Visitors to Versailles 1682–1789, an exhibition from the Château de Versailles in France, will soon move to The Met Fifth Avenue in New York city where it will be on show April 16–July 29, 2018. This is a journey the Sun King Louis XIV (1638-1715) would have never been able to contemplate during his lifetime.
It had been at the beginning of the seventeenth century when the French court first shifted its focus from an ideal based on chivalry to one based on refined manners, which would be guided splendidly by King Louis XIV at the height of his power and glory. This meant instead of an economy based on feudal warfare, France concentrated on delivering an economy based on ideas of peace and leisure. The idea was revolutionary.
Surrounded by extensive formal gardens, the Chateaux in just over a hundred years during the reigns of Louis XIV and his heirs Louis XV and Louis XVI, became a vast treasure house packed full of fabulous jewels of art and industry, many of which were lost at the revolution.
The many splendours encountered at the Chateau at Versailles when the Sun King was in residence, bedazzled and beguiled royalty, dignitaries, artists and ambassadors, musicians, writers, philosophers, scientists and grand tourists alike who all clamoured for an invitation to walk along the enfilade to attend or to present a petition to the King in his chamber.
Today many of its paintings and portraits, examples some original of its fine furniture, exquisite tapestries, carpets, fabulous costumes and uniforms, pristine porcelain, gilded boxes, sensational sculpture, arms, armour and engravings it was renowned for, have been returned.
Since World War II its grand rooms have slowly and painstakingly been brilliantly restored and opened up to the grand tourists of today’s contemporary world. It would be fair to observe that many people are just as impressed and overwhelmed by the Sun King’s vision and majesty, as their ancestors before them.
The exhibition tracks those visiting the Chateau at Versailles from 1682, when Louis XIV first moved his court to its environs, and up until 1789 when his heirs Louis XV and Louis XVI and their families were all in residence.
It illustrates what the visitors granted that privilege encountered at court; what they saw, what they learned, what impressions they had and what inspiration they received and later shared.
A series of informative events and performances include early and contemporary music world premieres, sure to attract the crowds to this outstanding exhibition at The Met.
On April 21 early-music vocal group TENET and the contemporary Metropolis Ensemble will present a program with two world premieres by cellist Timo Andres and musician Caroline Shaw.
Master chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi will create a Versailles-themed menu of dinner and desserts on June 19 and 20 with the role of Versailles in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe discussed in a Sunday at The Met program on April 22, as well as a half-day symposium on April 30.
Louis XIV The Sun King spent much of his adult life completing his great project at Versailles, aided by brilliant architects Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) and Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646-1708), the admired celebrated designer and all around genius Charles Le Brun (1619-90) together with incomparable landscape visionary, Andre Le Notre (1613-1700). Cardinal Mazarin advisor to Louis XIV’s father Louis XIII, left his considerable fortune to the young King, adding his most precious legacy to him would be his able assistant Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), who had taught him how to keep accounts as a boy.
Until his death in 1683, Colbert advised King Louis XIV on all matters of importance, whether political, economic, religious or artistic. He was the mastermind who engineered the State machinery on which the King’s greatness would be based.
The King brought Louis Le Vau from Vaux le Vicomte, where he had guided a talented team of craftsmen, painters, sculptors, stucco workers, gilders and so forth to produce effects, which came nearer to the grand manner of the Italian Baroque style than any other in France.
Born in Paris throughout his long career Le Vau successfully collaborated with designer Charles Le Brun who provided his exteriors with fabulous interior design and decoration.
They first came to the attention of the nobility in 1632 when they built one of Paris’ most beautiful town houses, The Hotel Lambert for financier Jean Baptiste Lambert.
It is where they demonstrated how satisfactory a fully unified exterior and interior concept could be. However, the flourishing of their fame really happened at their grand project before Versailles; the Chateau Vaux Le Vicomte for the Minister of Finances in France, Nicholas Foucquet.
Vaux became renowned because together with gardener Andre Le Notre and Le Brun, Le Vau helped provide their patron with a house and garden that featured ‘abundance without confusion’.
Sadly its completion by the dream team trio troubled the King when he attended a party in his honour on August 17, 1661 although today it just seems in retrospect, it was all about the envy of a young man.
After inspecting its many splendours and after a guided tour of the garden by Andre Le Notre, he sent the now infamous fourth musketeer, D’Artagnan to arrest Nicholas Foucquet on September 5 1661, suspecting his Minister of having misappropriated royal funds.
The young King Louis had a particularly brutal response to Foucquet’s ironic motto “to what heights won’t he climb” and his family who refute the claim absolutely, have been trying to clear their ancestor’s name ever since.
