Versailles: Treasures From The Palace exhibition, National Gallery of Australia

Jean Varin marble bust of Louis XIV 1665 to 66
Jean Varin’s marble bust of Louis XIV, 1665-66.

The sights, sounds and even the scents of the French court during the 17th and 18th centuries come to life in the exhibition, Versailles: Treasures From The Palace, on at the National Gallery of Australia until April 17. Master perfumer Francis Kurkdjian created a unique fragrance, based on the orange blossom that grows around the palace grounds, exclusively for the NGA, and you get a good whiff of that as you enter the exhibition.

At the entrance is an enormous picture of the Hall of Mirrors, the opulent 73 metre long room in Versailles where the Treaty to end World War 1 was signed. Step inside and you’ll be greeted with a striking marble bust of Louis XIV, with a magnificent mane of hair cascading over his shoulders. He was very proud of his hair and imagined himself as Apollo, hence his nickname the Sun King.

Palace of Versailles Hall of Mirrors
The Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles
© Jose Ignacio Soto /

The exhibition offers a glimpse into the palace during the reigns of King Louis XIV, XV and XVI, the gardens surrounding the palace, and the private quarters of Marie-Antoinette, including her chair and footstool, and a golden harp. The photos in this post are my favourite pieces from the exhibition, and Marie-Antoinette’s pieces are at the top of the list, being softer and more feminine than many of the more extravagant objects.

Marie-Antoinette's 'Ears of wheat' armchair and footstool from the Petit Trianon
Marie-Antoinette’s ‘Ears of wheat’ armchair and footstool from the Petit Trianon, along with gilded birdcage.
Marie-Antoinette’s harp 1775 gilded and painted wood, metal, bronze, pearl and glass beads
Marie-Antoinette’s harp, 1775, gilded and painted wood, metal, bronze, pearl and glass beads.

Among the more than 130 treasures in the exhibition are paintings, intricate tapestries, sculptures, gilded furniture, objects from the Royal gardens and sumptuous treasures from the Palace. The exhibition features some of the Palace’s most recognisable and beautiful pieces, says NGA director, Gerard Vaughan.

“Not only do we have the 1.5 tonne fountain sculpture of Latona and her children, installed on the orders of Louis XIV, but also treasures from the world-famous Hall of Mirrors. Every object tells a story – evoking the lives, loves, taste and ideas of the kings, queens, mistresses and courtiers who lived at Versailles through so many great moments in French history.”

Latona and her children, 1668 to 70
Latona and her children, 1668-70.
The Masked Ball given in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles 25 February 1745
The Masked Ball given in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, 25 February 1745.
Series by Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay 1653-1715.
Series by Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay 1653-1715.
Queen Marie-Antoinette 1779-80
Queen Marie-Antoinette 1779-80.

The exhibition contrasts small personal items, such as the precious golden reliquary which belonged to Louis XIV’s mother, and Marie-Antoinette’s chair and harp, with huge works including six-metre tapestries from the most important Gobelins series ever produced for Louis XIV, and a monumental 3m x 2m painting of the Sourches family which required individual freight.

This marvellous exhibition is a real coup for Canberra as it is the first time these significant historical works have left France in one comprehensive exhibition. A full program of activities is running in conjunction with the exhibition, including music performances, talks and children’s programs.

Detail from wool, silk and gold thread Gobelins Tapestry The King's Visit to the Gobelins Factory 1729 to 1734
Detail from wool, silk and gold thread Gobelins Tapestry The King’s Visit to the Gobelins Factory 1729 to 1734.
The Monkey and His Little Ones 1673 to 74 from The Labyrinth
The Monkey and His Little Ones 1673-74 from The Labyrinth.
Le Marquis de Sourches et sa famille dit " le Concert champÍtre"
Drouais FranÁois-Hubert (1727-1775). Versailles, ch‚teaux de Versailles et de Trianon. MV8106.

If you haven’t been to Versailles, visiting the exhibition paints a wonderful picture of its extravagance, its beauty and its history. Even if you’ve visited the real Versailles, you’ll appreciate objects that you most likely didn’t notice in their original setting, and you’ll love the way the NGA exhibition has been themed to make you feel as though you are there.

There’s a great element of surprise too – but I’m not going to tell you what that is. And, finally, you’ll love the gift shop at the end. I always think that whoever buys the stock for the NGA’s blockbuster exhibitions has great taste, but this time they have really excelled themselves.

His Majesty's Menus for the year 1751
His Majesty’s Menus for the year 1751.

If you go:

What? Versailles: Treasures From The Palace.
Where? National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
When? Until 17 April, 2017.
Cost? Adults $27; Concession $25.
Tickets: From the NGA or Ticketek or 1300 795 012

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1 Comment

  • Fabulous to have the opportunity to see this exhibition in Canberra – without the masses of people you would meet in Versailles!

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