Versailles: Palace of Dreams
by Inga Walton
“Since the sun is the emblem of Louis XIV, and poets link the sun with Apollo, there is nothing in this superb house that does not relate to this divinity” – André Félibien, Court historian, 1674.1
Of all the impressive royal residences erected in France during the Ancien Régime, it seems remarkable that the relatively unprepossessing brick and stone hunting lodge built for Louis XIII (1601-43) in 1623-24 would eventually become one of the most famous palaces in the world. The diarist Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755), once referred to it as “the little house of cards”. 2
The Château de Versailles and the satellite buildings that spread across the vast estate, the Grand Stables (1679-82), the Grand and Petit Trianon, the French Pavilion (1749-50), the Pavilion Frais (1751), the Belvedere (1778-81), the Rock (1778-82), the Grotto (1782) and the Queen’s Hamlet (Hameau de la reine), formed a refined and insular environment that came to be regarded as ce pays-ci (‘a world in itself’) by those who lived there. In 1979, the palace and its gardens were declared a UNESCO designated World Heritage site; a concerted restoration and renovation program has been underway since 2003. As a museum and archaeological site with 830 hectares of grounds, 20 kilometres of roads, thirty-five kilometres of water pipes, some 350,000 trees and thirteen hectares of roofs, the Château attracts in the vicinity of 6.7-7.4 million visitors annually.3
Versailles: Treasures From the Palace at the National Gallery of Australia (until 17 April, 2017) brings together nearly 140 diverse works drawn from the collections of the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, the Musée du Louvre, and the National Furniture Depository (Le Mobilier National). The National Gallery of Victoria has loaned its painting, Louise-Marie de France (1763) by Louis XV’s chief portrait painter François-Hubert Drouais (1727-75). The eighth daughter and last child of Louis XV, Louise-Marie (1737-87) preferred a religious life, and abhorred what she perceived as the wanton and perverse court of her father. After a series of family tragedies starting in 1752, Louise-Marie persuaded Louis XV to allow her to join the Carmelite order as Thérèse of Saint Augustine in 1770; Pope Pius IX declared her the Venerable Louise of France in 1873.
This work joins two others by Drouais from the Château, the allegorical piece Madame Du Barry as Flora (1773-74), showing the former courtesan Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry (1743-93) in the guise of the Roman goddess of plants, flowers and fertility. The notorious du Barry was the last maîtresse-en-titre (‘official mistress’) of Louis XV, and her presentation at court in 1769 appalled Princess Louise-Marie. The King lavished jewels and gifts on du Barry, which further stretched the royal coffers; following his death she was banished from the court, and eventually executed during the Revolution. The Sourches family (La famille de Sourches) (1756), is a charming pastoral work of Louis II du Bouchet, Marquis de Sourches and High Provost of France, in a musical interlude with his family.
The exhibition spans the reigns of Louis XIV (1638-1715), his great-grandson Louis XV (1710-74), and his grandson Louis XVI (1754-93), France’s last King before the Revolution. “We wanted our exhibition to be about the whole culture of Versailles, to find a way of evoking the feel and taste of the palace. What we did not want was a perfect selection of exquisitely beautiful objects and pictures, silently frozen into a beautiful installation. And while the installation design is, in my view, a triumph, with its baroque contrasts of light and dark, and stark changes of mood through the use of multimedia, we needed to introduce other aspects of the experience of Versailles”, explains the NGA’s Director, Dr. Gerard Vaughan, AM. “This begins with an introductory film which depicts what we could not bring to Australia, the architecture itself, the dazzling gilded interiors, and the gardens and fountains, all on a scale the world had never seen before. Although we did manage to find a plane big enough to bring the great statue Latona and her Children [1668-70], commissioned by Louis XIV, to Canberra!” This monumental marble work, and the gilded iron Gate into Hoquetons Hall (c.1672), designed by Nicolas Delobel, contrasts with smaller, more intimate items.
Eight painted and embroidered fans (1756-1820) show how intricately detailed and embellished this indispensable accessory of the court could be. Similarly, four beautiful gold pocket watches (1750-c.1780) with ornamental cases demonstrate the horologist’s art at its finest, within a court whose monarch was expected to follow a highly prescribed schedule. Japanese lacquerware boxes from the collection of Marie-Antoinette (1755-93), and items from her Sèvres table service, express the personal taste of the public figure in her own domain. “Music was an essential part of the experience of Versailles for every visitor; the King employed more musicians than any other monarch in Europe. So at the beginning and the end of the exhibition visitors hear music, in the great room dominated by the magnificent Savonnerie carpet and the Gobelins tapestries commissioned by Louis XIV, you also hear ceremonial baroque music, composed for the King by his favourites, [Jean-Baptiste] Lully [1632-87] and [Marc-Antoine] Charpentier [1643-1704]”, remarks Vaughan. “And in the last room, principally dedicated to Marie-Antoinette, in the presence of her state portrait by Mme Vigée-Lebrun, and the actual harp she owned [made by Jean-Henri Nadermann in 1775], you hear harp music composed by the Queen herself for her private space, the Petit Trianon”.
