Visiting Canberra to view the Treasures from Versailles at the National Gallery of Australia on my way to Sydney for Xmas 2016, proved an encounter of the very richest kind. They are worth a road trip to see.
My favourite work by an unknown artist, was a relief of the head of the God Apollo, framed by a ‘corona of sunbeams’. Made of lead 1660 – 1680 during the reign of the so-called ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV, it was originally gilded. While that element has now all but fled, it does however retain an astonishing air of authority much like the King’s and in reality it oozes the energy and positive attitude he was renowned for, especially in his youth.
Showcasing a superb array of visual arts, the exhibition from Versailles expands knowledge while drawing the threads of art and design disciplines in that country together in the context of historical events, intellectual and spiritual ideas, as well as social change.
The seventeenth century of Louis XIV’s reign in France, celebrated the arrival of civilized life indoors. Rooms began to be arranged for comfort and convenience and a change in style in furniture and furnishings reflected that desire. The King’s Superintendent of Finances Nicolas Fouquet, an architectural visionary, hired an architect, designer and garden designer to work with him on the conception and completion of the building of his own home, the chateau Vaux le Vicomte.
Vaux was a building that would ensure its architect Louis Le Vau, designer Charles Le Brun and gardener Andre Le Notre would gain fame and fortune. Later seconded to work for the King, this extremely talented ‘dream team’ created for him one of the worlds greatest visual arts treasure piles, the Chateau at Versailles, which has today some 700 rooms and 67 staircases.
Versailles became the seat of French royalty during the reigns of the Bourbon Kings Louis XIV (1638 – 1715), King Louis XV(1710 – 1754) and King Louis XVI (1754- 1793)
It was Louis XIV on his accession to the throne aged 21 who decided to establish his court outside Paris by renovating his father’s old hunting lodge and chateau at Versailles.
It became a building project that ultimately influenced the design and development of all the arts of the western world.
The exhibition abounds in ornamental urns. Painted on canvas, fashion in porcelain, various stones and bronze, that suited being indoors and out.
This includes those known as the Grand Vases c1685, originally brought from Rome and made of Porphyry or Lapis Porphyrites, which was quarried by ancient Romans following its discovery in the age of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD).
Due to the exceptional quality of its surface and its rarity, porphyry was employed by rulers throughout antiquity.
Rediscovered in Renaissance Italy it became highly sought after by those who could afford it with columns made of it in antiquity refashioned into vases on Louis’ command.
The subjection of French art to the influence of Rome was inspired by the King’s admiration for Roman architectural principles. Louis XIV (1643 – 1715) was one quarter French – half Spanish by his mother Anne of Austria and one quarter Italian by his grandmother Marie de Medici
Throughout his long reign of seventy-two years he perfectly understood the ideals of the classical style, using its absolutism to great effect at Versailles although tempering its architectural characteristics into a more compromised and tasteful French version. It symbolized his monarchy whilst retaining classical rationalism
During his lifetime he completely reorganised the arts; he founded the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648 and purchased Gobelins in 1662
In 1664 The Academy of Painting and Sculpture became the Royal Academy of the Arts and in 1667 he founded the Royal Manufactory of furniture for the Crown and Royal Academy of Architecture in 1671
Together with his very able minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV he also founded, under the direction of his favourite designer Charles Le Brun a Royal Manufactory (Manufacture Royale Des Meublesde La Courrone) to provide everything needed for the fitting out and furnishing of a royal palace.
The grand tapestry celebrating Louis XIV visiting the Gobelins manufactory October 15, 1667 is from the Life of the King Series, woven in wool, silk and gold thread 1729 – 1734 after Charles Le Brun. It depicts Louis, his 1st Minister Colbert and Le Brun overseeing the stunning works being made and is overwhelming in its majesty.
Hand woven tapestry during Louis XIV’s reign was at the height of the technical excellence it would achieve, his grandmother Marie de Medici having brought about a preference for paintings when she outfitted the Palais de Luxembourg 1622–24. This was the first time paintings replaced tapestry, which until that time was considered by all as the highest art form.
Sited nearby the village of Versailles some 17 kilometres south west of Paris, the plan to create this grand place from where he could hold court by converting his father Louis XIII’s old hunting lodge.
