A month from Sunday, I’ll be winging my way to Paris to attend Maison & Objet, and I’m thrilled to say I’ve been invited to Limoges to visit the Bernardaud factory while I’m in France. This invitation from the porcelain manufacturer means so much to me because I will be able to see, in person, The Historic Table, a collection of patterns that have monarchs Louis XVI and Charles X as supporters due to their involvement with the Ancienne Manufacture Royale (AMR). This has been on my bucket list since I learned of these treasures and I celebrate that I will finally get to experience how it feels to be dining with history!
Bernardaud and The Historic Table
The aim of the AMR initiative was to ensure that traditional porcelain-crafting skills would be passed along to future generations and it has done just that. It is also part of the Manufacture de Sèvres collective, which ensures that production of the lauded porcelain remains close to the source of the raw materials required to make it. In 1986 Bernardaud acquired the AMR, and has since been preserving French porcelain heritage by creating reproductions of 18th– and 19th-century masterpieces. The company works closely with the national and international museums that own the extant original pieces to replicate the tableware. This is one of the most powerful examples I’ve come across highlighting how design history can be preserved.
Along with the Louis XV pattern, which I have written about here on The Diary of an Improvateur, The Historic Table collection includes the Marie-Antoinette pattern, and the Rambouillet Dairy Service. I’m saving the latter for another day to focus this entry on the pattern dedicated to Louis XVI’s Queen. I begin my homage with a question: how is it that someone who lived so long ago can feel so present to so many people and in so many ways?
The Marie Antoinette Effect
We can thank filmmakers, of course, as some of the most creative re-imaginings of the Queen’s life, which ended with her execution 222 years ago this past August 10th, have been unveiled on the big screen—and none more expressively than Sofia Coppola’s tribute starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman as the Queen and King. The movie is one protracted flow of sublime eye candy that I watch from time to time to let the visual beauty of the Baroque interiors of Versailles and the lavishness enjoyed by the doomed monarchs wash over my senses.
We also have a handful of novelists to thank for our continued fascination, including Sena Jeter Naslund whose book Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette passed one of my most stringent tests. I am not a relaxed traveler and the delays during a particular trip in 2006 were endless, but it was the first time I can remember almost not caring because I had just received a review copy of Abundance and I was devouring the remarkable narrative that brought the ill-fated Bourbon royals bursting to life.
In Naslund’s story the young Queen’s world is painted with a lush and lively brush. I’ve always admired this author’s commitment to historical research, which makes her novels ring so true. I adore how Naslund sprinkled letters between Marie Antoinette and her mother Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria, throughout the narrative. In the novel, they address each other as “Madame, My Dear Daughter” and “Madame, My Most Dear Mother”—such over-the-top formality to our modern eyes but true signs of the times and class they inhabited.
The Pastimes of Marie Antoinette
An example of an exchange between the new Queen (as she would have looked in the portrait above) and her mother illustrates Marie Antoinette’s favorite pastimes: “I truly love my embroidery, as it puts me in a kind of trance. I am not transported into another world as I am at the theater or even when I read an engaging book, but I enter a deep, still place within myself as I create flowers in thread. I feel calm and happy, which is a good balance for the thrill of the gaming table, though I gamble much less now and only in my own apartment; instead, I often play billiards.”
I thought of these letters one sweltering afternoon last July when I ducked into the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, to escape the heat because I had the thrill of seeing a table à écrire belonging to Marie Antoinette in person. Was this really the writing table upon which letters like these would have been penned? I wondered, in awe of the petite desk I found tucked within a cluster of galleries on the main floor of the museum. The spaces included a lovely Rococo interior called the Widener Room, its walls clad in an aged boiserie originally installed in La Château de la Norville about 20 miles south of Paris.
Worn down to where it appeared it had been stripped to an unfinished grain, the matte surface of the carved paneling made it feel much plainer than I imagine it would have been when it graced the chateau. This didn’t make the provincial-style room less charming than when it was set within the destination for nobility to convene away from the city but there was something about it that puzzled me. I’ve been in luxuriant Rococo and Baroque interiors with equally unified designs before but this one seemed more intimate and I couldn’t put my finger on why at first.
