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Visiting Louis XV: Passions of a King

From 18 October 2022 to 19 February 2023, Versailles presents us with an immense exhibition fit for royalty. Louis XV: Passions of a King celebrates the 300th anniversary of Louis XV’s coronation as King of France.

The scope of the exhibition is astounding. Over 400 works of art are brought together to not only tell the story of Louis’s political life, but also his personal story. Audiences have never had such profound access to the inner world of this king.

The show was expertly organized by Helene Delalex and Yves Carlier, both staff curators for the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Over the course of three years, they pieced together a compelling exhibition that will no doubt help to shape the way the public sees Louis XV for a generation or more.

Let’s dive into the exhibition and see some of the highlights from this amazing experience!


The Story of Louis XV Begins in 1710

When little Louis was born in 1710 in the halls of Versailles, no one expected him to be king one day. Sure, he had royal blood — his great-grandfather was the Sun King Louis XIV — but there was his grandfather and father in line, not to mention little Louis wasn’t the eldest of his brothers.

Louis writing when he was a kid
Louis writing when he was a kid

He was raised as the Duke of Anjou, sure to be fabulously wealthy and important in his adult years, but no king.

Duke D'anjou - Le Régent
Duke D'anjou - Le Régent

Smallpox, measles, and the overeager practice of bloodletting all contributed to clearing the way for Louis to rise to power.

By the time of his coronation, he had arrived as a bit of a surprise, but he would go on to oversee one of the wealthiest and most prestigious times in France’s history — though he would also make mistakes that led to the French Revolution.

His grand coronation as king made him the legitimate ruler in the eyes of the French aristocracy. At the time, being the head of the state was a title that combined secular and religious ceremony with political power. And so, coronation was both an affair of the state and the church. It occurs in three main phases:

The Oath: Here the new king swears to protect the church and his kingdom. To do this, he will be the most important knight in all the land, and so he is given the insignia and tools befitting a knight — including a sword that was said to have been Charlemagne’s own.

The Anointing: Now sacred liquid grants the king his connection to God. He is given insignia that raises him to the level of a true king, including his ring, scepter, and Hand of Justice.

The Crowning: The Archbishop is ready to place the crown on the king’s head. At this point, the ruler is in full grandeur, holding all the symbols of his office and covered in the royal cloak.

300 years ago, on 25 October 1722, Louis XV went through this ritual to take the throne as King of France.

Those attending the coronation might not have guessed that he would go on to reign for an astonishing 52 years. And while in office, he would support the humanities, establishing a more open and accepting culture that helped so many thinkers and artists flourish during his time.

The effect of this can be seen with the first work of art presented at the exhibition — the breathtaking Passemant Astronomical Clock.

Passemant Astronomical Clock

The trip through the exhibition begins with the Passemant Astronomical Clock, an artistic and engineering masterpiece.

Engineer Claude-Siméon Passemant and clockmaker Louis Dauthiau designed and created the actual mechanism inside — tracking not only the second, minute, and hour but also the rising and setting of the sun and moon. (Interesting side note: the clock will theoretically keep time until the year 9999!)

Dauthiau worked tirelessly to bring Passemant’s design to life. It took 12 years to create the mechanism, but when it was finished, it won an award from the French Academy of Science. Such notoriety attracted the king’s attention. He purchased the engineering marvel, but he had even bigger plans for it.

To bring it into accord with the Louis XV style, which marked a shift toward the flowery and organic, the artists Jean-Jacques and Philippe Caffieri were hired to create the stunning body to house this remarkable clock.

The clock calculates the Moon phases, the Zodiac sign, the rotation of the planets, etc
The clock calculates the Moon phases, the Zodiac sign, the rotation of the planets, etc

On its public debut, it became the talk of Europe, making front page news in the papers of the time.

This extravagantly decorated clock once declared the official time for France, marking the first time the country had a unified, standard time. And it continues to keep time to this day, never once failing.

The item is on loan from the king’s apartment in Versailles, a much more restrictive area than the grounds and most rooms of the palace. For many visitors, this exhibition will be the only chance they have to see the clock in person before it returns to the much more expensive (and selective) section of Versailles. If you are interested in seeing this restricted area, we need to schedule the tour in advance.

The clock has become an icon of the king’s apartment, as well as a major example of the art and science of its time. It is both ornate and precise, showing how France led the world at the time. In that way, it sums up an entire era and the long reign of Louis XV — making it the perfect item to start the exhibition with!

The Paintings of Louis XV

Louis XV: Passions of a King gave us many fascinating paintings that showed the many aspects of this royal’s life and personality. This is fitting, as the French art scene thrived during his reign.

Below, we’ll touch on only a few of the masterpieces on display at the exhibition.

The Royal Family Portrait by Nicolas de Largillière

Perhaps the best place to start is this royal family portrait by Nicolas de Largillière (1656 to 1746). In it, we see Louis XV as a young child, with Louis XIV sitting confidently and pointing to the boy. At the time, many powerful nations in Europe were allied against France, and ongoing conflict with Spain was draining the resources of the state (not to mention eroding the enthusiasm of the people).

