Thursday, August 27, 2020

Rococo Fantasies at Château de Maisons... Fantaisies Pour Un Palais

As the first flowers were starting to break out of the cold winter ground at the beginning of Spring, I fleetlingly entered the magical realm of fairy-tale theatricality of the French Rococo. Descending the worn steps of an old Baroque chateau, to the basement of a building that preceded Versailles, I stepped into a world of mirrors, chandeliers, bejewelled alcoves, floral groves, opera stage sets, stuccos, grottos, delicate costumes, elegant manners and overall enchantment.
Here was the exhibition « Fantaisies pour un palais », at Château de Maisons, set in an affluent suburb of Paris. The magic of the experience was all the more complete as there were virtually no other visitors - the spell was intact. I felt as if it was my chateau to explore on a bright Spring day.
Approaching the Maisons domain, through the pleasant grounds of Maisons-Laffitte, roads and residential areas seem surprisingly close to the majestic entrance of the château. Yet even this intrusion of a modern urban landscape does not take away from the effect of the striking building, with its view of the horizon behind, framed by the high windows of the main doorway set in the central axis of the corps de logis.
For its height and length, the architecture feels strangely airy as its width is minimized by the light shining through windows, set symmetrically around the doorway and that are perfected aligned with those that look over the main gardens on the other façade, facing the Seine river. Not only does the chateau feel ‘light’, its size means that it impresses without overpowering the visitor with massive, lofty dimensions.
It creates quite a unique impression of being strangely accessible yet other-worldly, rising out of the 21st century visual clutter of cars and construction sites and all the associated noises. Undeterred by these ungracious distractions, the cour d’honneur seems to welcome rather than stifle through sheer volume. The two side pavillions act as extended arms, drawing you in and guiding you towards towards the light source ; the passage to the other side of this grand façade, which does indeed seem remarkably close.
The chateau appears to be like an ornate stage set, thinly separating the original forest domaine on the one side and the majestic stretch of land to the Seine and Sartrouville on the other. Built in the mid 17th century, at the behest of René de Longueil - president in the Parlement de Paris - this chateau was the masterpiece of architect François Mansart. The conception of Château de Maisons marked the beginning of a new era in grand architecture, with the French Classical design leading towards the Baroque.
With it, the key role of the chateau as a lieu de plaisance, reflecting life at court was fully emphasized, showing how far removed it was from the military function of the Medieval fortress. Set on a slight knoll, Château de Maisons was surrounded by a dry moat around the Seine façade - less for protection than practical and aesthetic considerations - with a large footbridge leading onto the geometric gardens below.
Built in the ‘blond’ Chantilly stone rather than brick, it appears to adhere visually to the Renaissance principles of Classical beauty that were based on order, symmetry, regularity and rationality, although in its construction the architect used his artistic licence at will. Likewise, the façade departs from the norms of the Middle Ages. Instead, it bears a ‘modern’ decoration, inspired by Antique architecture with the order of columns taken from Greek temples ; doric, ionic and corinthian.
Wherever necessary to the realisation of his grand design, Mansart was prepared to take bold measures in order to bring about his vision of a chateau fit to receive a king. And indeed, the chateau was designed with that very purpose in mind. De Longueil wished to invite illustrious guests to benefit from the chateau’s setting in the royal hunting grounds, and he had his sights set on the monarch, no less.
Much of the building is arranged to accommodate the rooms of the king and queen, with the other spaces set out accordingly. Although Louis XIII never came to sejourn for any extended period, Louis XIV did honour de Longueil with his presence for fleeting visits, thus sealing the prestigious reputation of Château de Maisons and that of the host – the future captain of the hunting domaines of Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
The originality and architectural prowess of Château de Maisons is evident on crossing the threshold of the main entrance. Indeed, the central vestibule does not immediately lead onto a great staircase set in front - this is positioned on the right-hand side of this open area. This again adds to a certain airiness of volume and encourages the play of sunlight on the walls and floor space within.
This effect is even further enhanced by the open design of the gravity-defying escalier d’honneur, whose technical realisation has largely remained an enigma since Mansart devised it.
Without any supporting walls or pillars, the staircase appear to wind upwards in a light-filled void, while the stairwell itself goes from a square shape, to oval and then is capped by a round coupole far above. In order to create the greatest visual impact there are no paintings around the stairwell, distracting the visitor from the wonder of this great architectural achievement.
