I finally went to Versailles, it was Monday the palace was closed to the public and we echoed through the vast space of the state apartments, I could have cart wheeled through the Hall of Mirrors…WHY didn’t I? I suppose I was scribbling furiously as John Whitehead held forth eloquently. While we were there they were moving furniture and paintings and the most famous of Versailles’ queens floated past…
Versailles is synonymous with the King Louis XIV who conjured up the most magnificent palace in Baroque Europe from marshland to dazzle both his court and royal neighbours.
A flamboyant display of power: gilded, carved, mirrored and marbled to excess throughout the state apartments with the enfilade thoroughfare ensuring maximum display and power-play.
Louis’s vision and determination transformed the French decorative arts, importing craftsmen, establishing guilds, factories and academies, commissioning and commissioning, building and decorating – all with a connoisseur’s eye. His legacy was France’s unquestioned leadership in fashion, taste and luxury goods supported by unparalleled craftsmanship. His ticking time-bomb an insistence on absolute rule and a crippling system of royal protocol that detonated a fault line between Versailles and the country at large exploding in revolution. Caught in this gilt rift and final blast, Marie Antoinette, the last queen of Versailles and the queen of taste.
Marie Antoinette’s formal life was conducted in the very state apartments Louis created almost a hundred years before. Desperate to escape and have a ‘vie privée*’ her private apartments and the Petit Trianon are some of the most exquisite rooms and interiors in Versailles. So this palace which is synonymous with Louis and his grand scale self-glorification is also synonymous with its last inhabitant, a female intent on escaping it. Pierre de Nolhac, Versaille’s extraordinary curator (1892-1920), who helped restore, re-furnish and revive Versailles describes her Petit Trianon as: exceedingly elegant, but in no case lavish: pure good taste in place of the expected luxury. Marie Antoinette’s charming rooms are both sophisticated and naturally beautiful, the finest craftsmanship and designers of 18th century Europe focused on creating rooms which are a sensory balm and a personal Eden.Petit Trianon’s graceful neo-classical proportions were designed by Jacques Anges Gabriel in 1762. An exercise on a ‘cube’ each facade was reflected its position within the palace domain, celebrating the classical orders. Does it looks familiar?..it has been a source of inspiration ever since its completion, the facade and scale repeatedly celebrated and explored.
Designed as a Maison de Plaisance for Madame de Pompadour, but completed only after her death in 1768. Louis XVI gave 19 year old Marie Antoinette a key studded with 513 diamonds on ribbon, declaring…Madame you love flowers. I have bouquet to offer you. It is Petit Trianon… thus it became Marie Antoinette’s own miniature kingdom, where even the king needed an invitation to enter.
Shall we can go in…
Why? well the giant order symbolically announces the illustrious royal connection, then scale wise their monumentality unifies the facade and from a distance delicately ties it with decorative ribbons. My kind of ribbons. Inside is where we see both the early emergence of the new neo-classical style architecturally (1760’s) and its decorative peak in Marie Antoinette’s redecoration of the principle rooms.
The vestibule is a beautifully proportioned, purely architectural space echoing the exterior’s facades and its bucolic location, look at the chequered floor – now faded – the green campania marble squares were chosen to echo the grass outside.
looking up to the first floor and under the lantern…Lanterns were traditionally used in vestibules where guests dismounted from their coaches, to protect candles from the wind i.e. the transitional space between the exterior and interior. Petit Trianon is the first interior where they are used in several rooms to increase the decorative connection to the gardens. Marie Antoinette had her cipher inserted into the balustrade (replacing Louis XV’s) made by Francois Boichois. Framed by the French cockerel and the symbols of french royalty they are alternately hung with trophies celebrating Hermés the God of transition and boundaries.
Spot the exterior’s garlanded windows?
Spot the interior’s garlanded windows? Inside and Out, Inside-Out, Outside-In, the Trianon plays with your senses.
So let’s make sure we have our bearings (thank you internet):
As you enter the anti-chamber the Style Trianon fully reveals itself, ‘Rustic Luxe’ … even from the turn of a door handle it’s ALL about: the use of flowers and floral motifs on every surface and in every form, roses and lilies of the valley, myrtle and lilies, sunflowers and ears of corn (épis), strewn in all their natural simplicity, woven into graceful garlands, arranged in artful bouquets, mingled with motifs of pearls and ribbons, and scattered in profusion over furniture and objets d’art. You got the message…it’s exquisite. Carved by Honoré Guibert – Marie Antoinette didn’t touch it. Do you see the fleur de lys -lillies (symbols of French royalty) intertwined with the ornate looped myrtle-leaf ‘L’s’ .
‘French Grey’, is really ‘Trianon Gray’ which is actually a bad 19th Century paint job over the original, pale green ,which restoration has only recently revealed … and chosen once again to reflect nature. There’s little of Versailles gilt here…and definitely no formal court dress, Marie Antoinette and friends received ‘en chemise’. The painting of the Queen in this boho-chic caused such a storm at the 1783 Salon du Louvre that it had to removed:It’s difficult to imagine now how scandalised people were but then Elizabeth Vigée le Brun hastily repainted the Queen in a more formal and patriotic style: a Lyons silk dress in a royal and loyal shade of blue (tellingly in exactly the same pose to refute the queen’s critics claiming lax morals and more besides) with a rose the symbol of love and grace.
It’s the first thing that greets you in the ante chamber today.
