Wednesday, 14 February 2018

From the Expo Madame Élisabeth

Here are some highlights from the 2013 Madame Élisabeth exhibition at Montreuil, mostly from the "visite virtuelle" which is still available on the internet. 

The exhibition was two years in the making.  In all 135 objects were gathered together, both from major museums and from private collections.  Here is what the curator, Juliette Trey, had to say:

Before working on the exhibition, my opinion was distorted by the clichés surrounding Madame Élisabeth, who is often summarised as pious and serious.  I discovered someone amusing, with a rich and complex character.  She had a solid sense of humour and could laugh at herself, notably her legendary plumpness.   She was very generous and always thought of others before herself.  Even in difficult moments, she knew how to keep her distance and treat matters with reticence and good humour. I find her unconditional fidelity towards those she loved, thoroughly admirable.

The exhibition took two years to prepare.  Almost all the major museums lend exhibits.  It was difficult to assemble personal objects because the contents of Montreuil were totally dispersed at the time of the Revolution.  The great generosity of Madame Elizabeth helped us,  as she had given many presents to her friends notably her ladies-in-waiting.  I researched their descendents, and was met with enthusiasm for my project; objects had been carefully conserved in many families.
Versailles in my pocket, post of  29.04.2013

Exhibition of  27th April to 21st July 2013

Madame Élisabeth, une princesse au destin tragique: Exposition Domaine de Madame Élisabeth.

The exhibition was divided into two sections.  In the Orangerie was a presentation of Madame Élisabeth's life, and in the house,  furniture and objects brought together to evoke her life at Montreuil. 

The house was much larger at the time of Madame Élisabeth;  the layout of the rooms was altered in the late 18th century and only a few elements of the original decor on the ground floor remain.

Room 1 - Madame Élisabeth at Montreuil, 1783-1789

"In 1783 Louis XVI gave the house and estate of Montreuil to his younger sister, Elisabeth of France (1764-1794).  At nineteen years of age, she was unmarried and knew that she would remain single, through lack of a suitable husband. 

 As a minor, she was not allowed to sleep at Montreuil but returned every evening to Versailles.  It was in 1789, the year of her majority, that the princess left Versailles and Montreuil definitively to remain with the Royal family in the Tuileries."

-   Madame Élisabeth playing the harp, by Charles Leclercq, 1783, Château de Versailles.    
One of a series of portraits of the royal family painted by the Flemish artist Charles Leclercq in 1783. The luxurious instrument is decorated with a crown and the arms of France.

-  Replica dress of blue taffeta and white organza based on this portrait. On which see:
Juliette Trey, Une robe pour Madame Elizabeth [blog]

Room  2 -  A "House in the Countryside"

"Like all the princesses of the Royal family, Madame Élisabeth was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting (dames pour accompagner).    Nominated by the King, they attended her each week.  Some, such as  the marquise de Lastic and the marquise de Bombelles, were among her closest friends.  At Montreuil, as at Versailles, they took part in entertainments: fishing, horse riding and hunting, drawing, music, embroidery."

"Montreuil was then a village, in the countryside even though it was so close to the château of Versailles.  Madame Élisabeth distributed milk to orphans there, visited the sick and helped the poor.  Her doctor, Lemonnier, gave generously of his care.  'Good and kind to those around her', the princess was loved by all."

Notice the panels above the doors, which are part of the original decor:

- Chairs from a set made for Montreuil and its dependences by Boulard and Sené in 1789. The tapestry seat covers were originally embroidered by the princess and her ladies-in-waiting.  The design illustrates the simplicity of style favoured by the Royal family for a "Maison de campagne".
There is a set of two bergers and six chairs. Château de Versailles (Petit Trianon)

Jérome Pointu and Jeannette. Sèvres biscuit porcelain. Château de Versailles. "Figures of the Comédie" were a popular theme at Sèvres; famous actors were often represented in the roles.  Madame Élisabeth is recorded as buying several figures, probably as presents.

- Portrait of Madame Élisabeth traditionally attributed to Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. c.1780-85. Château de Versailles (Petit Trianon)

Comparison with Vigée Lebrun's attested portrait of 1783 (on show in another part of the exhibition) makes it unlikely she is the artist.  However, Madame Élisabeth is definitely the subject: the bonnet and hairstyle are correct, as is the age of the sitter.  The portrait comes from the Royal Collections.

Room 3 - the "Turkish salon"

"When her brother Louis XVI gave Montreuil to Madame Élisabeth she already knew the estate well since it had belonged to her former governess, the princesse de Guéméné, who  had sold the house completely furnished. Here is the former "salon turc", decorated by Madame de Guéméné in the style fashionable at the beginning of Louis XVI's reign.  The sculpted frieze round the mirrors survives from that time."

"Starting in 1788, when Madame Élisabeth turned twenty-five a grand project to transform the château was launched under the direction of the architect Jean-Jacques Huvé (1742-1808).  Marc Antoine Therry de Ville-d'Avray, the intendant of the Garde-Meuble, set about the refurbishment of the interiors.   Expense was strictly limited.  The furniture belonging to the princesse de Guéméné  was kept where possible and added to rather than replaced.  The chaise voyeuse near the chimney was ordered to go with the furniture already in the salon turc.  (The low seat, characteristic of salons de jeux, made it possible to kneel in order to observe the game play.)"

"In terms of pastimes, the princess could play card and board games with her ladies on the numerous tables à jeux which were already in the house.  She liked to sit at the harp,  which was very fashionable at the time, but she was not a gifted singer:  ' Madame Élisabeth (...) sang with us, out of tune as usual', recounted the marquise de Bombelles.  Finally she would write on a daily basis to her friends, in a light and lively tone."

- Writing table from the Château de Compiègne brought to Montreuil as part of the refurbishment of 1790. The shape was modern but the inlay,  with gilded roses, by the ebenist Benneman, was reused from a piece of the 1770s. Château de Versailles

- Harp, manufactured by Georges Cousineau.    Madame Élisabeth preferred painting to music, but she had several musicians in her service, including the harpist François Boëly.  This instrument was given as a present to her friend Angélique de Mackau, marquise de Bombelles, the daughter of her governess.  It attests to the generosity of the princess. (Private collection). 

- Coffee service featuring portraits of the Royal family, including a profile of Madame Élisabeth, aged less than ten-years-old, from a print by Pierre-Adrien Le Beau. Manufacture de la rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, dite comte d'Artois. Château de Versailles. 

Rome 4 - Reception room for guests

"This room, the "salon de compagnie" - all traces of which have now disappeared - would have been the richest room in the entire house.

The fabric chosen for the furnishings, a 'damas lampas in blue-grey and white' said to feature cyclops and blacksmiths, was delivered to the Garde-Meuble by the Lyonnais manufacturers Reboul, Fontebrune and Co. in 1785.  It was decorated with arabesque motifs, then very fashionable.  This fabric was used to make the wall hangings, curtains and drapes for  eight windows and a door, as well as the seat covers for the chairs."

The furniture for the "salon de compagnie" was ordered from Jean-Baptiste Sené  in 1789 and was one of the last sets to be delivered before the French Revolution.  It originally comprised two settees, six little window seats, four bergères, four small gondola-shaped fauteuils, eighteen chairs, four voyeuses, one firescreen and one screen. The woodwork combines classical motifs with decorative elements drawn from nature.  [ And yes, there was a possible "fake chairs" in this famous set, but the ones on show had all been in the Louvre since the 1980s]

'The salon was furnished when I left.  It was set out very agreeably', wrote Madame Élisabeth after her departure from Montreuil, in October 1789.

- Sèvres biscuit porcelain figures of "Melancholy" and "Meditation"  after Etienne Maurice Falconnet.   An example of the Meditation figurine was recorded as among those purchased by Madame Élisabeth.

 - Writing table made by Riesener for the Petit-Trianon.

- Portrait by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, depicting Madame Élisabeth at 24 years  old. 1788. Château de Versailles.  She is wearing a fantasy costume with a turban or 'pouf'.  The delicate colouring of the outfit sets off the princess's grey eyes and clear skin. 

The final room of the exhibition in the main house  (not included in the virtual visit) was devoted to the informal pastoral fashions of the 1780s and included several replica dresses, among them a muslin robe de gaulle, a pretty fan and Madame Élisabeth's 'Gazette des atours'.

The Exhibition in the Orangerie 

This part of the exhibition followed chronologically through Madame Élisabeth's life, covering her early years and education;  plans for Montreuil, everyday life on the estate and in the house; plus some material relating to the Royal family during the Revolution, at the Tuileries and in the Temple prison.

Some of the more noteworthy exhibits included:

- Portrait attributed to Drouais or to Joseph Ducreux of Princess Elisabeth, aged four, holding a pug. Château de Versailles

- Needlepoint created by Princess Clothilde and Princess Elisabeth, between 1770 and 1775 depicting  St Isabelle, sister of St. Louis.  The piece belonged to the Carmelites of Saint-Denis, and was probably made to mark the entry of Louise de France into the novitiate in 1770. (Musée d'art et d'histoire de Saint-Denis).

-  Various surviving books from Madame Élisabeth's library.

 - Documents related to the projected building works for Montreuil in 1788, including plans by the architect Jean-Jacques Huvé.

- The famous portrait by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun of  Madame Élisabeth  "au naturel" with her arms full of flowers.

 - 1817 painting by Fleury Richard of 1817 depicting  the  "bonne dame" of Montreuil, distributing milk to the local orphans. 


VERSAILLES WEBSITE: Entry on" Madame Élisabeth" with link to the "visite virtuelle"
Educational resource accompanying the exhibition. 

JULIETTE TREY,  Biographie de Madame Élisabeth [video]

"Exposition Mme Elisabeth à Montreuil" on Connaissances de Versailles [forum]: discussion and photographs.

Checklist of exhibits, with their insurance values - fascinating, but I'm not sure this is really supposed to be public on the internet!

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