The Petit Trianon is a small château located on the grounds of the Château de Versailles, about 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) northwest of the main residence. It was built during the reign of Louis XV so that he could spend time with his mistress, Jean-Antoinette Poisson, the Marquise de Pompadour, away from the scrutiny of the royal court. It was designed by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel to be a private, intimate royal residence. Construction took place from 1762-1768.
The image from Google Maps below shows the location of the Petit Trianon in relation to the Château de Versailles.
Below is an aerial view looking northeast over the Petit Trianon, its surrounding gardens, and two small pavilions. The building in the foreground is the French Pavilion, set within the French Gardens. The Petit Trianon is the square building that lies behind it. In the distance beyond the Petit Trianon is the Temple of Love. I’ll cover the French Pavilion and the Temple of Love later in this post.
The Petit Trianon was built within the grounds of the Grand Trianon on the site of a former botanical garden. The Petit Trianon is a celebrated example of the transition that occurred in the mid-18th century between the architectural design styles of Rococo and Neoclassicism. The first half of the 18th century had seen buildings dominated by the theatricality and heavy ornamentation characteristic of the Rococo/late Baroque style. However, the exciting archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748, along with their corresponding treasure troves of Roman antiquities, led to a popular shift in the 1760s to a more sober and refined classical Greek building design.
The Great Hall in the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich provides a great example of Rococo/late Baroque ornamentation. As beautiful as it is, people were beginning to tire of this style around the middle of the 18th century.
Below is an aerial view of the Petit Trianon, which was one of the first Neoclassical buildings erected in France. Symmetry and simplicity are core principles of Neoclassical design. The Petit Trianon demonstrates this with its cubic form, flat roof, pure lines, and minimal decoration. What was (thousands of years) old (and forgotten) became new (and fresh) again.
Below is an illustration showing the excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii in 1764.
The Petit Trianon has three floors. The ground floor contains service rooms where guards, kitchen staff, and servants carried out their duties. The next level up was the main floor, and is the one where the noble occupants of the Petit Trianon spent most of their time. It consists of the dining room, reception rooms, and several private rooms including a bedroom, dressing room, bathroom, and boudoir used by Marie Antoinette. A mezzanine on this level also contains several rooms including the Queen’s Library, a bathroom, and a private room used by the Princess de Lamballe, Marie-Antoinette’s First-Lady-in-Waiting. The top floor, known as the Attic, contained several bedrooms and small salons that were used by other members of the royal entourage. We’ll go on a tour of some of these rooms later in this post.
The Petit Trianon has four façades, with each one differing slightly based on the side of the estate that it faces. There is also a difference in height between the four façades, as the Petit Trianon is built on a slope. The south and east facing façades have all three of their levels located above-ground, as they are located at the lower end of the slope. The north and west facing façades only have two of their levels above-ground as they are located at the top of the slope; the lowest level is built into the slope. Each above-ground level contains five windows per floor.
Below is a cross-section showing the three floors of the Petit Trianon. Section C-D at the top of the page represents the south and east-facing façades, Section A-B below is the north and west.
The west façade of the Petit Trianon is the one with the most detail. It overlooks the formal French gardens, the French Pavilion, and the area once occupied by Louis XV’s greenhouses. This is the side of the Petit Trianon that also faces the direction of the Grand Trianon. This façade features four Corinthian columns that project outward from the wall, supporting a small rooftop terrace that also extends from the building. It also has only two levels located completely above-ground.
The east façade, in contrast to its western counterpart, is the one that is the most restrained. It once overlooked the botanical gardens. The Temple of Love can be seen from within its windows. The façade is bare of external decoration, and no part of it projects outward from the main building. All three of its levels are located above-ground.
The north façade has a central section, adorned simply with four pilasters, that projects slightly outward from the building. It overlooks the flower garden and, in the distance, the small lake that the Bélvèdere Pavilion is situated beside. As it is built into the slope, this façade only has two levels above-ground.
The south façade is similar to its northern counterpart, with four pilasters and a central section that projects slightly with three central bay windows. It overlooks the courtyard, and all three of its levels are above-ground. This side of the Trianon faces the direction in which the main residence of the Château de Versailles is situated.
The south façade from outside the courtyard gate.
