December 05, 2016

Versailles Palace Treasures Come To National Gallery Of Australia



That evocative phrase shock and awe, coined by the writers of America’s doctrine of “rapid dominance” in the Iraq war, could have been applied to Louis XIV’s reign in France — twice over. Not only did the 17th-century French king consolidate state power into absolute personal rule, ramping up the state’s treasury after reforms by his brilliant minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert, he fought endless wars to expand France’s territory and ensure defensible borders. 

Scarred in his youth by the rebellion known as the Fronde, when the entire national treasury was dedicated to the royal army, he also prioritised domestic security, establishing it with brute force and effective PR. Massive spending alternated between military acquisitions during times of war and burnishing the image of the king — and so the state — with cultural commissions in times of peace. He poured money into architecture, painting, sculpture, the decorative arts, music, and dance. Into science too, which served a dual role: modernising his war machine and producing hydraulic, explosive and mechanised marvels for public entertainments.

The most extreme example of this double focus was the furniture, including chairs, and decorative objects crafted for Louis XIV from solid silver. Over-the-top luxury, the chairs were also uncomfortable: suitable, perhaps, for objects that were actually part of France’s treasury. Louis had them melted down in 1689 to fund his next war. So restricted were the arts and crafts in favour of military spending in the following years that the even famous Gobelins tapestry factory was closed from 1694 to 1699.


Louis XIV adopted two Greek gods as his avatars: Apollo, the god of knowledge and art; and Mars, the god of war. Apollo’s emblem, the face of the sun, became his emblem.
And the epicentre of all this was Versailles, the palace he transformed from his father’s simple hunting lodge into a small city that housed thousands, including his entire court and administration. It came to define taste and etiquette across Europe.

On Friday, a rare exhibition of 130 objets d’art from Versailles opens at the National Gallery in Canberra. It follows a chance remark last year by the Australian ambassador to France, Stephen Brady, to former Le Point editor and Nicolas Sarkozy adviser Catherine Pegard, who is the (often controversial) president of the Public Establishment of the Palace, Museum and National Estate of Versailles.

After seeing a dazzling exhibition from Versailles in Arras, Brady said he thought a similar exhibition would go down very well in Australia, where ties with France are strong. Hundreds of thousands of Australians visit Paris every year; more young Australian men, per capita, than any other nationality lost their lives defending Arras in World War I; and the Australian government was talking submarine contracts with a French company at the time.

To his surprise, Brady says, Pegard agreed. “Are you serious?” he recalls saying. She was, and after a “dance of the seven veils”, as Brady puts it — several meetings to nail down the details — the exhibition was agreed upon. The only venue could have been the NGA, Brady says, because he represents Australia, not any particular state. As it happens, this period of art history is also the specialty of the NGA’s director, Gerard Vaughan.


Beatrix Saule is the grande dame of Versailles. A graduate of the Ecole du Louvre, she studied economics and law as well as art history, and has worked at the palace for 40 years. The display in Canberra and an exhibition of Marie Antoinette memorabilia going to Japan will be her last major project before retirement.

The NGA exhibition is Saule’s vision of Versailles. She is so intimate with the place, she has instant recall of any names and dates she is asked about.

The French art world still remembers fabulous shows she curated over the years, including Les table royales in 1993, which displayed tables and tables full of extravagant china. A comment that she has been married to the palace all her life prompts a wry aside to her aide about her husband’s opinion on that.

“I like to say that Versailles was a product of peace,” she notes, referring to the spending that was possible only when the country was not at war. “That’s why Versailles took so long to be built: it was always starting and stopping.”

Her show spans the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and the ill-fated Louis XVI, the last ­absolute monarch of France who was so unceremoniously dispatched during the French Revolution. The exhibition demonstrates the shifts in taste and fashion over that time, particularly the shift from aesthetic shock and awe to the more domesticated personal rooms of the later kings and queens.

While anyone could view Louis XIV rise from his bed and make his toilette, small daily state occasions in themselves, Louis XV and XVI demanded privacy. Their rooms were smaller, more warmly decorated. The change in decor mirrored the shift in state power. No later building projects would rival the stunning Hall of Mirrors, for example: that explosion of light, a first in interiors, bookended by salons dedicated to Mars and Apollo.


“Louis XV hated to be on show. He was shy,” Saule says. “He wanted to be with friends, in good company.” The “small apartments”, as his rooms were called, may have been less grand, but they were “very refined and always at the latest fashion”.

Saule compares the ambience of the different eras. “So Louis XIV, with all its marble and gilded objects, its silver objects, was brilliant, but it was a little cold,” she observes. “The second atmosphere, more intimate, of the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, with wood replacing the marble, was more comfortable. Comfort became more important than prestige.”

Not that the later kings embraced the workaday. A 58cm perfume “fountain” from the wardrobe of Louis XV, which we will see in Australia, is an example. Made of glazed porcelain in the then-new cracked Chinese style, its stand and lid are made of elaborate gilded bronze. The decorations have a marine theme: waves, shells and a little lobster on top.

Also coming to Canberra are the boudoir chairs of Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour, Louis XVI’s queen and Louis XV’s chief mistress, respectively. The former, an armchair from the queen’s private bedchamber, still has its original upholstery. The latter, a favourite of Saule’s, is one of the masterpieces of the exhibition. It was made by the most expensive cabinetmaker of the day, she says, and is “a marvel of equilibre”, of balance or poise. Its upholstery has been replaced.

