The Royal Treatment
NATURAL HISTORY COURT PAINTING IN FRANCE
French monarchs possessed a megalomaniacal drive to cement their divine right in the seventeenth century. Their estates and gardens served as the canvas for a grand spectacle of all creation. Extraordinary imagery of God’s glori- ous beings presented an abundant new Eden, which they controlled and crafted into a powerful political message to astound visitors and intimidate adversaries. Court painters played an essential role in this performance, and natural history painting became a critical feature of their modern court aesthetic. Artists applied a “royal treatment” in por- traits of specimen subjects detailing every petal and feather with miniaturist detail on fine vellums highlighted with gold leaf, in a manner previously reserved for sacred matters. Portraits of exotic specimen flora and fauna served several purposes. First, it depicted the Great Chain of Being, where God ruled through the king, and animals and plants followed. Second, it elegantly displayed the spoils of colonialism, removed from the chaos of imperial reach—ownership of all God’s creations became a signifier of an ever-expanding empire. The court coveted creatures and specimen plants procured through diplomatic gifts from foreign rulers, expeditions in colonized lands, and trade; the East India Company was asked to bring exotic species from Asia, Africa, and the Americas on their return voyages.
Initially known as collection des veins, French natural history court painting was introduced by Gaston d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIII. In 1630, Gaston commissioned Nicolas Robert (1614-1685) to paint a series of rare plants at his estate Blois. The magnificent specimen flowering plants and trees were a source of great pride, and were, as a result, painted like formal portraits. The series was inherited by his nephew, Louis XIV, and then drew the attention of his minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619 – 1683), who convinced the king to continue the tradition and expand the collection. Notable artists were employed under various titles, including “peintre ordinaries de Sa Majeste pour la miniature” and “professeur de peinture de flours,” to paint rarities flowering in the royal gardens exotic fauna roaming the menagerie. Robert’s signature gold illusionary frame border set the standard for future velins, and the hallmark of royal patronage often referred to as the “Robert” border. The genre of natural history as a royal subject was elevated with Louis XIV in the late 16th century and flourished through the 19th century with Napoleon and Josephine. Most notably, at two significant royal residences: Versailles and Malmaison.
LOUIS XIV AND VERSAILLES
All those who have seen the birds in the Park of Versailles have much commented on how their gait, their gestures, and their leaps, have much in common with those of Gypsy women [bohémiennes], whose dance they seem to imitate. One could say that they are pleased to show off their grace and skillful jumps and that they follow people, not to have food thrown at them, but to be noticed; for when they see that they are watched, they begin to dance and to sing. From [Mémoires pour une histoire naturelle des animaux (Paris: Imprimérie Royale, 1676), 157]
The Sun King’s new Versailles was inarguably an architectural feast for the eyes, but it was equaled by its eye-popping array of exotic fauna at the Royal Menagerie.
Architect Louis Le Vau built the chateau observatory on a five-acre site on the edge of Versailles in 1663. By 1668, the menagerie was home to thousands of exotic animals, many of which were birds. Seven animal enclosures radiated from the octagonal structure like the sun’s rays, and species organized each section attempted to replicate the birds’ natural habitat. In the Quartier des Demoiselles, lady-like cranes and ostriches had a sandy enclosure to suggest the desert; the aquatic birds had a pond, and Asian birds preened amongst fragrant plants. The Cour des Pélicans housed flamingos and wild ducks, while Le Rond-d’Eau presented a wetland for storks, herons, and other wading birds. Horn-billed cranes and eagles lived inexplicably with porcupines and foxes in this cacophony of noise. Later, an elephant, camel, lion, and a rhinoceros joined the amalgamation. The Basse Cour animals, culinary deli- cacies, were destined for the royal kitchen.
Initially, the introduction of animals was to emulate the displays of wealth established in Italy during the 16th century. While animals always populated courts, they were formerly a means of protection or bloody entertain- ment in previous reigns. Louis XIV changed this dynamic by integrating animals as a sign of contemplation; pow- erful living breathing paintings as a metaphor for world dominance. Thus, casting himself as steady and peaceful against the perception of unrefined distant prototypes.
The living collections were complemented by a labyrinth arranged by the head gardener André le Nôtre dotted with fountains and sculptures of figures from Aesop’s Fables engaged in dramatic fights between birds and mammals. Visitors to Versailles entered via the Grand Canal, simulating a Mediterranean voyage. The property be- gan in the labyrinth leading through to the splendors of the menagerie. Thus, giving the impression of leaving the uncivilized and entering the tranquility of the Sun King’s reign.