A work that is sure to interest the local audience is Louis XVI Giving Instructions to La Pérouse, 29 June 1785 (1817) by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754-1837). It was commissioned by Louis XVIII (1755-1824), the former Count of Provence, and brother of the executed Louis XVI. He fled France in 1791 escaping the fate of his brother, and that of his tragic nephew, the titular Louis XVII (1785-95) in the Revolution. Following the Bourbon Restoration (1814-30), this painting was hung in the Gallery of Diana, the southernmost of the state apartments at the Tuileries Palace, later destroyed during the Paris Commune in 1871. Here we see Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse (1741-88?) in conversation with Louis XVI as to his planned voyage to circumnavigate the Pacific, and complete the charting of the west coast of Australia: Louis has his hand exactly over the continent. On the King’s right stands Charles Eugène Gabriel de La Croix, Marquis de Castries (1727-1801), Marshal of France, holding a copy of the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences. Standing respectfully in the background are the explorers Édouard Jean Joseph de Laborde de Marchainville (1762-86), and his brother Ange Auguste Joseph (1766-86), who travelled with La Pérouse to Alaska but died in the Baie des Français (Lituya Bay), notorious for its tidal currents.
La Pérouse arrived off Botany Bay, 24 January 1788, helming the frigate Boussole, and accompanied by a second vessel, the Astrolabe. They spent six weeks in the new colony. The French ships were wrecked off Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands; their fate only discovered in the late 1820s, and investigated during subsequent expeditions in 1964, 2005 and 2008. The south-eastern Sydney suburb La Perouse is named after the navigator, and a large monument was commissioned by Rear Admiral Hyacinthe Yves Philippe Potentien, Baron de Bougainville (1781-1846) in 1825, and erected on Anzac Parade, Botany Bay. To mark the Australian Bicentenary, the La Pérouse Association established a museum in his memory, and of other French navigators in the Pacific, at the Cable Station in Botany Bay National Park. From his prison at the Temple, the forbidding mediaeval fortress built by the Knights Templar, Louis XVI is said to have inquired ‘Is there any news yet of Monsieur de La Pérouse?’ each morning until the day of his execution, 21 January, 1793.4 Henri‐Pierre Danloux (1753-1809), a portraitist of the nobility, had wisely left Paris for London in 1792. His painting, Louis XVI writing his testament in the Temple tower, 20 January 1793 (1795), conveys the pathos of the deposed king beseeching God to strengthen him ahead of his ordeal.
The recent television series Versailles (2015-) dramatises the political unrest and court machinations that lead the young Louis XIV (George Blagden) to move the site of executive government away from Paris for strategic reasons. Louis XIII first sent the Dauphin and his brother Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans (1640-1701) to Versailles in 1641 to escape an outbreak of smallpox in Saint-Germaine. In his twenties, Louis XVI returned there as it afforded him privacy to pursue his passion for hunting, his affair with Louise de La Vallière (1644-1710), and an ambitious redesign of the park. To understand the ‘psychology’, as it were, behind Versailles, it is necessary to consider the turbulent events that characterised Louis XIV’s formative years. Until he assumed personal rule in March, 1661, France had been under the regency of his mother Anne d’Autriche (1601-66), who was an Infanta of Spain and Portugal, and an Archduchess of Austria by birth.
Anne’s marriage to Louis XIII had been strained owing to the couple’s failure to produce an heir, her intrigues with court factions, and secret correspondence with her brother Philip IV of Spain (1605-65), which was in conflict with France’s foreign policies. Louis XIV’s parents had been married for twenty-three years at the time of his birth, leading him to be known as Louis Dieudonné (Louis the God-given). The contemporary view that Louis was a gift bestowed on France by heaven was one reinforced by Anne, who instilled in her son the belief that his power was divinely ordained. Anne was a zealous adherent of the divine right of kings, a concept that justified absolute monarchical rule as one sanctioned or mandated by God, and therefore not subject to the will of any other Estate within the realm. Louis XIII indicated his lack of faith in Anne’s political abilities by declaring that a regency council would rule on his son’s behalf until the young king came of age. Nonetheless, after the King’s death Anne contrived to have her husband’s will annulled by the Parlement de Paris, a judicial body largely comprised of nobles and senior clergy.
As sole Regent, Anne appointed as her Chief Minister and effectively co-ruler of France, the Italian Cardinal, Jules Raymond Mazarin (1602-61), himself the protégé of Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642). Under Richelieu, France became involved in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), declaring war against Spain in 1635, and against the Holy Roman Empire the following year. Mazarin’s government found that the continuing financial burden of the campaign could not be assuaged by traditional means, so the Crown extended and increased taxes. This led to the series of civil wars known as The Fronde (1648-53), whereby royal encroachment on feudal prerogatives and long held traditions provoked fierce resistance from the high nobility, the legal fraternity, and many citizens, particularly the bourgeoisie on whom the burden of taxation weighed significantly. The Fronde parlementaire (1648-49) followed the attempt to levy a tax on judicial officers of the Parlement de Paris. Not only did the members refuse this edict, but they also demanded constitutional reforms. In response, Mazarin had the leaders of the Parlement arrested, which led to an insurrection in Paris. The Queen Regent and Louis XIV were forced to flee the capital for the relative security of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye west of Paris, Louis’ birthplace.5
With no army at its disposal, however, the court faction was forced to release the prisoners and promised concessions. Following the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the French army returned home, and Anne summoned Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (1621-86) to court. Known as le Grand Condé for his military prowess, Condé was persuaded to support the Regent and lead the army to subdue Paris. The Peace of Rueil, signed in March, 1649 between the court faction and the Parlement signalled an end to the ‘constitutional’ phase of the Fronde conflict. As they sought to maintain their own rights against increased administrative centralisation, the resentment of the princely and noble elites towards Mazarin continued unabated. Outside the immediate family of the king, the highest-ranking personages at court were the Princes of the Blood, drawn from the agnatic descendants of (Saint) Louis IX (1214-70), such as the Valois and the Bourbons. Powerful landowners, they were entitled to seats on both the Royal Council (Conseil du Roi), and in the Parlement de Paris.