Sadly, Madame de Pompadour passed away in 1764, four years before construction on the Petit Trianon was completed. Her successor, Jeanne Bécu, the Comtesse du Barry, would occupy the château in her stead. Louis XV granted her the use of several apartments on the main floor, while he resided in the attic. It was while spending time with Madame du Barry at the Petit Trianon in April 1774 that Louis XV became ill with smallpox. He was moved back to the main residence of Versailles where he died a few days later on May 10.
Below is a portrait of Madame de Pompadour that can be found in the Petit Trianon. She is wearing a cream muslin dress adorned with blue satin knots. Madame de Pompadour had a passion for flowers which, as you’ll see, is echoed throughout the interior decoration of the small château that was built with her taste in mind. Her flower basket is full of carnations, roses, and lily-of-the-valley. She holds a sprig of jasmine, which was a symbol of amiability.
Louis XV was succeeded by his grandson, Louis XVI, in May 1774. Two weeks after Louis XVI’s ascension to the throne, he gifted the Petit Trianon to its most famous occupant: his wife, Marie Antoinette. He reportedly told her, “Madame, since you like flowers, I wish to offer you a bouquet in the shape of Trianon.” It was the first time in history that a French Queen owned a property of her own.
The Petit Trianon’s current resident, Madame du Barry, was no longer welcome at Versailles. Marie Antoinette had never been a fan of Louis XVI’s mistress, and so she had Madame du Barry exiled to a convent. After two years had passed, Madame du Barry was allowed to move into her beloved Château de Louveciennes. She resided there for nearly twenty years, living a relatively peaceful life, until the French Revolution came for her head in 1793.
Marie Antoinette used the Petit Trianon as a very exclusive, private domain; even the King wasn’t allowed there without her permission (he often dined, but never slept there). Only her children and members of her inner circle were welcome, including Princess Marie-Louise Thérèse of Savoy-Carignan, known as the Princess de Lamballe, and Gabrielle de Polastron, the Duchess de Polignac. The Petit Trianon was where Marie Antoinette could escape the formality of court life at Versailles where she was subject to considerable pressure and intense scrutiny. Marie Antoinette made extensive changes to the interior of the small château and its grounds. She replaced Louis XV’s botanical gardens with Anglo-Oriental gardens, which were more fashionable at the time. She also added a theatre, commissioned several garden follies, and had a farming hamlet built from 1783-1786 (I’ll write a more extensive blog post on the Hameau de la Reine, as it was actually my favourite part of Versailles).
At the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette could shake off the burden of her royal responsibilities. She painted, starred in her own plays, and dressed in outfits that were so casual they were considered scandalous. However, the time Marie Antoinette spent privately at the Petit Trianon did not sit well with the nobility. They were accustomed to the previous levels of access to the sovereign that had been established by Louis XIV and Louis XV. By excluding them from her constant presence, Marie Antoinette alienated them. Their resentment began to fester, and malicious gossip about what the Queen was “really up to at Trianon” began to circulate. Tales of the Queen’s sordid affairs and immoral sexual escapades were spread, damaging her reputation. They would later contribute greatly to her downfall.
Below is a portrait1 of Marie Antoinette that can be seen at the Petit Trianon.
It was while she was in the gardens of the Petit Trianon on October 5, 1789 that Marie Antoinette was informed of the imminent arrival of an armed, hostile crowd—these were the protestors taking part in the Women’s March on Versailles. The next day, October 6, she was forced to leave Versailles for Paris with her husband and children. They would never see Versailles, or the Petit Trianon, again.
During the French Revolution the Château de Versailles, its grounds, and its associated residences (including the Petit Trianon) were declared national property. When the monarchy was overthrown in July 1792, it was decided that all of the furniture, mirrors, bronzes, art works, and other valuables at Versailles would be sold off with the exception of those items deemed to have historic or artistic value. The Petit Trianon’s furnishings were auctioned off between August 25, 1793 and August 11, 1794. All of its royal images were burned. In 1796, the Petit Trianon and its grounds were leased to an innkeeper and lemonade seller by the name of Charles Langlois, who turned it into a hotel and restaurant. Refreshments were served in the French gardens, and there was dancing every Décadi (the day of rest that marked the end of the 10-day week in the revolutionary calendar) in the French Pavilion. Squatters moved into the cottages in the Hameau de la Reine. These activities were all hard on the property and, by 1801, the Petit Trianon was in rough shape. Thankfully, a saviour would soon be at hand.
Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France took place on December 2, 1804. He had Versailles designated as an imperial palace, although he never lived there. Instead, he mostly resided in the Tuileries Palace in central Paris, and moved between several official residences located throughout France (such as the Château de Fontainebleau). Napoleon first went to Versailles in March 1805. Instead of having apartments set up for him in the main residence, he chose to settle in the Grand Trianon instead. He immediately set about having the grounds and the châteaux of both the Grand and Petit Trianon restored to their former glory. He would come to use the Grand Trianon as a summer residence, and invited his sister Pauline Borghèse to do the same with the Petit Trianon. At first, he did not bother himself with the Hameau de la Reine, but did throw out the people who were living there illegally.
On June 10, 1810, Napoleon brought his second wife, the Empress Marie-Louise, to Versailles. They returned at the beginning of August and stayed there for a few days, with Marie-Louise spending her time in the Petit Trianon. Interestingly, Marie-Louise was a great-niece of Marie Antoinette, as Marie-Louise’s grandmother was one of Marie Antoinette’s many sisters, Maria Carolina. Napoleon arranged to have the ruins of the Hameau de la Reine fixed up for Marie-Louise, even though its condition was so pitiful that he considered having it demolished. Thankfully, only a few of the buildings were destroyed because they were beyond hope of repair; the majority of the Hameau was saved.
Napoleon and Marie-Louise hosted three separate entertainments during their summers at Versailles. On August 9, 1810, a Molière play was staged at the newly-restored Queen’s Theatre, and a big party was held the next day in the gardens. A circus, built especially for the occasion, hosted a performance of the Franconi brothers, Laurent and Henri. In July 1811, a gondola once more cruised the Grand Canal, this time with Napoleon and Marie-Louise on board. On August 25, 1811 the imperial couple hosted a grand party, “the Feast of the Empress”, which was attended by hundreds of people. The châteaux were lit up by lanterns in different colours, the lakes were illuminated and filled with boats, and guests were entertained by musicians and a choir. The Trianon Theatre hosted both a play and a ballet performance. A lavish feast was served in the Grand Trianon. It was a magnificent celebration, an echo of the great entertainments that had once been staged at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. Attendees of this party must have felt that the night had been like a fairytale.
Below is a portrait of Marie-Louise with her son, Napoleon-François-Joseph-Charles Bonaparte. He was born on March 20, 1811. The party held on August 25, 1811 at Versailles was a continuation of the celebrations for the birth of this new “King of Rome.”
Napoleon and Marie-Louise visited Versailles for the last time in March 1813, shortly after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign. Napoleon was forced to abdicate just over a year later in April 1814, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored to power. The younger brothers of Louis XVI, Louis XVIII and Charles X, chose not to live at Versailles, which had been their former home. It would be March 1832 before another monarch, their cousin Louis-Philippe I, took an interest in Versailles. Like Napoleon, Louis-Philippe I took up residence in the Grand Trianon. His son and daughter-in-law, Ferdinand-Philippe and Hélène Louise Élisabeth, the Duke and Duchess of Orléans, settled into the attic of the Petit Trianon a few weeks after their marriage in May 1837. Louis-Philippe I then dedicated himself to the task of turning Versailles into a museum, which was inaugurated on June 10, 1837. Louis-Philippe I was later forced to abdicate during the French Revolution of 1848. This led to the rise of Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I), who ruled France as President from 1848-1851 and then Emperor from 1852-1870.
In 1867, Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugénie, converted the Petit Trianon into a museum dedicated to the memory of Marie Antoinette. Eugénie had the Petit Trianon refurnished as closely as possible to how it would have looked when Marie Antoinette lived there. To do this, she set up a commission to track down the furniture, art work, and other belongings of Marie Antoinette that had been sold off during the French Revolution. She also restored the gardens surrounding the Petit Trianon and the small pavilions located within them.
Below are a few early photographs of the Petit Trianon from the mid- to late-19th century.
With the history covered, let’s now go for a tour of the Petit Trianon! By the time Neil and I reached it, we were starting to feel a little burned out. I will admit that I only took pictures in a few of the rooms and so this tour will not be as comprehensive as it could be. In any case, only the rooms on the second floor have been restored and I believe the third floor was closed entirely.
The first thing you’ll notice upon entering the Petit Trianon is the Grand Staircase. It is the largest room in the residence. The floor is made of white and green marble.
