Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Versailles: A Palace for a King

When I lived in France I went to Versailles several times. A couple of times I went inside the palace and gawped at all the opulence, but most of the time I just strolled around the gardens, sat by the fountains and enjoyed the more intimate surroundings of the Petit Trianon. When I heard that an exhibition was coming to the National Gallery of Australia 'featuring the treasures of the palace', I went along to see how these objects would reveal themselves out of context.

I had always found the grandiose nature of the palace quite oppressive and it's hard to focus on single objects when surrounded by such glittering wealth and shiny bling. Those who have never been there could get a feel for the place by standing against a backdrop of the Hall of Mirrors.

Louis XIV transformed Versailles from a humble hunting lodge built by his father into a vast luxurious palace. The construction took place over nearly half a century from 1662, in times of peace with pauses during the many wars of this period. The architect was Louis Le Vau; the overall designer and decorator was Charles Le Brun, the King's First Painter; and the gardens were designed by Andre Le Notre.

Louis XIV's image as an absolute monarch was reinforced throughout Versailles with royal insignia, allegorical reference and classical iconography. The king is shown in the guise of Apollo, the ancient Greek God of the sun - hence his title, The Sun King - or represented as a Roman Emperor.

At Versailles, Charles Le Brun's designs included every detail, from great ceilings enriched with stucco and paintings, to polychrome marble panelling and gilded wooden doors, down to intricate handles and locks. The highest standard of materials were employed: porphyry; alabaster; coloured marbles; ebony; and other precious woods, silver, gilding and mirrors.

Sculptures appear everywhere. Reliefs are set into the building's interiors and exterior. Portrait busts or life-size figures, often from antique models, stand in niches or adorn corridors, tabletops and mantles. A large number of bronzes and marble works are featured in the gardens. As well as Apollo, we find examples of classical mythology, such as Latona, Flora, Ceres, Bacchus and Saturn.

A guiding principle of Versailles was that it must, above all, represent French taste, design and craftsmanship. The palace was inspired by Italianate traditions and, although many of the artists commissioned by Louis XIV were Italian or Flemish, the King's patronage was essential in establishing France as a centre for arts and culture. Versailles became an ideal to which the rest of Europe could aspire. I recently enjoyed watching Season One of Versailles. It is probably woefully historically inaccurate but it casts the Palace as a character itself as Louis XIV dreams of building a monument to the glory of France surtout. My affection for the place enables me to overlook the series' faults,

In 1662 Louis XIV acquired the great Gobelins workshop and supported it with major royal commissions such as tapestries and carpets. These tapestries and paintings record some of the interiors and spectacular works of art at Versailles, many of which no longer exist. When a coalition of European powers joined forces against France in December 1689, the king was obliged to melt down his famous silver collection to fund the war effort.

Louis XIV visits the Gobelins with Colbert, 15 October 1667 - The tapestry is from the series Histoire du Roi commissioned by Charles Le Brun and woven between 1667 and 1672. 
In 1665 six bronze vases were commissioned by Louis XIV to house orange trees. Janus heads, sphinxes, satyrs and chimeras demonstrate the king's enthusiasm for classical images and motifs drawn from mythology. While none of Versailles' famous silver furniture survives, these vases offer a rare glimpse of the goldsmith's craftsmanship and convey an idea of the lost furniture.


Unlike the Sun King whose entire life was on display, Louis XV and his grandson Louis XVI preferred to live more privately at Versailles. On the death of his great-grandfather in 1715, Louis XV took up residence in Paris but returned with his court to Versailles in 1722. New suites of apartments were constructed, deliberately conceived as private spaces with a skillfully devised system of concealed doors set into the wood panelling or behind hangings. Access to Louis XV's Petits Apartments was restricted to a few favoured courtiers.

Madame Adelaide at her writing table in her apartments at Versailles (1776) - Louis-Lie Perin-Salbreux
New informality and  domesticity appear in images of the royal family and aristocracy. We see people promenading, enjoying music and relaxed dinners, and partaking in fashionable indulgences such as drinking chocolate. Changing styles and an enthusiasm for new technology and the exotic is reflected in furniture and other objects. Cold marble is replaced by the warmth of wood in all its forms: parquetry; wall panelling; gilded scrolls; and the combination of colours and patterns used in cabinetry.  

