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Friday essay: what is it about Versailles?

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace. Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Friday essay: what is it about Versailles?

When the triumphant Donald Trump welcomed Nigel Farage to his $100 million penthouse apartment in Trump Tower on 13 November, the two posed in his lift of gleaming gold. Trump’s hyper-bling apartment is his Versailles fantasy, where the oversized mirrors, picture-frames and furnishings speak of the wealth and power of America’s new Sun King. Despite the massive scale of his apartment, however, the furnishings are garish rather than exquisite, cluttered and over-large rather than inviting. But he is keen for us to take a virtual tour of his temple of tawdriness:

Versailles sells big. Versailles, the most expensive television series ever made in France, screened this year on SBS. It gives the impression that the courtiers spent their time indulging in outrageous fun when not having sex or killing each other. While hugely popular in France, its producers made a deliberate and canny decision to cast English actors speaking an English script.

Louis XIV, 1701–12, studio of Hyacinthe Rigaud. © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin

The timing is perfect for the National Gallery of Australia’s “blockbuster” exhibition Versailles, Treasures from the Palace, opening today. The exhibition of more than 130 pieces is a stunning array of brilliant craftsmanship, almost all from the Museum of Versailles itself and from the Louvre. The objects in the exhibition have not left France – or even Versailles – before. It is a triumph for the NGA and for its Director Gerard Vaughan.

The objects range from the court painter Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famous portrait of Louis XIV (1712) to huge, ornamental vases in marble, porphyry and bronze, and even a section of parquetry floor from Versailles. There are exquisite items from Marie-Antoinette’s “pearls and cornflowers” dining service manufactured in 1781 by the Royal Porcelain Factory at Sèvres.

Latona and her children, 1668–70, Gaspard Marsy and Balthazard Marsy. © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin

There are plans and keys for the intricate hydraulics for the gardens’ waterworks, even nozzles from the Latona fountain located in the grounds of Versailles. Indeed, the highlight of the exhibition is probably the two-metre high marble carving of the goddess Latona and her children sculpted in 1668-70 by the brothers Gaspard and Balthazard Marsy, weighing 1.5 tonnes. Not far behind in sumptuous elegance is Jean-Joseph Lemaire’s astonishingly intricate carved and gilded wood barometer (1773-75), weighing a modest 150 kg.

The NGA assures us that the exhibition “will celebrate the lives, loves and passions of the people of Versailles”. The Moët & Chandon special “champagne package” reminds us that “the champagne-infused hedonism of Versailles is legendary”; a French master perfumer has created a special perfume for the show based on Louis XIV’s favourite orange blossom flower. Indeed, we are offered glimpses into nightly entertainments (divertissements) in a rich series of drawings of the court at play. Unsurprisingly, the lives of those who laboured to provide the construction and maintenance, the cooking and cleaning are not captured here.

Power, rivalry and drudgery

The great fantasy and attraction of the world of Versailles has always been that the opulence and divertissements of its owners and their friends were a “way of life”. Ten million tourists flock to Versailles annually to imagine courtly life in such sumptuous surroundings. But Versailles was also about awesome royal power, intense rivalries, brilliant craftsmanship and engineering, and – for those who did the manual labour – drudgery and deference.

The construction of the palace at Versailles, about 20 km from Paris, was the initiative of Louis XIV (king of France 1643-1715). The project lasted a half-century, from about 1660 to 1710, but by 1682 sufficient work had been done for Louis to move his capital there from Paris. At the death of the Sun King in 1715, the village of Versailles – with a population of just 1,000 at the time of his accession in 1643 – had turned into a city of approximately 30,000 inhabitants.

The entrance to the Chateau de Versailles with statue of Louis XIV. Charles Platiau/Reuters

The final cost of the palace, with its 700 rooms, 1,250 fireplaces and garden façade of 575 metres is impossible to ascertain, since much of the manual labour was done by soldiers when not at war. But it was certainly several billions in today’s terms – and as much again has been spent on restoration since 1950.

The palace was redolent of the might of a monarch with absolute powers – responsible to God alone for the wellbeing of his people. The Sun King’s successors – Louis XV (1715-74) and Louis XVI (1774-93) – continued the awe-inspiring display of majesty. By 1789, there were about 60,000 inhabitants, and 10 per cent of the monarchy’s annual tax revenues were spent on the palace and its surrounds.

