Opulence on display
A virtual visit to Versailles
No plans for a trip to Paris this summer? The Met’s “Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789)” offers a sense of French travel and time travel as well. The expansive and innovative exhibition brings together close to 200 works of art, costume, architecture, jewelry and furnishings from more than 50 international collections, including the Palace of Versailles, to give a sense of the history, aesthetic and grandeur of the French royal court.
Versailles, just 12 miles outside of Paris, was a hunting lodge — a kind of weekend home in the Poconos for the kings and queens of France — until Louis XIV (1638–1715) transformed it into a dazzling, glittering spectacle unlike any other. From 1682, when the Sun King moved himself and his court out of Paris and into the palace at Versailles, it was the center of political power and a destination for visitors from around the world.
The magnificent gardens, exquisite architecture and over-the-top opulence announced to all the elegance, taste and power of the French. Versailles was open to royals and ambassadors from abroad, as well as artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, socialites, tourists and day-trippers from Paris. One of the facts the exhibition brings out is the rare accessibility of the king. The royal court at Versailles was open to all who cared to make the trip hoping for a glimpse of Louis XIV — with one stipulation. Like those lining up outside Studio 54 in the ‘70s, visitors had to be deemed fashionable enough to get in. So, suits and gowns start the show.
Gorgeous garments for men and women in silk and brocade, with textiles lavishly adorned and punctuated by silver buttons and dazzling embellishments, greet visitors to the exhibition. They’re accompanied by a special audio guide, available at no cost. It’s billed as a 3-D tour (actually it’s stereo) and features music, birdsong, background noises and actors with European accents delivering dialogue about what it was like to visit the royal palace, what they hoped to see, and how they prepared. It may bring the sense of a “visit” to life for some. For others, it might get in the way, making the experience more like watching an episode of “Outlander” than a chance to see objects of artistic and historical import. But there’s no wrong or right way to enjoy a Met exhibit, so go for it, if it sounds fun.
Subsequent galleries highlight various aspects of the palace and life at court. There are portraits, porcelains and fans, three-cornered hats, tapestries and rugs. One section presents the famed gardens, with statuary placed in small bays in front of flowery backgrounds (here, the audio includes the sounds of fountains and actors talking about the palace’s menagerie of exotic animals). Paintings portray parties held on the magnificent grounds designed by André Le Nôtre in the 1660s. Royal hunts, visiting dignitaries, the private apartments and their furnishings are all presented. There’s an astonishing architectural model of the Ambassadors’ Staircase, made by Charles Arquinet in 1958 so detailed it calls to mind Alice’s magic potion. If you could just shrink temporarily, you could pop in for an ersatz visit. Busts of Louis XIV, XV and XVI, all in a row, gaze down from an imposing height just a few feet away.
Some of the most dazzling objects in the exhibition give a sense of sumptuousness of gifts from foreign kings and queens. A tiny golden throne from Thailand and a fabulous Ottoman jeweled hunting quiver with an emerald the size of a walnut are particularly stunning.
All this lavishness came at great cost, both literally and politically. In 1789, King Louis XVI had to leave a Versailles in deep decline and put upon by angry protestors. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished. The king was beheaded in January 1793, with Marie Antoinette following several months later. The last thing on display is a reproduction of a notice announcing “Ventes de meubles et effets, à Versailles” or an auction to sell off the contents of the palace. Rather than just shining baubles, the exhibition offers a final bite to chew on in another time of significant wealth disparity.
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