At the turn of the 20th century, the Palace of Versailles
was at a crucial time in its history. One hundred years after the French Revolution and at the dawn of the Belle Epoque, a remarkable sense of fondness, nostalgia, curiosity and enthusiasm developed around Versailles in its Ancien Régime persona. With almost 350 works on display, including documents and photographs, the exhibition traces this surprising period in the history of art when Versailles played a leading role in the great literary, pictorial and musical motifs of the time, just at the moment when it was embarking on an extensive programme of restoration and refurbishment. People were dreaming of Marie-Antoinette at the same time that the French Republic was holding its Assemblies at Versailles and receiving foreign dignitaries. In the gardens there were aristocratic parties and popular tourism. Artists, painters, photographers, illustrators from across the globe took over the place and imitations of the Palace of Versailles flourished throughout the world.
The earliest signs of this new craze appeared under the French Second Empire, with Empress Eugenie and her fascination with Marie-Antoinette. However, it was at the end of the century that this fascination reached artistic and literary circles. Marcel Proust rediscovered this Versailles, the great name that is both rusty and sweet, a royal cemetery of foliage, vast fountains and marble, a truly aristocratic and demoralising place, where we are not even troubled by the remorse that the lives of so many workers have only served to refine and widen the joys of another time less than the melancholy of our own.
Historicist painting, which had already been in fashion since the beginning of the 19th century, saw a spectacular rise in popularity at this time and found some of its finest subjects at Versailles. Furniture and the decorative arts reproduced important royal works. After the example set by Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Palace served as a model for mansions built for Boni de Castellane and Alva Vanderbilt, and even the ocean liner SS France, built in 1912, was dubbed the Versailles of the seas. Incredible parties brought the Trianon back to life. Sarah Bernhardt performed at the Palace to mark the visit of Tsar Nicolas II in 1896. A timeless society sprang up around the monument-symbol, with its fashionable figures, Countess Greffulhe and Robert de Montesquiou; its writers, Marcel Proust, Henri de Régnier; its musicians, Reynaldo Hahn, Gabriel Fauré; its painters, Paul Helleu and Giovanni Boldini; and its official landscape designer, Achille Duchêne.
At the same time as this wave of enthusiasm, the Palace curators were working relentlessly to restore it to its former glory and return it to something close to its condition under the Ancien Régime, albeit to the detriment of the Museum of the History of France inaugurated in 1837 by Louis-Philippe. Pierre de Nolhac, director of the museum from 1892 to 1920, was the key figure in this undertaking.
The exhibition is being held in the Africa and Crimea rooms and contrasts these two historic perspectives. On the one hand the resurrection of the Palace, to cite the title of Pierre de Nolhacs memoirs, and on the other this surprising period in the history of art when Versailles inspired a vast range of painters, from the Russian Alexandre Benois to Georges Rouault, not to mention Gaston la Touche, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer and Henri Le Sidaner, as well as photographers like Eugène Atget, Edward Steichen and Man Ray.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the Palace of Versailles regained its royal and aristocratic splendour as well as a new level of popularity. The cinema seized on it too from its very early days, tourism increased, fashion drew its inspiration. The Fountains Shows, which had never lost their attraction throughout the 19th century, became a destination in themselves with crowds flocking to see them; in 1937 the Palace had over one million visitors.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Versailles became a popular subject for many artists, a source of inspiration that they constantly adapted and reinvented. The mural decorations produced in 1928 by Lucien Jonas for the Hotel de la Croix dOr in Soissons are a wonderful example, with his interpretation of the Temple of Love, his evocation of autumn triumphant, and his delicate figures in period costume. Alongside these huge panels, the vases created by Jules Coutan for the Lower Fountain at the Grand Trianon interact with photographs of the Park.
1. The French Second Empire, nostalgia and reconciliation
Empress Eugenie was quick to identify with Marie-Antoinette, and was fascinated by the Queen. In 1867, during the Universal Exhibition in Paris, she took on the organisation of the first exhibition devoted to the Sovereign, which brought together all the souvenirs, of varying degrees of authenticity, left behind by MarieAntoinette.
The restoration of her chambers in the Petit Trianon, recreated for the occasion, is a perfect illustration with its artificial mix of styles and origins.
Versailles came alive again with the grand parties that were held, notably during the visit of Queen Victoria in 1855.
On the rise since the early 19th century, historicist painting now found an endless source of inspiration in the newly-fashionable Versailles, with the likes of Eugène Lami during the French Second Empire.
Scenes depicting the life of Marie-Antoinette gradually increased in number. From meticulously portrayed events to the wildest fantasy, from the Grand Siècle to the Fêtes Galantes, the iconography and style of painting moved away from modernity. Although they are not much discussed in terms of the history of art, they are nevertheless spectacular proof of the contradictions of the time: the painter François Flameng had no hesitation in using the Colonnade Grove as the setting for a Baroque bathing scene with decidedly decadent features.
3. Alexandre Benois
Russian artists and craftsmen played an important role in the revival of the Louis XVI period, especially the painter and interior designer Alexandre Benois, who was fiercely passionate about Versailles and dedicated many of his works to the Palace. He painted landscapes as well as historical scenes inspired by the Grand Siècle, such as his series on The Last Walks of the Sun King.
4. The republic returns
Between the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the same place half a century later, Versailles became the new seat of the French Republic, with symbolic events of political power and the reception of heads of state accompanied by spectacular celebrations. The former capital once again had its place on the chessboard of national politics.
