Son of the famous sculptor, Jacques-Augustin Pajou was one of those respectable talents, like Berthon, Garnier, Gautherot, Monsiaux and Mérimée, who lacked the extra touch of inventiveness that could have put them up there with their contemporaries of the first rank. Studying with Vincent, Pajou competed for the Rome Prize from 1788 to 1792, when his patriotism won out over his artistic determination. When the fatherland was declared in danger in July 1792, he joined a company recruited at the Louvre to swell the ranks of Dumouriez's army. A month in the field was enough to leave him disgusted with the arts of war, "diametrically opposed to the gentle philosophy that shrinks from spilling human blood." Back in Paris in the spring of 1793, he joined the shortlived Commune Générale des Arts, founded to replace the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and then the Société Populaire et Républicaine des Arts, which replaced it in the autumn. His name only crops up at intervals in the annals of the arts from the Directory to the end of the Empire, among the signatories to various petitions and in the lists of works accompanying the Salons. His history paintings were given a mixed reception at the Salon (Oedipus Cursing Polynices, 1804, Poitiers, Musée Sainte-Croix; Rodogune, 1810, Paris, Musée Carnavalet, acquired from Galerie Descours in 2001), but he had better luck as a portraitist.
Like many early Republican artists, Pajou found a working compromise with the successive regimes when they offered him commissions and courted the Bourbons at the time of the first Restoration. Far from understated, his allegiance was attested to by his attempt to obtain from Baron Chabrol, Prefect of the Seine département, a commission for "an allegorical composition intended to transmit to posterity the image of the regeneration brought about in France by the return of the legitimate sovereign". He submitted the modello on 12 July 1814; it was doubtless confused with The Return of Louis XVIII, shown at the Salon of the same year ("allegorical picture", present whereabouts unknown). The project proved abortive, but the Prefect's commission in 1817 for a painting for Marie Antoinette's prison cell at the Conciergerie, now a chapel of atonement, was its delayed outcome. For this commission three artists were asked to depict an episode from the queen's captivity: Drolling, for Marie-Antoinette taking communion in prison; Simon, for Marie-Antoinette in mourning; and Pajou for the moment when "this august, unfortunate princess, separated from her daughter and Madame Élisabeth, Louis XVI's sister, was taken from the prison at the Temple to be transferred to the Conciergerie."
Nonetheless Pajou's hopes of seeing his contemporary history painting boost his reputation at the Salon were dashed, probably because of the Duchesse d’Angoulême, whose pride had been wounded by the picture's rendering of one of the most traumatic moments of her life: "By orders from above I have been prevented from showing at the Salon a picture commissioned by the Prefect of the Seine and destined for the Chapel of Atonement. It shows the August and unfortunate Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, separated from her family and taken from the prison at the Temple to be transferred to the Conciergerie. Given the reactions of many art lovers and artists who had seen it it, I had every reason to hope that it would have caught the public eye at the Salon; and that those of the Academy who have just singled out several works there could have done the same for mine, without having to fear any accusations of partiality."
The painting was actually one of his greatest successes. Set between two doors in a passageway whose narrowness heightens its intense poignancy, and dramatically lit by a torch hidden from view, the scene betrays the theatrical inspiration already perceptible in Rodogune, but without the latter's element of exaggeration. The spatial simplification has enabled a more natural, more touching expression of emotion, while the tenebrist lighting has conditioned a limited palette in which each colour takes on its full symbolic dimension: the queen's mourning garb, the virginal whiteness of Madame Royale, and the tricolour sash and scarlet waistcoat of the member of the Committee for Public Safety.
Until he died Pajou kept a sketch of the picture – the only one so far identified – which could be the one we show here. The absence of any variant and the 1818 date seem to indicate that this could be a riccordo. However, the oil on canvas-backed paper technique is more often used in the preliminary phases, and it is not impossible that this is the modello, dated a posteriori by its author.
Marie Antoinette separated from her family was not without its posterity. The nature of the event, its funereal atmosphere and the chiaroscuro due to the interaction between the doorways would inspire Révoil in 1822 when he came to paint a metaphorical version of Marie Antoinette's fate in Marie Stuart séparée de ses fidèles serviteurs (Mary Queen of Scots Separated from Her Faithful Servants).