At the turn of the 20th century, the Palace of Versailles was at a crucial time in its history. One hundred years after the French Revolution and at the dawn of the Belle Epoque, a remarkable sense of fondness, nostalgia, curiosity and enthusiasm developed around Versailles in its Ancien Régime persona. With almost 350 works on display, including documents and photographs, the exhibition traces this surprising period in the history of art when Versailles played a leading role in the great literary, pictorial and musical motifs of the time, just at the moment when it was embarking on an extensive programme of restoration and refurbishment. People were dreaming of Marie-Antoinette at the same time that the French Republic was holding its Assemblies at Versailles and receiving foreign dignitaries. In the gardens there were aristocratic parties and popular tourism. Artists, painters, photographers, illustrators from across the globe took over the place and imitations of the Palace of Versailles flourished throughout the world.
The earliest signs of this new craze appeared under the French Second Empire, with Empress Eugenie and her fascination with Marie-Antoinette. However, it was at the end of the century that this fascination reached artistic and literary circles. Marcel Proust rediscovered this “Versailles, the great name that is both rusty and sweet, a royal cemetery of foliage, vast fountains and marble, a truly aristocratic and demoralising place, where we are not even troubled by the remorse that the lives of so many workers have only served to refine and widen the joys of another time less than the melancholy of our own”.
Historicist painting, which had already been in fashion since the beginning of the 19th century, saw a spectacular rise in popularity at this time and found some of its finest subjects at Versailles. Furniture and the decorative arts reproduced important royal works. After the example set by Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Palace served as a model for mansions built for Boni de Castellane and Alva Vanderbilt, and even the ocean liner SS France, built in 1912, was dubbed the “Versailles of the seas”. Incredible parties brought the Trianon back to life. Sarah Bernhardt performed at the Palace to mark the visit of Tsar Nicolas II in 1896. A timeless society sprang up around the monument-symbol, with its fashionable figures, Countess Greffulhe and Robert de Montesquiou; its writers, Marcel Proust, Henri de Régnier; its musicians, Reynaldo Hahn, Gabriel Fauré; its painters, Paul Helleu and Giovanni Boldini; and its official landscape designer, Achille Duchêne.
At the same time as this wave of enthusiasm, the Palace curators were working relentlessly to restore it to its former glory and return it to something close to its condition under the Ancien Régime, albeit to the detriment of the Museum of the History of France inaugurated in 1837 by Louis-Philippe. Pierre de Nolhac, director of the museum from 1892 to 1920, was the key figure in this undertaking.
The exhibition is being held in the Africa and Crimea rooms and contrasts these two historic perspectives. On the one hand the “resurrection” of the Palace, to cite the title of Pierre de Nolhac’s memoirs, and on the other this surprising period in the history of art when Versailles inspired a vast range of painters, from the Russian Alexandre Benois to Georges Rouault, not to mention Gaston la Touche, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer and Henri Le Sidaner, as well as photographers like Eugène Atget, Edward Steichen and Man Ray.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the Palace of Versailles regained its royal and aristocratic splendour as well as a new level of popularity. The cinema seized on it too from its very early days, tourism increased, fashion drew its inspiration. The Fountains Shows, which had never lost their attraction throughout the 19th century, became a destination in themselves with crowds flocking to see them; in 1937 the Palace had over one million visitors.