Fontainebleau is not Schönbrunn

1. Château of Fontainebleau
Quartier Henri IV, north wing, northern façade
overlooking the city
Current state. The entire façade is painted yellow
Photo : D. Rykner (30 August 2007)

A section of the château of Fontainebleau, known as the “Quartier Henri IV” which runs around the "Cour des Offices", is currently being restored. The work had become imperative as the building had been deteriorating for a long time. It is supposed to house the "Centre Européen de Musique de Chambre" within the next two years.
In 1999, a preliminary study had been submitted by Jacques Moulin, Chief Architect for Monuments Historiques (ACMH), the contractor in charge of the project. The study, approved in 2000, specified that for the masonry work, all of the ornamentations in sandstone and brick would be restored

2. Château of Fontainebleau
Quartier Henri IV
Before work started. One can see
the small attic windows (or “outeaux ???)
which have now
disappeared and which dated back to at
least the beginning of the XIXth century.

The restoration of a historical monument in Fance is normally subject to multiple verifications, especially those by Inspectors of the Monuments Historiques, who are trained as art historians. On the document validating the preliminary study [1], one can read that approval was granted “on condition that as concerns the restoration, the architect not revert to a unique (and uniform) historical state, but that he preserve the various contributions of each period, for the woodwork, the roofing and the plaster on the façade, for which the different stages of construction should be reflected”. Not only were these restrictions not observed by the architect who eliminated the small attic windows which perhaps did not date back to the original construction but which were old enough to appear in a Romantic engraving (about 1830) [2], he went so far as to invent a state which probably never existed (alas, a rather common practice among some ACMH) and, worse still, which was never laid out in the preliminary study nor in the work permits. One can see, in fact, in the pictures of the north wing, free of scaffoldings last summer, that the whole façade is slathered in yellow (ill. 1 and 2), including the sandstone fittings. Several architectural historians have assured us that the building was never painted in this way originally, and that there is no historical document showing it in this way ever, particularly in its last historical state (that is, the one previous to the current restoration).

3. Château of Fontainebleau
Porte dorée (1528)
Current state
Photo : D. Rykner

4. Nicolas de Poilly (1627-1696)
View and perspective of the château of Fontainebleau
from the kitchens

In this engraving, the windows and openings are spaced
at regular intervals, which seems to prove that this is the artist’s interpretation

To understand the complexity of the problem, we should remember that a large part of the city of Fontainebleau, including several wings of the château starting in the XVIthC. are built of sandstone. This material, of different colors, livens up the façades as seen, for example in the Porte Dorée (ill. 3) and was not supposed to be painted. In the Quartier Henri IV, it appears along with the bricks around the openings, with the walls built of plastered quarry stones. In old prints (ill. 4), as in pictures taken before work began (ill. 2) or on the wings that have not yet been painted (ill. 9), one can see perfectly the interplay between the sandstone and the bricks which contrast on purpose with the walls plastered in a light color (somewhere between beige and yellow) thus emphasizing the architectural structure. The paint applied on the façades, except for the brick framework and the sandstone base of the walls [3], has covered up everything, making it all a unified shade (ill. 5), which is a total misconception of the original. The damage is particularly noticeable above the central doorway built entirely in sandstone and today devoid of its style, totally painted over (ill. 6), depriving us of the beauty of the sandstone.

5. Château of Fontainebleau
Quartier Henri IV, north wing,
Nothern façade overlooking the city, detail
Current state. One can see how the yellow paint renders it
all uniform, eliminating the contrasts with the sandstone. The surface plastering,
as well as the sandstone, did not need to be painted
The base of the wall, it seems will also be painted
Photo : D. Rykner

This treatment raises two questions : what elements provided the basis for this restoration and who validated these options ? We will spare our readers the details of our investigation in the offices of the Monuments Historiques ;a full account is available in the French version of this text. Let us just say that the architect never answered, that the associate contractor assured us that the yellow paint was specified in the preliminary study (which is not true) and that the prime contractor, the Direction Générale des Affaires Culturelles (DRAC) which represents the Ministry of Culture, told us that the decision to use yellow paint was made during a meeting on the worksite and was based on archival documents.
Even if it could be proven that the entire structure was painted originally, one might hesitate to redo so today and, once again, this does not “preserve the different contributions of each period”. In any case, the theory of a uniform color is totally lacking in evidence. The DRAC refused to show us any documents (report of the meeting on the worksite and archival proof). We then turned to the Inspecteurs Généraux in charge of supervising the site. The only one we were able to contact, Denis Lavalle, stated that he had never been consulted on the subject. The second one, Colette di Matteo replied that she was not responsible for this matter. As for the head of the Inspection, he let us know that all of these procedures were internal and, basically, none of our business. Such a reaction seems extreme. The Inspecteurs des Monuments Historiques are essential players in a restoration project balancing the role of the architect with their knowledge of art history. The question is whether — and many of them have already asked it — they still play an essential role when their opinion, if it is sought, is then not followed and kept confidential [4].

