Exhibition | The King’s Animals

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on November 5, 2021

Now on view at Versailles:

Les Animaux du Roi / The King’s Animals
Château de Versailles, 12 October 2021 — 13 February 2022

Curated by Alexandre Maral and Nicolas Milovanovic

From its location in the heart of a vast forest in the Île-de-France region, the Palace of Versailles has always fostered a dynamic relationship with the animal kingdom. From animals as objects to be studied or collected to those used as political attributes and symbols of power, the exhibition explores the bond between the court of Versailles and animals—whether ‘companion animals’ (primarily dogs, cats, and birds), exotic beasts, or ‘wild’ creatures. It also brings two long-lost areas of the estate back to life: the Royal Menagerie and the Maze. Once the pride and joy of Louis XIV’s gardens, they can still be admired today in drawings, paintings and testimonies from the period.

The Royal Menagerie, which the Sun King had installed close to the Grand Canal, was home to the rarest and most exotic animals—from coatis to quaggas, cassowaries to black-crowned cranes (nicknamed the ‘royal bird’)—constituting an extraordinary collection in which the king took ever greater pride. The animals in the menagerie were also a great source of inspiration for the artists of the time: they helped Claude Perrault with his Histoire naturelle, as well as serving the Royal Academy of Sciences as subjects for dissections and, later, Louis XV and Louis XVI, in their naturalism pursuits.

In addition to decorative items from the interior of the menagerie—particularly the paintings by Nicasius Bernaerts—on display are well-known garden sculptures, such as those in the Latona Fountain and the Maze. The latter comprised no fewer than 300 animals made from lead, arranged into a scene from Aesop’s fables and depicting a vision of the world in which animals make political, often moralising, always educational, pronouncements. In all, 37 sculptures recovered from the erstwhile grove will be on display.

More information about the Labyrinth (in French) is available here»

As well as the actual animals that were collected and studied, animal symbolism was used to represent power. The exhibition illustrates the link between the establishment of Versailles as a seat of power—from the construction of the palace itself on the site of Louis XIII’s old hunting lodge—and animal symbolism. Part of the exhibition is devoted to the daily hunt—a key activity pursued by warrior kings in times of peace as a form of training and demonstration of power. The hunt, consequently, features prominently in royal iconography.

The animals themselves will return in droves to Versailles, because they never disappeared completely. They live on in the work of the king’s top painters; from Bernaerts, Boel and Le Brun, to Desportes and Oudry, many artists produced portraits of these exotic, wild and more familiar animals. As well as paintings, on view are portraits woven by the Gobelins Manufactory plus animals that were dissected, engraved, then preserved at the Academy of Sciences and in the King’s Garden, which is now the National Museum of Natural History. The exhibition also includes the skin of the Asian elephant gifted to Louis XV, which was donated to the Pavia Museum by Napoleon, and the skeleton of the very first elephant at Versailles, which was presented to Louis XIV by the king of Portugal and lived at Versailles for 13 years.

Finally, the exhibition addresses the role at court of companion animals for both the royal family and courtiers. As is evident from many portraits, companion animals were present everywhere, enlivening the royal apartments and brightening up the daily lives of children and adults alike. Many of the sovereigns, such as Marie Lesczcynska, wife of Louis XV, chose to surround themselves with their favourite animals. The court’s interest in the animal world led to greater sensitivity towards animals, in direct contrast to the Cartesian theory of animal-machines. Madame Palatine and, later, Madame de Pompadour, were particularly passionate about them.

Exhibition Curators
• Alexandre Maral, Curator General, Head of the Sculpture Department of the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
• Nicolas Milovanovic, Head Curator of the Paintings Department of the Louvre Museum

Alexandre Maral and Nicolas Milovanovic, eds., Les Animaux du Roi (Paris: Lienart éditions / musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, 2021), 464 pages, ISBN: 978-2359063455, 49€.

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