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Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles

The Tragedy of Style

The Legion of Honor plays host to "Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles", an exhibition that gives visitors a rare opportunity to see a stunning display of objects and decorations -- many of which have never left French soil -- from the infamous queen's private retreat, one of the few places that she truly expressed her personal taste.

Centered on the queen's much-discussed frivolity, the exhibition seeks go beyond the cult of personality and into the life (and death) of a woman whose elaborate tastes and lavish lifestyle eventually became one of the political sparks of the French Revolution. A well-contextualized exhibit, the show takes into thoughtful account the space between her public versus private life and presents an insightful look at the paradox of royal pomp and circumstance with which she was beset throughout her reign.

The Queen received Trianon, a small chateau, as a gift in 1774 and quickly initiated extensive renovations to the interior and exterior spaces, and landscaping the area to create secret nooks and lagoons, pleasure gardens and meandering trails. She had little concern for state affairs, instead her royal commissions proved her to be a devoted patron of arts and crafts, as well as a controversial trendsetter.

The exhibition follows the development of Trianon fluidly between pre- and post-Revolutionary France. Spanning six gallery spaces, the collection of restored and remodeled works (furniture, personal affects, paintings, sculptures and printed ephemera) represent some of the era's finest examples of art and design. By tradition, commissioned works were obtained through the office of royal decor and the queen racked up quite a hefty bill, much to the dismay of her subjects, in requesting the best craftspeople and most renowned artists of the day, a fact that contributed to her subsequent trip to the guillotine.

The show commences with its centerpiece, an early commissioned portrait painted by Jean-Baptiste Andre Gautier-Dagoty in 1775 that depicts the queen shortly after ascending the throne as Queen of France, House of Bourbon. Fashioned in an elaborate gown and set against a dramatic backdrop of red drapery, the queen assumes a regal posture with a hand rested, almost uneasily, on a globe. As you move through the premier gallery, you begin to get a sense of her pre-Rev lifestyle; she was fond of throwing parties, and among the items featured that suggest she was quite the entertainer is a handcrafted silver works, an array of exquisite porcelain service sets, and lush Neo-Classical styled sofas and chairs.

Several suites of custom furniture and decor from the Versailles retreat are scattered throughout the gallery spaces allowing visitors to see items from her antechamber, study, bedroom and Salon, a room reserved only for those in her innermost circle. The salon was more of an informal and more personal space where regimented customs were loosened and the queen could entertain her guests with games, lively discussions and music performances. She was an astute musician, having received private lessons from the Hapsburg court composer Christoph Willibald Ritter von Glück as a young girl, the queen regularly played harp for her friends and members of the royal family. An ornately decorated harp lined with her favorite motif of flowers is prominently placed in the 3rd room and although it is not the original instrument, it nonetheless is a wonderful object to behold. In the same room you cannot miss the large suspended lantern, an icon of the Petit Trianon and a marvel of 18th century craftsmanship. Fabricated out of guilt bronze, it boasts several emblems of love such as wreaths, bows and arrows, trophies and a coterie of cherubs.

Another exhibition highlight makes a dark sparkle around the "Affair of the Necklace" with a breathtaking reproduction of the original jewelry that earned her the nickname, "Austrichienne" (Austrian Bitch), which she was often referred to in the underground press. This massive piece crafted from hundreds of white sapphire teardrops, pearls and other precious gems and supported in metal casings was reportedly not a favorite of the queen's who reportedly found it out of sync with her personal style.

Perhaps a more apt representation of the queen's sartorial taste is reflected in another portrait by one of her favorite court painters, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. In "Marie-Antoinette en gaulle (Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress)" (1783), the queen is depicted as a simple country girl styled in a light summer muslin frock and bonnet carrying a basket of cut flowers. It was an image she hoped would gain her favor among her subjects. At the time, the painting caused an outrage for its casual presentation of the queen and deemed unsuitable for her position.

The grounds of Trianon are beautifully illustrated through an extensive display of photographs, maps, architecture plans, schematics and diagrams recounting the landscaping and renovations plans to reveal a range of styles and influences. Interspersed throughout exhibition, the images offer aerial views, spotlighting key locations such as her intimately-sized theater where the queen herself performed, hamlets, the Belvedere Pavilion, rock and grotto and her Pleasure Gardens, a combination of French and English style, inspired by the musings of the natural environment of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The exhibition concludes with six life-size allegorical paintings from her antechamber. Though not her preferred style, these mythic works relate to humble themes such as fishing, hunting, and the wine harvest. On the opposite side are paintings that evoked the happy reminders of her childhood filled with theater, music and performance. Two large canvases depict Marie Antoinette, along with her brothers and sisters performing ballets and mini-operas, a tradition that she would carry into her adult life on her own stage at Trianon.

Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles
At the Legion of Honor
Exhibit runs through Feb 17th
Tuesday - Sunday, 9:30am – 5:15pm
Admission: $11- $15