The ghosts of Versailles

1. Storage of XIX
century’s Sculptures
Versailles, Musée national du château
Photo : D. Rykner

We have already discussed Jean-Jacques Aillagon’s determination, stated repeatedly, to restore and reopen the rooms of the Musée de l’Histoire de France of Louis-Philippe (see his interview). This project can only draw praise as the 19th century has been ignored, at times even vandalized, for too long at Versailles. Another sign of this oblivion is the worrisome state of the sculpture storage facilities (ill. 1) where a large part of the collections held by this historical museum are kept. The building, not far from the chateau, is not up to modern conservation standards and the photographs here do not begin to convey the cold and humidity found there.

This three story depot has been in the same deplorable state for the last twenty years at least when the works were moved there from another building where conditions were even worse. Although the marbles are not threatened, the same cannot be said of the many original plaster casts kept there. Their condition is far from satisfactory and one might easily think this was still the time when 19th century sculpture was, in the best of cases, forgotten, and at worst thrown out into the rubbish heap [1].

2. Augustin Dumont (1801-1884)
Versailles, Musée national du château
Photo : D. Rykner, 5 february 2009

The best example of this situation is no doubt the plaster Louis-Philippe (ill. 2) which lies on the ground floor, bereft of its legs since at least 1993 when it was illustrated in a brief sculpture catalogue. The work was done by Augustin Dumont, the last heir of a brilliant dynasty of sculptors, winner of the Prix de Rome in 1823, and author of the Genius of Liberty which overlooks the column at the center of the Place de la Bastille.

3. Storage Of XIX century’s sculptures
Photo : D. Rykner, 5 february 2009

4. Augustin Pajou (1730-1809)
Louis XVI
Versailles, Musée national du château
Photo : D. Rykner, 5 february 2009

Among the various statues (ill. 3), there are many originals, not only from the 19th century either as attested to by the marble bust of Louis XVI by Augustin Pajou (ill. 4) or 17th century figures from facades (ill. 5), replaced at the beginning of the 20th century by copies after having been chopped off with little care by architects then in charge of the monument.

5. Foreground : Jean Cornu et Joseph
Stone - 235 x120 x 80 cm
Matthieu Lespagnandelle The Upper Class
Stone - H. 243 cm
Versailles, Musée national du château
Photo : D. Rykner, 5 february 2009

6. From Antoine
The Grand Condé
Versailles, Musée national du château
Photo : D. Rykner, 5 february 2009

Other pieces include beautiful casts of prestigious sculptures (ill. 6), for which the models are today partially deteriorated (ill. 7) thus making these plaster casts even more valuable. We will no doubt return to the subject of the dramatic fate (still ongoing in many places) of cast collections in France. The ones here reflect the Musée de l’Histoire de France’s determination to provide a complete survey of sculpture. Some still retain their original bases and labels.

7. From Corneille Van
Casts of Sculptures below the Ménagerie’s pavilion

8. Francisque Duret (1804-1865)
Philippe d’Orléans
Versailles, Musée national du château
Photo : D. Rykner, 5 february 2009

The situation is not hopeless but it is imperative that action be taken. Another example is the Philippe d’Orléans by Francisque Duret (ill. 8), a sculptor who also won the Prix de Rome in 1823 along with Augustin Dumont. This is a very beautiful plaster with a cracked right leg (ill. 9) and which, if nothing is done, will find itself in the same condition as the one of Louis-Philippe mentioned above.

9. Detail of Philippe d’Orléans by Francisque Duret
Photo : D. Rykner, 5 february 2009

It seems hard to believe that this is Versailles. This is a far cry from the glitter and gilt of the “grille royale”. How could these works be left in such a state of abandonment for so long ? The painting storage facilities which we visited about two years ago enjoy, although in a small space, satisfactory conservation conditions and are supposed to be renovated. The storehouse for 17th century sculptures housing the marbles from the gardens as well as the leads from the Labyrinth is also well adapted. Let us hope that the 19th century sculptures will not fall victim to neglect, as is so often the case. The projects for the Musée de l’Histoire de France come just at the right time to save this collection. Having been recently appointed, Jean-Jacques Aillagon cannot be held responsible. The directors of the Etablissement Public at Versailles have in fact been totally forthcoming in allowing us to visit these storage facilities which we had been wishing to see for a long time. They hold the power today, and it seems the determination, to correct the current situation.

Version française

Didier Rykner, dimanche 22 février 2009


[1] See notably the catalogue for the exhibition La sculpture francaise au XIXe siècle (Paris Grand Palais, 1986) and the first two texts : Introduction by Anne Pingeot and Le sort des collections de province by Philipppe Durey. See also : Jacques de Caso, “Alors on ne jette plus ?”, La sculpture du XIXe siècle, une memoire retrouvee : les fonds de sculpture, Paris, 1986.

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