Trip to Versailles Exhibition
On Friday, 31st March, U3A members set off early by bus bound for the ‘Versailles’ exhibition at the National Gallery. Bright sunshine accompanied us as we climbed up the Kings Highway and we were greeted by a somewhat brisk, beautifully sunny Canberra day. This trip was an interesting initiative of Penny Bonnell which was approved by the U3A committee.
At the entrance to the exhibition was a huge reproduction of The Hall of Mirrors, which was built at the instigation of Louis XIV between 1678 and 1684. At that time it was, and has remained, the most impressive room in the Palace. Two giant, golden candelabra stood in front of this ‘mural’, indicative of the opulence of the display within.
In the first room of the exhibition the marble bust of the Sun King, created by Jean Varin in 1665-66, disdainfully turned his head turned away from the entrance. An impressive figure indeed but aloof, as if absorbed by thoughts of his own glory and achievements. We were immediately made aware of the celebration of king and state.
In another room, there he was in the well-known portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud dated 1701-12— a plain man elegantly posed in exquisite garments. Nearby, holding a blue cloak with fleur-de-lis design, was the 1720 painting of King Louis XV by Rosalba Carriera. Although only ten years old he is wearing a grey powdered wig. It is interesting to note the new informality which entered French portrait painting only a few years after the Rigaud portrait but perhaps the painter and his studio were less overawed by the young monarch.
As we proceeded I became aware of various comments —expressions like: ‘quite an eyeful’ and ‘this is really over the top’. While not being a huge exhibition the rooms were certainly packed with luxury items, much as the Palace itself.
A favourite painting for me was Carle Van Loo’s 1754 portrait of Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, later Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV. I think this painting has captured the personality of an assured, poised—and possibly scheming young woman. The painting’s alternative title was ‘the beautiful gardener’. As it is said that she and the king often tended flower beds together. But surely not in the clothes she is wearing in this portrait! Most importantly in 1762 Louis XV commissioned Le Petit Trianon at her instigation from the architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel.
It was great to see the eighteenth century Chinese perfume fountain in porcelain with cracked glaze for the wardrobe of Louis XV because Margaret Barlow in her excellent talk earlier in the week had described how the cracked glaze effect is achieved.
Very impressive as one entered the largest room of the exhibition was the huge painting by Jean Baptiste Charpentier of the Duke of Penthievre’s family enjoying their cups of chocolate. As you can imagine chocolate was a great luxury at the time. Not to be missed was the detail of the gorgeous porcelain cups which was particularly appreciated thanks to Margaret Barlow’s illustrated talk on the history of porcelain.
I have mentioned only a few items viewed during two walks through the exhibition. Others in our group had different favourites. It would be fun to meet again and discuss our outing.
Again many thanks, merci beaucoup, to Penny for organizing this memorable outing, made the more interesting because of the History Forum’s series of talks including those of Gail Vincent on Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun’s portraits and Gwen Wharton’s overview of the unfortunate life of Marie Antoinette. Penny’s summing up emphasised the themes of power and politics in play throughout the history of Versailles and drew comparison with current world politics. This meant we had been presented with a substantial background to this multi- facetted and fascinating exhibition.