Discreet and little-known, Marie Leszczyńska is nevertheless the queen who reigned longest at Versailles (more than 42 years). During this period, she had a profound impact on both the layout of the Palace, by creating private apartments, and the art world of the times, through her many commissions from artists and manufacturers. The exhibition gathers together some fifty paintings and other works of art mostly from the Palace collections, but it also includes several recent acquisitions of great significance for Versailles.
The Dauphine’s Apartment, which is being reopened specially for this exhibition, is not, however, being presented in its historic format. It will be refurbished in 2020, following the restoration of the adjoining Dauphin’s Apartment.
Marie Leszczynska, a Polish queen
Nothing prepared Marie Leszczyńska for becoming Queen of France. The daughter of Stanislas Leszczyński, the deposed king of Poland who was forced to cede his throne to Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, she settled in Wissembourg, in Alsace, with her family in 1719. His past glory entitled her father to consider marriage to an important figure for her but after several setbacks, history took a different turn. It was not just any alliance with royal blood that awaited the young woman, but marriage to the King himself.
The death of the Regent in 1723 raised the spectre of the succession of the Orléans branch of the family: if Louis XV were to die without descendants, the son of the deceased Regent would become heir to the French throne. So, it was at that point that Louis XV, the young thirteen-year-old king, was engaged to the Infanta of Spain, who was aged just seven. But the engagement was broken off, at the risk of a diplomatic incident.
The Duke of Bourbon, the sovereign’s prime minister, set about trying to find a Catholic princess of royal blood who would be able to produce a dauphin quickly. Thus did Marie Leszczyńska, daughter of a deposed king, end up marrying Louis XV on 5 September 1725, in the Chapelle de la Trinité at Fontainebleau Palace. She was twenty-two – seven years her new husband's senior.
Throughout her reign, Marie Leszczyńska abided by the ceremonial rules, endeavouring always to lead an exemplary life, free of any scandal. In her private life, she lived simply with her family and a circle of close friends, who shared her interests. She spent several hours a day in her private apartment meditating, praying, working on her needlepoint or painting. According to Madame Campan, who knew her in her youth, Marie Leszczyńska “had an elegant spirit”.
Marie Leszczyńska spent 42 years as the Palace of Versailles, which makes her longest-serving sovereign of the court of Versailles.
The queen's Artistic Preferences
Throughout her reign, Marie Leszczyńska expressed her own personal taste, whether in terms of the layout of her official and private apartments, or the many commissions she gave directly to artists. The Queen liked to surround herself with works of art, particularly portraits of her family.
The most talented painters, such as Alexis-Simon Belle, Jean-Marc Nattier and Pierre Gobert, were therefore called upon to produce portraits of the ten royal children, born between 1727 and 1737.
As for the layout of the Palace, from 1725 she set about redesigning her chamber in the style of the time: wood panelling carved by Vassé was installed over the fireplace, which was replaced by one in Sarrancolin marble. The décor between the windows was created by the master sculptors Verberckt, Dugoulon and Le Goupil. The overdoor panels, which are still in place today, were commissioned by the Queen in 1734 from Jean-François de Troy – whose La Gloire des Princes s’empare des Enfants de France, features the Dauphin and his two eldest sisters – and Charles-Joseph Natoire, who painted La Jeunesse et la Vertu Présentent les Deux princesses de la France. In 1735, Gilbert de Sève's painting on the ceiling of Apollon au Milieu des Heures was replaced by a geometric design adorned with intertwined figures of the royal couple. At the same time, the managers of the King’s buildings, on the order of Louis XV, asked François Boucher to decorate the arches with four grisaille paintings representing the Virtues: Prudence, Piety, Charity, Generosity. But Marie Leszczyńska had to wait another 13 years, until 1764, before the tarnished gilt was restored under the supervision of François Vernet.
At the Palace of Versailles, where her life was governed by etiquette, Marie Leszczyńska liked to live a simple life, even if only for a few hours a day. Every afternoon, she withdrew to her private apartment to read, meditate and spend time with those closest to her. She was therefore heavily involved in arranging the areas located at the back of her State Apartments. She was the first to occupy them and to oversee their layout.