - Martine Beck-Coppola
Above: This ‘breast bowl’ is one of a set of four ordered by Louis XVI for Marie-Antoinette’s Laiterie or dairy, a place to connect with nature and escape the restrictions of court manners. 

Think, Investigate, Create

VCE History – Revolutions

  • Look at the portrait of Marie-Antoinette and describe  aspects of it that reflect the social views of the time.

  • Find out about the strict rituals and protocols that were required to be followed at the royal court of Versailles. How did these protocols affect the daily life of the monarchy and nobles?

  • Research and write a description of what life might have been like for a commoner in the France of Louis XVI.

The Marriage of Figaro was a popular comic opera composed in 1786 by Mozart. It questioned the role of the nobility, demeaned their intelligence and made fun of their privilege. Despite this, the nobility in France loved the play and it enjoyed success over a number of years. Discuss the reasons why the nobility would accept this type of satire. How could this type of opera reflect the philosophical and political ideas of the time?

Educator's Guide

Further research on this topic: