Exoticism was the flavor of the month Every month at the Palace of Versailles at its peak, where French versions of chinoiserie and vaguely Ottoman Turquerie vied for the limelight in the private apartments of the Bourbon kings, their wives, their mistresses and their families.
This absorption of distant motifs has left its mark on surviving Versailles objects from French royal collections – in everything from a mid-eighteenth-century bronze-mounted Chinese porcelain vase, presumably used as a perfume fountain by Madame de Pompadour, à Louis Harem scenes in porcelain plates from the end of the 18th century, once displayed in a room with its most precious goldsmithery.
This month, more than 100 of these objects, reminiscent of palace life in its pre-revolutionary splendor, will once again be brought together for an exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Versailles and the world draws from the collections of the National Museum of the Palaces of Versailles and Trianon and the Royal Collection Trust of the United Kingdom, among others. A version of the exhibition was mounted at Versailles in 2017 and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2018.
In 1682, Louis XIV moved the French court from Paris to his palace at Versailles, which transformed the former hunting lodge of his father, Louis XIII, into the focal point of the European Ancien Régime. Unlike its rival courts in the Chinese and Ottoman empires, Versailles was open to the world, explains Bertrand Rondot, chief curator of furniture and decorative arts at the Versailles museum and co-curator of the exhibition with Hélène Delalex.
“Versailles was open to everyone”, says Rondot, “without distinction of class or status”. In one of the first works in the exhibition, Versailles is depicted as a kind of tourist attraction in oil paint View of the Palace of Versailles and the Orangery (circa 1695), attributed to the French topographical painter Étienne Allegrain.
During the French Revolution the royal collection began to be auctioned and many of these items have rich survival stories. Among these was a delicate 17th-century Chinese silver pourer, which made its way to Versailles in 1686 as one of thousands of pieces brought by Siamese ambassadors to the court of Louis XIV. “It’s a very beautiful object but very small, but the French court was quite disappointed with it,” says Rondot. The 7-inch piece, used in China for pouring clear liquor, could not compete with the solid silver furniture at Versailles and was quickly put into storage.
Most of the royal silverware was melted down to pay for one of Louis XIV’s wars and the rest did not survive the French Revolution. The pourer escaped this fate and was later acquired by a French family during the Napoleonic era and bought by the Versailles museum in 2018. It will be shown, says Rondot, as a symbol of the original worldliness of Versailles.
• Versailles and the worldLouvre Abu Dhabi, January 26-June 4