5. In search of the real Versailles: conservation and architects
Pierre de Nolhac was Director of the museum from 1892 to 1920, and it was he who established the foundations for a scientific restitution of the apartments as they were during the Ancien Régime and a refurbishment of the Palace. His historical work suddenly pushed forward knowledge of the Estate of Versailles. Paintings by his friend Maurice Lobre reflect the analytical vision of a palace whose true nature they wanted to rediscover. A series of drawings depict the restoration projects for the Palace and Gardens which were the subject of heated debates. Founded in 1907, the Société des Amis de Versailles helped to acquire some prestigious items. Personalities from the world of literature and politics, like the dramatist Victorien Sardou, acted as president.
6. Literary, artistic and social effervescence
Marcel Proust, who stayed at Versailles on several occasions, is one of the great figures of the Revival, and the author of some magnificent writing on the poetic power of the Palace. His name alone is enough to evoke this complex aesthetic time. Versailles inspired Les Perles Rouges by Robert de Montesquiou, La Cité des eaux by Henri de Régnier, and also Anna de Noailles and Maurice Barrès. It became a musical subject for many composers, including Reynaldo Hahn. In 1908, he played with Gabriel Fauré at a great evening gathering organised on the Grand Canal.
Elegant society gathered around the Palace at the turn of the 20th century.
With Giovanni Boldini and Paul Helleu a moment of aristocratic refinement became crystallised, where the protagonists oscillated between conservatism and the Avant-garde.
One section of the exhibition brings to life the elegant rustic, nocturnal or aquatic festivities that brought entertainment to the Estate, combining music, speeches and fancy dress, in an ambience that was both popular and aristocratic, with encouragement from well-known personalities such as the Countess Greffulhe. Leading names performed there, including Julia Bartet and the Mante sisters.
Womens magazines published some astonishing visions of Fêtes Galantes on the staircases and in the groves of the gardens at Versailles, admiring the lavish outfits of some of the highest-profile personalities, like Anna Gould or Cléo de Mérode.
7. The invention of the Versailles autumn
All the writers, artists and lovers of Versailles during this period mysteriously agreed that autumn was the season when the truth of the place was best perceived. And so a section of the exhibition echoes this notion, orchestrating with Paul Helleu and Henri Le Sidaner a melancholic arrangement on the royal cemetery of foliage evoked by Marcel Proust.
Paul Helleu became the champion of this autumnal Versailles.
8. New Versailles and new Marie-Antoinettes
Both in France and abroad, the fascination for Versailles gave rise to evocations, replicas, and ever more ambitious variations. King Ludwig II of Bavaria was the first to imitate Versailles with his Herrenchiemsee Palace. Boni de Castellane, and later Robert de Montesquiou, each had their own Pink Palace, with the former even including a replica of the Ambassadors staircase. In the America of the Gilded Age , apartments bordering Central Park were furnished to imitate the royal apartments and on Rhode Island, the Marble House was given to Alva Vanderbilt for her birthday, a combination of the Grand and the Petit Trianon. The landscape designer Achille Duchêne made a speciality of creating versions of Versailles, working for Elsie de Wolfe with the Villa Trianon, for the Vanderbilts and for Nordkirchen Castle in 1903. The new ocean liner SS France left the shipyards in 1912, and became known as the Versailles of the Seas, offering wealthy transatlantic cruise passengers a Louis XIV-style decor.
This Revival was to a large extent the revival of the martyred Queen. European princesses and American heiresses, like Marjorie Post, identified with MarieAntoinette at costume balls, and more widely through fashion and finery.
9. Gaston La Touche
A monographic section is devoted to Gaston La Touche, the painter who went furthest with the fantasy of a Belle Époque Versailles, and fully accepted his devotion to the place, I have had only one master, the park at Versailles.
In his paintings, the pools are surrounded by merry crowds of visitors, when not peopled by swans or naked ladies frolicking in the fountains.
10. City of water
Taking the title of the collection by Henri de Régnier, Cité des eaux, this section illustrates the inexhaustible source of inspiration that water has been at Versailles. Despite its eventful history and reversals of fortune, the Palace retained all the prestige of its hydraulic prowess throughout the 19th century. Painters from Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer to Le Sidaner used it as a mysterious yet modern motif. Photographers also made their contribution to the fame of the Fountains Shows which became one of the greatest destinations for popular tourism. In 1895, the first film to be shot at Versailles had a fountain for its subject. To complement the Fountains Shows, the famous firework displays, known as Night festivities, also contributed to the success of Versailles.
11. Popular Versailles
Postcards and advertising also reflected the general publics appropriation of the Estate.
In this first quarter of the 20th century, the boring image of Versailles was nothing more than a fading memory and artists converged from every country, mainly to paint the gardens. The famous Danish couple, Gerda Wegener and her husband Einar, who would later become a woman under the name Lily Elbe, came to present their interpretation of André Le Nôtres great poetic work. At the performance by the Ballets Russes in 1923, a certain Rockefeller would fall in love with Versailles, beginning the story of American patronage, so crucial for the renaissance of the Estate.
Through the brushstrokes of Jean-Louis Forain and Georges Rouault, and the lens of photographers like Man Ray, Constantin Brancusi, André Kertész, and André Steiner, the vision of the park and its visitors was modernised. From Georges Barbier to Georges Lepape, Art Deco illustrations reinvented the Fête Galante in an atmosphere of exuberance.