Madame de Ventadour with Louis XIV and his Heirs
Madame de Ventadour with Louis XIV and his Heirs

So the royal family is depicted at a moment of uncertainty. To really bring this point home, every royal in the painting (except for the young Louis) will be dead in two years — clearing the way for the child to become the new king.

Madame du Ventadour - the Housekeeper
Madame du Ventadour - The Office Holder / Governess of Children

An interesting side note, standing next to the future Louis XV and holding his reins is Madame de Ventadour, his governess. She actually saved the boy’s life. When the child and his older brother contracted measles, the doctors killed the older boy from bloodletting (a common medical practice at the time). Madame de Ventadour hid away Louis XV, saving his life. The painting was almost certainly made for the governess, as a token of the royal family’s gratitude.

The grim events early on in the king’s life show why he was often worried and obsessed over death as a child.

The restoration team at Versailles revived this painting, on loan from the Wallace Collection in London.

Declaration of Love (1731) by Jean-François de Troy

This is another painting in the exhibition that brings us into the world of 18th century France. We see the culture of courtship that the king (a notorious lover) was raised in.

Declaration of Love (1731) by Jean-François de Troy
Declaration of Love (1731) by Jean-François de Troy

Men were trained in the art of conversation and galanterie, a method of wooing and charming women with kindness and affection.

But despite the palatial background and the immaculate dress of the people in the painting, there is also something a bit more down-to-earth compared to Louis’s predecessor. Things take on a certain earthiness, like the floral pattern on the blue dress or the gardens in the distance.

Louis XV, and especially his powerful mistress Madame de Pompadour, pushed for art that reveled in the sumptuous shapes and forms of the natural world. This painting points to that trend.

The Light of the World (1750) by Francois Boucher

This painting, commissioned by none other than Madame de Pompadour, reminds us of the deep religious conflict that raged inside the king.

On the one hand, Louis was a Christian. His Bourbon family were committed Catholics and always made sure to keep the French state aligned with the church.

But on the other hand, his personal faith was weak and even the cause of much scandal. For one, his personal life included plenty of infidelity, and he even gained a reputation for his impious behavior.

He did not always take communion, either, which really got the rumor mills turning at the time!

Nevertheless, as king he supported the church, and there are many artworks he commissioned that uphold the Christian faith.

Portraits of the King’s Mistresses by François-Hubert Drouais

These portraits (one of Madame du Barry on the right and the other of Madame de Pompadour on the left) each depicts a powerful mistress of Louis XV, both painted by the same artist 10 years apart.

Below each portrait, you will see her favorite furniture that she kept next to her all her life in Versailles.

In these two paintings, we glimpse the changing tastes of society and the unique personalities of the powerful women shown.

We see Pompadour as a contemporary woman. She is given a dog (a symbol of fidelity), and she is surrounded with items highlighting her education. This woman appears serious and intelligent, ready to take on the world.

Her favorite furniture is the black elegant Sloping Secretary (Secretaire en Pente) with Golden flowers on black wood.

Du Barry is painted almost like a Greek goddess from antiquity — at the time, a Neoclassical-led revival of the ancient world was stirring. When the painting was first completed, the subject was in a state of undress, which caused an uproar. The artist had to change a few things, including giving her more clothes.

Her favorite furniture is a mythical chest of drawers with Sevres Porcelaine plates, installed in her room since her arrival to the Palace. It is a reflection of Du Barry's taste in Neo-classical Art.

A Royal Wedding

It is difficult to talk about Louis XV without addressing his marriage — it is one of the most storied parts of his life. Luckily, the exhibition gives us a wealth of information on the marriage between Louis and Marie Leszczyńska.

Marie Leszczyńska
Marie Leszczyńska

One of the most fascinating artifacts of their matrimony is the list of princesses Louis XV was given to choose his wife from. The ledgers of this document record the wealth, beauty, fecundity, family, bloodline, and age of potential wives — not the most romantic way to choose a spouse!

But of course for royals, marriage was never about love. Instead, it was an essential act of state, one that would inevitably shape the future of the nation in matters both domestic and foreign.

Madame du Pompadour

Pompadour was an extremely important mistress who wielded her power and status well. She took care never to offend the Queen, and she focused much of her efforts on promoting and patronizing artists.

For this reason, there are many works of art on display in the exhibition that she personally commissioned.

But as many readers can sympathize with, most people with a deep love of art will also have some artistic practice themselves. It turns out the Madame du Pompadour made small jewelry and sculptures, and some of these are on display. These works are fascinating, showing a great deal of talent.

The Importance of Science

Science was always a central interest for Bourbon kings. As a child, Louis XV saw this emphasis and continued it with his reign.

When only a boy, Louis technically became king. But because he was so young, his uncle Philippe II was put in charge as Regent. One of the most important things was giving the future king an education. So beginning at 7, Louis was put in science classes given by the best thinkers of the day.

