The Coaches from Versailles on View at Arras

Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 17 March 2012 to 10 November 2013.

1. Coach Used at the Coronation of Louis XVI in Reims
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : RMNGP

We must admit : at first the partnership between Versailles and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Arras seemed to be a sensationalist operation, presumably useless and prejudicial, as are many of those initiated or approved by the president of the Conseil Général du Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Daniel Percheron with Parisian museums (the Louvre-Lens, The Pharaohs exhibition in Valenciennes (see article in French), the Centre-Pompidou Mobile...).

We were wrong, as demonstrated clearly in the first exhibition organized under this new collaboration, Roulez carrosses !, for several reasons.
Even if it is much longer than the usual three-month period, this is a true exhibition, not a lineup of works ; it is accompanied by a beautiful scholarly catalogue on a subject which is not often studied ; it does not replace the display of the permanent collections as the exhibition rooms occupy the space acquired at the Saint-Vast Abbey ; it does not deprive visitors going to the lending museum from seeing major works there since the Musée des carrosses (a rather exaggerated term given the usual presentation conditions) is rarely open to the public ; and, above all, it will result in enduring benefits for the coach collection as well as for the Musée des Beaux-Arts itself.

In the case of the latter, the city has decided to launch an extensive addition project which will eventually result in doubling the permanent exhibition spaces. We will discuss this at length on another occasion.
For the coaches, currently housed in a cramped space at the Grandes Ecuries and, as mentioned above, rarely accessible to the public, the restorations needed for this exhibition and their presentation in a suitable space now make a return to the original situation unacceptable. The public establishment of Versailles thus appears determined to create a coach museum sometime in the future which would be housed ideally in the Petites Ecuries (that is, the same place they were under the Ancien Régime, before the Revolution), when the plaster casts on deposit from the Louvre leave. True, abandoning the premises at the Centre de réserves planned at Cergy means this move will be delayed, and a storage facility needs to be found for the Parisian museum. We would like to make a suggestion : these casts, many of which come from the Cour des Etudes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, should be returned there, thus making room for the carriages...
While it is unfortunate that it took a publicized event such as this for a remarkable collection to finally be noticed, this exhibition will indeed have some very positive consequences.

2. Sedan Chair for the King’s House
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : RMNGP/G. Blot

The museum staging by Frédéric Beauclair is very well done. Paintings, sculptures and drawings round out the presentation of the carriages illustrating their use, the way they functioned and the context in which they were produced. Visitors will also discover some little-known works.
Among the more unusual objects, we would point out the only vestige of the coach used during the coronation of Louis XVI, a carriage (ill. 1) whose destruction was decreed by the revolutionary Convention, insensitive to its beauty. Ginzrot, a chronicler of the time, wrote : "there is not a single piece of the marvellous coach left [...] destroyed and looted by a crazed populace at the start of the French Revolution". In fact, a piece was identified about twenty years ago in a Swiss museum and is on view at the exhibition. This is a panel from the left door, painted by an artist named Jacques Chevalier, representing an allegory of Louis XVI as a victorious Roman (see the film below).
Another remarkable work : a reduced model of the coach from Louis XV’s coronation. This is either a model made before the actual coach was produced or else a reduced replica designed as an art object.

The visit begins in the late 17th century, with several paintings by Van der Meulen evoking the conquest of the southern Low Countries by Louis XIV - adding some local color to the show - along with a small oil study for Marie Thérèse’s coach. The latter, as well as those appearing in the other canvases, has disappeared and in order to see carriages dating from the late 17th century or early 18th, museum goers must travel to Lisbon and the Museu Nacional dos Coches.
There follows a beautiful group of sedan chairs (ill. 2) and sleighs built under the reign of Louis XV. Of note, we would point out particularly the sleighs in animal shapes, turtles or leopards (ill. 3), veritable forerunners of fairground attractions.
A berline and a calèche, used respectively by the sons of Louis XVI, Louis-Joseph-Xavier de France and Louis-Charles (Louis XVII) are functional reductions of coaches for adults. They are both charming and touching especially when we think about the tragic end of the children who played with them.

3. Leopard Sleigh
c. 1730
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : RMNGP/G. Blot

The visit continues chronologically with notably two berlines from the wedding of Napoleon and Marie-Louise, the berline from the baptism of the Duke of Bordeaux (the miracle child) with the interior upholstery exceptionally preserved, the same mint condition as in the coach used for the crowning of Charles X (ill. 4). The magnificence of the last one with its sculptures in gilt wood (by Victor-Henri Roguier, a student of Boizot) and the paintings on the doors (by Pierre-Claude-Francois Delorme, a student of Girodet), recall the most beautiful examples of the 17th and 18th centuries. Among the designers, we find no less than the architects Charles Percier and Johann-Wilhelm Hittorf ! As for the funeral coach, known as that of Louis XVIII (which was originally created for the burial of Marechal Lannes in 1809 and altered several times in order to be reused), it is just as richly decorated (ill. 5). Here again, Hittorf participated in the design (along with Jean-Francois-Joseph Lecointe), with the sculptures also produced by Roguier.

4. Coach Used at the Coronation of Louis X
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : RMNGP/G. Blot

5. Funeral Coach for Louis XVIII
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : RMNGP/G. Blot

Based on the Versailles collection, whose works are not very extensive (about half are presented here), obviously the exhibition cannot be exhaustive. France, ever loyal to the tradition of vandalism, destroyed most of its old coaches. How is it possible that these veritable and total works of art (which as we saw combine several disciplines : architecture, sculpture, painting, the art of fabrics...) which are enjoyed by everyone, particularly children, have been so abandoned ? We conclude by evoking the Musée national de la voiture et du tourisme at the chateau de Compiegne, which is a museum only in name since it is almost entirely closed. Its collection is even bigger than the one at Versailles, going beyond a simple chronological view as it holds examples of the very first coaches made. And yet the conservation conditions there are even worse. It is high time, as this exhibition demonstrates admirably, that France take better care of its horsedrawn vehicle heritage.

Les carrosses de Versailles exposés à Arras par latribunedelart

Curators : Béatrix Saule, Jean-Louis Libourel and Hélène Delalex.

Collective work, Roulez Carrosses ! Le château de Versailles à Arras, 2012, Skira Flammarion, 255 p., 39.90€. ISBN : 9782081278172

Visitor information : Musée des Beaux-Arts, 22 rue Paul Doumer, 62000 Arras. Tel : 00 33 (0)3 21 71 26 43. Open every day except Tuesday, from 11 am to 6 pm ; Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 am to 6 pm. Admission : 7€ (reduced : 4€).

Internet Website

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Didier Rykner, lundi 24 septembre 2012

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