Tag Archives: Versailles

What a Visage! Louis XIV’s Wax Portrait

If you want accurate likenesses of eighteenth century aristocrats, don’t rely on painted portraits.  If you must insist on versimiltude, I have two things to say:  “Goodnight and good luck” and “Wax Portraits!!”

Before yesterday, I had never heard of such a thing.  Wax figures like Madame Tussaud’s?  Of course.  But small, uncomely representations of monarchs, mistresses, noble folk?  I am fascinated.

Somehow in the two times I visited Versailles I missed Louis XIV’s 1706 wax portrait.  Too distracted by the gilt, no doubt.  What’s peculiar about this buste is what’s most obvious.  Apart from the fact he looks dusted with flour–an ill omen caused by bad reproduction–he’s got pockmarks, a five o’clock shadow, and age spots.  If you can’t see them in the first picture,  my lack of HD quality has dashed the clarity (Super clear and creepy whole bust here).

Louis-XIV by Antoine Benoist 1715

Benoist Louis XIV eye and nose

To be fair, Antoine Benoist molded his creation when Louis XIV was an old man.  The artist was hardly the first wax artist, but he accomplished two feats which secured him favor at Versailles. First, Benoist capitalized on his art form when few had yet to do so; and second, he perfected color waxworks.

Louis looks real in the way that dead people look real, but in examining this work, I sense the accomplishment.  I almost believe I’ve seen Louis on the hay-strewn street.   His eyes, by the way, are hunter’s green or maybe hazel.  They could also be brown. It’s hard to tell.  The video about the restoration work by Versailles provides the closest look.  Watching it, you can even see the individual scars, including the thin, half-inch scar slashing at an angle above the corner of his right lip.

What’s your take on wax portraits? Predecessor of Photoshop? Prefer a potentially blander, perfected prettiness over the realer thing? I’m undecided but think I prefer both. Benoist’s representation of Louis is considered the sun king’s most accurate likeness in existence. But it’s too bad he couldn’t have come along in Louis’s youth; the contrast would’ve been marvelous to behold.

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A Woman with a Parasol

Come summer I am absurdly jealous of ladies and their parasols.  What modern accessory marries charm and practicality half so well?  I have not discovered it, though I do have a tendency to reach for my collection of floppy hats once the sun rides high.  Sunscreen and my face are frenemies with a capital F, you see, and while I hope to maintain the Nicole Kidman aesthetic of limiting direct exposure whenever possible, brims that stretch to my shoulders get rather ridiculous looks, not to mention they are impossible to keep on one’s head in the wind.

Thus the want of a modernized parasol.

Vertumnus and Pomona – Jean Ranc (1710-1720)

A Bit of Sunshade History

Once an object of royal privilege, the parasol had its origins in the ancient east, migrating from China to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.  It eventually spread to the arid climes of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but after the collapse of the Roman Empire it fell out of favor with the public until the Italian renaissance.  In the centuries’ gap in between, the parasol shaded the holy heads of popes, bishops, and doges from the eighth to the 16th centuries.  Its use was largely ceremonial.
Italy -- doges of Venice and t... Digital ID: 817921. New York Public Library

Northern(ish) Europe was late to the parasol party.  The French style mavens adopted it around the 17th century, but their early parasols were a far cry from the silk sunshades of Versailles.  When the first engravings of the parasol appeared in France in the 1620s, the parasol was still reserved for the wealthy.  These iterations, though evolved from the first creation, were unwieldy and required the assistance of a brawny servant who could manage its weight.

Measurements from the 1650s tell of parasols weighing 1600 grams or about three and a half pounds—three and a quarter pounds too heavy for a gentle lady to prop on her shoulder or hold over her head.  Stripping the parasol to its bones would have rendered whalebones at lengths of 80 centimeters that were held together by a copper ring; a handle of solid oak; and a choice of heavy fabrics made of oilcloth, barracan, or grogram.  In cheaper parasols, one might have used straw.

Around 1688 ladies parasols matured into an elegant accessory used much like a fan.  An engraving from Nicolas Arnault shows “…the appearance of a mushroom, well developed and slightly flattened at its borders, the red velvet which covers it is divided into ribs or rays, by light girdles of gold, and the handle, very curiously worked, is like that of a distaff, with swellings and grooves executed by the turner.  Altogether, this coquette’s Sunshade is very graceful, and of great richness.”
[Woman holding a parasol walki... Digital ID: 824666. New York Public Library
Luxury in sunshades became the thing.  Silk fringes and feather plumes, handles of Indian bamboos and changing silks, replaced dull practicality and fashionable ladies ran after their whims.  By the middle of the 18th century, the Parisians preferred taffety to all other fabrics and preferred the convenience of picking up a parasol along the way over the danger of going without.  In 1769 parasols were so trendy that a small business sprang up on the Pont Neuf where, at the cost of two farthings, those crossing the bridge could rent a parasol and return it on the other side.  The French, one must assume, did not walk fast.

