February 15: ‘Après moi le déluge’
2012/02/15 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1710 King Louis XV was born.
Most kings come along, build stuff, wage wars, hopefully breed an heir, and off they go. Once in a while they take great aesthetic advantage of their reign, and such was the case of Louis XV (r. 1723–74). Does any other monarch have an identifiable style named after them? Victorian doesn’t count: Victoria’s reign was so long, and the furniture, buildings, art, etc., made during it so diverse, calling something “Victorian” is really not very descriptive at all. And Edwardian is just a place-holder for a bunch of stuff no one knows what to call. Louis Quinze is a whole different thing: it looks different, and actually reflected something about the monarch in question.
And that thing is actually one of history’s great smart dishy babes. Just look at this portrait of Madame de Pompadour, the king’s great mistress, the best choice he ever made. She’s surrounded by emblems of the arts, sciences, and literature in which she was broadly accomplished, and decked out in a dynamite gown to boot. La Marquise is a much more compelling character than the ineffectual king. Originally Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (1721-64), the marquise was Louis’ favored lady and the most famous mistress of her century, and probably plenty of others, too. She was beautiful, well-educated, smart, cultured, with talents in the fine and performing arts, which maybe made her a natural patron.
The style popularized by the marquise is perhaps best seen in all the frothy portraits of her painted by Boucher, but it spilled into the era’s delight in Rococo interiors and intricate gardens. In the many châteaux provided for her social entertainments, she presided over a significant collection of furniture and decorative arts, also supporting the ceramic factory at Sèvres, the finest porcelain manufacturer in Europe through the eighteenth century. Architecture was one of her hobbies, and she promoting Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s magnificent Place de la Concorde (originally named for her boyfriend, of course), among other works, including the Petit Trianon, designed by Gabriel in 1762. It’s a wonder of eighteenth-century craftsmanship: a simple, Classical box in which ideal rooms are arranged in perfect harmony, with luxe, sparse ornament. It’s a place filled with light and elegance, a truly tasty tonic to follow the infliction imposed by a visit to its hulking neighbor, the Palace of Versailles.
The marquise did not live to see it finished, but even so, in its taste and grace (amended by another famous French lady) the Petit Trianon remains a monument to its accomplished original patron.
image: interior of the Petit Trianon (by Clio)