The Royal Family in 1782

The dauphin's desk was part of a refurbishment of the South Wing apartments for the marriage of Louis-Ferdinand to his cousin Marie-Therese Raphaela of Spain in 1745. It was used for barely two years. Following his wife's sudden death in July 1746, the dauphin was obliged to remarry and the apartments were again fitted out.

There are some really rather gorgeous pieces, such as this clock and this whatever-it-is decorated with a crab. When seen all together they are often too much, but in this isolation, they are simply splendid.

Versaille's Labyrinth was located west of the Orangerie in the southern part of the gardens. Originally conceived by Andre le Notre in 1665 as an undecorated maze, the crossroads of each path were furnished in the 1670s with 39 fountains decorated with 330 painted lead animals illustrating classic parables. These new additions were inspired by the publication of Jean de La Fontaine's Fables 1668, dedicated to Louis XIV's six-year-old heir.

About twenty artists worked on the fountain sculptures; the naturalism of the figures produced suggests they were likely inspired by the animals in the nearby Menagerie. Each group was accompanied by Isaac de Benserade's verse summarising the fables. The Labyrinth was one of the most popular parts of the garden. Visitors could find moral truths hidden within the remarkable scenes. Among these were that all people were not created equal and the evils of social ambition.

After years of neglect the maze was replaced in 1774 by the Queen's Garden. Only thirty-five animals, and the statues of Aesop and Cupid from the entrance, survive. Fortunately the maze was immortalised in Labyrinthe de Versailles 1679, which includes descriptions, Benserade's poems and Sebastien Leclerc's etchings of each fountain group.


Gardens were Louis XIV's passion. In less than twenty years the unpromising site of Versailles was transformed into a showcase of France's wealth, power and prestige. During the ancien regime the estate of Versailles occupied 15,000 hectares: the formal garden around the palace; the Petit Parc for carriage rides around the Grand Canal; and the Great Parc reserved for the hunt. The palace grounds now cover an area of 815 hectares, the area of the old Petit Parc.

Andre le Notre, Louis XIV's first landscape designer, included fifteen groves laid out on either side of the Royal Avenue. These secluded 'salons of greenery', garden rooms contained by densely-planted trees and hedges, were settings for activities such as walking, dining, music, play, and entertainment. Subject to changes in taste and fashion over the years, areas of the gardens were constantly altered and rebuilt - even demolished and replaced. In 1676 Jules Hardouin-Mansart began redesigning the garden. He created new groves with a marked architectural character, including the Colonnade Grove built in 1684. Three hundred sculptures decorated the parterres, avenues and groves, creating an open-air museum in the park of Versailles.

Perspective View of the Three Fountains at Versailles (1689-91) - Jean Cotelle
The kings of France had a passion for hunting. The sport served to initiate young princes and to educate them in the art of war. As a child Louis XIV developed a fondness for his father's hunting estate and the forest of Versailles. With its long wooded avenues suitable for galloping, the Grand Parc spread far beyond the boundaries of the Petit Parc. Many types of hunting were practiced: falconry; shooting with dogs to flush out pheasants, partridges or hares; and big game such as deer, boar and wolves.

Hunting was considered an entertainment on par with theatre, ballet and opera. On average Louis XIV, XV and XVI hunted every third day. An invitation to join the king was considered a mark of favour as court customs dictated that members of the royal family hunted only with those closest to them. As a result, being permitted to share the king's intimacy and take part in the traditional débotté or removal of boots was much coveted, as was the meal served in his private chambers on return from the hunt.

The grand dauphin's hunting dogs (1702) - Alexandre-Francois Desportes
Versailles was conceived to host celebrations, showing the king in all his magnificence. Courtiers and foreign visitors were drawn to the royal residence as witness to these events. Numerous engravings assured the fame of the king's 'divertissments', recording the feasts, fireworks and other activities in their most remarkable and yet ephemeral of moments. The management of the king's entertainment required a special department, the office of the Menus-Plaisirs (royal entertainment).

Military or diplomatic victories, births or marriages of princes gave occasion for the most extravagant of celebrations. Over the span of several days feasts alternated with dinners, masked balls and fancy dress, plays and operas, lotteries and carousels, and finished with fireworks and illuminations. The fireworks astonished with flashes of silver and gold, their frightening thundering noise sometimes amplified by the sound of canons. 