Princes of the Blood took precedence above all other peers, and were themselves ranged in precedence according to their respective places in the order of succession. Condé was a cadet branch of the ruling House of Bourbon, and the Prince de Condé was considered to be the ‘First Prince of the Blood’ (premier prince du sang), referred to as Monsieur le Prince. The title of Prince de Conti was revived for his younger brother, Armand de Bourbon (1629-66), thus forming a cadet branch of the Princes de Condé. An ambitious and proud man, le Grand Condé soon became estranged from the court, and was personally resented by the Queen Regent. Enormously wealthy, he was also the master of substantial territory, holding Burgundy, Berry, and the marshes of Lorraine, while de Conti held Champagne. Their brother-in-law, Henri II d’Orléans, Duc de Longueville (1595-1663), whose family were a cadet branch of the House of Valois, held Normandy. Anne gave her assent to Mazarin’s plan to arrest the three princes, 14 January, 1650, who were then imprisoned at the fortress of Le Havre.
This action led to the Fronde des princes (1650-53), that would ensnare some of France’s most prominent figures including Louis XIV’s uncle Gaston, Duc d’Orléans (1608-60), known as Le Grand Monsieur, his daughter Anne Marie d’Orléans, Duchess de Montpensier, (1627-93), the great heiress known as La Grande Mademoiselle, François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (1613-80), Anne Geneviève de Bourbon, Duchess de Longueville (1619-79), Frédéric-Maurice, Duc de Bouillon (1605-52), and his brother Henri, Vicomte de Turenne (1611-75), Marshal of France. The frondeurs, as they became known, were in open revolt across the country. By February 1651, the Queen Regent had freed the princes while Mazarin, fearing vengeance, fled to Cologne. Condé’s supporters enlisted Spanish aid, at which point Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria (1614-62) became involved in the conflict on their side. Mazarin who had returned to France in December, 1651 was again forced to leave, and did not return until February, 1653. Following a military set-back, Condé was eventually forced to join his allies in the Spanish Netherlands. The Fronde had inflicted considerable damage on the prestige of the monarchy, and caused great instability and hardship throughout the realm. Louis XIV never forgot what he later called the “terrible disturbances throughout the kingdom”.6
Louis XIV intended Versailles to be a residence that exalted him, amplifying his regal glory and magnificence. For this grand stage on which he would be the principal focus of the pageant, he sought inspiration from Imperial Rome, antiquity being an irresistible source of regal image-making. The Belgian sculptor Jean Varin (or Warin) (1604-72) produced the marble Bust of Louis XIV (1665-66) where the sitter wears a Roman-style military uniform, with a paludamentum cloak fastened on his right shoulder. On the breastplate is Apollo, the symbol of the Sun King, a motif that reappears throughout the decorative scheme at Versailles and its grounds. A full-length statue by Varin, Louis XIV (1645-72), also shows the king in Roman dress, and stands in a niche of the Salon de Vénus in the Château’s Grands Appartements. A florid quatrain published in 1678 conveys the spirit of Louis’ Versailles explicitly: “World, come and see what I see/And what the Sun admires/Rome in one palace, in Paris an Empire/And all the Caesars in one King”.7
Throughout the Grands Appartements a series of imposing busts are displayed of prominent figures from the Greco-Roman world: Julius Caesar, the philosopher Socrates, Ceres, the Goddess of agriculture, the Vestal Zingarella, Mithridates of Pontus, and the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Titus, Galba, Vespasian, Hadrian (and his favourite Antinous), Caligula, Caracalla, Nero, Domitian, and Claudius. Originally installed in the Salon de la Paix, the bronze and marble bust Vitellius (1685) depicts the Roman senator and general who was made Emperor in AD 69, but ruled for only eight months before being executed by his rival Vespasian. The bust of Elagabalus (1686), or Heliogabalus, also included here, was an equally short-lived leader: he became Emperor at just fifteen, but was murdered three years later.
The man who would become France’s longest reigning monarch made “the projection of royal power a keystone of policy”,8 and centralised the government exclusively around his person. Portraits and sculptures of Louis XIV, popularly known as Le Roi-Soleil, show an omnipotent figure of almost mythical proportions. From the studio of leading portraitist Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), the state portrait Louis XIV (1701-12) is an emphatic expression of personal propaganda. The King is depicted in the full splendour of his coronation robes with all the symbols of his consecration: sceptre, crown, the hand of justice, and the sword of Charlemagne, ‘La Joyeuse’. So popular did the portrait prove to be that the Department of the Household (Bâtiments du Roi) had to order numerous copies from the artist’s studio.9 Louis XIV married Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain (1638-83), his double first cousin, and only acknowledged wife, in 1660.10 The small Bust of Marie‐Thérèse (c.1666) by Pierre Gole (1620-84) is the only surviving fragment of the pair of cabinets made for the Gallery of Apollo at the Louvre between 1665 and 1668. They were made to commemorate the ‘Peace of the Pyrenees’ treaty signed between France and Spain in 1659.
