Los Angeles

“Treasures of Versailles”

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The palace at Versailles grew from a small hunting lodge, a place of escape from royal duties, to become a vast pile; the offi­cial residence, the seat of the govern­ment and the center of society. The Museum presently housed in the Palace was established by King Louis Philippe in 1833. Its collections “devoted to all the glories of France” have a historical as well as an artistic interest, both re­flected in the current exhibition.*

As well as portraits of members of the court and government of France the exhibition includes such garden sculp­ture as the figure of Eros by Jean­-Baptiste Tuby, (1630–1750) who did many figures for the Gardens of Versailles and Aesop by Pierre Legros (1629–1714). Both show traces of polychrome. These fig­ures flanked the entrance to the Grove of the Labyrinth in the gardens of Ver­sailles and make a striking contrast, Eros graceful and elegant, Aesop strong­ly modeled, a vigorous, lively conception and one of the handsomest pieces in the show.

The establishment in 1662 by Louis XIV of the royal manufacturing of fur­niture at Gobelins began France’s pre­eminence in the production of decora­tive arts. Louis XIV was the first French king to furnish the apartments of his courtiers in Versailles and all his palaces. Until tapestries were produced at Gobelins, Flanders, with very little competition, was unchallenged artisti­cally and economically. The five tapes­tries in the exhibition from the History of Louis XIV are magnificent examples of French 17th century work. Woven on a high, or vertical loom of the most sumptuous materials, wool, silk, silver and gold threads, these tapestries re­cord in a most formal manner the important events of his reign which the King wished to present and preserve. The figures are large, the colors strong. The composition of each is more that of a 17th century painting than a tapes­try but the richness of the materials used creates a greater interest in the surface than any distraction by attempts at illusionistic space. These grandiose tapestries of Louis XIV may be contrasted with those woven in the reign of Louis XV in the mid-18th century, about 90 years later. The subject is no longer historical but that of a novel, the History of Don Quixote, and the pic­torial element of much less importance. It is contained in a frame in the center of the tapestry, surrounded by garlands, arabesque, birds, flowers, cartouches all arranged in the graceful, linear manner characteristic of the rococo. The mate­rials of the tapestry are less sumptuous, the colors bright, but lighter and placed against large areas of neutral tones.

Furniture was also manufactured at Gobelins. Though none of the marvellous silver cabinets, tables, stools or pots for orange trees that filled the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles remains, we can see what one of these pieces looked like at the left side of the tapestry The Audience of the Legate from the His­tory of Louis XIV. Here is a gueridon, or pedestal table in the form of three maidens supporting a platform for a candelabrum. This was from a famous set of such pieces. The setting for the life of the court, the palace of Versailles, is shown in two paintings. That by Pierre Patel (1605(?)–1676) is a landscape which stretches with a supernatural clarity, to infinity. The palace was to be much enlarged and the gardens changed, but here can be seen 17th century absolutism expressed in the landscape. The axial plan, and formal symmetry all focus upon the palace, that visible symbol of the mon­arch; nature is forced to express the will of the king. Over a hundred years later the trees shown in Patel’s painting were old and dying, Hubert Robert (1733–1808) painted two canvases showing them be­ing cut down. In one of these we see The Queen, Marie Antoinette, with her ladies playing with two children in a charming and informal scene. The grand canal stretches out behind, still the main axis of the grounds, but all is softer, more naturalistic. The trees here being cut down were all replaced by those we see today at Versailles, but the landscaping was modified by the influence of the more romantic manner of the English “natural” garden.

The painting by Patel is a represen­tation of the palace of a king in its set­ting, a highly organized garden. The painting by Robert is a landscape; that the landscape is also Versailles is al­most incidental.

In 1789 the king, court and govern­ment left Versailles. The Palace, no longer a visible symbol of authority be­came an embarrassment to the French Republic. The two kings of the Restora­tion, brothers of Louis XVI, were not in­ at Versailles. Napoleon, who for some time expressed the spirit of France as powerfully, if more briefly, as Louis XIV, did not establish his residence at Ver­sailles. It remained for Louis-Philippe, a king with an historic sense, to save the palace. At Versailles he created a museum devoted not to the Bourbon dynasty but to all the glories of France. In so doing he destroyed many beauti­ful apartments to create not very interesting picture galleries, but one must be grateful for what he saved. Thus it is that Versailles, and the exhibition, contain objects not directly connected with the Palace.

Among these are many portraits of Napoleon. The Emperor is seen in dif­ferent aspects. He encourages the tex­tile industry at Jouy, he grants a pen­sion to an aged mill worker, he crowns Josephine. But his military exploits are most fully recorded. He is portrayed at Arcole, by Gros as a broody but dyna­mic romantic. But it is Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) in his Bonaparte Crossing the Alps who creates the most flamboyant hero image in a paint­ing carefully combining elements drawn from equestrian portraits of Roman em­perors, and 17th century baroque for formal ideas. The swastika pattern, swirling motion and color can be found in Rubens, the strong modeling and hard light in Caravaggio. It is the genius of a David to use these academically combined elements and to produce this highly personal painting. Such is the success of this vivid image that how many of us today would know without our catalogs that Napoleon actually crossed the Alps on a “hand led mule”?

The latest works in the exhibition are portraits of artists or writers: Bouilly, Lamartine, de Tocqueville and Baude­laire. These illustrate that in the mid-19th century the glories of France were her intellectuals, rather than military or courtly figures.

––William Osmun

*Organized by The Art Institute of Chicago and shown there October 5 through December 2, 1962, then at the Toledo Museum of Art from January 11 through February 14, 1963; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art March 13 through April 28 and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor from May 25 through July 6.