Power and Pomp at Versailles

Wikimedia Commons

Versailles was the location of two seismic shifts in political culture.

By Dr. Peter McPhee
Emeritus Professor of the History of Modern France
University of Melbourne

Ten million tourists flock to Versailles annually to imagine courtly life in such sumptuous surroundings. Versailles was about awesome royal power, intense rivalries, brilliant craftsmanship and engineering, and – for those who did the manual labour – drudgery and deference. Above all, Versailles embodied the claims to absolute and divinely-sanctioned kingship.

Hyacinthe Rigaurd’s portrait of Louis XIV is one of the many treasures featured in the National Gallery of Australia exhibition. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The construction of the palace at Versailles was the initiative of Louis XIV (born 1638, king of France 1643-1715). The project lasted a half-century, from about 1660 to 1715, and was never really complete, but by 1682 sufficient work had been done for Louis to move his capital there from Paris.

At the death of the Sun King in 1715, the village of Versailles – with a population of just 1,000 at the time of his accession in 1643 – had turned into a city of approximately 30,000 inhabitants, most of them serving the nobility. The final cost of the palace, with its 700 rooms, 1,250 fireplaces and garden façade of 575 metres is impossible to ascertain, since much of the manual labour was done by soldiers when not at war. But it was certainly several billions in today’s terms – and as much again has been spent on restoration since 1950.

A portrait of Madame du Barry, by court painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who painted a series of portraits of the ladies of the court of Versailles. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

As a boy-king of 10 in 1648, Louis XIV was to endure five years of brutal civil wars (the ‘Fronde’) between aristocratic factions and their retinues contesting royal power. Two key players in the Fronde were older, close relatives of Louis XIV. One of Louis XIV’s intentions in constructing Versailles was to undermine the chance of another Fronde by requiring his most powerful noble families to spend part of each year at the palace, ‘in a gilded cage’ as one of them quipped. So from the Fronde emerged absolute or ‘divine right’ monarchy and centralised, hierarchical government, and Versailles was to be their architectural form.

The finest portraits in the exhibition are a series by the court painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun, of Queen Marie-Antoinette and two of her most eminent ladies at court, the Duchesse de Polignac and the Comtesse de Ségur. There are portraits of Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour as the ‘beautiful gardener’, and of her successor Madame du Barry as ‘Flora’. Du Barry, like Marie-Antoinette, lost her life during the French Revolution, the shadow of which looms over the exhibition.

The cost of the court at Versailles in the late-eighteenth century was about 10 per cent of the annual tax revenues of the crown. By the late 1780s Louis XVI’s financial crisis – we would call it a sovereign debt crisis – was such that he was impelled to call an Estates-General of representatives of all social orders, the first time since 1614, and something Louis XIV and Louis XV had never had to do.

One of the most significant objects in the exhibition is a small (66 x 101 cm) pen and sepia wash painting done in 1791 by the greatest painter of the age, Jacques-Louis David, ‘The Oath of the Tennis Court at Versailles, 20 June 1789’, the first great act of the French Revolution, when commoner deputies to a national consultation (the Estates-General) convened by Louis XVI took an oath to act as a parliament and to draft a constitution. Less than four years later, Louis would go to the guillotine. Versailles would thereafter be a museum rather than a capital.

Versailles was the location of two seismic shifts in political culture, from provincial aristocratic power to absolute monarchy after the ‘Fronde’ and then to popular sovereignty and democracy in the French Revolution. Treasures from the Palace is a precious opportunity to relish both astonishing skill in the creation of objects and to ponder the politics of magnificent displays of opulence and power.

Originally published by Pursuit, University of Melbourne, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia license.