Ep. 3 Two Kings, Two Art Movements at Versailles in 2 Parts Pt.1

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Hello I’m your host Janelle and I’m back with more Louis and art and Versailles.  Not going to lie while working on this I’ve had the song “Louie Louie” by the Kingsman stuck in my head.  Considering I’m talking about more King Louis and Versailles.  In this two part episode I’ll be talking about King Louis XV and the Rococo art movement, and King Louis XVI and the Neoclassical art movement.

As always you can view the images, transcript of this audio recording, and resources I discuss on my website www.boozyarthistorian.com. Right, now let’s get into the good stuff!

In the previous episodes we discussed King Louis XIV and how he built up the incredible and awe inspiring Château de Versailles.  When Louis XIV passed in 1774, his great-grandson Louis XV takes over as monarch. It’s quite confusing because Louis XIV had a son, also named Louis, who then when on to have a son named Louis, who also then went on to have a sonnamed Louis (aka Louis XV). Now Louis XV becomes king right after Louis XIV, because basically and very tragically his grandfather and father, and well anyone else who essentially was lined up before him to become king, were killed by measles and/or smallpox.  Louis XV also had contracted the same measles that had killed his father and mother, but managed to be saved by his governess who refused to allow court physicians to bleed him.  For those of you unaware, bleeding someone was a common practice where doctors would quite literally create incisions that would allow, what they thought was bad blood, to leave the body and allow healthy blood to make the patient better.  It was pretty wild. If you’re interested in that type of stuff go over to Season 1 and check out my “Art & Medicine” episode.

Either way, Louis XV takes over for his great-grandfather as king of France, and is nicknamed “Louis the Beloved”.  Now I don’t know if I feel confident saying he was beloved, but it does seem that he was somewhat unliked at court.  Before his reign started in 1715, his uncle Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans was regent and interestingly reinstated Parlement’s “droit de remonstrance” aka Right of Remonstrance which allowed Parliament to challenge a king’s decision.  This of course isn’t beneficial to the monarchy in the long run because historians see this as a major stepping stone in what allows for the French Revolution.  

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, once Louis XV took over he was interested in his subjects and was said to have had a kind heart. Also, fun fact King Louis XV was the king who built the most modern and extensive road system in the world (during the 18th century that is)! It’s also good to note that there was also quite a bit of wars and fighting and Europe was in military chaos, which I can’t imagine were super helpful to his public image and royal coffers.  Historians seem to remain split as to whether or not it was Louis XV who was the reason the royal coffers were wrecked for if that was just the work of French Revolution propaganda materials.

In 1725 Louis XV married Maria Leszczyńska, forgive me for my terrible Polish, who was from royal Polish blood, and they had 10 children together.  Unfortunately for Queen Maria, Louis XV was a womanizer and remained constantly unfaithful to her throughout their marriage.  Interestingly based on my research it seems she kind of came to terms with it.  It definitely seems like she had mistresses she liked better than others, but there were so many she probably didn’t notice most of them.

Having mistresses at this time wasn’t unusual.  Louis XIV had many mistresses, so many in fact that he created the Grand Trianon, which was designed by our favorite Versailles architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart. The purpose of the Grand Trianon was to act as a sort of getaway space for the king and his flavor of the month mistress where they wouldn’t have to deal with court life and could relax a little.  Louis XV visited the Grand Trianon regularly, until there was an assassination attempt on him in 1757. Luckily this attack happened in the winter so Louis was wearing a thick winter coat so when this deranged man attacked him with a knife the puncture wound wasn’t life threatening.

It was just a year later in 1758 that he commissioned the Petit Trianon to be made, as an escape for him and supposedly his favorite mistress Madame de Pompadour. Who is also one of my favorite people who darkened the halls of Versailles.  While she definitely wasn’t a saint, she was very clever and spent her life building up the arts and culture of France, specifically the Rococo movement. Unfortunately I can’t really get into her right now, but for those of you who are interested you can join one of my memberships so you can have access to my side tangent on her, in the latest mini episode of “But I Digress”!  

But getting back on topic.  Let’s talk about the Rococo movement. The Rococo movement is considered by academics to be the sort of last hurrah of the Baroque movement (which I touched on in the last episode).  So it is generally agreed upon to have started in the 1710s and goes on until the late 1750s. It also incorporates the Rocaille style, I never know how to pronounce this, and is also known as the Louis XV style.  Which is quite obvious since it was during his reign that we see the style being popularized.

