This virtuous young woman, holding in her arms a pelican which rends its breast in order to feed its famished offspring, is an allegory for devoted Kindness, observing a very old iconographic tradition. It is a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, the wife of the French king Louis XVI. That this moral virtue was associated with the queen was not an accident. In 1785, she saw her popularity deeply undermined by a rumour about her personal spending symbolized in the sordid matter known as the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace.” Despite her innocence, Marie-Antoinette’s reputation was tarnished by the scandal. She never regained the affection of the people during the few years that remained before the Revolution, which took her to the guillotine.
A pupil of the great sculptor Pajou, Dardel exhibited this sculpture in 1786 at the Salon de la Correspondance, an annual Paris event held apart from the Salon du Louvre to enable artists who were not members of the Académie royale, the official organ for obtaining commissions, to show their work to the public. Dardel was passionately involved in the revolutionary movement, supporting the abolition of the French monarchy and then the death sentence for the queen to whom he had paid tribute scant years previously.