Charles Perrault - of fairy tale fame - remarked on the « unique beauty » of Château de Maisons that made it « one of the most beautiful things in France ». From a revolutionary prototype, it soon served as a model for subsequent chateaux ; in many ways, it was Versailles before Versailles. Louis XIV ordered the same sculptors, decorators and a member of the Mansart family to work on the palatial domain of Versailles in order to outshine the chateau of his upstart Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet, whose inappropriately lavish domaine - Vaux Le Vicompte – had itself been earlier inspired by Château de Maisons.
Finally, if the basic design of Mansart’s masterpiece seems familiar to us today, it is simply because a simplified form was used extensively in the 19th century hôtels de ville across the country.
Naturally, since the beginning of its construction in the 1630s, Château de Maisons has been subject to many changes over the centuries as changes in circumstances, situations and events have left their mark on the aesthetics, structure and function of the building and grounds. Following the death of de Longueil in 1677, the chateau finally fell into the hands of Louis XVI's brother - the comte d'Artois - whose plans for major transformation of the property remained unfinished due to lack of finance.
Château de Maisons could not, of course, come through the Revolution years unscathed and it was indeed duly confiscated as ‘national goods’, emptied of its furniture, ornamentation and objects of art. It no longer belonged to the aristocracy but entered the public domain, and in the process symbolically lost the grandiose wrought-iron gates that had kept the commoners at a safe distance…
After passing between several new owners, in 1818 it finally entered the possession of Parisian banker Jacques Lafitte – hence the chateau’s modern name (Château de Maisons-Laffitte). However, he too was beset with financial troubles which finally saw him selling off the surrounding chateau park domaine as building lots for development from 1834. He also allowed for the creation of the main road that leads to the cour d’honneur, thus little by little opening up the chateau to the ordinary world beyond.
Of the monumental stables that Mansart designed, only a grotto remains today, whilst the dismantled buildings provided construction materials for the new sites around the château grounds. Fortunately, Laffitte did not carry out the division of the domaine without due consideration for the preservation of its unique quality. Specifications were laid out for construction and the maintenance of gardens and park spaces in the manner of English garden cities were enforced to ensure that the spirit of the chateau was unharmed. This did not prevent the other vicissitudes of time from affecting Château de Maisons, of course…
In 1905, the State purchased the chateau to save it from demolition and it was classed a monument historique in 1914. Whilst many of the houses around the chateau domaine are harmonious in style and dimension – you cannot help but wonder what has happened over the last few decades as increasing numbers of hideous, love-less architectural blocks are emerging, alarmingly close to the historic chateau. Money and power still have incomparable clout, but appear to be an even deadlier cocktail in an age when an understanding and respect of history and aesthetic sensitivity are rendered pointless. Greedy cranes encroaching on the cour d’honneur itself seem to offer a nightmarish view of where we stand today…
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world Château de Maisons seems to have garnered the consideration it deserves in the form of the replica Château Zhang-Laffitte, near Beijing. Imitation being the greatest form of flattery, the Chinese multi-millionaire Zhang has also had two wings added, modelled on those of the Palace of Fontainebleau for good measure ! Whilst this might all appear to be of dubious taste, perhaps the real irony here is that Westerners, for whatever reasons, cannot adequately and sustainably safeguard cultural, social and historical heritage on home ground.
Fortunately I was able to dodge these dark and gloomy considerations by plunging into a glittering universe of pastel shades, arabesque forms, elegant artifice and flickering lights, all reflected off water, chandelliers, jewels and mirrors in the Fantaisies exhibition.
The French Rococo celebrated here was the gracious art of refined living, where a Hedonistic existence based on the sensual pleasures of life in an enchanted and enchanting pastoral decor replaced the pomp and decorum of the royal court. It appeared after the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and flourished in the reign of Louis XV.
Unlike the ritualized world of strict courtly etiquette during the Grand Siècle under Louis XIV, this was a frivilous, charmed universe that celebrated love, light entertainment, elegant balls, fêtes galantes, rich costumes and theatrical settings. It represented more than an art movement ; it was a way of life encompassing the interior settings and the outdoors. Far removed from the confines of the aristocratic existence, it spread its influence through churches and public spaces.
It was not merely the preserve of nobility as it seeped into art, design, costumes, decor and archicture and thus reached the common people – the Third Estate - radiating out all over Europe. The term Rococo comes from rocaille, meaning a rough, contorted shell and which also refers to a form of decoration, using seashells, pebbles and cement for the ornamentation of grottos and fountains.