Le Pont Neuf. Digital ID: ps_prn_cd11_155. New York Public Library

A couple under a parasol in a garden – Jean-Baptiste Mallet (1791-1793)

England’s affair with the parasol was somewhat less enthusiastic.  You may have noticed by now that I’ve excluded men from all our parasol talk.   Historical accounts claim they stuck to manly accessories like cloaks and hats to fend off the elements.  Jonas Hanway, an English doctor who must have trudged through more than one rainy afternoon with a scowl on his face, thought this prejudice absurd.  Even though parasols and their umbrella cousins were considered effeminate, Hanway was a doctor, damn it all, and he was not going to risk his health on some silly society opinion.

Jonas Hanway, the first Englis... Digital ID: 824663. New York Public Library

Above:  Jonas Hanway being heckled for his parasol/umbrella.  

Below: looking proud.

Jonas Hanway and his umbrella. Digital ID: 824683. New York Public Library

Starting in 1756 he would walk through the London streets, brash as Robinson Crusoe, umbrella in hand, recalling perhaps: “I covered it with skins, the hair upwards, so that it cast off the rain like a penthouse, and kept off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest weather, with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest. . .”  (Daniel Defoe’s lines written in 1719, one of the first references by an Englishman to the umbrella)

Robinson Crusoe brings in the ... Digital ID: 1697950. New York Public Library

Never mind that to carry a parasol or umbrella was to risk announcing that one was without a carriage.  Dr. Hanway was a thinking man who spurred on England’s umbrella revolution because he dared and it paid off.  Thirty years after his spirited jaunts about London, ladies were stepping out in the park, twirling pretty handles over their shoulders, and gentlemen weren’t looking at umbrellas so scornfully.  Well, almost.

Parasols for 1795. Digital ID: 817999. New York Public Library

Parasols for 1795

All images except except Mallet’s and Ranc’s are from the NYPL digital gallery. Go browse and discover.  Their collection is marvelous.

Also, for those who like a bit of amusement with their history:

The newest thing in umbrellas. Digital ID: 824646. New York Public Library

Hands free!  “The newest thing in umbrellas”

Some new ideas in umbrellas. Digital ID: 824678. New York Public Library

The next newest thing.  Be an umbrella

Bartine’s sunshade hat. Digital ID: 824699. New York Public Library

From 1890 . . . when gentlemen really gave in

 And lastly, which umbrella type are you?

The Female Elements: Mesdames de France

When Louis XV commissioned Jean-Marc Nattier to produce portraits of four of his daughters representing earth, fire, water, and air, he furthered a notion of natural right that had cemented France as a superpower in continental Europe.  This ancient concept of earthly bodies ruling by order of celestial spheres is at once subtle and obvious in his daughter’s portraits.  For what, one could ask, is more elemental than a woman?  What is stronger than the elements but the will of mankind?

In strikingly similar styles, Nattier had painted Louis’ daughters before with Henriette as Flora and Adelaide as Diane.   The Frenchman was known for his allegorical depictions, a style that would go out of fashion by the end of the 18th century.  For this mid-century work, though, he was perfect.  Re-imagining the Filles de France as goddesses or mythological figures was something he could capture with with romantic efficiency, portraying Louis’ daughters as both naive, gentle creatures and powerful earthly beings.

Madame Henriette as Flora (1742)  Check out the sandaled feet!

Commissioned by Marie Leczynska as a pendant portrait to Madame Henriette as Flora; Adelaide, 13 years old (1745)

Unlike his predecessors, Louis XV’s grandfather, Louis XIV, presupposed that his tempestuous courtiers would best respond to his absolute rule if they were surrounded by natural symbols of his God-given power.  The Louis’s were masterminds at propagandizing and with the exception of Marie Antoinette’s Louis, their images carried splendidly in art as well as in person.  Since Louis XV’s daughters were his pride and joy until Madame du Barry sullied the scene, he understandably adored these portraits.

His eldest daughter and the premiere princess Louise-Elisabeth personifies earth in this series that once hung in the south wing of Versailles.  She had married by proxy the Infante Phillip of Spain in 1739 at the tender age of 12.  This was a distinction among Louis’ daughters.  One flew to the convent and the others never married.  The three single ladies following Louise-Elisabeth in age–Henriette, Adelaide, and Victoire–assumed the roles of fire, air, and water.