In his attempt to control his fractious nobles, and temper the wider influence of the Princes of the Blood, Louis XIV isolated them from their traditional power-bases. Versailles became the official residence in 1682, “a gilded cage in which the king held captive the formerly troublesome high nobility … the rural location would make absenteeism from court more noticeable and plotting in Paris harder. He made known that he expected the grandees of France to court him on a more or less permanent basis. After attracting a large entourage, he encouraged his courtiers to impoverish themselves through lavish spending on clothes, gambling, and carriages. This reinforced their dependence on royal favour and handouts”.11 It was a shrewd and calculated decision, intended to outmanoeuver those who might seek to threaten Louis’ power by essentially asking them to move in. The allure of personal access to the monarch, the potential for royal favour, and jockeying for positions in his retinue drew hopeful courtiers to Versailles, where everyone minded everyone else’s business. The implied threat of exclusion was also a motivating factor that compelled attendance. As Saint-Simon drily noted, “Those who showed themselves never or hardly ever incurred his full displeasure. If one of these desired something the King said proudly, ‘I do not know him’, and such a judgment was irrevocable”.12
The name Versailles is formed on the Latin word ‘vertere’, meaning to turn the soil.13 Landscape architect and urban planner André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) played a pivotal role in the great fame the gardens of the Château would achieve. He was the son of Jean Le Nôtre (1575-1655), who worked on the gardens of the Palais des Tuileries, and would become head gardener during the reign of Louis XIII. In 1635, the younger Le Nôtre was appointed to the position of principal gardener to Gaston, Duc d’Orléans, where he worked on the grounds of the Palais de Luxembourg. Le Nôtre took over his father’s position at the Tuileries in 1637, and worked on modernising the gardens at another royal residence, the Château de Fontainebleau at Seine-et-Marne (1645-46).
Le Nôtre’s abilities came to the forefront owing to his work for Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle-Île, Vicomte de Melun et Vaux (1615-80). As Superintendent of Finances (1653-61), Fouquet had amassed a great fortune during his tenure, and spent lavishly on Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, his magnificent estate in Maincy southeast of Paris. Constructed from 1658 to 1661, the Château was the work of Classical architect Louis Le Vau (1612-70), First Architect to the King (Premier architecte du Roi) from 1653 to 1670, with the interior paintings and decorative work completed by artist Charles Le Brun (1619-90). Fouquet commissioned Le Nôtre to design equally sumptuous gardens, consisting of symmetrical patterned parterres, with fountains, water basins and canals, intersected by gravel walking trails.
Intending to flatter Louis XIV and increase his standing with the monarch, Fouquet hosted a grand fête in the King’s honour at Vaux-le-Vicomte, 17 August, 1661. Fouquet, however, overreached and made the critical error of flaunting his (probably embezzled) wealth; Louis was incensed at the extravagance of the property. “Fouquet had displayed a taste and stylishness that put the royal residences in the shade … Within weeks of this extravaganza, Louis had his erstwhile host thrown into prison, where he remained without trial until his death. Royal mortification at Vaux’s brilliance was certainly a factor in Fouquet’s shocking fall”.14 Louis XIV promptly engaged the triumvirate responsible for the beauty of Vaux-le-Vicomte to work concertedly on Versailles.15 Fouquet’s replacement, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83), also became Superintendent of the King’s Buildings (Surintendant des Bâtiments du Roi) in 1664, and supervised the overall work at Versailles. Le Brun served as director and chief designer of Manufacture des Gobelins (1663-90), and was appointed First Painter to the King (Premier peintre du Roi) in 1664. He also designed a large number of statues for the gardens, and collaborated with Le Nôtre on the numerous fountains.
Le Nôtre’s work exemplifies the formal aesthetic of the jardin à la française that would come to be so admired and imitated in the centuries to come. As Tony Spawforth has commented, “Le Nôtre’s achievement is difficult to appreciate because we can no longer see the terrain as it was when he set to work. He was a landscape gardener on a grand scale. He turned ponds and streams into ornamental sheets of water. He shifted vast amounts of soil to create a terrace in front of the château, where the ground naturally slopes. He imported mature trees and relocated the villages that blocked his new vistas. In the taste of the day, he reimagined nature”.16 Paul Bangay, one of Australia’s pre-eminent landscape designers and gardening authorities, counts Le Nôtre as one of his early influences. “I first became aware of André Le Nôtre’s work after my first visit to France shortly after graduating from college. As a young and impressionable designer, I was completely inspired by his work. I visited Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, the latter being my favourite, due to its smaller and therefore more relatable scale”, Bangay recalls. “I loved the simplicity of the lines of the layout to the garden, but never really appreciated [until later] the intricacy of the highly detailed interior of each garden bed”.
Bangay has integrated various aspects of Le Nôtre’s approach to garden design into his own practice over the course of his distinguished career. “My biggest influence was the way he sculpted gardens out of natural woodlands, separating the two by means of a simple clipped hedge, one side wild and the other highly manicured. To this day, I separate country gardens from their natural landscape by means of a hedge or a stone wall”, he reveals. “Another aspect of Le Nôtre’s design I took away from that early trip that has remained with me throughout my entire career is the use of pleached hedges. I often use these as boundary screening in city gardens, the huge advantage being the ability to grow smaller plant material under the tree”. The unpromising grounds might have intimidated a lesser designer, but Le Nôtre’s command of the massive project, and his extremely ambitious plan for realising its potential, continues to inspire awe to this day.17 “What I do admire is his sense of scale and how Louis XIV allowed, or probably encouraged, Le Nôtre to create on such a scale”, Bangay comments. “Australians nearly always under-scale gardens and I have spent my whole career trying to think big. The Grand Canal at Versailles and its problematic creation is a masterful stroke of genius in the way it defines the main axis of the garden, and then how Le Nôtre created gardens to the side of the spine are, again, masterful”.
