Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Queen's Belongings

Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles:
Contents of the Queen’s Private Retreat on Display
at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco
November 17, 2007–February 17, 2008

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) Marie-Antoinette "a la rose," 1783. Oil on canvas. chateau de Versailles

Mysteries, myths and legends surround Marie-Antoinette. The stories of her extravagances and excesses, many of them half-truths or exaggerations, ultimately unseated the French monarchy, imprisoned the royal family for years and finally sent them to the guillotine. An exclusive exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor uses the contents of the Petit Trianon, Marie-Antoinette’s private residence, to look behind the 200-year-old myths and discover concrete evidence of the personal preferences of Marie-Antoinette and how they led to the creation of some of the finest decorative arts of the 18th century. This is the first time the contents of the Petit Trianon have been shown together in an exhibition outside of France. The Petit Trianon is being restored and remodeled, allowing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an American museum to stage this kind of an exhibition.

Entrance front of the Chateau de Petit Trianon

The Petit Trianon is a small château on the grounds of Versailles that served as the queen’s private retreat. Here, the queen could relax in her own home, far away from the constraints of her regimented life. At the Petit Trianon she could choose objects and decorations that reflected her personal style, rather than opting for the taste imposed by the social demands and traditions of the royal court at Versailles.

The Interior of the Petite Trianon

The interior of the château reflects the personal taste of the queen with its reoccurring floral motifs in furniture, fabric and porcelain. Marie-Antoinette was often connected with the love of flowers, and she chose the images of roses (symbols of her Austrian Hapsburg family), pansies (representing royalty), and cornflowers (her favorite flower at the Petit Trianon) to decorate the royal dinner service at the château.

Chair from the Belvedere Pavilion, 1782, Francois Foliot II (1748–after 1808), carved and gilded beech, modern upholstery, musée du château de Versailles

Plate from the “Pearl and Cornflower” Service made for Marie Antoinette, 1781 Royal Porcelain Manufactory, Sevres, porcelain, musee du chateau de Versailles

Her private study, with its famous mirrored shutters designed to keep out prying eyes, was lined with delicately carved and painted paneling showing white trophies hanging from ribbons on a pale blue background. “These panels are the essence of the style associated with Marie-Antoinette: restrained in form, yet rich in detail, and executed with consummate craftsmanship,” says Martin Chapman, Fine Arts Museums Curator of European Decorative Arts and of the exhibition.

The Cabinet of Moving Mirrors, Petit Trianon

Marie-Antoinette’s bedroom was called the “Trellis Bedroom,” named for the distinctive design of the furniture, some of the most original ever conceived. Bonnefoy du Plan oversaw the creation of the pieces featuring painstakingly painted or carved trellis and basketwork, floral forms and rustic garlands. The furniture is called “wheat-ear” furniture, named for chairs decorated with lily-of-the-valley, pinecones, and ears of wheat. A mahogany table made by Schwerdfeger is adorned with a frieze of sunflowers and thistle leaves. Dogs’ heads, representing the Queen’s pets, add a charming detail.

Armchair from the “Wheatear suite” from the queen’s bedroom, Petit Trianon, 1787, Georges Jacob, chairmaker, carved and painted walnut, Desfarges, Lyons, textile manufacturer, linen embroidered on cotton, musée du château de Versailles

Dressing Table made for Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries Palace, 1784, Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), marquetry of satinwood and kingwood, gilt bronze, musée du château de Versailles

Bed from the King’s Bedroom, Petit Trianon, 1775-1785, giltwood and modern silk lampas, musee du chateau de Versailles

As elaborate as these objects seem, these designs were of the more modest scale and simplicity befitting a country house and, for the most part, not as grand as the highly gilded furniture and objects created for public, royal palaces. There are notable exceptions, including the famous Trianon lantern. Lanterns were important in the main rooms of the Petit Trianon because they kept the candles from extinguishing when windows were opened in the summer months. This grand lantern is decorated with paste diamonds and is exquisitely finished in the minutest detail with Cupid’s symbols of love: arrows, bows and a quiver.

The salon de companie at the Petit Trianon

The Gardens of the Petit Trianon

Carle Vanloo (1705–1765), Madame de Pompadour as a gardener, oil on canvas, musée du château de Versailles

Marie-Antoinette’s husband, King Louis XVI, gave the Petit Trianon to her in 1774. Shortly after, she began an extensive refurnishing and landscaping project to tailor the existing building and the grounds to her taste. The royal architect Richard Mique (1728–1794) led the effort to transform the landscape and build structures to create gardens dedicated to pleasure. The botanical gardens became fashionable, English-style gardens full of winding paths, hillocks and streams imitating a natural landscape.

View of the Chateau de Petit Trianon from the French Garden

The French Pavilion in the Gardens of the Petit Trianon

The decorative buildings included a chinoiserie merry-go-round, the classical Temple of Love, and an elegant jewel-box of a theater where the queen participated in amateur plays. The ultimate garden structure was Hameau, a model village of Normandy farmhouses and thatched cottages built around a man-made lake. The landscape artist Hubert Robert assisted in the creation of Hameau, ensuring its picturesque composition with its cottages’ artfully dilapidated rustic exteriors. Although pains were taken outside to maintain an air of cultivated rusticity, the queen’s private rooms at Hameau were luxurious. A pair of beautifully designed firedogs in the form of goats eating grapes reveals the high standards of design and attention to finish and detail that became hallmarks of the queen’s style. In the exhibition, paintings and drawings bring the long-lost gardens to life.

The Belvedere and Rock in the English gardens at the Petit Trianon, Photo ©Christian Milet

The Mill at the Hameau in the gardens of the Petit Trianon

The Marlborough Tower at the Hameau in the gardens of the Petit Trianon

The details add up to a picture of one woman’s taste and how its secrecy and expense became a political issue. No matter what a visitor thinks about the Queen’s spending and lifestyle, few would disagree that her personal taste was responsible for objects of great beauty.

The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Établissement Public du Musée et du Domaine National de Versailles and supported in part by Dr. Kathy Nicholson Hull and Mr. Bill Gisvold.


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