A beautiful iron and gold banister decorates the stairwell.
A closer-look at the banister shows a cursive letter M, for Marie Antoinette. This stairwell originally contained the initials of Louis XV, but these were later replaced.
The ground floor, as previously mentioned, contains service rooms where guards, kitchen staff, and servants carried out their duties. I have photographs from three of the rooms on this level: the Chapel Gallery, the Warming Kitchen/Reheating Room, and the Billiards Room.
Below is the Warming Kitchen/Reheating Room. The meals served at the Petit Trianon were not actually cooked in the small château itself. Madame de Pompadour hated the smell, noise, and activity of a kitchen. The food was prepared in the kitchens back at the main residence and brought over to the Petit Trianon. The meal would be warmed up and plated in the Warming Kitchen, and then carried upstairs to the Dining Room. The room retains its Louis XVI-style fireplace. A large wooden dining table is situated in the centre of the room, and there is an old stove in the corner along with several shelves of pots. The rustic simplicity of this room reflects the more casual style of living that Marie Antoinette favoured at the Petit Trianon.
The Billiards Room contains a quadrille table and a marble bust of Marie Antoinette.
A painting of Marie Antoinette on her wedding day can also be seen in the Billiards Room.
Below is a portrait of a young Marie Antoinette, shown at the right, at the age of ten. She is dancing in a ballet, The Triumph of Love, which was performed at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna on January 24, 1765. She is accompanied by her brothers and sisters. Marie Antoinette commissioned this painting in 1778 to hang in the dining room at the Petit Trianon. It can currently be seen in the Guard’s Room.
A close-up of Marie Antoinette.
Also on display in the Guard’s Room is this jacket, which was part of the livery worn by staff serving in the stables of Ferdinand Philippe, Duke of Orléans. He lived for a short time in the attic apartments of the Petit Trianon with his wife, Hélène Louise Élisabeth. Ferdinand was the son of Louis-Philippe I and Maria-Amélie of Naples and Sicily. He died in 1842 at the age of 31.
The next floor up in the Petit Trianon is the main floor, which is where the noble occupants of the château spent most of their time. It contains the dining room, a couple of salons, and several private rooms that were used by Marie Antoinette.
The Dining Room is shown below. Louis XV first dined here in 1769.
Dinners held in this room were illuminated by candlelight. Two large mirrors helped to brighten up the room by reflecting their glow. In the photo below, a bust of Marie Antoinette adorns the fireplace.
The Small Salon was reserved for intimate gatherings with those who were closest to the King and Queen. It is a smaller room located between the Dining Room and the Grand Salon (which we’ll visit next). It contains a red marble fireplace. In 1748, Marie Antoinette converted this room into a second Billiards Room; the one downstairs was adapted for the use of her Guards.
The Grand Salon was devoted to games, conversation and music. Several musical instruments can be found in this room as a nod to Marie Antoinette’s passion for music. The harp was her favourite instrument.
The original furniture in this room consisted of nineteen chairs, six lounge chairs, and a sofa decorated with blue flowers that had been ordered by Madame du Barry. Sadly, they were lost during the French Revolution. However, the furniture that can now be found in this room was also made for Madame du Barry around 1771-1778. It was originally used to furnish the Château de Saint-Hubert, which was demolished in 1855, and was then later used by the Princess de Lamballe at the Château de Fontainebleau.
The lantern in the photo below was ordered by Marie Antoinette in 1784. It is gilded in bronze and decorated with blue lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. The lantern was sold during the French Revolution but was later recovered and restored to this room in 2008.
The chair below was part of a set of 8 armchairs and 8 chairs made in 1780-1781 for the Bélvèdere Pavilion (covered later in the post). Sold off during the French Revolution, this chair has since made its way back to the Petit Trianon.
Several carved medallions can be found on the walls of the Grand Salon, such as the ones shown on either side of the marble fireplace shown below. They contain fleur-de-lys and the intertwined L’s of Louis XV.
A close-up of one of those medallions.
Madame de Pompadour loved flowers, so Louis XV incorporated them in the interior decoration of the château. The door below is covered by several rings of what looks to be daisies or sunflowers.
I love the detail on this door knob!