Such aesthetic discipline was entirely in keeping with the idea of dictating the course of nature, “order had to reign in the plant world since the appearance and rigour of plantations reflected the power and wealth of the owner”.18 For Le Roi-Soleil, nothing less than the “perfect illustration of the domesticated garden” would do,19 for all things in Louis XIV’s kingdom were expected to yield to his will. “In the royal idiom of the age, Louis and his artists used sculpture, water, and orientation to liken the nature of his rule to the daily passage of the life-giving sun”.20 In Bangay’s appraisal, “Harmony is not a word I associate with Versailles or Le Nôtre, for me it’s all about domination, strength, and a great show of power designed to be looked down upon from the palace – it’s almost god-like”. Le Nôtre’s exceptional attention to detail contrasts with the more ‘rustic’ and naturalistic look of other areas of the Versailles estate, such as those designed by Antoine Richard (1734-1807) for Marie-Antoinette. “I never tire of the Petit Trianon and its model farm the Hameau de la reine created for Marie-Antoinette [in 1783-85]. In the context of the highly elaborate grounds the simplicity and humbleness of this space contrasts effectively and successfully”, Bangay affirms.
In mounting Versailles: Treasures From the Palace, it was important to make reference to the grounds of the Château which are so renowned, and such an integrated part of the overall expression of Louis XIV’s power. Bangay has designed a new garden entrance to the NGA for the duration of the exhibition. “Paul’s design … evokes the taste and style of the gardens of Versailles right at the start, outside the building, before you make your way inside for the exhibition. The gardens of Versailles were the most spectacular in Europe, on an unimaginable scale, and the suite of fountains had no equal, and is thus a major part of the experience. It was really important to suggest, in every possible way, the culture that Versailles represented”, Gerard Vaughan stresses. “The creation of the entrance was an enormous challenge given the small budget and the fact it was to be created on top of concrete (car park underneath). How can you do justice to Versailles with such limitations was my dilemma”, Bangay admits. “I decided to simply create an avenue of my much loved pleached hedge using ornamental pears in this case and under-plant them with clipped box. The avenue is punctured by three opposing pairs of reproduction urns resembling those found in the garden at Versailles”.
The entrance project took some weeks for Bangay to conceptualise, and most of the construction was done off-site. The actual on-site preparation took only four days to deliver and install. “The four metre height of the trees is in scale with the massive proportions of the NGA building, placing the two lines of the trees close together creates the illusion of them being taller and grander”, Bangay notes. “Copies of the Versailles timber planter boxes were made and planted with Phoenix palms to emulate the feeling of the plantings outside the Royal Orangery. To conjure up the illusion of the elaborate parterres of box and lawn at Versailles, I made steel shapes in a similar pattern and filled them with fake grass. The visitor is first greeted with these grass patterns and then passes through the avenue of pears, finally arriving at the space near the front door defined with corners of Versailles-like boxes of palms”.
As part of the exhibition, four of the large bronze vases commissioned by Louis XIV in 1665 from the metalworkers François Picard and Denis Prévost for orange trees can be viewed. Based on models developed by sculptors Laurent Magnier (1615-1700) and Jean‐Baptiste Tuby (1635-1700), derived from drawings by goldsmith Claude Ballin (1615-78), they demonstrate Louis’ enthusiasm for classical images and motifs drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. The painting by Jean‐Baptiste Monnoyer (1636-99), Still Life With Orange Tree (c.1671-75), hung above a doorway in the Apartment of the Princes (L’appartement des Princes) from 1709 to 1710. It shows an example of one of the fourteen similar vessels made of solid silver that used to adorn the Hall of Mirrors (La Galerie des Glaces). Such extravagance had the desired effect; when the Ambassadors from King Narai of Siam (1633-88) visited the court in 1686, they exclaimed, “The King of France must be a truly great king to give such a palace to his orange trees”.21 Louis XIV admired the fruit for its shape and colour, adopting it as another temporal symbol of his majesty as Le Roi-Soleil.
Marking the first time the NGA has incorporated scent into a major exhibition, French Master Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian has created a unique fragrance based on Louis XIV’s favourite orange blossom flower to be diffused within the building. The Royal Orangery was built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646-1708), between 1684 and 1685 to replace that erected by Louis Le Vau on the
Parterre du Midi (now known as the South Parterre) in 1663, which was subsequently judged too small to host botanic collections. Hardouin-Mansart, whose work is considered to be the pinnacle of French Baroque architecture, was appointed First Architect to the King following Le Vau’s death. After Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s death, Hardouin-Mansart added the additional post of Superintendent of the King’s Buildings to his list of distinctions. View of Versailles from the Orangerie (c.1695) by Étienne Allegrain (1644-1736) shows the development of the site that housed 3000 orange, lemon and pomegranate trees sourced from Italy, Portugal and Spain, displayed alongside statues.