I tarried in the space for quite a while, imagining how the paneling, mirrors and paintings when ensconced within the original setting would have reflected a luxuriant candle-lit glow. As I traced the decorative scrolls ornamented with carved flowers, waves, shells and vines with my eyes, admiring the artistry that birthed such graceful adornment, I realized why the room felt so reticent: it was like seeing a woman without her make-up. There were hints of her adorned self in the lushness of Christophe Huet’s paintings inset into the transoms, the gilt-framed compositions still gleaming as they would have when lavish fêtes were underway, but there was an air of vulnerability about the room that would not have occurred to me if the high-gloss had been intact.
There were a number of writing tables in the room, a particularly grand one in the Rococo style holding court in the center was designed by Charles Cressent in the mid 18th-century. But it was a smaller one in a neoclassical design set along one wall that made my heart stop as I read the placard above it proclaiming it to be the “Writing Table of Queen Marie-Antoinette.” The marquetry along the top surface, the gilded ornamentation, the panel of cherubs on the front, the clean design despite its ornateness—all envisioned by the French royal ébéniste Jean-Henri Riesener—represented the epitome of wealth and privilege it was meant to convey, and in the most enchanting way.
The Palace of Versailles
I wondered if there were images of the desk in its original setting so I went in search of them, finding the last two images above on WikiMedia. The site claims they show the desk in the Queen’s Cabinet doré at Versailles, where it would have been placed, but the emptiness of the rooms in the quick tour of the palace in the video below make me think some Photoshop manipulation has been employed to place furnishings in this royal residence, originally built by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge. I may find out this is not the case once I visit. I will update this entry if I do.
Louis XIV expanded it between 1661 and 1678 with the goal of moving his family and the seat of his power there, hiring Charles Le Brun to design the Baroque interiors, architect Louis Le Vau to enlarge the building and landscape designer André Le Nôtre to create the elaborate palace gardens that make it the stunning architectural gem it is today. I intend to visit Versailles while I’m in France—another entry I will be ticking off my bucket list! I hope to see more of Riesener’s furniture there, as it exemplifies one of my favorite periods in design—the early neoclassical Louis XVI, or Louis Seize, style.
I marveled that I was standing over such a storied piece of furniture at the NGA—so close I could have touched it but I dared not. It had such a presence that I felt if I listened intently enough, I could hear the scratching of Marie Antoinette’s pen as she wrote those many letters to her mother. Naslund highlights one from October 11, 1780, in which Marie Antoinette reports her daughter is teething. Then she begins describing her setting to the Empress: “Now I sit at my small secrétaire, positioned so that I face out the window, and I see the beautiful circular Temple of Love, built on a small island and linked to the shore by darling bridges over the moat. A mat of autumnal golden leaves floats slowly in the water, which reflects a white cloud or two. Within the colonnade of the domed temple is the marble statue of a slender, youthful Cupid fashioning his bow from the club of Hercules.” I hope I will be able to stand in that very spot when I make my way through the palace in January.
An Intimate Nest, Exquisitely Decorated
Another character in Louis XVI’s mise-en-scène that Naslund brings to life so adeptly is the portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who painted numerous likenesses of the royal and many of her courtiers. During her first visit to Marie Antoinette in the novel, the Queen describes the painter as “a girl who makes her way not by her birth but by her talent.”
The two women engage in a lengthy repartee that concludes when the Queen proclaims, “Then we are comrades,” I say. “And you must walk beside me as I demonstrate locomotion à la Reine.” I thought of this exchange as I stood in front of portraits of the Queen and other influencers in her world at the NGA, one of which is the above homage to Vigée Le Brun’s Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, painted in 1783.
Naslund dedicates an entire chapter to the Queen’s excitement over the sitting for this painting, Marie Antoinette’s vanity and sense of entitlement so obvious thanks to Naslund’s studied choice of words: “Having heard that the bloom of youth begins to fade after one turns twenty-eight, I have determined to have myself painted again, and this time I look forward to the sitting, for Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun shall be the portraitist. My request is that she present herself to me in my private apartment, in the interior of the chateau, where all the rooms are small and intimate. After the birth of Louis Joseph, the King gave me these small rooms, and I have claimed them as my own intimate nest, exquisitely decorated.”