Now when we I say Rococo, many of you will know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s everywhere.  When we think these large French rooms with light pink and blue pastels, with ornate decorations everywhere and it’s all very romantic, that’s Rococo.  It was this push away from the more rigid lines of the Baroque and we get these beautiful sort of wavy lines that are a bit less traditional.  Fun fact: much of the Rococo period actually inspired Walt Disney and his designs for the 1950 animated film, Cinderella.  Along with of course, the animated film Beauty and the Beast.  Walt Disney actually spent quite a bit of time at old French estates during the 1940s and was deeply inspired by these Baroque and Rococo interiors.  So the next time you end up watching either of those movies see how many Rococo details you can find. Also, who doesn't love Cogsworth’s horrible but wonderful joke, “if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it!” If you want to know more about that, there is a recent exhibition catalog that has been published on this and I highly recommend it.  You can find it on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

Ok so we know when it is and what it is, let’s talk about who some of the most predominant artists were of this movement. The first is Antoine Watteau.  He was a renowned painter during his lifetime and is one of the earliest adopters of the Rococo style.  He was officially trained in the Baroque style, but he moved away from it in his later years and gave his works more of a softness than before.

You can find a ton of his works in notable museums, but I find the work in IMAGE 2 to be a particularly wonderful example of his work.  Here we have French nobles purchasing and inspecting artworks in this gallery most likely somewhere in Paris. We see again these sort of darker Baroque like colors, contrasted with the wonderfully soft pastels of the Rococo. I also love that we have a bit of fashion history in here as well. Now the reason I feel comfortable calling the people depicted her as French nobles, is we have the woman on the left wearing a dress with a train.  Based on my research, this type of train was usually worn only by noble women.  I also want to note the men are sporting trendy wigs as well!

Either way, moving on to our next artist, and most likely one of the most recognizable artists, Jean-Honoré Fragonard.  This is actually another artist that Walt Disney loved deeply and used one of Fragonard’s paintings as inspiration for many of his animated films.  You can actually see it make a little cameo in quite a few modern Disney films as well.  Some of you may remember seeing it in Frozen! Yes I’m talking about The Swing, which you can see in IMAGE 3.  

This particular work is very famous and used frequently for discussing the French court at Versailles, pre French Revolution. Of course I find this slightly comical considering the predatory nature of the subject matter.  What seems to be a fun afternoon where a young woman is enjoying a little sunshine on a swing, is actually the guy down here on the left having convinced his friend the guy on the right, to swing the woman he adores so much a bit higher so he can see up her skirts.  And everyone wonders why I constantly say “this is why we can’t have nice things”. Of course this was a lot of Fragonard’s subject matter, a sort of loosely veiled eroticism, in a sort of tongue in cheek way.

I also would like to take a quick moment to pause, because I want to note that quite some time ago there was someone posting on TikTok, I have no idea who the creator was, who was claiming that the trees in the background was in fact smoke from the burning of the monarchy. Now obviously that is not true at all, and I’ve been coming across a lot of creators on the platform who are saying things like this about art, and I want to say if there’s anything you’re ever curious about or have any kind of doubt to the credibility of what they’re saying, please DM me on Instagram or send me a message through my website.  Life’s too short for misinformation! Ok mini rant aside let’s keep going on our artists.  The next artist I want to discuss is, François Boucher.  Boucher was a favorite at French court, and even studied for a bit in Rome.  Interestingly it was Madame de Pompadour who acted as his patron and helped get him the rank of Premier Peintre du Roi (First Painter to the King) in 1765.

He’s the one who painted some of the most famous portraits of her. My favorite being IMAGE 4, where we see her in her prime. She’s showing off her beauty with the lovely clothing and rouge on her cheeks, she’s showing off her wealth in the stunning room she reclines in and see her showing off her knowledge with this book in her hand and a little writing desk with the quill in the ink pot as if she’s just about to write another letter. So when we think of Rococo paintings these are very much a classic example of that movement. This is the quick summary painting I would send them when talking about Rococo. But the Rococo movement was more than just paintings, it was also furniture design and decorative arts!

And of course you can’t talk about furniture design without mentioning Jean-François Oeben.  While we don’t know where he formally trained, we do know that he spent time in Charles-Joseph Boulle’s workshop.  For those of you who watch my TikToks, yes this is the grandson of André-Charles Boulle, the famous “furniture jeweler” from King Louis XIV’s reign. On a random side tangent, I wanted to note that Oeben was the grandfather of another famous French artist, Eugène Delacroix. Who is the artist you will know from the famous work in IMAGE 5, which is Liberty Leading the People.  I find it fascinating that we go from grandfather who was in the inner circle of the French monarchy to the exact opposite of his grandson who was painter to one of the most well known pieces of French Revolution history.