Fifth Day: Fireworks on the Canal at Versailles - Jean Lepautre
These events reached their peak in 1674 when the Grand Canal was lined with magical scenes all lit up at the same instant by a regiment of soldiers. In 1770 for the wedding of the dauphin and Marie-Antoinette, the entire gardens were illuminated by 16,000 lamps lit in less than three minutes.

The Masked Ball given in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, 25 February 1745 - Charles-Nicolas Cochin
On the marriage of the dauphin to Marie-Therese, Infanta of Spain, Louis XV had the grand Apartment decked out for a masked ball. He dressed as a topiaried tree (accompanied by seven courtiers dressed in identical fashion) surrounded by figures in a range of fancy dress, including those in bizarre Turkish-style costume with over-sized heads.

Under Louis XVI when celebrations became less frequent at Versailles, royal entertainment centred on the Petit Trianon. Marie-Antoinette hosted music and theatrical events, opening her estate to visiting guests who experienced 'divertissments' on a more intimate scale.

Marie-Antoinette's night festivities at the Petit Trianon (1785)- Claude-Louis Chatelet
Louis XV and his mistresses, first Madame de Pompadour then Madame Du Barry, spent considerable time at the 'Marble Trianon' or Grand Trianon. Built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the Grand Trianon was a place for parties and country outings. With suites opening directly onto the parterres, boundaries between the inside and outside dissolved. The flower garden, a tribute to the goddess, Flora, housed the rarest blooms. The king's interest in science led him to botany and in 1750 his three gardens housed more than 4,000 plant species.

In 1762 Louis XV had Ange-Jacques Gabriel design a new small house, the Petit Trianon in the emerging neoclassical style. The square exterior has Corinthian columns and plasters on the facades. Flowers dominated the interior - on the wood and upholstery of chairs, on the inlaid furniture, on bronze and porcelain - designed to please the king's new favourite - Madame Du Barry.


However at the death of Louis XV in 1774, Marie-Antoinette took possession of the Petit Trianon. Its modernity and remoteness from the main palace and court etiquette appealed to the new queen. She spent increasing amounts of time there with only her closest friends. The last phase of the Petit Trianon was the Queen's Hamlet, a series of buildings with a rustic character: farm, cottage, mill, dairy, barn and dovecot. In this reconstructed pastoral idyll Marie-Antoinette indulged in simple pleasures such as drinking milk, fishing and walking in the fields. 

Queen Marie-Antoinette (1783)
Part of the 'Pearls and Cornflower' service
The Pearls and Cornflower service commissioned by Marie-Antoinette in 1781 was probably intended for the Petit Trianon. The service comprised 283 pieces - required for a full French-style dinner suite for 24 people - and took many months to complete. Cornflowers were the queen's favoured motif and appear throughout the decoration at the Petit Trianon.

The Palace at Versailles epitomises the complex absolute monarchy created by Louis XIV, elements of which continued through the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI. However, the extravagance proved unsustainable and, although the king attempted reforms, it was too late. By 1788 France was bankrupt. 

Through the formation of the National Assembly in 1789, political power shifted to the people. On 20th June 1789 the deputies of the National Assembly congregated in an indoor tennis court in the district of Versailles and, in what was to become a pivotal moment in the history of the French Revolution, pledged an oath 'not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.'

The Oath of the Tennis Court at Versailles, 20 June 1789 - Jacques-Louis David
In October the Palace was stormed and the king and queen were forced to live in Paris under a kind of house arrest. The royal family never again occupied Versailles. The monarchy was formally abolished in September 1972. Many items from the palace were dispersed, including at auctions between 1793 and 1794. Versailles was designated a museum in 1797 and later, in the 1830s, became the Museum of the History of France. 

The Palace and its gardens were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 and, from 2003, have been the subject of an ambitious restoration and renovation programme. Many objects have been returned, either from the holdings of public museums or purchased from private collectors. The interiors and gardens of Versailles continue to reflect the glamour and opulence of court life under Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI.

Louis XVI writing his testament in the Temple tower, 20 January 1793 - Henri-Pierre Danloux

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