Ultimately Rococo came to indicate a style based on an assymmetrical, irregular and purely ornamental aesthetic. It was, of course, a reaction to the tenets of Classical Baroque beauty with their set notions of measure, balance and harmony. Dramatic Baroque effect was replaced by joyous trompe-l’œil theatricality, just as opera and the commedia del arte was growing in popularity. Vast, oppressive rooms with heavy statues were declined in favour of smaller, intimate salons decorated with stucco, light frescos and porcelain ornamentation such as the figurine, metamorphosing palaces, châteaux and les hôtels particuliers.
Finally, Rococo represented a final freedom from the dictates of Versailles. During the twilight years of the Sun King’s reign, the atmosphere in court and beyond had become dour and suffocating. Louis XIV had indeed stated ‘L’état, c’est moi’, and his absolutist regime had ensured that this somber mood had spread far and wide. With the Rococo movement, it was as if the doors and windows had been flung open, letting in light and life, flushing out the stale, asphyxiating air with a breeze of frivolity, in a sea of silk, gilt, brocade and chinoiseries.
In a new, luminous era of make-believe, it is not entirely surprising that the first fairy tales saw the light of day. Madame d’Aulnoy’s L’île de la félicité appeared in 1690 and was the first conte de fées littéraire before the work of Charles Perrault. Her tales were followed by those of other 'Madames' who enabled the genre to take flight before the better-known male writers staked their claim on the conte merveilleux .
In the exhibition, we are led through the rooms at the base of the chateau which would never have received any noble member of the household. Worn stone steps made me wonder who had traipsed there before, carrying out the numerous tasks required for the maintenance of a building of this size. I wonder what they would think of us and our lives today?
Through quasi-theatrical decors, the exhibition explores the essence of Rococo. There is a series of decors of magic palaces, reflecting opera scenes and the world of the theatre, shown alongside the stage set maquettes for the Opéra de Paris created by the workshop of Piero Bonifazio Algieri, between 1757 and 1760.
The Cabinet des fées installation shows the porcelain figurines of lovers, golden carriages etc, although these charmed me far less, I have to admit, after having seen too many kitsch imitations of such subjects over the years which has resulted in overkill. Next, a room of mirrors blurs reality, dream and artifice, as characters resembling the protagonists of Antoine Watteau’s fêtes galantes paintings appear to come to life and draw you into their world.
A beautiful boudoir is transformed into a fairy-tale grove, decorated with flowers, whilst a truly gorgeous Rococo grotto kept me spell-bound as I poured over the shells, jewels, mirrors and changing figures projected outwards!
Finally there was the installation of L’île enchantée, presenting the theme of the voyage to the imaginary island shown in Watteau’s painting Pèlerinage à l’Ile de Cythère, with its beautiful, intricate vessel. The exhibition featured the beautifully evocative work of the contemporary artist, Laetitia Mieral, whose papier mâché magic is used by Les Monuments Nationaux. The photographs that I took of her piece did it absolutely no justice whatsover, so I will leave you to discover her enchanting art for this exhibition and far more... Merveilles en Papier.
I must have spent hours in this sequence of rooms, before finally emerging to look at the beautiful expanses within the main body of the chateau. The play of light repeated on glass, mirror and chandelier echoed what I had seen in the exhibition and was breath-taking when carried from room to room.
The cherubs and classical figures did not overly attract my attention as these generally have much the same effect on me as porcelain figurines, however the nature-themed wall panels and screens were stunning with their studies of plants and animal painted in exquisite, playful detail.
However I had to bear in mind that these were not strictly from Château de Maisons since it had been stripped in the Revolution years.
As with all periods of seemingly unbridled pleasures for some, paralleled by the manifest discomfort of the majority, the Rococo period led onto greater decadence and dissatifaction as the ancien régime started to show cracks.
The risqué, yet relatively harmless sensuality hinted at in Fragonard’s Les Hasards heureux de l'escarpolette marked the last carefree decades before the French Revolution.
Well before 1789, Rococo had given way to a more staid, noble style - Neo-classicism - an evolution that was further influenced by the discoveries of Roman antiquities at Herculanum and Pompeii in the 1740s.
As my visit of Château de Maisons came to an end, I explored the gardens. Despite the layout, these were fairly rudimentary in terms of vegetation but just as I turned to go, I came across a lawn scattered with those unexpected, magical violets!

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