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Royal Animals and Political Beasts During the Enlightenment

Published on , by Armelle Fémelat

They were everywhere: gardens, menageries and even the private apartments of the kings and princes of France. Two exhibitions show how animals roamed the corridors of power in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), Trois chiens devant une antilope, (Three Dogs before... Royal Animals and Political Beasts During the Enlightenment

Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), Trois chiens devant une antilope, (Three Dogs before an Antelope), Ireland, Russborough House.
© Alfred Beit Foundation

Versailles and, to a lesser extent, Chantilly had thousands of animals and hundreds, even thousands, of species, from cats, dogs and horses to monkeys, deer, reindeer, elephants, coatis, quaggas (now extinct), swans, pheasants and pigeons. They were beasts of burden, food resources, pets or simply ornaments. They contributed to the estates' survival and were spread out between various places of the menagerie and farms: the “ménage de Bucan”, Sylvie's house and the Vineuil farm at Chantilly, Louis XV 's new menagerie at Versailles and, later, the queen's hamlet at Trianon in Versailles. Essential for hunting and making war, the noblest of all pursuits, dogs and horses ruled the roost. They were pampered and prominently featured in festivities and official ceremonies. During Louis XIV's reign, the Great and Small Stables at Versailles housed 2,000 horses, and the Great Kennel 300 hunting dogs. Unsurprisingly, some canines lived as near as possible to the royals, who treated them better than they did some courtesans; that must have ruffled some feathers. Louis XIV had the billiard room, the first in his suite of private apartments, transformed to house his favorite dogs. He asked Alexandre-François Desportes to paint his scent hounds. Later, Louis XV asked Jean-Baptiste Oudry to do the same. Their names—Folle, Blonde, Blanche and others—were written in gold. Later, “Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska, both proud cat lovers, lived with them…
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