This meant all his nobles were forced to travel to Versailles from their own estates and seek lodging at the palace, which was rather the point of the exercise. The King wanted to impede their ability to build up regional power bases and plot against him as they had in his youth, via the plan of action known as The Fronde.
Over my lifetime the chateau at Versailles has been undergoing continual restoration works, meaning that during the many times I have visited since the 1970’s until early this century, a great many parts of it were closed and its many treasures stored.
As an interior designer, who also taught the evolution of design and style in the western world for some thirteen years, I had always wanted to see so many objects that I knew about.
One was the great Savonnerie carpets woven to grace the Grande Gallery of The Louvre, the former royal palace in Paris.
Throughout the period of Louis XIV’s reign Savonnerie produced the most important of all the carpets made in France.
Carpets had been woven in France since the Crusades to the Holy Land when Louis XI (1423-1483) brought ‘Sarrasinois’ rugs back from the wars. Henry IV, Henry of Navarre (1553-1601) the first Bourbon King of France revived the industry on his succession to the French throne in 1589 bringing prosperity to France.
Pierre Dupont, a former illuminator who received his royal patronage, obtained a license to use a workshop in the Louvre for the manufacture of carpets. Dupont had discovered the eastern technique for making pile carpets in silk and wool with grounds of gold thread, similar to the so-called Polish carpets.
In 1627 he took Simon Lourdet, a former pupil as partner, and installed himself in a former soap factory, hence the name Savonnerie. The carpets became so famous by 1630 they were no longer known as ‘tapis facon de Turquie’ but as ‘tapis facon de France.
There are many delightful paintings in the exhibition. Carle Van Loo pictured Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Pompadour as a ‘beautiful gardener’ and the attention to detail on the flowers and the fabric is breathtaking in reality.
Tables of all types and styles in particular reached a high point of achievement during the reign of the French Regime. After 1751 furniture had been required to bear impressed stamp of the maker. The Jurande des Menuisiers Ébénistes examined pieces and if satisfied impressed their initials J.M.E. on a piece. Only pieces made expressly for the Crown were exempt.
Louis XV also championed the Royal manufactory of Sèvres, acting as a salesman to sell its wares to nobles and courtiers in exhibitions held in his private rooms. By the time Louis XVI was crowned in 1775, its popularity was at its height.
His infamous last mistress Mme du Barry championed the neoclassical taste, patronizing the marchand-mercier Simon-Phillippe Poirier and Dominique Daguerre who supplied her with stunning objects from Sévres, Chantilly and Meissen.
One of the loveliest small pieces of French furniture in the gallery showcases the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Baronne d’Oberkirch recorded in 1782 that Louis XVI had simple tastes, establishing a library and contenting himself with renewing paint, gilding, furniture and filling rooms with large quantities of Sèvres porcelain.
The former Austrian princess married Louis in 1770 and became renowned for introducing the English style garden into France, championing the English blue cornflower to be painted on French porcelain.
A jewellery casket on stand made of oak, rosewood, sycamore and ebony is inset with porcelain plaques commissioned from the Royal Porcelain factory at Sèvres, which are decorated with bouquets of flowers.
This piece has a dual purpose; it also works as a writing desk and contains compartments to hold writing materials. The satyr mask mounted at the top of the legs is a symbol of fertility, suggesting it would have perhaps been a wedding gift.
During the 18th and early 19th century French rulers ancient and modern, pursued a policy of exploration and scientific study of Australia, its wide brown land and its inhabitants.
The Australian French connection, which is very strong here in Victoria (first called Terre Napoleon) is represented by the painting of Louis XVI giving instructions to La Perouse before he sailed off into history.
Louis had read the accounts of the voyages of Captain Cook and wanted to know more about the Pacific region. It was only a few days after Captain Arthur Phillip arrived to start a settlement that La Perouse sought shelter in Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, where he and his men had to ride out a fierce gale.
The British received the French courteously and la Perouse left dispatches to be forwarded on to France with a British Naval Ship from the First Fleet, Sirius, before his two ships sailed away never to be seen or heard from again.
The most poignant portrait on show is of King Louis XVI sitting at this desk in the Temple Tower under sentence of death in 1793 by Henri-Pierre Denloux.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017