The last Louis – tragically incompetent politically – had several obsessive passions, and his love of killing animals is well reflected in the exhibition, as befits a palace constructed where once there had been just a hunting lodge.

Versailles was dominated by several thousand courtiers from the most eminent noble families in the kingdom (les Grands), the magistrates of the high courts and senior administrators.

As a boy king of 10 in 1648, Louis XIV was to endure five years of brutal civil wars (the “Fronde”) between aristocratic factions and their retinues. Indeed, one of his original intentions had been to undermine the chance of another Fronde by requiring his most powerful noble families to spend part of each year at Versailles, “in a gilded cage” as one of them quipped. From the Fronde emerged absolute or “divine right” monarchy and centralised, hierarchical government, and Versailles was to be their architectural form.

Yolande‐Martine‐Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchesse de Polignac, 1782, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

The élite of the nobility was fractured by intricate hierarchies of status and prerogative: for example, between those who had been formally presented at court, those permitted to sit on a footstool in the queen’s presence, and those even permitted to ride in her carriage. These were not empty symbols: the family of the Queen’s favourite the Duchesse de Polignac received 438,000 livres annually in pensions and salaries (by way of comparison, parish priests commonly received less than 1,000 livres).

One of the most eminent nobles, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord — who entered the priesthood aged 25 rather than the army because of a congenital leg limp, and was ordained a bishop just 10 years later, in January 1789 — described the nobility as “a cascade of contempt”. What all nobles had in common, however, was a vested interest in a system of status and hierarchy from which came material privilege, status and preferment. Versailles was the heart of the system.

The shadow of revolution

Versailles represented territorial grandeur as well as symbolic power. In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees between France and Spain not only marked the boundaries of the two kingdoms through Catalonia and the Basque country but also recognized the northern region of Artois as French.

Ceremonial entry of Louis XIV and Queen Marie‐Thérèse into Arras, 30 July 1667 c 1685, Adam Frans van der Meulen. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Painting Department © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

This expansion is represented in the exhibition by the work of the court painter Hyacinthe Rigaud, a Catalan, and the painting of the ceremonial entry of Louis XIV and Queen Marie-Thérèse into Arras, the capital of Artois, in 1667. Louis XVI’s interest in expanding the French Empire after the loss of Canada in 1763 is reflected in Monsiau’s painting of him giving instructions to La Perouse in 1785 before his expedition to the South Pacific.

Madame de Pompadour as the ‘beautiful gardener’, 1754–55, Carle Van Loo . © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

There are portraits of Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour as the “beautiful gardener”, and of her successor Madame du Barry as “Flora”. But the finest portraits in the exhibition are a series by the court painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun, of Queen Marie-Antoinette and two of her most eminent ladies at court, the Duchesse de Polignac and the Comtesse de Ségur. Polignac, like Marie-Antoinette, lost her life during the French Revolution, the shadow of which looms over the exhibition.

The “absolute” monarchy ruled over and held together a society based on the landed property and corporate privileges of the aristocracy and the Church. The power and wealth of these elites was based on their control over the labour of the more than four-fifths of the population who were peasants. France was a society of mass poverty as well as opulence, and at the centre of social control was the monopoly of awesome armed force by the monarchy. Punishments for commoners — particularly the poor — were severe and designed to be exemplary. But among those commoners were educated, successful professionals and business people - known as “bourgeois” - whose distance from social status and decision-making increasingly rankled.

One of the most significant objects in the exhibition is a small pen and sepia wash painting done in 1791 by the greatest painter of the age, Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Tennis Court at Versailles, 20 June 1789.

The Oath of the Tennis Court at Versailles, 20 June 1789, Jacques-Louis David. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Department of Graphic Arts © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

David was commissioned by the revolutionary National Assembly of 1789 to commemorate the first great act of the French Revolution, when commoner deputies to a national consultation convened to offer advice to Louis XVI took a revolutionary oath to act as a parliament and to draft a constitution.

David never completed the painting. But the Oath – taken in an indoor royal tennis court still standing in Versailles – was a decisive first step in the destruction of the king’s claim to absolute authority legitimised by divine right.

Despite the Tennis Court Oath, the storming of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in August, the victory of the Revolution was uncertain.

Louis hesitated to give his assent to the Declaration. Claims multiplied of open contempt for the Revolution on the part of aristocrats: for example, after a banquet at Versailles on 1 October, there were reports that the new tricolour national cockade or badge had been besmirched by drunken noble army officers.