6. Château of ……..
Quartier Henri IV, north wing
Main door for the Cour des Offices, 1609
Current state painted entirely in yellow

7. Château of Fontainebleau
Porte Dauphine, …
Current state
Photo : D. Rykner

To sum up, we find here in the restoration of a distinguished building, a very telling situation, where the chief architect, backed by the contractor, takes the initiative of painting the building yellow without it having been set out in the preliminary study nor in the work permits and who refuses to provide a basis for this decision. Furthermore, no real supervision seems to have been implemented. These mishaps are no doubt aggravated by the need to work quickly [5]. The architect for the Monuments Historiques can thus proceed as he likes.
Unfortunately, the lack of transparency and the penchant for secrecy is characteristic of many of the projects undertaken by the Ministry of Culture in France. It is extremely difficult to understand how decisions are made and impossible to obtain documents that should be communicated to the public. Obviously, our questions have managed to annoy quite a few people.

8. Château of Fontainebleau
Cour Ovale, …
Current state
Photo : D. Rykner

In 2005, in a special issue of the magazine Connaissance des Arts devoted to Fontainebleau, Jean-Pierre Samoyault called the main door for the Cour des Offices “one of the masterpieces of architecture at the time of Henri IV”. This masterpiece is being profoundly changed today. During a meeting at the worksite of which there seems to be no record, in the absence of important advisors, based on documents which are perhaps nonexistent, a unilateral decision was made in a most irregular manner to modify the history of French architecture, and more seriously, to implement this new conception immediately. Apparently, at some point someone decided to paint this classic architectural structure in yellow and that was enough to establish it as the new point of reference. No consultations took place, just the architect’s who found it was nice. Fontainebleau is not Schönbrunn and France is not Austria. One wonders how far Jacques Moulin will go. Will the Porte Dauphine (ill. 7), the Porte Dorée (ill. 3) and the Cour Ovale (ill. 8) in turn suffer the same treatment ?

9. Château of Fontainebleau
Quartier Henri IV, south wing,
northern façade on the Cour des Offices
Current state, before restoration and yellow paint
Photo : D. Rykner (30 August 2007)

The indiscriminate painting on the façades of the Quartier Henri IV, not yet finished, should be stopped immediately and the damage repaired. There is no doubt that the Director of the Patrimoine will in all due conscience make sure that the rules are respected, until now blatantly flouted. This provides an excellent opportunity to reopen the debate that Roland Recht, with good reason, launched at one time on The Art Tribune. A recent reform for contracting projects for the Monuments Historiques now entrusts decisions to owners who very often have no particular competence in the field, making it an even more vital issue of discussion today. Without strict supervision by competent specialists, more cases of this sort may well arise.

Didier Rykner, jeudi 8 novembre 2007


[1] Decision to approve a preliminary study n° 2000.061.

[2] On this engraving by Nicolas de Poilly (ill. 4) in which the small attic windows do not appear, the openings are spaced apart at regular intervals, which is not the case in fact (ill. 1). Thus, the conclusion is that this old print, as often happens, has taken liberties with the actual construction. But, the lack of balance which appears today in the arrangement of the large windows was perfectly offset by the small attic windows. We know these existed in the XIXth C.. Were they added after the original date of construction ? We can legitimately ask the question although it is totally overlooked in the preliminary study which simply labels them as “late perforations”.

[3] According to a worker we talked to, the base is supposed to be painted as well !

[4] It should be pointed out that the Inspectors, in 2000, had asked that the inside of the building should be listed as a historical monument, as was the case for the outside, and that this request is being considered by the Commission Supérieur des Monuments Historiques, in charge of special affairs. Wishful thinking…

[5] The worksite is a priority and is already behind schedule because when visiting the site of the Centre Européen de Musique de Chambre, it says that the “…opening of the Center is planned for 2006

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Heritage : A visit to Blérancourt

Next article in Heritage : An interview with Alexandre Gady, art historian and vice-president of Momus