The room below was Marie Antoinette’s bedroom. Marie Antoinette had it redecorated in 1787. A new set of furniture, designed by Jean-Démosthène Dugourc, features a light and playful floral pattern that matched the country spirit that Marie Antoinette enjoyed at the Petit Trianon. This bedroom was later used by the Empress Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife.
Of the original furniture that was sold off during the French Revolution, a few of the pieces have been recovered: two armchairs, two chairs, a fireplace screen, and a footstool. The bed has not been found; a recreation of it is now on display in the room. Another chair, used by Marie Antoinette to sit in while servants arranged her hair and applied her makeup, has found its way to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Honoré Guibert carved the flowers and plants featured on the wall panelling.
A mezzanine on the main level of the Petit Trianon also contains several rooms such as the Queen’s Library, a bathroom, and a private room used by the Princess de Lamballe, Marie-Antoinette’s First-Lady-in-Waiting. Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos in any of these rooms; it’s possible this is because they were all closed to the public at the time, I can’t remember.
The rooms on the top floor, known as the Attic, were used by other royal personages such as Louis XV, Empress Marie-Louise, and the Duchess of Orléans. The Attic was closed to the public when we visited, so I didn’t get any pictures of those rooms.
With our tour of the residence of the Petit Trianon complete, it is now time to explore its 86-acre grounds. The highlights are laid out in the Google Map image below, and will be covered in this order: the French Pavilion, the Cool Pavilion, the Temple of Love, the Bélvèdere Pavilion and the Rock (called Le Rocher et le Bélvedere in the image below), Marie Antoinette’s Grotto, and the Queen’s Theatre (called Petit Théâtre de la Reine).
First up is the French Pavilion, which is situated west of the Petit Trianon in the French Gardens.
The French Pavilion actually predates the Petit Trianon; it was built in 1750 by Jacques-Ange Gabriel for Louis XV as a feature of the Grand Trianon’s gardens.
The French Pavilion is located approximately halfway between the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon. You can see the Grand Trianon on the left side of the map below.
The French Pavilion contains a vast circular salon surrounded by four smaller rooms: one was used as a boudoir, another acted as a small warming kitchen/reheating room for meals (similar to the one in the Petit Trianon), a third was used to prepare coffee (it also housed a small lavatory), and the fourth was used as an antechamber.
The four façades of the French Pavilion are each dedicated to a season: summer to the south, winter to the north, spring to the east (the one that faces the Petit Trianon), and autumn to the west (the one that faces the Grand Trianon).
A glimpse at the interior of the French Pavilion.
In 1785 and 1786, Marie Antoinette had tents and wooden cabins set up outside the French Pavilion to host concerts and balls.
Below are a few pictures of flowers from the French Garden.
Below is a historical image of the French Pavilion and the gardens that surrounded it, painted 8 years after the Petit Trianon was finished.
Located south of the French Pavilion is another small structure known as the Cool Pavilion, which was used as a dining room during the summer. It was also built for Louis XV by Jacques-Ange Gabriel in 1753. It was covered with green trellis panels and topped with basket vases. Sadly, the original building was demolished in the 19th century. A reconstruction of it, shown below, was built in the 1980s.
The Temple of Love is a garden folly that was built for Marie Antoinette by Richard Mique in 1778. It is situated on an island in a small river east of the Petit Trianon. Marie Antoinette could see it through her bedroom window. The Temple consists of a circular platform with seven steps, twelve Corinthian columns, and a limestone cupola.
The statue housed in the centre of the temple is a copy of a renowned sculpture, Cupid Fashioning his Bow from Hercules’ Club by Edme Bouchardon (1750). The original sculpture can be seen in the Louvre; Marie Antoinette had sculptor Louis-Philippe Mouchy make this copy.
The inside of the cupola features sculpted caissons and rosettes arranged around a central panel sculpted by Joseph Deschamps. Measuring two meters in diameter, the centrepiece features a quiver, arrows, and flaming embers interwoven with roses and olive branches.
The floor of the temple is made of white, Languedoc red, and Flanders marble.
Below are a few historical images of the Temple of Love. As you can see, it was a popular artistic subject!
Below is an early photograph of the Temple of Love.
The Bélvèdere is an octagonal pavilion that was also designed by Richard Mique for Marie Antoinette. It was completed in 1781. It is located northwest of the Petit Trianon, set atop a small hill overlooking a lake. It is capped by a cupola that is largely concealed by a surrounding balustrade. There are four windows and four patio doors, which create the impression of an open-air living room. Marie Antoinette liked to use the Bélvèdere as a music salon.