Such was Louis XIV’s passion for the gardens at Versailles that he wrote the first version of his treatises on how they should be viewed, known as the ‘Tour of the gardens of Versailles’ (Manière de montrer les jardins de Versailles), in 1689. For this edition, he ordered an ambitious series of twenty-four topographical paintings depicting the gardens that were eventually displayed at the Grand Trianon. Jean Cotelle, the younger (1642-1708), was one of three artists employed for the task; his other works in this series are still displayed in the Galerie des Cotelle at the Trianon. Perspective View of the Three Fountains at Versailles (1689-91). shows the ‘Grove of the Three Fountains’ designed by Le Nôtre in 1677 with a marble ramp so Louis XIV could reach it seated in a wheelchair, as he was suffering from gout at the time.
Le Nôtre was one of the very few people who enjoyed a genuine friendship with the King, and “whose opinion Louis XIV trusted unquestionably.”22 Le Nôtre did not, however, think much of Hardouin-Mansart’s work, referring to him dismissively as ‘the builder’. Upon returning from Italy in 1679, where Pope Innocent XI had granted him an audience, Le Nôtre discovered that Hardouin-Mansart had erected the Colonnade on the site of his ‘Spring Garden’ (1679). Originally designed to host concerts, the Colonnade is a circular peristyle comprised of thirty-two columns of Languedoc marble with a similar number of urns and buttresses. When an excited Louis XIV asked Le Nôtre what he thought of the new addition, he sniffily replied, “Well Sire, if you really want my opinion, you have made a gardener of a builder, and he has duly served you a dish from his profession”.23
The history of Versailles is one of ceaseless alterations and repairs, as the Château had to be constantly expanded to accommodate the sheer number of residents, including the royal family, their suites, ministers, nobles, courtiers, the clergy, all their various retainers, hundreds of servants, and a large number of horses and dogs. It had been Louis XIV’s intention to demolish the original hunting lodge, but Le Vau, who designed and supervised the first phase of the expansion (1661-78) conceived a compromise plan in 1668. Known as ‘the Envelope’, it preserved the original structure while providing another storey, and the addition of two elongated wings (completed in 1673-74). François d’Orbay (1634-97) who had worked closely with Le Vau as a draughtsman maintained the ongoing work. The second phase of expansion (c.1678-1715) was under the auspices of Hardouin-Mansart who accelerated the building work with the construction of the Hall of Mirrors (La Galerie des Glaces) (1678-84), two stables and Minister’s wings (1679-82), the Grand Lodgings (1682-84), the South (1679-83) and North (1685-89) wings, and Louis XIV’s private residence, the Grand Trianon (1687-88). The Royal Chapel, begun in 1689 by Hardouin-Mansart would be completed in 1710 by his pupil and brother-in-law Robert de Cotte (1656-1735).
Only five years later, after a reign of seventy-two years, Louis XIV died at his beloved Versailles, four days before his seventy-seventh birthday. As he had done in life, Louis’ cortège avoided Paris and proceeded directly to the Basilique Royale de Saint-Denis for his interment. This denied Parisians the traditional royal funerary procession, and further eroded the emotional bonds between the monarch and the capital that had, in effect, been strained since the Fronde. With the elaborate ceremony and etiquette that surrounded him, his personal magnetism and regal manner, Louis XIV was the superstar of his age. His successors did not present such a splendid focus for the court’s attention, nor did they command the same level of respect from their subjects. “Versailles was all about surfaces. Louis XIV was always as he should be in the ceremonies that put the royal person on display. Whatever their other strengths and weaknesses, his successors lacked this gift, especially Louis XVI. The ceremonies of Versailles emphasised their personal shortcomings rather than playing to their strengths. In such a stage-managed monarchy, this was an unfortunate ‘own goal’”.24
Prior to Louis XIV’s death, the House of Bourbon had suffered a series of dynastic calamities resulting in the death of three Dauphins within a single year. Louis, Le Grand Dauphin (1661-1711) died from smallpox; his son Louis, Duc de Bourgogne (Burgundy), Le Petit Dauphin (1682-1712) from measles; and his elder son Louis, Duc de Bretagne (Brittany) (1707-12) from the same. The surviving son, Louis, Duc d’Anjou became Louis XV. In his portrait, completed in 1720 by the Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757), the young king affects a suitably stern gaze and regal bearing. The court removed to Paris under Louis’ great-uncle, Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans (1674-1723), who acted as Regent from 1715 to 1723: it did not return permanently to Versailles until 1722.
Later in his reign, Louis XV became notorious for his mistresses, and the public exposure of his marital infidelities in the 1730s and 1740s did much to tarnish the image of the monarchy. The most famous and influential of these women was the bourgeoisie, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson (1721-64), created Marquise de Pompadour in 1745. Intelligent, stylish, amusing, and highly cultured, Pompadour managed to retain her influence over Louis XV even when their physical relationship ended, some time after 1750. The slightly melancholy portrait by Carle (or Charles-André) Van Loo (1705-65), Madame de Pompadour as the ‘beautiful gardener’ (1754-55), dates from this period of their liaison. Pompadour was known for her passion for flowers, and here they serve to emphasise the passing of time and of her fading beauty. A noted patron of the arts, she and Louis supported the establishment of the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres porcelain factory in 1756. One of Pompadour’s protégés, the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698-1782), was to make his mark on Versailles by building the Opéra royal de Versailles (1763-70). Louis XV commanded Gabriel to build the Petit Trianon (1763-68) for Pompadour, but she died of tuberculosis before it was completed. Louis XV’s only surviving son, the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand (1729-65), would also die of the disease, and predeceased him.
