During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Court of Versailles was open to the public and welcomed artists, ambassadors, and diplomats from all over the world. The “Visitors to Versailles (1682-1789)” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York until July 29 offers the chance to walk in these visitors’ shoes.
In 1682, Louis XIV moved the seat of royal power to Versailles — a former hunting pavilion built during his father’s reign — and transformed it into a palace. The subsequent 1789 Revolution then removed the King Louis XVI from the lodgings. In the century before this brutal ousting, the “most beautiful court in Europe” received guests from across the world, from famous diplomats to curious visitors. “Versailles was the most public palace in Europe, says Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, co-curator of the Met exhibition, which was first presented at the Château de Versailles itself. “The king was obliged to be at the disposition of his subjects. If you found yourself there at the right time, you could catch sight of him taking a stroll, or even witness a royal dinner.”
In compiling extracts from travel journals of the time, the head of the French, English, and Dutch furniture collections at the Met “wanted to show the extent to which the palace was a living space.” As she is passionate about the “human side of art history,” she also sought to organize “not a mere exhibition of objects from Versailles,” but an interactive visit. The project was launched six years ago with Bertrand Rondot, her counterpart at the museum of the Château de Versailles and the Trianon Estate.
Walking in the visitors’ shoes
Each space in the exhibition represents a stage in the visitors’ journey through Versailles. Upon arriving in Paris, they first changed out of their traveling clothes into richly embroidered outfits à la française. This was, as John Adams wrote in 1782, because “no wig or pair of shoes from elsewhere could be suited to Paris.” In their new, “French” garments, visitors were then authorized to make their way to Versailles in horse-drawn carriages or by boat.
The next stages include the gardens, the reception room used to welcome diplomats, the private apartments, and the imposing “Galerie des Glaces.” Each room reproduces the atmosphere and to-scale dimensions of the original sites. Paintings, clothing, marble busts, tapestries, models and period folding screens complete the immersive experience. A selection of gifts brought by ambassadors from the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) and India add a pinch of the exotic. Other artefacts are more recognizable, including those once belonging to illustrious Americans who came to Paris during the War of Independence. Visitors will discover a John Paul Jones’ sword, Thomas Jefferson’s passport, and a French version of the U.S. Constitution from 1783.
An Auditive Experience
An ingenious audio-guide stereo system helps bring the visit to life with anecdotes and historical accounts recorded in Devon, England. Oldway Mansion, a private residence in the English county built in the style of Versailles, enabled the recreation of a soundtrack of “authentic” noises.
These sounds accompany every room throughout the exhibition. An anecdote told by diplomate introduced to the king, a dialogue with a tailor in broken English, an operatic melody, and the arrival of the queen all help make the experience both immersive and educational.
Visitors to Versailles
From April 16 through July 29
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10028