Friday, 15 March 2013

Among Tigers and Panthers....

Neoclassical goddesses and Romantic Heroines: 
Part One
Louise of Prussia, when Crown Princess, 1796, by Tischbein. Image source:
Louise, queen of Prussia (1776 - 1810), was one of the last and most accomplished of the Enlightenment's children among the European ruling class, educated under the principles of Rousseau, her imagination and taste fed on Schiller, Goethe and Shakespeare, a princess who could say after climbing the Schneekoppe mountain that she felt nearer to her god, and mean it.

During the Napoleonic Wars, in which Prussia, that had seemed invincible a generation earlier under Frederick the Great, was conquered by the French, Louise provided inspiration to the nation and to her husband, who relied upon her resolution and courage to the extent that Napoleon mockingly called her "the only real man in Prussia".

During her lifetime she was given more adulation than any other German queen consort; when she died aged thirty-four in 1810, frozen in time as a young mother, she was instantly mythologized, and became a symbol of German national unity and womanhood over a century before those ideals were perverted by the Nazis.

She was born on 10 March, 1776, into the minor ducal family of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Northern Germany that was related to the Hanoverians by the marriage of her aunt Charlotte to King George III. The family's prestige continued to be raised by the next female generation on the  marriage market. 

The youthful beauty of Louise and her three sisters excited Romantic intellectuals like Goethe, who optimistically welcomed their appearance as a "heavenly vision" of aesthetic ideals, as much as prosaic German princes on the look-out for dynastic breeding mares.

The eldest sister, another Charlotte, later admired for her singing voice and literary patronage, was married off aged sixteen to the boorish Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen, and it was her younger sisters, Louise and Friederike, who were snatched up later for the greater marital prizes, both eventually becoming queen consorts. The unamiable characters of all their husbands amid the upheavals of European war pre-empted fairy-tale endings for any of the sisters. 

Only Louise, who became a mother of ten, was to achieve domestic happiness, with the determination of a mission.  She was pregnant for most of her seventeen-year marriage to Frederick William III of Prussia, and still found time to promote government reform, defy Napoleon and rally the nation during wartime defeat.

One of the most famous images of feminine beauty in German neoclassicism, JG Schadow's Prinzessinnengruppe of the sisters Louise and Friederika of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Sculpture, 1795, collection of the Nationalgalerie, Berlin. At the time, both sisters were married to princes of Prussia. Louise's husband succeeded as king in 1796. The casual intimacy of the pose and the fashionably clinging dresses of real-life princesses shocked some contemporaries, used to more pompous formal presentations of royalty.
Early lessons in a cycle of matriarchal loss and replacement informed Louise's personal quest for emotional stability and her adult sense of maternal and social responsibility. Her mother died when she was six; after two years, her mother's younger sister stepped into the gap as step-mother to the young family, but she died in childbirth only a year later.  

Her grandmother, Marie Luise Albertine of Darmstadt, took over the care and education of the children of both the daughters who had predeceased her, bringing them up in a more affectionate and relaxed environment than was usual in contemporary aristocratic families.

Intelligent, strong-willed and energetic, sustained by moral purpose and a belief in her historical destiny, Louise welcomed the power her royal status gave her to perform charitable works and practise the liberal ideas of the 18th century philosophers and support military and social reformers within the absolutist Prussian government.

She was both typical of her time and ahead of it, a once and future heroine, whose natural warmth and spontaneity escaped caste boundaries, even at the repressive Berlin court. Instinctively pleasure-loving and light-hearted, she proved her fortitude and capacity for self-denial in exile for three years in Koenigsberg, in the far eastern reaches of Prussian territory, near the Russian border. 

During the French occupation, Louise expressed solidarity with the Prussian people through the simplicity of her dress and life-style, though she still tried to keep up with French fashions. She loved clothes extravagantly for their own sake, and also for their iconic value to her official position as queen and leader of neoclassical fashion in Germany.

Louise performed a balancing act as wife, mother and leader, scrupulously combining her career as chief political adviser to her husband with being his outwardly obedient consort, reining in reforms that she knew would exceed his tolerance, and matching her gentleness as a mother with the fierce resolve of a war leader.  

With foresight, she fought for the country's independence from the opposing threats of imperial French and Russian power, and died when the cause still looked hopeless, before the Allied victories of 1812 to1815.  Her husband and the nation sanctified her as a Prussian sacrifice to the Corsican Monster. 

From then on, her personality was distorted by popular culture and nationalist politics. Recently, historians, novelists and bloggers have attempted to disentangle the real Louise from all her various incarnations, domestic goddess, warrior queen and benevolent saint. who remains one of those historical figures on whom we continue to project our own aspirations and prejudices, shifting the focus as it suits us.