The crown devolved on Louis Ferdinand’s eldest surviving son, Louis-Auguste, Duc de Berry, whose disastrous reign as Louis XVI would lead to the Revolution. For many people, Versailles is synonymous with Louis’ wife, the vivacious, impulsive, controversial, and ultimately doomed Austrian Archduchess Marie-Antoinette.25 Draughtsman, painter, and engraver Jean-Michel Moreau, the younger (1741-1814), was appointed as the designer responsible for court ceremonies and events (Dessinateur des Menus-Plaisirs du Roi) in 1770. This put him at the centre of the enormous preparations and logistical arrangements for the royal wedding, the festivities for which lasted ten days. Moreau’s pen and Indian ink drawing, \em>Illumination of the gardens of Versailles during the wedding celebrations of the Dauphin and Marie-Antoinette, 19 May 1770 (1770), shows the teeming crowds near the Apollo Basin (Bassin d’Apollon), just some of the over 5000 guests who were invited to attend celebrations at the palace.
Marie-Antoinette became the only French Queen to have a pronounced aesthetic influence on Versailles; she arrived at the Château as a tentative young bride and was a queen by nineteen. “In matters of decoration and furnishings – unlike in the fine arts – Marie-Antoinette displayed firm instincts, well-defined tastes, and striking consistency”, writes Hélène Delalex, assistant curator at the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. “For her private rooms, the Queen – always avid for the latest fashions – commissioned innumerable new makeovers, unrestrained by any considerations of time or budget”.26 She ordered new furniture, decorative paneling, soft furnishings, wall hangings, porcelain services, paintings, sculptures, and objets d’art, both for her own rooms in the main palace (which she enlarged to form a rambling triplex), and her private domains within the grounds.
Louis XVI chivalrously gifted Marie-Antoinette the Petit Trianon in 1774, where she retreated with her intimate circle. She spent lavishly, adapting it to her liking with the help of the great interior designer Jean-Démosthène Dugourc (1749-1825). ‘Ears of wheat’ armchair (1787-88) and ‘Ears of wheat’ footstool (1787) for Marie-Antoinette’s rooms in the Petit Trianon, of painted wood and embroidered silk, were made by cabinet-maker Georges Jacob I (1739-1814) as part of a set for her bedchamber. These pieces exemplify what became known as the ‘Style Trianon’, naturalistic floral motifs woven into garlands and artful bouquets, mingled with ribbons and ‘rustic’ decorative details such as pine cones and wheat.27 An exceptional mahogany Ladies desk (1788) by Ferdinand Schwerdfeger (1734-1818) was made to complement the other furniture, with its gilt-bronze mounts imitating basketwork, and roses scrolling along the upper edge of the table.
“The ‘Marie-Antoinette style’ might be defined as a taste for spaces flooded with light, a palette dominated by white, and a classical style of airy lightness and delicacy, with a decorative repertoire featuring flowers, pearls, and medallions … Above all, it rested on the illusion of simplicity, when in reality every element bore witness to skills and arts of formal perfection and peerless refinement”.28 The Queen made extensive changes to the interior of the Petit Trianon, most notably the addition of the Théâtre de la Reine (1778-80), built by her architect Richard Mique (1728-94). The exhibition includes Theatre accessories: gardening tools (late 18th or early 19th century), a selection of props (a fork, rake, shovel, sickle, two picks and two canes) that may have been used by the performers for such amateur theatricals.
A warm personal friendship with Marie-Antoinette secured the thriving international career of her contemporary, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842). She first painted the young queen to fulfil a request made by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-80) for a full-length portrait of her youngest daughter. The resulting work, Queen Marie‐Antoinette (1779-80), was duly dispatched to Vienna where it remains, but was so well received Louis XVI had copies made for circulation in France. The Queen wears a sumptuous panniered court dress of white satin with borders of gold fringe, decked with bows, and swags held in place by gold tassels. In contrast to Rigaud’s state portrait of Louis XIV, Vigée Le Brun has rendered the Queen’s heavy blue train with gold fleur-de-lys as though it was an enveloping gauze that can just be made out behind her dress. Soft brush strokes and the bright white shimmer of the gown serve to highlight the youthful grace of the sitter. Marie-Antoinette was famous for her radiant complexion, about which Le Brun reminisced, “I was unable to render its effect as I would have wished: no pigments could capture that freshness, those delicate shades that belonged only to those charming features and that I never have encountered in any other woman.”29
Vigée Le Brun was Marie-Antoinette’s favourite painter for a decade, producing more than thirty portraits of the Queen and her family, and exerting great influence over how the Queen’s image was conveyed.30 She also painted the Queen’s favourites, such as the charismatic Yolande-Martine-Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchesse de Polignac (1782) who was presented at court in 1775. Marie-Antoinette was captivated by Gabrielle de Polignac (1749-93) as she was known, and appointed her to the prestigious position of Governess of the Children of France in 1782. This decision caused widespread outrage at court, where it was felt that de Polignac’s social status was insufficient for a post of such seniority. In this portrait, Le Brun captures the spirit of ‘picturesque naturalism’ that the Queen and her ladies favoured when they were away from the formality of the court at the Petit Trianon and the Hameau de la reine. A similar informality infuses Le Brun’s portrait of her friend, Antoinette-Elisabeth-Marie d’Aguesseau, Comtesse de Ségur (1785). The Countess was the granddaughter of Henri-François d’Aguesseau (1668-1751), who served as Chancellor of France three times between 1717 and 1750.
