VersaillesFebruary 17, 2017
In Roberto Rossellini’s film of 1966, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, there is a scene in which the King appears in an outrageous red outfit, all frills and flounces, designed to his own specifications. He explains that with this clownish costume he is setting a dress code to keep his nobles poor, and divert their attention from politics to fashion.
It sounds absurd, but it worked. Louis XIV ruled by theatre, turning the palace of Versailles into an enormous stage set where every aspect of daily life was transformed into ceremony. Etiquette was everything in this hermetic environment, and a social faux pas could spell the end of one’s brilliant career.
Louis can be seen in all his glory in a portrait from the studio of Hyacinthe Rigaud, in Versailles: Treasures from the Palace, at the National Gallery of Australia. His heavy robes are thrown back to expose dainty little feet and a pair of well-turned calves. He carries a sword in a jewel-encrusted scabbard, and leans on a golden sceptre. His face is framed by a wig of brown curls heaped up into two mounds. To the modern eye he looks ridiculous, but to his subjects he was the embodiment of pomp and majesty.
Louis styled himself the Sun King, identifying with Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Versailles was encrusted with paintings, sculptures and ornaments intended to reinforce that symbolism, prefiguring the techniques of corporate branding.
If one were to search the world for the architectural antithesis of Versailles, the NGA would be a strong contender, as Col Madigan’s Brutalist design dispenses with every trace of ornamentation. It’s quite a task to squeeze a vision of French Rococo into a concrete box, but exhibition designer, Daryl West-Moore, has pulled out all stops.
It would help if the exhibition were so full of dazzling objects that the setting hardly mattered, but the “treasures” in this display are of a secondary nature. Wandering through the show there were few things that stopped me in my tracks – Rigaud’s studio portrait of Louis XIV (cat.1), a marble bust of the same, by Jean Varin (cat. 3); an extraordinary blue-and-gold armchair made for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame Pompadour (cat.44); a fetching likeness of the Duchesse de Polignac by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (cat. 94).
A lot of fuss has been made about a worn marble statue of Lantona and her children (1624/25-81), by Gaspar Marsy, which has been transported to Canberra at great expense. Even though it has been displayed against curving video screens the piece somehow manages to look like every other statue one might find in a municipal garden anywhere in the world.
It’s best to consider Versailles as a historical show rather than a treasure trove. NGA director, Gerard Vaughan, is happy to go with this interpretation because the history is so extraordinary. To get the most from this exhibition one has to look beyond the interior décor and try to imaginatively reconstruct the human beehive that was the court of the Ancien Régime. The movies have provided a lead, with dozens of titles, the most recent being, A Little Chaos (2014).
Louis XIV was a living spectacle, on display from the moment he woke in the morning. The first of the daily ceremonies, the King’s levée, was attended by a motley crowd that clustered into the royal bed chamber. The gargantuan formal meals Louis ate attracted a horde of onlookers who gaped at his every mouthful.
The palace itself was surprisingly easy of access. Those who were moderately well-dressed could stroll freely through galleries and apartments, even finding themselves in the same room as the King.
Versailles was one vast advertisement for Louis’s magnificence. Visitors could marvel at Charles Le Brun’s extravagant decorations that glorified the King’s military triumphs. They could wander through Hardouin-Mansart’s Hall of Mirrors; examine the fine paintings and furniture; or take a stroll around the extensive gardens.
Behind the scenes the spectacle was not so glittering. Bathrooms were almost unknown, and the nobles disguised their grime with wigs, perfume and powder. Visitors and residents would relieve themselves in the public corridors of a building in which grandeur and filth lived happily together. Versailles was both a palace and a massive apartment block.
The NGA show doesn’t dwell on the squalid side of Versailles. It includes many prints and paintings recording the pastimes that kept the nobles busy. There are items of sculpture, furniture and porcelain; maps and drawings of the gardens; and portraits of generations of aristocrats.
In 1715, after 72 years on the throne, Louis XIV would die in his bed, although it wasn’t a happy ending as he had suffered for three weeks with gangrene. The heir was his five-year old great-grandson, but Philippe d’Orléans would rule as regent while the youthful Louis XV underwent his royal education. Versailles would be uninhabited for seven years.
Upon his return to the palace Louis XV set out to finish many of the building projects his predecessor had started, including a costly new theatre, called the Opéra. Despite these grand constructions, the new king proved far less of a showman. As Tony Swafforth writes in his history of Versailles: “public ostentation aimed at impressing inferiors was slowly giving way to a preference for luxurious intimacy among one’s own kind.”
This translated into a greater need for privacy that created a distance between the King and his subjects. Along with the military and economic failings of his reign, the King’s neglect of public ceremony sowed the first seeds of discontent. As scandal and intrigue became the regular business of the court, there was a transition in official taste. Baroque had already begun to evolve into Rococo under Louis XIV, but it was during Louis XV’s reign that this more delicate and playful style reached its apogee.
When Louis XV died of smallpox in 1774 his grandson ascended to the throne. At the age of 19, Louis XVI inherited a kingdom that was morally and financially bankrupt. Unlike his dashing, dissolute grandfather, the new king was plain and dull. History has not been kind to Louis XVI, but his main crime seems to have been a weak, indecisive character. He hardly deserved the distinction of being the first French king to lose his head.
During the 15 years he would rule as an absolute monarch, the court of Louis XVI would develop its own style, partly under the influence of Austrian-born Queen, Marie-Antoinette. The playful curves of Rococo gave way to the straight lines of Neoclassicism. It was the latest fashion, inspired by excavations of the Roman era, and Marie-Antoinette was cutting-edge.
She doesn’t fare that well in a portrait after Vigée Le Brun (cat.93). The Queen’s pale face and shoulders emerge from a white satin dress of monumental proportions which seems too large for her body. All power and no personality, Marie-Antoinette is only 24 years old but already being portrayed as the matron of France. It’s a far cry from Vigée Le Brun’s more intimate portrait of the “angelic” Duchesse de Polignac.
The final item in this exhibition is arguably the most important: Jacques-Louis David’s detailed pen-and-ink drawing, The Oath of the Tennis Court at Versailles, 20 June 1789 (1791) (cat.139). This masterful work, on loan from the Louvre, depicts the historic moment when representatives of the Church, the nobility and the people – the so-called Third Estate – met to decide on a new model of government. Within a month the Bastille had been stormed, and the Revolution was underway.
The drawing was intended as a model for a gigantic history painting, but the Terror would sweep away all thoughts of the constitutional monarchy desired by the participants in the Tennis Court Oath.
The Revolution would also put an end to Versailles’s role as the seat of power in France. There were those who wanted to see the palace demolished, but perhaps the sheer scale of the undertaking was too daunting. During the centuries that followed Versailles was subject to both official and unofficial forms of vandalism, but it has endured. It survives today as the greatest of monuments to an age in which politics bowed low before the awesome power of fashion.
Versailles: Treasures from the Palace
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra,
until 17 April
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 18th February, 2017.