Queen Marie‐Antoinette, 1779–80, after Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

Again, the working people of Paris intervened to safeguard a revolution they assumed to be theirs. This time, however, it was particularly the women of the markets. On 5 October, up to 20,000 women marched the 20 kilometres to Versailles to demand cheaper bread and royal assent to the Declaration.

Louis had already left to go shooting (rather than hunting: this was his concession to political tensions, since he would be easier to contact if not in full hunt). Louis’ diary for the 5th records that he “shot at the Porte de Châtillon. Killed 81 head. Interrupted by events”. He was back at Versailles by three in the afternoon. It was the last time he would have freedom to choose between hunting and shooting.

Louis XVI writing his testament in the Temple tower, 20 January 1793 1795, Henri‐Pierre Danloux. © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés

Once at Versailles, the women invaded the Assembly. A deputation of them was then presented to the king, who promptly agreed to sanction the Declaration. The king kept going to the balcony at Versailles with the intention of appeasing the crowd but was too overwrought to be able to say anything.

It soon became apparent that the women would be satisfied only if the royal family returned to Paris; on the 6th it did so, the National Assembly in its wake. This was a decisive moment in the Revolution of 1789.

Less than four years later, Louis would go to the guillotine, after composing his final will and testament on 20 January 1793, memorialised in a painting by Henri-Pierre Danloux in the exhibition.

Stripped of finery

After the Revolution of 1789, the palace of Versailles was stripped of much of its finery. As the town’s population and wealth dwindled, local rage was vented on those blamed for preventing the full fruits of the Revolution from being harvested.

At the peak of revolutionary crisis in September 1792, when Austrian and Prussian troops invaded France in a bid to restore the ancien régime, a Versailles crowd attacked 50 royalist prisoners being deported in chains from Orléans through Versailles to Paris. Forty four heads were impaled on the spikes of the gates to the royal palace.

The population of the town fell to just 27,000 by 1800. The palace itself was saved by the intervention of Louis XVI’s cousin, king Louis-Philippe (1830-48). Even though his radical father – the self-styled Philippe-Égalité – had voted for the death of Louis XVI in 1793, Louis-Philippe converted the palace into a national museum.

One more time, in 1871, Versailles became the capital of France when the French government and parliament fled Paris after the eruption of the socialist Paris Commune; but eight years later, with the Third Republic firmly established, a new political majority returned to Paris, definitively.

The palace of Versailles now has iconic status in popular culture, representing as it does the ultimate statement of skilled craftsmanship, ostentatious consumption and aristocratic insouciance and frivolity, whether represented in Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French’s 1999 comedy series, Let Them Eat Cake, Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie-Antoinette, or the Assassin’s Creed video games.

In contrast, the Catalan director Albert Serra’s 2016 The Death of Louis XIV (La Mort de Louis XIV) captures brilliantly the claustrophobic constraints of medical knowledge and courtly power during Louis’ horrible decline.

But the palace of Versailles also represents seismic shifts in political culture, from provincial aristocratic power to absolute monarchy and then to democracy, during the long 18th century when France was la Grande Nation.

To return to the US President-elect, Donald Trump, the symbolic opulence of faux-Versailles may be irresistible, but the competing claims of voters pose challenges of expectations that never had to concern Louis XIV in his construction of one of the world’s great palaces.

Treasures from the Palace is a precious opportunity to relish both astonishing skill in the creation of objects and to ponder the politics of magnificent display.

Versailles Treasures from the Palace is at the NGA from 9 December 2016 – 17 April 2017


Relevant further reading:

A study of Versailles by the Director who oversaw the restoration projects since the 1950s is Gérald van der Kemp, Versailles: the Palace, the Park, the Trianon (Versailles: Éditions d'art Lys, 1976).

An excellent guide book is Jean-Jacques Lévêque, Versailles, the Palace of the Monarchy (Paris: ACR, 2000).

A classic study of the place of ritual in the creation of absolutism by Norbert Elias, The Court Society (London: Basil Blackwell, 1983).

An excellent introduction to eighteenth-century France by Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

A recent history of the Revolution by Peter McPhee, Liberty or Death. The French Revolution (London: Yale University Press, 2016).


Peter McPhee will be online to answer questions throughout the day. Post any questions you have in the comments below.

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