Opposite busts of her brother and husband, (the brother who saved the queen by literally explaining the requirements of the marital act to her husband Louis) . You’d probably walk by the wooden stools, but they survived the revolution, created for her dairy at Rambouillet and designed to mimic ancient Greek stools traditionally made with strapped leather, strongly neo classical and in the plainest wood, these were designed by Hubert Robert and carved by Georges Jacob.
There’s another pair dotted either side of the console, beyond the dining room door, where garlands of grapes drape either side of a mask of Bacchus, the God of the harvest and wine. A recurring theme in the dining room, is the source of its fine dining: food and wine bound in scenes of fishing, hunting and the harvest … and even the framing panel work, can you see the carved quivers full of arrows to catch your prey?
Marie Antoinette’s bust still presides over the mantlepiece carved with nature’s bounty.
Even the chandelier hangs from a ceiling rose is framed by cornucopia, classical horns of plenty, overflowing to the feast below… possibly served on the Sèvres dinner service hand painted with Marie Antoinette’s favourite cornflowers, encircled by pearls and framed in GREEN.
Through the small dining room we trot, still large enough for billiards…
to the Grand Salle.
Which clearly inspired Vogue on the release of THAT film:
So picture that right here…
Where flowers are combined with musical trophies and Marie Antoinette would play her harp …Everywhere there’s a jewel like quality to the work, look closely at the candelabra’s mounts and the mirrors carved edging:
When the General Estates met in 1789 the provincial deputies were all desperate to see the Petit Trianon, believing the rooms were studded with precious stones. Although the queen demanded the finest work, this is the closest it gets to diamond encrusted walls…
So we dream on today, imagining close friends and the queen reclined on the sofa, frequently buying 19th century copies of these finest 18th century chairs. The square die joins (the dice at the top of the leg) and fluted legs (en carquois) are quick identifiers as to whether your having a Marie Antoinette chaise moment. These though are the originals made by Jean-Baptiste Claude Sené (second only to Georges Jacob) and covered in Lyons damask.Then there’s the central lantern: can you just make out the stars in their enamel surround at the top?This lantern is one of the most beautiful ever made, with mounts by Thomire of musical elements on deep blue enamel work , sold in the revolution, its importance meant the government bought it back under Napoleon in 1811. Just when Marie Antoinette’s Austrian niece Marie-Louise was Empress of France and the Petit Trianon once again a private refuge, how often did she consider her Aunt’s fate I always wonder.Her Aunt who was so intent on privacy that her boudoir had mirrored panels installed by the Métivier brothers which could cover the windows. The ‘Wedgewood’ inspired blue and white boiserie scheme, made by the Rousseau brothers would then infinitely reflect Marie Anoinette: shielded entirely from the outside world, oblivious to day or night, cocooned.
Small rooms are intimate, their beauty embraces you.
Beside the boudoir, Marie Antoinette’s bedroom. Documents have recently shown that the queen’s locksmith Sieur Juneau created a system whereby , she can open and close the doors from her bed at will. All this leads us into Mills and Boon speculation around Axel de Fersen her reputed lover and the Queen, whose bed looked out over the Temple of Love.
The bed and chairs are climax of the bucolic fantasy created at Trianon,
The ‘ears of corn’ suite, by Georges Jacob, topped with pine cones and entwined with jasmine, honeysuckle and lillies of the valley. These rustic details were painted in the colours of truth and nature and upholstered in embroidered roses and cornflowers.
Marie Antoinette arrived in Versailles age just 15. She kept talismanic reminders of her Austrian home and family whenever she could and here in her bedroom the clock resting between the Hapsburg eagles still strikes the hour …
Why does Marie Antoinette and the Style Trianon endure? In an era surrounded by such extraordinary beauty and wealth, backed by the writings of Rousseau, refined simplicity and ‘back to nature’ became the ultimate chic in la vie douce*. Petit Trianon is the pastoral dream of a supremely sophisticated urban design team, a project which still resonates loudly today as city types dash down to country retreats for the weekend, or spend summers in greener pastures – just as Marie Antoinette and her friends did. We still seek to reflect nature’s beauty as a source of solace, inspiration and restoration.
When the fish wives marched on Versailles in October 1789, forcing the royal family to return to Paris with them, mob rule overturned the established order and the revolution’s fuse was lit. That day as guards desperately sought members of the royal family, Marie Antoinette was found alone in the grounds of her private kingdom, her rural idyll and enchanted world that is the Petit Trianon, it was the last time she saw it.
History continues to rewrite the life of Marie Antoinette but the style Petit Trianon was swiftly hallowed ground, a lasting legacy of the Ancient Regime*, the queen’s taste, a creation of timeless beauty which modern tastemaker’s still seek out and re-interpret today.
photographs of the Petit Trianon taken by ADA.
Paintings of Marie Antoinette from the internet, sources easily available, except the last image photographed by ADA at the Victoria and Albert museum.
the Petit Trianon’s decoration under Marie Antoinette was overseen by her premier architect Richard Mique, with a dream team! Thomire, the Rousseau brothers and Jean Henri Riesener.
la vie privée is a termed which only entered french society in the 18th century. as notions of privacy asserted themselves, and the concept of a private life emerged.
la vie douce, the aristocratic sweet life, a life of refinement and beauty.
Ancien Regime: the established order of pre-revolutionary France divided into its three estates.