'Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette'
by Sura Wood
No one did excess like the 17th and 18th-century French royals. They overdid it in style and with wanton abandon, oblivious as they were to the country's starving peasants and the rising tide of discontent among the populace. The let-em-eat-cake crowd was less interested in tending to sustenance for the masses than in plundering the treasury for the purpose of making and giving away priceless diplomatic gifts, wrapping themselves in unparalleled luxury, adorning their massive palaces and private apartments at Versailles with all manner of baubles, silver, gold, etc., and basking in the reflected glory of their status and astronomical wealth.
We know their sense of entitlement and bacchanalian indulgence cost them their heads, but what happened to their loot? Some of it was ferreted out of the country or sold back to dealers for safekeeping; the portion that wasn't destroyed was confiscated by the Revolutionary Committee and conveyed to the permanent collection of the Musee du Louvre. The museum opened to the public in 1793, eight months after Louis XVI, a visionary art patron influenced by the Enlightenment, was dethroned and guillotined.
Now that venerable institution has generously lent a substantial stash to the Fine Arts Museums for Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette, the Legion of Honor's latest decorative arts show. It's difficult to imagine a holiday season without one of the Legion's ritual presentations of beautiful objets d'art, produced with no expense spared, by the world's finest craftsmen for the delectation of the super rich.
These shows are a big draw, and this one likely won't be an exception. But it's not the equal of similar glittering exhibits of past years that showcased the likes of Lalique, Tiffany, Faberge and Cartier. It's somewhat thin on the larger historical context of the fascinating and turbulent period it covers, the reigns of three French kings from the late 1660s, at the beginning of Louis XIV's regency, through the end of the monarchy at the close of the 18th century.
The majority of the nearly 100 ostentatious objects on display – ornate gold- and diamond-studded snuff boxes, opulent silver services, porcelains, plush embroidered furnishings, a coffee-grinder in three colors of gold for a prince's mistress, and exquisite desks and cabinets – are embellished to the hilt. It's a case of "more is more," so much so that visitors may feel the need to pause and get a breath of fresh air about halfway through an exhibition that's a little like consuming a seven-course meal of cotton candy, or spending a week at the manse of the Khardashians. (OK, it's a step up from the latter.)
The finest materials and a fleet of superior craftsmen were deployed to forge these precious pieces; when Louis XIV was in the midst of building Versailles, for instance, over 800 artisans in various court workshops were recruited to design and produce furnishings and interior decor. One spectacular example, truly fit for a king, is the marble and pietre dure mosaic tabletop whose colorful interwoven design elements include semi-precious stones, lyres of Apollo, fleurs-de-lis (symbols of the king), flower garlands, and enough parrots to stock an aviary.
Louis Quatorze also amassed an enormous private collection of 823 hard-stone vases, known as Les Gemmes de la Couronne, extraordinary works of unusual shapes and colorations, with luminous ground gemstones and carved imagery salvaged from remnants of antiquities and sundry sources. Their mounts are made of enameled gold, lapis lazuli, amethyst, agate, jade, and the king's favorite mineral, rock crystal. His was the largest and possibly the most important collection in Europe, though he had stiff competition from the Hapsburgs, Medicis and other ranking family dynasties. The visage of the king himself appears in a rare intact miniature that's set in a lavish silver and rose-cut diamond frame. A gold loop at the top allowed the recipient of this "present du roi" (a gift bestowed on foreign dignitaries) to attach it to a chain.
A wondrous mechanical desk from the mid-18th century is an outstanding example of the marvels of Parisian ingenuity circa 1760. Designed by master cabinetmaker Jean-Francois Oeben, the compact wooden secretary served multiple functions: a small concealed bookcase rises from the back, and inside the drawers are a writing surface, a removable laptop desk and a footstool.
A room towards the end of the show recreates Queen Marie-Antoinette's private apartments. Among the objects created in her final years is an agate, gold and jasper perfume-burner that disappeared and then mysteriously resurfaced in the hands of King Farouk of Egypt in the 1950s. (The Louvre, always on the hunt, bought it back at auction in Geneva.) Precious like a dollhouse, the beautifully appointed space contains decorative boxes, Chinese blue vases dripping in gold trim, a rolltop desk to die for, and a petrified wood display platform that, in retrospect, is a metaphor for the fate of the royals. One imagines that here, tucked away in her intimate environs, the Queen could regard aesthetic beauty at her leisure as she lounged, wrote letters, and dreamed of an escape that was not to be.
Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette, at the Legion of Honor through March 17, 2013.