Royal salons provided an immortal exhibition of flora and fauna, free from rot and disease and available year-round, no matter the weather. Mademoiselle Scudéry recorded her impressions of visiting the Versailles, which gives a delightful sense of how these works were viewed. She observed the remarkable “portraits” firsthand. Images served as an introduction to the living museums, writing, “from the Salon one can see seven different enclosures filled with all sorts of birds and rare animals; their portraits are in the gallery, in order to prepare one for what one is about to see.” [“The Versailles Promenade, or the Tale of Celanire” (1669)]
During the French Revolution, the menagerie came under attack, and its inhabitants were either set free, used for food, or sent to the Jardins des Plantes in Paris. Today within the Jardins, the collection of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle includes some of the preserved specimens from the Royal Menagerie.
Louis XIV was a trailblazer in his voracious collecting vision, but he was not the last, nor was Versailles, for there was, of course, Malmaison. Recognizing the greatness of the Velins, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Empress Josephine continued work on this monumental and exquisite undertaking.
NAPOLEON, JOSEPHINE & MALMAISON
In 1798, Joséphine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, acquired the Château de Malmaison at Reuil. An enthusiastic amateur botanist, she surrounded France’s premier horticulturists, such as Jacques-Martin Cels, and created a spec- tacular botanical garden. Plants were sent from all over the globe with Joséphine’s family in the West Indies, sending her seeds and Napoleon providing seeds from his numerous expeditions. Aimé Bonpland also advised and supplied the Empress with seeds and plants collected on his expedition to South America from 1799 to 1804. Her affiliations with Kew Gardens in England and associations with the French ambassadors to exotic places like Morocco, Guiana, and Mexico also proved profitable for Joséphine’s plant collection.
In 1805, Joséphine had la grande serre, a large greenhouse, erected for the exotic plants she received. While care was a consideration, the gardens at Malmaison were not scientific botanical gardens like Jardin de Plantes. Instead, it was a pleasure garden. Josephine sought to rival the British growth of species in the 18th-century. Pierre Ventant wrote of Josephine’s efforts, “You have gathered around you the rarest plants growing on French soil. Some indeed, which have never before left the deserts of Arabia or the burning sands of Egypt, have been domesticated through your care. Now, regularly classified, they offer us, as we inspect them in beautiful gardens of Malmaison, an impressive reminder of the conquests of your illustrious consort.”
Such a collection commanded skilled and specialist natural history illustrators to ensure its permanent record. In 1803, Josephine began commissioning drawings of her rare and unusual species. Some of the most spectacular were captured by her floral artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute, her chief zoological artist Antonie Chazal, and commissioned artists of her birds, such as Jacques Barraband. Josephine’s patronage was a concerted effort to design a portrait of herself in the guise of previous rulers; she was securing her status at the court in both political reach and as a tastemaker.
THE ARADER COLLECTION OF VELINS
Many of the velins painted for the French court were eventually nationalized and transferred to the Jardin du Roi, later named the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.
The magnificent work by this stable of artists brought them to the attention of other potential patrons, namely noblemen seeking to emulate the court lifestyle, commissioned artists’ work for their collections, or em- ployed them as botanical drawing masters for members of their household. What is represented in this exhibition is a mix of works painted directly for the court and those painted for court ministers and noblemen closely connected to the royal family. Many come from the collection of the prosperous French industrialist Marcel Jeanson (1885- 1942). Jeanson was one of the most passionate collectors of natural history drawings in the twenty century. He assembled an astonishing library in less than twenty years, starting in 1930 with the initial purchase of the library of Henri Gallice (1854-1930) of Épernay, director of Perrier-Jouët and book collector.
Ornithological drawings in the Jeanson collection were, in many cases, painted by artists in the service of royal patronage: Nicolas Robert, who worked for King Louis XIV; Jacques Barraband, who painted for Napoleon and Empress Josephine, and the artists who illustrated the outstanding work of Count Buffon.
While original drawings remained in the inner sanctum of courts and estates, the democratic print made from a number of these watercolors reached throughout Europe, furthering the love of natural history as an art subject and reinforcing the French as the arbiters of courtly taste.