Art historian Adrien Goetz has asserted that, “the year 1789 was the capital’s revenge on Versailles, first and foremost”.31 Under Louis XIV, Versailles became a theatre with one indisputable performer: in a more deferential time, the archaic daily rituals observed by the court reinforced his pre-eminence. However, by distancing his court from Paris – its judgements, scrutiny, criticism and any expressions of discontent – the monarch became dangerously insulated from any dissenting opinions. Louis XVI’s retiring and unassertive nature, coupled with Marie-Antoinette’s desire for privacy and her efforts to evade court obligations, allowed damaging innuendo and corrosive gossip directed at the royal couple to thrive. If the business of royalty is to be seen and on display, a decline in that visibility will have a corresponding impact on how its members are regarded by their subjects.
By the time Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General (for the first time since 1614) in May, 1789, sovereign and people were deeply estranged. The Oath of the Tennis Court at Versailles, 20 June 1789 (1791), a finely detailed drawing by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), is one of the most important visual documents of the first phase of the Revolution. Having been thwarted in their demands for a greater say in the proceedings, and locked out of the debating chamber, we see the deputies representing the Third Estate gathered in the nearby indoor tennis court. Here, they took a collective oath (serment du jeu de paume) agreeing to work towards a new political and social order, one that would result in the monarchy being brutally extinguished. Versailles had come to symbolise a model of kingship that had broken faith with the wider public: profligate, remote, insensitive, obstinate and anachronistic. For those who dwelt within its irresistible spell, the most beautiful of palaces would prove to be their undoing, as “another consequence of the twelve short miles between Versailles and the capital was that Versailles was easily turned into a legend, and not necessarily one that flattered the monarchy”.32
With thanks to Géraldine Bidault, Département de la gestion des collections, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon & Elodie Mariani, Service de presse, Château de Versailles: 78008 Versailles Cedex, France: http://en.chateauversailles.fr
Versailles: Treasures From the Palace, National Gallery of Australia: Parkes Place, Parkes, Canberra, ACT, until 17 April 2017 – nga.gov.au/Versailles
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.
FOOTNOTES: 1 André Félibien, Summary Description of the Palace of Versailles (Description Sommaire du Château de Versailles), 1674. 2 Béatrix Saule & Mathieu de Vinha, Visit Versailles, Éditions Artlys, Paris, 2012, p.14. 3 Ibid, p.20. Visitor numbers for 2015 and 2016 supplied by the Service de presse, Château de Versailles. 4 Béatrix Saule & Lucina Ward (Eds), Versailles: Treasures From the Palace, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2016, p.131. 5 Tony Spawforth, Versailles: A Biography of A Palace, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2008, p.26. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid, p.35. 8 Ibid, p.26. 9 Béatrix Saule & Lucina Ward (Eds), op cit, p.43. 10 Louis XIV would enter into a morganatic marriage with the pious widow Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon (1635-1719) in 1683 or 1684. She had been the royal governess at Saint-Germain from 1673, and in 1680 she was promoted to second Mistress of the Robes to the Dauphine, Maria Anna Victoria of Bavaria (1660-90). Owing to the disparity in their social status, Maintenon’s marriage to the King was never publically proclaimed, nor is there any official record of it. 11 Tony Spawforth, op cit, p.64-65. 12 Ibid, p.68. 13 Ibid, p.1. 14 Ibid, p.27. 15 In 1875, Vaux-le-Vicomte was purchased by sugar magnate Alfred Sommier. It is now run by his great-great-grandsons, Alexandre, Jean-Charles and Ascanio de Vogüé. See, Jean Bond Rafferty, “Preserving History: The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte”, Sotheby’s Magazine, April, 2017. [online] 16 Tony Spawforth, op cit, p.4. 17 A fictionalised account of some of Le Nôtre’s logistical difficulties with the numerous projects at Versailles is the subject of the film A Little Chaos (Alan Rickman, 2015). Set in 1682, among the film’s many inaccuracies is the casting of forty year-old actor Matthias Schoenaerts to play Le Nôtre, who was nearly seventy at that time. 18 Alain Baraton, Walks In the Gardens and Grounds Of Versailles, Éditions Artlys, Paris, 2012, p.10. 19 Ibid. 20 Tony Spawforth, op cit, p.4. 21 Hélène Delalex, The Palace of Versailles Through 100 Masterpieces (Le Château de Versailles en 100 Chefs-D’Œuvre), Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2014, p.46. 22 Alain Baraton, op cit, p.49. 23 Ibid. 24 Tony Spawforth, op cit, p.95-96. 25 there was a huge resurgence of interest in the Queen prompted by the film Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006). Coppola did for the ill-fated consort what Baz Luhrmann did for Shakespeare with Romeo + Juliet (1996), a film to which it bears a number of similarities. 26 Hélène Delalex, A Day With Marie Antoinette (Un Jour Avec Marie-Antoinette), (trans. Barbara Mellor), Flammarion, Paris, 2015, p.68. 27 Ibid, p.111. 28 Ibid, p.86. 29 Ibid, p.140. 30 the exhibition Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France (15 February-15 May, 2016) at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York was only the second retrospective of Vigée Le Brun’s work in modern times. 31 Adrien Goetz, Marie-Antoinette Style, Assouline Publishing, New York, 2005, p.5. 32 Tony Spawforth, op cit, p.230.