From then on, King Louis XIV was kept busy transforming his father’s former hunting lodge into one of the most magnificent public courts of Europe, envied by all who visited and spent time in its glorious Gallerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), supplied after the death of Le Vau by architect Jules Hardouin Mansart (1645-1708) who helped Louis XIV realise his dreams
In 1678 he was put in charge of the vast extension which the King planned including the Galerie des Glaces which was completed in 1686. Now completely restored, it is without doubt one of the great rooms of Europe with has restrained grand manner architecture and interiors by Charles Le Brun. 17 arched windows are echoed by 17 mirrored archways, which reflect the light, sky and the gardens outside. The niches hold some of the finest classical sculptures in the royal collections and were filled with glittering silver furniture.
While many of the King’s contemporaries thought Louis XIV was creating his grand Chateau at Versailles to project his own honour and glory, his first minister Jean Baptiste Colbert who managed the project and the man who became a friend the gardener Andre Le Notre, understood it was part of the King’s holistic vision to make France the pre-eminent power in Europe.
This was at a time when tiny Holland led them all with its booming economy much to Louis’ chagrin.
Louis -Phillipe, Duc d’Orléans, Regent of France (1715-23) ruled France for eight years following the Sun King’s death, moving the court from Versailles to Paris where he and his followers preferred smaller more intimate apartments. Their more relaxed interiors were all about breaking down the formality which lasted for the 72 years of Louis XIV’s reign.
King Louis XV and King Louis XVI were both to respect their ancestor’s work at Versailles. Louis XV enjoyed the company of chosen friends in the Cabinets du Roi, a series of rooms where in the company of his mistress of the moment the Marquise de Pompadour and a few intimate friends such as the Maréchal de Saxe or Duc de Croy, he would hold private supper parties.
Grouped around the Cour des Cerfs, the rooms had an inner courtyard on the north side, duly filled with an abundance of trelliswork, aviaries full of birds as well as a multitude of sweet smelling flowers.
The rooms also had access to the roof, where, after enjoying their meal the Royal party could stroll extensively.
Louis XV also commissioned what has become the most famous desk in the world from Jean Francois Oeben (1720-1763). The celebrated Bureau du Roi at Versailles begun in 1760, was completed by Jean Henri-Riesener (1734-1806) nine years later. It is a hybrid piece- the curves of the bodywork are classically straight, while the lower part is fashioned in the curvaceous Rococo style.
Louis XVI had simple tastes recorded the Baronne d’Oberkirch in 1782. He established a library and contented himself renewing paint, gilding, furniture and filling rooms with large quantities of Sèvres porcelain.
His wife Marie Antoinette, had a passion for flowers, ribbons, drapery, and exquisite furniture by her favourite ébéniste, Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806). Her aversion to the stifling etiquette of Versailles led to the establishment of her own Hameau, or Hamlet, her own idyll of rural life also now restored.
Marie Antoinette did not ever say “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”,… words that would have been unthinkable to a woman of her sensibility.
The words were already in print in Book VI of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (written about 1767) and they were taken up as propaganda during the lead up to the revolution to rabble rouse opposition to the monarch.
Marie Antoinette sought the people’s good will, keeping open the gates to the park at Versailles so that local people could walk freely and picnic there.
Her liking for naturalness and simplicity coincided with current Parisian taste and she mixed with ordinary Parisians, in a complete break with custom that caused a Paris Bookseller named Hardy to record her approach as a ‘revolution’.
The first piece of furniture made for the Royal family with straight legs, was made by François-Joseph Belanger, a jewel cabinet for Louis XVI’s wife Marie-Antoinette.
Today it can be found in the state bedroom of the Queen, the silk hangings on the walls and bed, not delivered during her reign.
Riesener simplified much of his work as his elaborate pieces became too expensive, and some of his later plain pieces, made of beautifully grained mahogany, free from marquetry and with simple ormolu mouldings, are among his most charming creations.
After the collapse of the monarchy and King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their family members were forced to leave the palace, return to Paris and certain death as the French Revolution erupted.
Versailles had been born of love and the hunt, on a site wildly romantic although considered unsuitable, it went on to become the ultimate expression of the absolutism of the French monarchy.
Riesener would replace the royal arms and insignia on pieces of royal furniture with something less offensive to the new order.
Today it has once again become the showcase Louis XIV intended it to be, promoting French Arts and Industry as a symbol to “All the Glories of France.”
The ceremonial chariots, the royal marvels,
The guards keeping nocturnal vigil
All are gone, you are no longer home to grandeur
Slumber and solitude
Gods formerly unknown, and the arts of reflection
Today compose your court
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
Watch The Trailer
April 16–July 29, 2018
The Met Fifth Avenue
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press. The book will be available for purchase in The Met Store (hardcover, $65). The catalogue is made possible by the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation