Chantilly, a Masterpiece under Threat

The Chantilly estate is a jewel in the French heritage crown. It is home to a famous racetrack, a horse museum, a 15,000-acre forest, 15 châteaux and residences, and the Musée Condé, which houses the second largest collection of ancient art in France after the Louvre. Sublime but struggling with debt, it is now looking for investments in keeping with its splendor.
© Jérôme Houyvet

In a flash, the horses running in the most prestigious race of its kind in France accelerate past the château’s vast stables before the final sprint. This last section will make the winner a star. Held on the first Sunday in June since 1836 at the Chantilly Racecourse, the Prix du Jockey Club is an unmissable event followed three weeks later on the same track by the Prix de Diane. The atmosphere at the inimitably chic picnic for the “elegance and distinction prize,” held later on the central lawn, matches the sporting fervor.

Two laps and it’s all over. This is the paradox of the Château de Chantilly. Located in the Oise département north of the capital, it is one of the most spectacular residences in France, with its turrets, park, fountains, water features, and art collections. Every year in June, the horse races put it in the media spotlight. But for the rest of the year, the crowds fade away, as the estate is unable to promote its gems in the way that they deserve.

A Rival to the Château de Versailles

The château has kept its moat from its past as a medieval fortress. Transformed during the Renaissance, it was later brightened up with French-style parterres and enormous stables, then partially destroyed during the Revolution and rebuilt according to the original plans. Needless to say, Chantilly is a striking distillation of French history. Two noble families have owned the estate. The Bourbon-Condés, rival cousins of the French kings, first wanted to build an exceptional château. In the 17th century, the high-society guests and intellectual, artistic, and culinary life rivaled Versailles. The renowned cook François Vatel even took his own life there in 1671, after the fish ordered for a banquet in the king’s honor were not delivered on time…

The Orléans family then inherited the château in the early 19th century. Prince Henri, Duke of Aumale and the son of King Louis-Philippe, used it to exhibit his immense collection of artwork, paintings, books, and manuscripts, before giving everything to the Institut de France in 1886 a few years before his death. This considerable legacy included the Château de Chantilly and 15 other residences, among which the châteaux of Saint-Firmin and Enghien, as well as some 40 farms and forest – a total of 19,000 acres!

The Château de Chantilly has kept its moat from its past as a medieval fortress. © Sophie Lloyd
The apartments of the Duke and Duchess of Aumale, after their restoration in 2018-2019. © Sophie Lloyd
The Painting Gallery at the Musée Condé, with some 85 paintings including The Massacre of the Innocents by Nicolas Poussin. © Sophie Lloyd
The Château de Chantilly and its French-style garden, designed by André Le Nôtre during the second half of the 17th century. © Jérôme Houyvet

The diversity of the estate is astounding. With its large canal flanked by two huge parterres, each featuring five pools and as many fountains, the park was one of André Le Nôtre’s favorites. Just like at Versailles, the king’s gardener used water as the centerpiece of his composition. Riders and racing trainers particularly enjoy its bridle paths, which have seen Chantilly nicknamed “the city of horses.”

After his father abdicated in 1848, the Duke of Aumale spent 23 years in exile in England, where he acquired a large art collection, including Raphael’s Madonna of Loreto and Three Graces, Nicolas Poussin’s The Massacre of the Innocents, and paintings by Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Piero di Cosimo, and Antoine Watteau. Along with illuminations by Jean Fouquet and one of the world’s most renowned manuscripts, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, completed between 1485 and 1489, the ensemble is the oldest French collection of ancient art after the one showcased at the Louvre.

An Abandoned Gem

Compared to Versailles and its 8.2 million visitors in 2019, Chantilly – although just a 25-minute train ride from the Gare du Nord, or 50 minutes on the RER D – only welcomed 425,000 people in the same year. Worse still, despite its majestic park, its collections, and its forests, the estate is in considerable debt. This problem is a common one: Today, most heirs from leading noble families and the structures set up to manage their assets have run out of money. In Chantilly, the problem was made worse by the characters of both the donor and the beneficiary. When the heirless Duke of Aumale decided to leave everything to the Institut de France, his conditions were draconian. He demanded that the paintings remain as they were, close together on the red picture rails. Not a single work was to be moved or loaned!

Things were little better on the beneficiary’s side. Overseen by the French president, the Chantilly estate is managed by the Institut de France, founded in 1795. Designed to promote the country’s five academies, including the Académie Française, and protect the heritage of 19 sites, including Monet’s gardens in Giverny and the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, the institution is a jumble of foundations, each independently managed with no oversight. Despite having its own capital and profits generated by certain properties, the Institut de France suffers from a “disordered organization” which means it is “unable to balance its spending and finance its investments,” according to a government report.

Until 2020, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, had offered much-needed assistance. The devoted Francophile, who owns horse racing stables and loves the Chantilly Racecourse, happily financed the restoration work and the deficit, contributing 70 million euros since 2005. But at the age of 83, considering he had done enough, the generous patron withdrew his support.

What now? Renting out the site for weddings, parties, and movie sets (The Longest Day, A View to Kill, Marie-Antoinette) has not been enough to finance the renovation work, estimated at 17 million euros. As for privatization, the project to turn the estate’s Château d’Enghien into a luxury hotel sparked a scandal. Going against the Duke of Aumale’s wishes may draw the wrath of the Orléans family! And exactly what legal framework would be best suited to a transformation, without inviting the merchants and money changers into the temple? Caught between the fear of Disneyfication and the risk of falling into oblivion, a heritage strategy and a strong sponsorship agreement are urgently needed to save this French historical gem.


Article published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.