The Bélvèdere closer up.
The interior walls are adorned with paintings by Sébastien-François Le Riche. The floor is paved with a marble mosaic.
The ceiling was painted by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée.
Below is a close-up of one of the paintings. Their design was inspired by the paintings found in Pompeii.
The Bélvèdere is guarded by two pairs of female sphinxes; they are copies of the originals, which are kept in storage. They each represent one of the four seasons. The one shown below is Spring.
Below is a historical image of the Bélvèdere Pavilion.
Located beside the Bélvèdere is a feature known as “the Rock.” The Rock is a small artificial mountain that contains a wooden footbridge.
The view of the Bélvèdere and the Rock shown in the photo above is similar to the one in the painting below. The painting depicts a scene in which the gardens of the Petit Trianon were illuminated as part of a celebration held in the summer of 1781. Marie Antoinette’s brother, Joseph II (who was Holy Roman Emperor at the time), came to visit his sister from July 29-August 5. Marie Antoinette hosted a party in his honour that included the garden illumination, a feast, and a performance at the Queen’s Theatre of Iphigénie en Tauride by Gluck.
The painting below is a slightly fanciful version of the Rock and the Bélvèdere.
Below is another contemporary photograph of the Rock.
Below is another historical image of the Rock, done in a manner so fanciful that it almost looks like a mountain!
A slightly less fanciful version is shown below.
Marie Antoinette’s Grotto was completed in 1782. There are two entrances to this secretive little cave, one of them hidden, that allowed Marie Antoinette and her friends to act as if they were playing “hide and seek.” The main entrance, shown in the picture below, was originally protected by a wooden trellis. The interior of the cave is lit only by crooks and crannies carved into the rocks. The seating inside the cavern consisted only of a stone bench covered with a green blanket so that it resembled moss. An artificial waterfall tumbled down the rock face and outside into a stream. This picturesque garden folly became an object of scandal during the French Revolution, as malicious gossip circulated about what the Queen and her companions were “really” using it for. It is closed to the public.
Marie Antoinette had souvenir albums of the Petit Trianon and its gardens made for her royal guests. The albums featured illustrations by artist Claude-Louis Châtelet and architectural drawings by Richard Mique. The illustration below is the only image I could find of the interior of the Grotto, and it comes from one of those souvenir albums. Five of these albums, all of them different, still exist. The one that contains the image below is part of the collections of the Met; it is believed that this album was gifted to Marie Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II, upon his visit in 1781. Three of the other extant copies were given to another brother of Marie Antoinette, Archduke Ferdinand; one to the Swedish King, Gustav III; and one to the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Paul and Maria Feodorovna of Russia. The fourth known album was a personal copy that belonged to the Queen. You can see a digital copy of the Met’s album online on its collection website, or here on Google Arts & Culture.
Sadly, Neil and I did not get the opportunity to see the Queen’s Theatre at the Petit Trianon as it was closed for restoration work. I would love to go back in the future and go on a guided tour of this space! The theatre is located northwest of the Petit Trianon, and its simple exterior is hidden away amidst the foliage of the gardens. It was built by Richard Mique from 1778-1780, and was officially inaugurated on June 1, 1780. It was large enough to hold 250 spectators.
The interior decor of the theatre is blue, gold, and white. Parts of the wooden interior have been painted to resemble marble. The sculpted decorations are made of papier-mâché!
The ceiling was originally painted by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée. The original painting, Apollo surrounded by the Graces and the Muses, was replaced by a copy made in the 20th century.
Marie Antoinette loved to perform. She had done it often when she was a child back in Vienna. From 1780-1785, she used this theatre to indulge her passion for acting in various plays she put on to amuse her friends. This wasn’t entirely unusual, as a lot of other aristocrats had small theatres built on their estates. Performing in operas and ballets was a good way to pass the time. Marie Antoinette also used the space to commission new musical works from artists who belonged to the Royal Academy of Music.
The theatre fell out of fashion in 1785 and managed to survive the French Revolution largely unscathed. Extensive restoration work was carried out from 1925-1936 and again in 2001. The original machinery has been restored, making the Queen’s Theatre the only 18th century theatre in France that is still intact and fully functioning.
In 1780, Marie Antoinette and her friends performed Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s Le roi et le fermier (The King and the Farmer, 1762). Two of the original stage sets, one of a forest and one of a rustic cottage (shown below), survive. They were restored in the 19th century. Performances are no longer held at the Queen’s Theatre in order to preserve the period authenticity, but the theatre can be viewed as part of a guided tour: “Scenic Effects at the Queen’s Theatre.” (Looks like the tour is only offered in French, so you might want to take Neil with you!).
Below are a couple of historical images of the interior of the Queen’s Theatre. I’m not sure why the first painting has a red and gold colour scheme, rather than blue and gold.
That’s it for the Petit Trianon! Next up, a blog post on the Hameau de la Reine—my favourite part of Versailles!
1 Speaking of scandalous dress, this painting of Marie Antoinette on exhibit at the Petit Trianon was actually painted as a form of damage control. Artist Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun had completed an earlier portrait of Marie Antoinette, shown below on the left, that was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1783. In that portrait, the Queen is depicted wearing a loose muslin dress, known as a gaulle, that was typically worn as a layer beneath another, more formal, exterior dress. Essentially, Vigée-Lebrun’s original painting showed the Queen of France wearing only her underwear. It was considered so racy that Vigée-Lebrun had to replace it with a second portrait, shown on the right, which she painted very quickly. Every detail in this second portrait is meant to make the Queen look more dignified in contrast with the earlier image: her dress is now made of a rich blue-grey silk material as opposed to the cheaper cotton of the earlier one; this new dress is tightly fitted around the arms, torso, and bodice; the structure of the second dress would have required the wearing of a corset and a pannier, whereas the muslin would have been permitted to freely drape over the body (shocking!); the Queen’s formerly bare arms and neck are now adorned with pearls; her hair is more neatly arranged; her new hat is smaller, set further up on the head, and is made of a material that is much higher-class than straw—the smaller feathers and ribbons on the second hat also come across as being less sloppy, even less wanton, than those on the original. Although Marie Antoinette adopts the same pose in both paintings, her figure on the right appears to be smaller, thinner, more distant and contained somehow. There’s even a difference in her jawline and the rosiness of her cheeks. The only similarity in both portraits is in the pink cabbage rose being held by the Queen, which was her signature flower.
The interesting thing about these two paintings is that they can be seen as showing the two different lives the Queen was living at Versailles. The painting on the left shows the version of Marie Antoinette that came to life at the Petit Trianon. It was there, while living in relative privacy with her closest companions, that Marie Antoinette had the most freedom to be herself. She could wear what she liked and felt comfortable in. She often wore clothes that were more casual and less formal. This is in contrast to the picture on the right, which shows the Queen of France as she would have appeared in the hallways of the main residence at Versailles. There, she was expected to dress and behave in a manner that was more socially and politically acceptable for a woman of her rank. Marie Antoinette found it stifling. If I was in her position, I probably would have also wanted to spend a lot of my time at the Petit Trianon.
Ironically, the French Revolution would soon make the wearing of loose cotton dresses extremely fashionable. No one wanted to look like a French aristocrat. The two highest-ranked ones had lost their heads, after all. Marie Antoinette’s fate helped kick off a trend that she had anticipated in the outfits she was wearing at the Petit Trianon ten years earlier. Once considered too scandalous to be featured in a painting exhibited at the Salon of 1783, this style of informal dress became immensely popular from 1795-1820. The thinner and gauzier the material, the better. If your breasts were visible, you were doing it right. The dress silhouette mimicked those worn in classical Greece. This shift in fashion from more ornate and structured forms to a more “natural” simplicity seems to mimic the architectural shift that occurred in the 1760s from Rococo/late Baroque style to the Neoclassical. The Petit Trianon was one of the first buildings to make this leap, and Marie Antoinette was one of the first women to start wearing this style of dress while she was staying at the Petit Trianon. An interesting connection!
Below is a portrait done by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, the same artist who painted the two pictures of Marie Antoinette. No scandal here—the subject of this painting, Emma, Lady Hamilton, helped popularize the wearing of Neoclassical Grecian dress in France in the 1790s. In the painting, Emma is outfitted in a simple chemise made from thin, flowing material. It is gathered with a narrow ribbon high up on her waist, just below her breasts. The smoking volcano in the background alludes to Herculaneum and Pompeii.