The newly restored apartment of Louis XV's last mistress is now open to the public for the exhibition dedicated to the monarch. One of the most refined places of the château, a testament to the intimacy of Versailles.
© Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN © Christophe Fouin
In the twilight of his life, King Louis XV was widowed, after the death of his wife Queen Marie Leszczynska, which was followed by that of his mistress and friend, Madame de Pompadour. He quickly found consolation in the beauty of Madame du Barry, his last mistress. He even decided to move her into his former offices, just above his own apartments. This prestigious area, in the very heart of the chateau, covers 3767 square feet on the second floor under the roof. The apartment was divided into about fifteen rooms, including a room that was directly connected to the king's room by a small hidden staircase. The monarch, aged 60, could thus discreetly join his young mistress, who was 33 years younger than him. Designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, this vast dwelling overlooks the marble courtyard from the reception rooms and the inner courtyards from the more intimate rooms. In the main rooms, the profusion of gold is astonishing: "To have gilded woodwork was normally an exceptional privilege at court, a privilege enjoyed only by princes," explained Frédéric Didier, architect of Historic Monuments, who was in charge of the restoration project. Undoubtedly, the mistress of Louis XV, who was born Jeanne Bécu, and who was despised by many in the court because of her origins, wished to assert her respectability and power through this gilded display. The other half of the apartment has exceptional polychromatic decorations, with a different color for each room: emerald green in the dining room, lilac pink in the anteroom, ultramarine blue for the bathroom, as well as putty white, pearl gray and pale yellow. The countess deployed a particular refinement in this place which she embellished with furniture and art objects at the cutting edge of fashion. As an art lover, she encouraged the work of painters and craftsmen and cultivated the neoclassical style. She commissioned several works from the painters Fragonard and Vien, without forgetting the most innovative designers of luxury furniture, in particular, the carpenter Louis Delanois and the cabinetmaker Jean-François Leleu. Thus, this court lady renowned for her taste had the most prestigious apartment, until Marie-Antoinette became the ultimate authority on elegance. Madame du Barry organized many receptions and concerts there, but she only enjoyed this enchanting place for a short time: only four years, before she was expelled from the Court upon the death of the sovereign. Most of the furniture that adorned the Versailles apartment was then sent to the Château de Louveciennes, her main residence.
A Massive Project
After the departure of Madame du Barry, her apartment was divided into several apartments and only a few minor alterations were made. Permanently occupied, it thus escaped the revolutionaries' campaign to burn the royal insignia in October 1793, while one of the many marble fireplaces is still decorated with a fleur-de-lis and some of the woodwork with the original double "L", one of the few authentic royal emblems preserved at Versailles. Under Louis-Philippe, the apartment was also spared the major transformations that he commissioned. This is why it has been preserved in its original configuration, "which is quite exceptional in Versailles," said architect Alexis Muller, who was in charge of the restoration project. Despite the exemplary renovation carried out under the direction of André Japy, chief architect of the Versailles estate, in the 1940s, the place had fallen into disrepair following several water infiltrations that had altered the paintings, decorations and ceilings. The work began in February 2021, thanks to a €5 million grant from the AXA Group. A large-scale project that mobilized about fifty craftsmen: carpenters, mirror-makers, ironworkers, painters, gilders and marble workers. This campaign's approach followed those carried out in 1943 and 1947: "Our desire is to preserve the authenticity of the place as close as possible to the way it was in 1770, and not to do a restoration that is too flashy," said Frederic Didier. Several "indicator" marks left during the previous restoration allowed us to get as close as possible to the original state. After the partial removal of some paneling and parquet floors to install electricity, and the insulation work, the carvings on the woodwork were reworked and the old gilding was cleaned and restored. The "King's white" glue paint has been removed and restored using traditional methods. And in the rooms with polychrome decorations, most of which had disappeared by the end of the 18th century, the painters used period techniques and materials.
The Mistress' Taste
The Countess du Barry did not have the benefit of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, so she commissioned a set of furniture to her taste, which was out of sync with the Louis XV style, then in vogue at Versailles. The most striking example is the commission of nine pieces of furniture featuring Sèvres porcelain plates by Martin Carlin (c. 1772). This original furniture, a testimony to the most refined style of the eighteenth century, was mostly seized and dispersed after Madame du Barry's death and is now spread out in museums - in the United States, in the Frick Collection, and in the Louvre, including the famous chest of drawers with porcelain plates and a pedestal table. The large gilded bed with columns and a carved imperial has disappeared. Only the chairs made by the carpenter Louis Delanois for the corner salon, a hard stone table made by the cabinetmaker Martin Carlin and a pair of Sèvres porcelain vases mounted in gilded bronze, as well as a portable inkwell of the same material, have returned. A pair of marble, porphyry and gilded bronze vases as well as a pair of Sèvres porcelain bowls that belonged to her have also returned to the premises. All the other furniture has been replaced by pieces from the furniture collection of the Château de Versailles, with a choice of pieces evoking what might have been Madame du Barry's furnishings. "These are more or less contemporary pieces that best reflect the daily environment of Louis XV's mistress," said Yves Carlier, who is in charge of refurbishing the apartment and who is curating the exhibition dedicated to Louis XV. Thus, in the corner cabinet, in addition to the original chairs, there are four armchairs that were made in 1775 by Jean-René Nadal for the Count of Artois in Versailles. In the dining room, there are two gilded bronze and marble console tables based on a design by the architect Victor Louis, or by the sculptor Jean-Louis Prieur for the console tables in the Royal Palace in Warsaw: "Stylistically, they are also totally in the spirit of the furniture that Madame du Barry loved," added Yves Carlier. The absence of accurate period documents on the draperies and fabrics that adorned the four-poster bed, chairs and sofas in the apartment led the curator to choose fabrics from numerous upholsterers' catalogs that were as close as possible to the Countess's taste. Guided by brief descriptions of the time, the curtains and doors of the dining room are in green damask, dauphine medallion blue background in the large room, and dauphine white background with bunches of roses in the bedroom. A re-furnishing which, although it is more of an evocation, is as close as possible to the original.