But I digress. So we can imagine that he was quite talented to join such a workshop, and if you’ve ever seen a piece of furniture by Oeben, you would immediately see his talent. Oeben was a skilled woodworker who created stunning furniture pieces that are very much artworks in their own right. If you don’t believe me check out one of his mechanical tables in IMAGE 6. As you can see not only is the marquetry work that of a highly trained and skilled artisan but it also has a cool high tech component to it as well. When I say marquetry I mean wood inlay, so pieces of wood are cut like a puzzle to create an image. Now granted in the context of today’s technology it doesn’t seem that spectacular, but it was a very luxurious object for someone to own. It has a very large mirror that comes up when the main table top slides back.  You can see the desk in its open position in IMAGE 7.

These would’ve been very fashionable and any noble lady worth her weight in salt would’ve wanted or had a table like this. Which leads me to another point, in the last episode I talked about tapestries and what hung on the walls at Versailles, and how even the objects that went onto the walls of Versailles were statements of power and prestige and that holds true in Louis XV’s reign. In IMAGE 8 we can see an example of this in the pair of wall brackets, which were done in the classic Rococo style. I mean look at that beautiful gold coloring and how sumptuous they would’ve looked when they caught the light of the day and the candlelight at night.

Of course gilt bronze is lovely and all, but let’s talk about the stunning pair of Sèvres porcelain wall sconces in IMAGE 9. Now, I’m going to get a bit excited here because I love Sèvres porcelain, and it has such significance to European monarchies during the 18th century and basically what it boils down to is porcelain is the monarchy’s way of showing physical proof that they are god’s chosen emissary on earth.  Let’s unpack that shall we? To do so we need to head to what is now the German Austrian region.  Basically two alchemists, aka chemists, come up with a recipe for hard paste porcelain. And this is really exciting because in Europe they didn’t really have porcelain like Asians, who had long since been producing gorgeous porcelain objects. And during this time period we have to remember magic and science are one and the same. So when you perform a scientific experiment that produces something like porcelain from some basic ingredients, it seems like magic, and therefore an act of god.  So anyone who can produce this magic porcelain can be see as performing god’s miracles and therefore be channeling god’s power. Which is very exciting for European monarchs because this means that when they have royal porcelain shops, they are signaling to the world that they have god’s power.

I know it’s a lot, but Europeans believed this so deeply that there was even a special chamber for the King of France at Sèvres from it’s early days up until the French Revolution. And even King Louis XVI demanded that the French government continue to fund Sèvres factory even during the early days of the French Revolution, because it was a way to show France’s power on the European stage. So we have these beautiful objects that act as signs of a monarch’s power and of course what do they do with these objects? Turn them into diplomatic gifts to show off to their counterparts the power of their reign. And with Sèvres porcelain how can you argue with the power the French monarchy held?

I mean look at these beautiful delicate pieces and think about the hours of labor that went into them.  Those of you who have ever worked with pottery you will also understand how frustrating the firing process is and how many objects would’ve been thrown away due to imperfections. Because each piece had to be perfect. Also look at these magnificent colors which you can see in the potpourri vase in IMAGE 10. How beautifully painted it is and that wonderful soft pastel pink we know so well from the Rococo movement.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful and magnificent these pieces are, and how expensive they were, especially in bulk.  So many times European monarchs and nobles would commission huge dining sets of porcelain, and it was such a big way to show off to anyone who sat down at your table how fabulously wealthy and important you were.

Catherine the Great received a famously large service of Wedgewood that included a whopping 944 porcelain objects, this came out to roughly enough to serve dinner and dessert to an intimate group of 50 people. Marie Antoinette also had a service made in 1784 known as the Riche en couleurs variées which included over 300 porcelain objects. Which leads me quite nicely to a little breaking point, because I want to dive into what comes after the soft dreamy pastels of the Rococo movement, which is the Neoclassical movement and has quite a bit to do with Louis XV’s successor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I hope you all can now feel confident or at least curious about the Rococo movement and being able to spot a work that is from this time period.  

Of course, as always should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you can DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian.  I love talking about art history and I firmly believe there are no stupid questions.  Thanks for listening in and see you next time on The Boozy Art Historian!

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