The Earth

Madame Louise-Elisabeth

As a mother, Louise-Elisabeth is the most voluptuous and fertile of the sisters.  Sitting on golden brown cloth and surrounded by a landscape, all but her stark white body and gown is earthen colored.  Her elbow rests upon a globe showing France and Spain (her husband’s home) along with the upper African continent.  Her posture is open and confident.  She drapes her left arm over grapes and other various fruits and flowers.  To the south of a plump peach, coins spill along the greyish-ivory glide of her dress. The steer handler in the background appears to be waving, perhaps declaring the riches birthed by the earth in the form of his bovine?  The only detail that seems curious to me is the pearl beading around her waist and arms and even in her hair.  Makes me wonder if the water element, in addition to earth, is a nod to her fecundity.

The Fire

Madame Anne-Henriette 

Louis’ favorite daughter Henriette represents a Vestal virgin upholding the virtues of domesticity and home.  Her rippling dress, the color of silver smoke, echoes the swirls of smoke to her left where the fire burns on a marble altar decorated with swags and florals.  Her fingers rest thoughtfully on her chin while propped just to the center of her lap is a tome entitled Histoire des Vestales.  The statue in the background is Vesta, the goddess of the hearth whose virgins once spread the sacred fires to the homes of every Roman.  The goddess is commonly shown with her tools of a bowl of fire and a torch.

The Water

Madame Victoire 

I’m quite taken with Victoire’s eyes.  They large and watery with copious amounts of highlighter lining the bottom.  Her sisters must have been so jealous!  As a water nymph, Victoire is luminous from the tip of her nose to her pale bosom.  The scene is tranquil and, with the exception of the urn, almost slumberous.  A pair of swans swim in the backdrop, the reeds beside her sway on a gentle breeze.  The sole detail interrupting the gentle portrait is the urn gushing water.  I have read that the direction of the water, parallel to her hips, represents fertility.  As a single lady, Victoire spent her life childless, but maybe since she was the seventh child of Louis and Marie we can conclude abundance was the pride of this royal family? (though clearly not male Y chromosome abundance).  I do note that the earth and water sisters are wearing similar pearl headbands, which probably answers my earlier question about Louise-Elisabeth.

The Air

Madame Adelaide 

Adelaide’s portrait as Juno has the most movement of the four.  She looks like she’s sitting on clouds with her companion, the peacock.  The regal, if fierce, looking peacock is perched on the same brownish substance, a pink bow tied prettily around his neck.  The rainbow arching over Adelaide dances in the background, seeming to come closer to us the closer we look.

Along with the peacock and the upward trajectory of Adelaide’s posture, the focus adds a whimsical nature to the painting.  Any moment she might lose hold of the blue cloth and float away with it.  Why, though, is her gown tied in the back?  Juno was often depicted as wearing a goatskin cloak knotted around her neck.  So, either we are to assume Adelaide is donning the goat or it must be an extremely windy day and she can’t otherwise keep her naughty bits covered?  Doesn’t matter, I suppose.  She and the rest of her sisters are fetching as the elements and I can see why Louis adored these portraits.  I certainly do.

Versailles Gilt: A Photographic Journey

I have only about a gazillion pictures of my travels.   Behold a few gilty pleasures from Versailles to glam up your work week . . .

Fashion at Versailles: Vivienne Westwood’s Courtesans

The delightfully subversive Vivienne Westwood will be among the designers showcasing their work at Marie Antoinette’s old stomping ground, the Grand Trianon, for an exhibition put on by Musee Galliera.  “Le XVIII au goût du jour” or “A Taste of the 18th Century” runs through October 9th if you’re lucky enough to be near Versailles.  Other than Westwood’s courtesans, you’ll see Watteau-style robes à la française by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel,  embroidered  motifs typical of the 18th century by Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain,  and Olivier Theyskens’s for Rochas invocation of the ghost of Marie Antoinette in a Hollywood film. 

Dare I entice you more?

Look familiar?  I do believe Mme Pompadour would approve.

Long influenced by 17th and 18th centuries, Westwood is known to reinterpret designs of the period.  She uses her trademark tailoring, inspired by authentic cutting principles, to produce a collision of the historical and modern.  The Boucher corset, featuring a print of the 1743-5 painting, Daphnis and Chloë, is apparently eminently comfortable due to the use of flexible fabric.  My dear Marie Antoinette: who knew?

Westwood is also well known for the Watteau gown from her 1996 Spring & Summer Colllection.

Westwood on her collection Portrait & the Wallace Collection paintings: