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The Musée Lambinet, Another Versailles

Published on , by Valentin Grivet

The Lambinet family’s former hôtel particulier (urban mansion), which serves as a history, painting, sculpture and decorative arts museum since 1932, has gotten a facelift. The newly redesigned exhibits provide a delightful glimpse into 18th-century life in France.

Gustave Boulanger, Portrait de Madame Lambinet (Portrait of Madame Lambinet), born... The Musée Lambinet, Another Versailles

Gustave Boulanger, Portrait de Madame Lambinet (Portrait of Madame Lambinet), born Nathalie Sinclair (1857-1926), 1887, oil on canvas, 150.3 x 90.3 cm/59.17 x 35.55 in (detail).
© Ville de Versailles/Pierrick Daul

“It’s a local museum, a place of charm. We don’t claim to rival the chateau!” says François de Mazières, Versailles mayor and former president of the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine in Paris. Between the French classical façade and a small garden in the back lies a collector's residence showcasing the city’s art and history with paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative arts spanning the 17th to the mid-20th century. Erected in 1752 as a private mansion for Joseph-Barnabé Porchon, entrepreneur of royal buildings under Louis XV, the museum has emerged from a three-year renovation with a completely redesigned visitor’s route. Elected officials and the conservation team spearheaded the ambitious project in a complicated context. “The Chateau of Versailles recently took back the revenues from the Place d'Armes parking lots, which up to now have been going to the City,” says Mr. de Mazières. “It's a huge loss of income. Our budget was tight. We used the technical teams and municipal workshops for the electricity, carpentry, painting and the new museum furniture, which created tremendous synergy.”

Henry Moret, L’Ile d’Ouessant, la chaussée Keller (Ouessant, Keller Shoreline), 1897, oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm/23.62 x 28.74 in.© Ville d

Henry Moret, L’Ile d’Ouessant, la chaussée Keller (Ouessant, Keller Shoreline), 1897, oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm/23.62 x 28.74 in.
© Ville de Versailles

An 18th-Century Mansion
The interventions on the built fabric—replacing the windows on the rue Baillet-Reviron side, restoring the parquet floors, painting and gilding the woodwork—required the collections to be moved and raised questions about the re-hang: what should be shown and how? The museum, which received the “musée de France” label in 2004, had never undergone such an extensive renovation before. It had to reassert its identity and make it easier to read how the collections were built over time. Until now, paintings took precedence over the decorative arts. “We had to strike a new balance,” says museum director and heritage conservator Émilie Maisonneuve. “But above all, many visitors left the museum without knowing who the Lambinets were. There was no introduction or narrative. Today, we tell a story.”

Crozier from Notre-Dame-du-Lys Abbey, 13th-15th century, wood, rock crystal, vermeil, copper, jasper and paper, h. 177 cm/69.68 in.© Ville

Crozier from Notre-Dame-du-Lys Abbey, 13th-15th century, wood, rock crystal, vermeil, copper, jasper and paper, h. 177 cm/69.68 in.
© Ville de Versailles/Thierry Ollivier

As soon as they step into the vestibule, visitors now come face-to-face with Gustave Boulanger’s 1887 portrait of Madame Lambinet, born Nathalie Sinclair (see photo). Depicted in a rose-studded ballgown, this is the woman who created the museum. Shortly before closing for renovation in the spring of 2019, an exhibition traced the family’s history based on research by Charlotte Bellando, Assistant Director responsible for promoting the museum and its collections. Jean-Baptiste Lambinet (1753-1842), a tailor, moved from Eastern France to Versailles in the 1780s. Jean-François (1783-1864), who took up the same profession as his father, was the city’s mayor for a while. His son, Victor (1813-1894), bought Porchon’s old hôtel particulier and moved in during the late 1850s. His son, Félicien (1846-1908), married Nathalie Sinclair (1857-1926), a 40-year-old widow who gave birth to a boy who died at the age of 12. Wanting to leave a legacy and preserve the home where she had so happily lived until the tragedy, Madame Lambinet bequeathed the mansion to the city, which became its official owner three years after her death. In keeping with her wishes, the house became a museum in 1932, but by then almost nothing was left of her collection: in 1927 the estate’s executors had auctioned off 160 paintings, drawings and pastels, 40 objets d’art and 93 pieces of furniture in Versailles. When the museum was opened to the public, it barely contained 10 pieces that had belonged to the Lambinets, but it housed a large portion of the fine arts collections kept since 1888 in the musée Houdon in the municipal library. These eclectic works, including a medieval crozier from Notre-Dame-du-Lys Abbey, a painting by Hubert Robert and a Louis XV Vernis Martin cartel clock, formed the core of the collections visitors see today. Most are on the ground floor, which focuses on their history.

A House of Collectors
The collection grew quickly thanks to the generosity of people like Claude Saint-André, who in 1936 donated Pierre Mignard’s portraits of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan’s children. Two actresses were also prominent donors: Louise Thiry, who left her 17th, 18th and 19th-century works to the city, and Julia Bertet, a resident player at the Comédie-Française whose porcelain collection and cozy interior scenes entered the museum in 1942. The collections continued to expand: Edmond de Rothschild made a donation in 1988, the Versailles hospital deposited a set of Sèvres pharmacy jars in 1994 and a small room devoted to today’s collectors features works by Charles-Joseph Natoire, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. “They’re loans, granted by a single owner, that may become a gift one day,” says Ms. Maisonneuve. The visitor’s route continues in a series of period rooms on the first floor. The dining room, bedchamber, boudoir and Gold Room attest to the art of living at Versailles just before the Revolution. Their marvels include a Jean-Noël Bigand clock, Chinese porcelain, armchairs by Jean-Baptiste Claude Sené and an eight-pedal harp by Henri Naderman, Marie-Antoinette’s stringed-instrument maker. “Few of his instruments are in public collections, and this is the only one with an original mechanism,” the director says. “It sounds just like it did at the time.” A cabinet contains some ivory, silver and hardstone treasures (boxes, fans, watches, pins, etc.), while an 18th-century sculpture gallery includes plasters from Jean-Antoine Houdon’s studio and bas-reliefs by Augustin Pajou. A room devoted to the 19th century features two of Louis Boilly’s masterpieces, paintings from the Eugène Asse Collection, including lovely pictures by minor masters, and the Guy Collection, which consists of works by Eugène Carrière, Henry Moret, Maximilien Luce, Maxime Maufra and Armand Guillaumin. The second floor tells the story of Versailles from the reign of Louis XIII to the Second World War, with an emphasis on the revolutionary period, documented by historian Charles Vatel’s 1883 donation. This section boasts many astonishing pieces, from the bells Louis XIV commissioned for the Récollets convent to Madame Victoire’s surprise eggs and paintings by Joseph-Marie Vien, François Boucher and Auguste-Alexandre Baudran. There are few significant 20th-century works, however, except for a very beautiful painting of the hôtel particulier by Henri Le Sidaner that the artist gave to the museum in 1939.

Musée Lambinet, Versailles.
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