At the other extreme of scale is a painting of The Marquis of Sourches and his family by Francois-Hubert Drouais, also from the time of Louis XV. It measures 3.24m by 2.84m and will be transported to Australia on its own, packed diagonally to fit, and in foam to protect it against knocks and aircraft vibrations. Also coming is a 1.5 tonne statue of Latona and her children from one of the fountains, and a 6m tapestry from the series Life of the King by the master-weavers Gobelins.

Saule won’t speak about insurance costs — it’s hard to imagine such works are even insurable — or about details of transport. When I express surprise that only two planes will be carrying the priceless cargo and that the risk isn’t spread more widely, she makes a play of signalling devil’s horns, warding off bad luck.

Louis XIV’s extravagant pursuit of beauty in the building and decoration of Versailles was not just a demonstration of the trappings of power or a personal penchant for extreme luxury. It also had an economic purpose, which his successors maintained. It was intended to change the trade balance in France’s favour. Until Louis XIV’s time, all luxury goods were imported: silver from Italy and Spain, marble from Italy and Flanders, marquetry from Flanders and Germany, paintings from Italy and Spain, and so on.

Louis XIV’s idea was to set up state-owned manufacturing; and the state, of course, was him. He reorganised the Academy of Painting to make it more entrepreneurial. He created academies of dance and music. “A lot of academies were created at that time,” Saule says, “to establish theoretical training and develop the arts in France.” The great composer Lully was in charge of music in his time, Rameau in the time of Louis XV.

Gobelins was among the companies that came under Louis XIV’s patronage. Sevres, the porcelain manufacturer of fine tableware among other things, was established with Louis XV’s help. The kings not only bought their products but encouraged their nobles to do so too. The royal household was the most prestigious showroom in France. “They were renewed very quickly because in Versailles the princes and princesses wanted always to be up to date,” Saule says. Fashion was born.

It wasn’t only about beauty or power. Under Louis XIV, knowledge for knowledge’s sake flourished. In the Academy of Science he established, one of the disciplines was botany. “In the Trianon, there were enormous glasshouses,” Saule says of the palace in Versailles that Louis XIV built as a getaway for his mistress, Madame de Montespan, and himself. “There were 4000 specimens of plants from all over the world.” Explorers and naval officers had orders to bring back what they found.

Under Louis XV, the great botanist Bernard de Jussieu classified all the plants at Versailles. Saule describes him as the most important classifier after Carl Linnaeus: he catalogued plants according to their modes of generation, adding to Linnaeus’s charting of physical characteristics. Botany did not fare so well under Louis XVI Marie Antoinette had the glasshouses torn down and the plants sent to the Museum of Natural History in Paris, in order to make way for a fashionably pretty English garden.

Hydraulics and explosives technology, important for war, were also used in the dazzling garden entertainments in Versailles. Water had to be brought there from up to 70km away, and ways were invented to feed the elaborate machinery of fountains. The fountains were elaborate not just physically but also symbolically. Many were based on the Metamorphoses of Ovid. In the bath of the nymphs, for example, a curtain of water falls in front of the figures to preserve their modesty. Elsewhere, a high, thin stream of water, leaving a dying giant’s mouth like a cry, expresses his ­suffering.

Versailles shone with fantastical fireworks displays and impossibly expensive illumination. Brilliant lighting during the king’s receptions allowed parties to go on into the night. “Only the king with all his wealth could afford the number of candles for that,” Saule points out.

She also insists that, contrary to popular opinion, philosophers of the French Enlightenment were also welcomed to Versailles. They were particularly friendly with Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, and the Encyclopedie was published with the help of the state publisher. “There was no opposition at all between the Enlightenment and the court,” she says. Opposition to both court and philosophers came from the parlements, which, in those daysmeant provincial appellate courts.

“Sure, the hierarchy and institutions like the public levee and couchee gave the court an appearance of being of the past,” Saule adds. “But some of the courtiers were important scientists. Louis XIV was passionate about astronomy, botany, and medicine. Louis XVI was passionate about geography and languages; he spoke about seven languages.”

Versailles established the ascendancy of French taste and luxury, still an important aspect of French exports today. Other innovations continue to resonate in France. “It was one of those moments of the highest level of civilisation,” Saule says.

“There was a new style of conviviality, of politeness. There was the importance of women. French gastronomy was created at the time of Louis XVI. The fashions, the jewellery ... It was the place where you had to be if you were a VIP in France at that time.”

Canberra, for a brief and glittering moment, will give Australians a glimpse of all that.

By Miriam Cosic


Profile of Louis XIV (c. 1709) by Antoine Benoist

With many thanks to The Australian 

Top picture:
Louis XIV (detail, 1701) by Hyacinthe Rigaud; Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun.

Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors was conceived at a time when aesthetic excess was the norm.

Duchesse de Polignac (1782) by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun; bust of Louis XIV.

The Family of the Duke of Penthievre in 1768, also known as The Cup of Chocolate, by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier.

A "Merbot" Retrieved Artifacts From Louis XIV’s Sunken Flagship "La Lune"
Mysterious 'Man in the Iron Mask' Revealed