A Gilded Rim
When I began my research for this post, I went back to the novel to see how I could illustrate moments when her story might include The Historic Table patterns, and I found several, such as this soliloquy in which the Queen expresses the hope that she might finally be pregnant. Naslund as good as places one of Bernaudaud’s cups in her hands: “In the old days, I would have run to the chambers of my aunts; I would have sat among the three of them while they petted and flattered me as though I were their prettiest lapdog; I would have sipped a cup of hot chocolate, and over its gilded rim, my lips would have formed the words, with no fanfare: I believe I may be pregnant.”
As the Queen shares her news with her husband that she is indeed with child, it’s clear how tableware we would consider fitting only for formal occasions, such as Bernardaud’s porcelain, were fixtures in their everyday lives: “The King sits beside me in bed, and once he is propped up and comfortably rests his back into the plump pillows, I hand him his cup, a beautiful green one of Sèvres porcelain decorated with a wide golden rim and lozenge portraits of deep pink roses. Then I reach for my own cup, as deep and satisfying a green as the forest itself.”
Dining with History
The day she gave birth to her youngest son, Louis Charles, Marie-Antoinette invited the Princess de Lamballe to dine with her in her chambers. “I sit up in my big bed, and trays are brought for us both,” Naslund writes, “a hot chicken consommé made savory with celery and carrots, and some pâté foie de gras spread on toast. I would like very much to ask for some chocolate, but I fear it might sour my milk, and I would like to nurse this child for a day or two before giving him over to the professionals.” Can’t you just see the consommé being ladled from the gorgeous soupiere above?
This young Queen had entered the jaded world of Versailles as an innocent, but by the time her husband’s grandfather, Louis XV, lay dying, she had identified a few arch-rivals, one of which was Madame du Barry, the favored mistress of her grandfather-in-law. The chapter in which Naslund moves the death of the King to its end is peppered with this conflict. I think of it as I come across a portrait of Madame du Barry by François-Hubert Drouais (above) hanging in a smaller gallery next door to were Marie Antoinette’s portrait and writing table were displayed at the NGA. I wondered if the Queen would have been livid to have du Barry’s visage so near given how she despised the “wanton woman.”
“How I admired her golden beauty and voluptuous figure when I first came here with my little flat chest and naïve ways,” Marie Antoinette remarks in Naslund’s narrative. “She is still beautiful. I cannot deny I am glad that her carriage is now departing—I hear the rattle—from the gates for the last time. I am relieved of an irritation, of a burden. Involuntarily I breathe more deeply and lift my head.”
I close my eyes for a moment and imagine the ousted mistress trundling through the gates of Versailles. Would she have been reliving the better days when her romance was new, those merrier times at Fontainebleau, perhaps? Did she remember those intimate moments, seated near her lover, when his servants filled the cerise and gold festooned cups he’d bought for the estate and used on a daily basis when he was in residence with tea from a lovely pot like the one above? It’s what I think about when I see her visage now given the luxury of 240 years’ worth of distance and the understanding that preserving these patterns allows history to just as artfully live on through design as it does through Naslund’s novel and Copola’s film.
Let Them Eat Cake!
And how clever design can be in illustrating history! Take the image of Bernardaud’s rectangular cake platter in the Marie Antoinette pattern above. Whether she actually did proclaim, “Let them eat cake” or not, it has remained one of the most oft-repeated caveats attributed to her over the past two and a half centuries. I have to say I can’t fault her for her desire for more sweets given the delicately beautiful porcelain upon which the confections would have been delivered. I say “Let us eat cake” if a platter this divine can be the bearer of our just desserts!
In all seriousness, though, how can we not admire the experience and talent that enables Bernardaud’s artisans to fashion these artifacts, filmmakers like Copola to produce such compelling movies, and novelists like Naslund to create such vibrant stories? I can think of a handful I admire on the subject of Marie Antoinette—Carolly Erickson’s The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette and Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber among them. But Naslund’s novel has remained at the top of my list for the past decade for good reason.
I hope you have enjoyed this jaunt back into the 18th-century thanks to this talented author, the National Gallery of Art and Bearnardaud. I will be Instagramming from Limoges when I visit them there, as well as from Paris while attending M&O. I’ll be using the hashtag #MO16 as I make my way through the fair and the attendant events so I hope you’ll let me know if you see an image that you find particularly appealing. I’m super excited about the trip, the tagline M&O has set—Be Highly Inspired in Paris—my mantra as my next literary design adventure draws near.
The Diary of an Improvateur and this entry, Dining with History, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is also a contributor to Architizer.by