Versailles, la fabrique d’un chef-d’œuvre

Author : Alexandre Gady

Another book on Versailles, one might say (and the author, a major specialist of the château, has just collaborated as well in the imposing monograph published by Citadelles & Mazenod). However, this volume stands out from the rest. This is not just another coffee table book about an overly famous, overly seen, overly visited château (even if it is a very beautiful object), rather a very original history in pictures of the château and its domain.

About twenty years ago, André Chastel had published a highly stimulating book, Chroniques de la Renaissance (Office du Livre) where the documents usually quoted in footnotes were reproduced full page and commented. A similar approach has been adopted here, explaining the interest of Versailles, only in this case, the documents are in the form of images which are also art works in their own right.

Far from any "clichés, both literally and figuratively", as wittily summarized on the book’s back cover [1], Alexandre Gady has chosen in fact to overlook the attractive but misleading contemporary color photographs which do not tell us anything beyond what we see and show only confusing mirror images of a building remodelled and corrected by successive generations, including restorers. On the contrary, he proposes something which had been missing until now, that is a long sequence of over one hundred images, in chronological order, in superb full page reproductions on the right and in an Italianized "elongated" format which make them particularly momentous. In the text, on the left, which provides the commentaries for the pictures, and is interspersed in turn with further images, the author shows and analyzes, with knowledgeable and delightful precision, the complex making of this masterpiece.

This is the first time that a work brings together all of the illustrated documents (old, or rather contemporaneous to the state of the château they reproduce), allowing us to follow closely, with no interference from anachronistic pictures, the history of Louis XIII’s modest countryside château and how it became a theatrical setting for the Sun king, before imposing itself in France and to the rest of the world as a legendary monument, amusingly illustrated in the book’s last picture : the entire troupe of actors from Sacha Guitry’s comedy, Si Versailles m’était conté [2], coming down the Hundred Steps staircase next to the Grande Orangerie.

Readers will thus find drawings by Louis Le Vau, Jules Hardouin-Mansart and their agencies, Le Brun’s large cartoons for the Ambassadors staircase, now gone, the beautiful drawings and engravings by Israel Silvestre, Jean Marot, Jean Lepautre ; the paintings by Van Meulen, Coypel, Hubert Robert, down to Renoir, as well as the first photographs of the château. We have here all the famous and indispensable images, but also unpublished or rare ones, such as a painted jost from Louis XIII’s château, or the portrait of John Rockefeller Junior, the first major American patron of Versailles. The legends are extremely precise and also concise in developing the interest of each of the images in this history.
In what might be termed a slow motion film of the domain, there also appear the layouts for the gardens by André Le Nôtre, those for the Trianon by Michel Le Bouteux, the expressive paintings of the park populated by the court produced by Etienne Allegrain, etc. etc.

In short, a modernized version of Royal Affairs at Versailles, in slow motion, a shot at a time, just as pleasing but much more informative for history lovers. Alexandre Gady presents the very latest findings in the château’s history, as set down notably in the recent monograph on Jules Hardouin-Mansart [3], but also updated images, such as the breathtaking "fan" projects representing the château’s two façades, around 1675, before Mansart’s contribution (p. 51). These two views fit in between the large panoramic image of the château and the park painted in 1668 by Pierre Patel, (p. 25), and the little-known but spectacular bird’s eye view perspectives, seen from the city, the other from the garden, drawn by Adam Perelle (pp. 104-105). These five images are all the more moving as they illustrate three perfect states, however transitory, of the château and the domain of Versailles, now brought back to life in this book which offers us a complete film of Versailles.

Alexandre Gady, Versailles, la fabrique d’un chef d’œuvre, Le Passage/Château de Versailles, Paris, 2011, 240 p., 39€. ISBN : 9782847421750.

Version française

Claude Mignot, lundi 19 décembre 2011


[1] The French "cliché" also stands for photographic negative.

[2] Royal Affairs in Versailles, 1954.

[3] Under the supervision of Alexandre Gady, Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646-1708), éditions de la Maison des sciences et de l’homme, Paris, 2010.

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