During his short reign, Phillipe wanted to make Paris the scientific capital of Europe. His efforts led to the first encyclopedia, and he created the groundwork for the innovations that Louis XV’s scientists would make.

So once he was crowned, Louis continued pursuing his uncle’s dream. He had a particular passion for astronomy, geography, and cartography. But he also helped fund emerging studies, like botany. Throughout his life, the king made friends with the major scholars and scientists — including astronomers and surgeons and many others.

In fact, he had rooms of Versailles dedicated to his own personal laboratories, and he hosted spectacular scientific displays, like an electricity show in the palace’s Hall of Mirrors in 1746.

The exhibition gave us many compelling items to see both the tools and achievements of French science in the 18th century, including a gorgeous rococo-styled microscope. There are also many botanical illustrations, as careful observation and replication was an important part of the study during the era. Today, these images are as striking for their beauty as for the information they provide.

The Decorative Arts

Under Louis XV, fine art like painting and sculpture thrived, but this was really thanks to his wife and mistresses. The king himself had no great understanding or love for fine art. Of course, he attended the Salons and made sure to build his collection, but that isn’t what really ignited his passion.

For Louis XV, he was much more interested in the decorative arts and furniture. And there are plenty of masterpieces on display at the exhibition.

Many of these pieces were custom made for Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, including chests of drawers and cabinets that are covered in exquisite gold details and painted scenes.

The Rococo Style

One of the best examples of Louis XV’s taste in decor is the Rococo (Rocaille) Room. In this wide open space, furniture and decoration exudes organically shaped forms that cover every conceivable surface. The pieces are a delight, showing an effervescent attitude that brings so much joy to the senses.

Rococo was a major French art movement that began in the 1720s and eventually spread throughout Europe and continues to be a favorite style throughout the world. During the height of this movement, the leading ornamentists (or decorators) became emboldened to try ever more fantastical designs.

For their inspiration, they drew on the natural world, as well as floral patterns from China. The resulting works required not only the best in engineering but also the latest in material techniques — something you can appreciate when you see these delicate designs up close.

La commode de la chambre du Roi is certainly the most popular of these. Nothing but the top surface is flat, all the other features curve in natural ways. Even the drawers swoop out toward you. And over everything are gold decorations styled to look like plants.

What was this extravagant piece of furniture used for? Most likely it was a place for the king’s barber to keep his hair cutting tools. Excessive? Maybe, but those are the perks of working for royalty!

On the king’s death, this piece was given as a gift to Duc D’aumont. He later sold it to Lord Headfort, an Englishman living in Paris at the time. He brought it back to England with him, where it ended up in the Wallace Collection. It finally returned to its first home for this exhibition after centuries away.

Hunting With the King

Louis XV was an avid hunter. This is fitting, as Versailles itself began as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII.

At the age of six, the young Louis began practicing, and by the time he was king, he was hunting three times a week — when he wasn’t off to war.

This activity was one of the only true leisures he had, but he took it as seriously as any act of state. He spent money on it as if his reign depended on it, too. At times, he had almost 600 horses ready to go for him and his party.

Louis was so obsessed by the activity that many aristocrats saw it as the perfect time to win him over. Going out with him, one could gain his confidence and later eat with him in private.

Like many hunters today, Louis had an immense amount of hunting related memorabilia and art surrounding him in Versailles — not to mention deer heads and antlers. These were hung in rooms specifically devoted to hanging out after a hunt.

The actual hunting rooms are typically off limits for all but the most exclusive tours of Versailles (don’t worry — I can show you them!). That makes this exhibition the best chance for many people to actually peak into the private life of the king.

The paintings show bears being hunted, as well as more fantastic prey like lions, crocodiles, ostriches, and leopards! These are brought to life in large works by some of the great names in French art of the era — Charles Parrocel, Charles-André van Loo, Nicolas Lancret, and more. They emphasize the excitement and brutality of hunting, giving the humans a bestial quality.

One wonders if, given how pampered and protected Louis XV was, he needed the visceral reminder of danger and combat that hunting offered. Imagine him sitting in a room with his companions, surrounded by enormous paintings of such violence, eating their freshly killed meat. It gives us an idea of what a king needed to stay sane and grounded while spending his days in Versailles.

Meeting a King

"He is a hidden character, not only impenetrable in his secret, but also very often in the movements that pass through his soul." Duke of Luynes, July 26, 1743

This exhibition proved a truly spectacular achievement in museology. The curatorial team at Versailles told the story of a king, giving visitors a chance to see what was important to the man. It is so easy to think of Louis XV as only the role he played in history. But this exhibition allowed you to see the person under the crown. That’s especially difficult for this king, as he was such a complex human being.

When I visited, the crowd was not overwhelming, which meant we could linger on anything that particularly caught our eye.

It was a magical event — giving us the power to time travel back to Versailles at the height of its importance and prestige. And as I mentioned a few times, many of the items on display are normally only viewable by selective visitors to Versailles.

If you would like an insider’s tour of this palace — going behind all the closed doors and into the hidden royal apartmentcontact me so we can start planning your visit to Versailles from Paris.


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