For the past couple of months, I have been indulging my inner ‘Francophile’. Over the course of a number of visits to the National Gallery of Australia’s summer exhibition, “Versailles: Treasures from the Palace”, I have fallen in love with more than just one of the 130 treasures entrusted to the care of the Gallery.
I know I certainly have my favourite works, and so do many other visitors. How on earth can anyone possibly pick their favourite object or painting from such a sumptuous collection? Well, the many who have visited already, have come to the party and completed a questionnaire on departure, and it seems there are quite a few favourites.
With the exhibition more than halfway through the season, and the slight abatement of the summer crowds, now is the time to plan your visit and decide what is your own personal favourite treasure from the Palace of Versailles. This is a rare opportunity to indulge yourself with some of the most beautiful artworks and crafted objects to grace our former colonial shores for some time – but only until 17 April.
So here are just a few of the favourites.
Intriguing and beautifully crafted, the carved and gilded barometer which stands nearly 1.30 metres high, has caught the attention of many visitors.
Commissioned for Louis XVI when he was dauphin, it is extravagantly decorated and bears complex symbolism. As well as having an impressive physical presence, the function of the barometer has proven to be of interest. Trying to explain exactly how a barometer works can be difficult. From childhood I remember tapping on the barometer on the wall of my grandparent’s home. I was told it measured air or atmospheric pressure, which left me none the wiser. However, from the reading of air pressure, it is possible to forecast a whole lot of information crucial to agriculture and even military campaigns: rain, storms and inclement weather. I like to think of the barometer as the forerunner to the Bureau of Meteorology app I have on my smartphone which helps me keep up to date with where our often unpredictable weather is heading. Invented in Italy in 1630, the barometer must have been almost as important an invention in the 17th century as the internet was over 40 years ago.
Madame Du Barry’s delightful birdcage is located near her portrait and with other objects from the period
Another favourite object is Madame Du Barry’s birdcage, but this is no ordinary birdcage. Delicately crafted in gilded bronze and copper, this delightful cage is decorated with porcelain flowers and emblazoned with the arms of Madame Du Barry. The arms were created for her shortly after she too became a favourite – the mistress of Louis XV. In the exhibition, it is hanging beside some pretty upholstered furniture from the Petit Trianon, and almost trills with birdsong. Exotic birds, including an emerald-green parrot, would have come back with French explorers or as gifts from visitors to the Royal Court from the Middle East and beyond. There is no doubt the latest and most colourful arrival would have made its way straight to the boudouir and into the birdcage of Madame Du Barry.
The magnificent Latona Fountain is now topped with a copy of the original Latona, removed in 1980.
Cleverly and dramatically placed in the centre of the exhibition, Latona with her children, Apollo and Diana, provide a dramatic stopping point in the exhibition. For centuries, Latona was perched atop an enormous fountain located at a pivotal point in the magnificent gardens of Versailles. Carved in marble, Latona stands 2.2 metres high and weighs 1.5 tonnes. Both heroic and maternal, she is protective of her cherubic infants. Based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, this work tells of Latona and her children being denied water from a pond by local peasants. Latona retaliated and turned them into frogs; a story that appeals to both young and old! The dramatic backdrop of the high-tech multi-media projection and soundscape has both captivated and cooled summer visitors with the sound of splashing water proving positively refreshing on summer days.
Queen Marie Antoinette 1779-1790, after Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun
The final room is dominated by the regal presence of Marie Antoinette in a majestic full-length portrait in a grand palace setting. She is portrayed in full court dress alongside her crown on a blue velvet cushion, embroidered with the royal fleur-de-lis. It isn’t hard to see why the summer crowds have decided this work is another one of their favourites. Marie Antoinette wears a spectacular white satin court dress over a wide pannier petticoat. It is magnificently embellished with ribbons, bows, lace flounces and expensive gold passementerie. To top off this wonderfully OTT gown, perched in her hair is a spray of exotic feathers embellished with pearls. She had been pressured to be painted as Queen of France by her mother, the Empress Maria Teresa of Austria, however, it took Marie Antoinette nearly four years to find someone she felt could complete this important task to her liking. Happily, she also became friends with the artist, Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, and they shared a warm friendship. The portrait highlights the youthfulness, grace and radiance of the young Queen.
If you are just a bit overwhelmed by the luxury and magnificence of what you see, remember life at Versailles wasn’t just about ‘having it all’. I like to remind myself that, but for the space of a few days, a terrific gale and some offshore fog in January 1788, we could all have been speaking French. A keen geographer and supporter of scientific exploration, Louis XVI commissioned one of the great French explorers of the time, the Comte de La Perouse, to circumnavigate the world. La Perouse features in just one of the historically important paintings in the exhibition as he is about to depart on an epic journey that included a brief stop in Botany Bay. It was the aforementioned bad weather that fortunately, or unfortunately depending which side you are on, delayed him landing. This was long enough to allow Captain Cook to beat La Perouse, preventing him from claiming the country on behalf of Louis XVI.
If you haven’t had time to visit “Versailles: Treasures from the Palace”, indulge your senses and schedule your visit now.
All photos kindly provided by the National Gallery of Australia
Banner photo: Latona, with Apollo and Diana are dramatically presented in the midst of a multi-media projection and soundscape