Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

There’s a Lot You Don’t Know About Versailles

A new book yields unseen photos of the most famous palace in the world.

In 1793, as Marie Antoinette sat imprisoned in a cell in Paris’s Conciergerie, France’s revolutionary government was facing a war against Spain, Portugal, Prussia, Britain, and the Netherlands.

Desperate for cash, the government organized a series of auctions as part of a massive, year-long liquidation of the royal collection. “A number of things were sold, but certain pieces were set aside that they wanted to save,” says Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other works were simply given to army suppliers in lieu of payment. “They had no money, so they’d pay them with artwork,” she says. In the span of just a few years, the contents of Versailles, a palace that consisted of more than 2,000 rooms, were spread around the world.

Almost as soon as the revolution ended, though, the French government began an elaborate, 200-year-long effort to get it all back. In a new edition of Versailles: A Private Invitation (Flammarion Press, Feb. 2018) that contains text by Guillaume Picon and photographs by Francis Hammond, readers are afforded in-depth insight into France’s (very) mixed success at restoring this lavish cultural heritage. 

For the Chateau’s more than 7 million annual visitors, the text will be a welcome and oftentimes surprising insight into the splendor—real or otherwise—of the Bourbon kings that was deliberately intended to showcase French artisanship and sophistication. As the book's lavish photography and text demonstrates, though, its present display is that of a museum, not, as many think, an historic recreation.

The bedchamber of Dauphin Louis (1729-1765), son of Louis XV.

The bedchamber of Dauphin Louis (1729-1765), son of Louis XV.

The book features the views to which everyone has been accustomed—the Hall of Mirrors, the Queen’s Staircase, and so forth—while providing a disconcerting  perspective into the private rooms of the French kings, detailing which elements are original, which are reproductions, and which shouldn’t be there at all.

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

 A view of the dauphin's cabinet intérieur.

“The staterooms stayed more or less the same, but the private rooms were constantly changed and updated,” says Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, who organized the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibit, Visitors to Versailles (1682-1789). “Yes, they were sometimes able to buy back a piece that we know was in a certain room. But that room is no longer the way it was.”

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

 A view of the dauphin's cabinet intérieur.
A view of the Sofa Room, part of the queen's suite of rooms.

A view of the Sofa Room, part of the queen's suite of rooms.

A delicate table with a petrified wood and pietra dure top—a 1770 gift to Marie Antoinette from her sister, Archduchess Maria Christina—was sold during the revolution for 820 livres. It, too, was returned, in the form of a gift, in 1966.

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

The Reception Room in the Petit Trianon, a mansion on the grounds of Versailles.

A lantern hanging in the Petit Trianon, a jewel-box mansion on the grounds of Versailles favored by Marie Antoinette, was also sold during the revolution and re-acquired by Napoleon, though Picon writes that “Napoleon was entirely unaware of the link between this lamp and the late queen.”

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

The Reception Room in the Petit Trianon, a mansion on the grounds of Versailles.
A reconstruction of the bedchamber decorated in 1748 for Madame de Pompadour.

A reconstruction of the bedchamber decorated in 1748 for Madame de Pompadour.

Much of the book's text is comprised of excerpts from diaries and correspondence written by residents of (or at the very least, visitors to) Versailles. Of the rooms of the king's mistress, Madame Du Barry, the Comte D'Hézecques wrote that "though this apartment was far larger than many in Versailles, it was rather inconvenient for in murky weather several of the rooms had to be lit."

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

The library of the dauphin, son of Louis XV.

In the book’s forward, Catherine Pégard—president of the public establishment of the Chateau, museum, and national estate of Versailles—writes that the book’s “subtle photographs bring time to a halt,” but many readers will discover that book’s texts describe a different reality in which time, period, and styles of furnishings are staged in ways that would have never happened historically, like art deco mixing with mid-century modern. The flat-top bureau in the center was supplied in 1756.

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

The library of the dauphin, son of Louis XV.
The queen's bedchamber in the Petit Trianon.

The queen's bedchamber in the Petit Trianon.

There is detailed recording of the furnishings used in the queen's bedchamber. Delivered in 1787 "by a bitter irony of history," Picon writes, "the furniture was sold off in October 1793, a few days before Marie Antoinette was executed." Much of the furniture was bought back in 1945, though the bed and drapes aren't original.

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

The bed in the bedchamber of the dauphine, wife of the dauphin.

You have to know how to look at them,” says Kisluk-Grosheide. Visitors to Versailles today “get a sense of the magnificence of the scale and grandeur of the palace,” she continues. “But you should not look too closely at the individual rooms.”

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017

The bed in the bedchamber of the dauphine, wife of the dauphin.
The book's cover.

The book's cover.

The first version of this book was published in 2011. This edition, which publishes on February 6, contains additional photography and sections.

Photographer: Francis Hammond from Versailles: A Private Invitation by Guillaume Picon, Flammarion 2017