Anyone who follows me here knows that an addiction to large, gorgeous coffee table books is alive and well, and I have a new favorite that will soon be slid onto my library shelves. Presidential Residences in France, published by Flammarion, is breathtakingly beautiful and insightfully written. There are three properties featured within its pages, The Élysée Palace in Paris, the pavilion of La Lanterne in Versailles, and the Fort of Brégançon on the Riviera.
Presidential Residences in France
In his foreword, Adrien Goetz, of the Institut de France, tells readers that this title is the first book to reveal the recent restoration and current furnishing of the Élysée Palace, which makes it a wonderful book for Francophiles. In the first chapter “Home to French Presidents,” Goetz wasn’t kidding when he wrote, “In France, every presidential election presents itself as a big bang,” particularly given the highly publicized skirmish that just wrapped up with Emmanuel Macron victorious after a nail-bitter watched closely around the globe. Goetz calls these shifts in power “new eras” that most often inspire redecorations of presidential residences in France; and, quoting Pierre Nora’s Rethinking France, he refers to the buildings themselves as “sites of collective memory.”
The Élysée Palace
The Élysée Palace illustrates this last point beautifully. Originally the Hôtel d’Évreux, it was, at first, a hastily constructed building inspired by a face-off. “The Count of Évreux had sought the office of Master of the Royal Hunt, which the regent, [Philippe II] the Duke of Orléans, mischievously promised to grant, in person, at the count’s Paris residence, knowing he didn’t have one,” Goetz explains. “So the count erected one on the quick, decorating just a few reception rooms. France’s current presidential residence was therefore built to meet a challenge and to impress…”
The structure became an archetype of perfection and the model for all urban mansions during the Régence period between 1715-23 when Louis XV was too young to rule. There are elements of the original design that have survived—the wood paneling above the fireplace in the Aides-de-Camp Room (now moved to the opposite wall); and decorative paneling with trophies tumbling over ribbons. Goetz notes that Madame de Pompadour deserves a great deal of credit for the gracefulness of the home, as it was the collected whole of the many properties over which she reigned that created the lasting fad for which she was celebrated.
“All these homes were testing grounds for the development of a style that, over the years, tended toward classical features and a certain ‘Greek’ taste—which explains the persistence of the Pompadour style down through the ages,” he writes, adding this this is likely because the original manifestations of her influences were characterized by the perfect integration of the arts, a dialogue between all the muses, and an equality between artisans, artists, architects, ornamentalists, painters, and sculptors.
He goes on to say that the period is viewed in hindsight as the highest expression of exquisite French taste that has been imitated throughout the world. You can see this influence of Louis XV’s famous mistress quite clearly in the above image of the Silver Room. This exemplar of classicism is named after the silver color of decorative gilding in white gold. It is the only room that still retains its original furniture. Delivered by cabinetmaker Jacob Desmalter in 1805-6, the méridienne sofas, lyre-back chairs, and gondole armchairs with carved swans were originally upholstered in dark red silk with silver binding. In 1812 Napoleon ordered that the furniture be re-upholstered in lilac silk taffeta.
But it was long before the Emperor put his stamp on the property when Madame de Pompadour dispatched her redecorating team to the mansion, which was headed by her trusted architect, Jean Cailleteau. Goetz shares how Pompadour’s memories of her time there would not be happy ones: “In 1762, distraught at the death of her daughter and ignored by an increasingly remote king, Madame de Pompadour admitted in a letter: ‘I furnished my Paris home magnificently—and enjoyed it for about two days.’” He says that when she died two years later, she bequeathed the residence to the king with the wish it would go to his grandson, then ten years old (later King Louis XVIII). Her request was ignored and the masterpieces assembled there were auctioned off. Going forward, the residence served as lodgings for ambassadors extraordinary.
The narrative takes readers through the Revolution; then introduces Joachim and Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister, who bought the property and undertook major work to turn the building into the epitome of the grand European style. Then, Napoleon III made his mark, followed by changes during the Third Republic. Finally, Charles de Gaulle spearheaded the effort to make the building a functioning governmental office fitting for the modern era.
“Since Versailles would have been excessive, the Trianon was in danger of collapse, Fontainebleau, Rambouillet, and Compiègne were too far away, and Vincennes—which I considered—was in [the] process of restoration, I settled for what was immediately available and had, moreover, become adapted to time-honored Parisian administrative habits,” de Gaulle wrote in Memoirs of Hope: Renewal, 1958-1962. “The new Republic, then, so far as its functioning and its reputation were concerned, would make the most of the old Élysée.”
Early depictions of life within the building were paintings, etchings, and drawings. Once photography enters the scene, the images present a parade of who’s who, including Winston Churchill, of course; Queen Elizabeth II; President and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy; Brigitte Bardot; and a succession of French Presidents and their First Ladies. Seeing these personalities entering and exiting, posing for photo ops, and dining in the ballroom illustrates how buildings themselves can act as historical documents. As the chapter on this hôtel particulier comes to a close, the lush gardens and laws surrounding the building serve as a segue to the two rural buildings frequented by France’s rulers.
The Pavilion of La Lanterne at Versailles
The second of the presidential residences of France is the Pavilion of La Lanterne, which was born as a hunting lodge at one end of the Grand Canal that slices through the manicured setting at Versailles. It serves as a weekend retreat for France’s presidents and their families, not meant for governing but for relaxation and exercise. It was sold during the Revolution and bought back by the government in 1818 when Louis XVIII was considering revamping Versailles during the Restoration.
A number of French leaders have participated in the renovations of the building, which were badly needed because there were structural challenges that resulted from the hasty construction of the original design. The person who is credited with the most extensive renovations is an American. James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the son of the founder of the New York Herald, rented it and carried out a major restoration campaign during his tenure in the building. “La Lanterne is no Camp David, the Shangri-La retreat appreciated by almost all American presidents since Eisenhower,” Goetz writes. “No cabinet meeting is ever held here, nor are international agreements signed here.” He adds that if a French president does receive a privileged visitor or a foreign head of state in this residence, “the absence of protocol becomes the highest protocol.”
He also notes that the grounds need no ornament, though a number of sculptures that dot the landscape are featured, each of them quintessentially beautiful as so many of the historical examples of French sculpture always are. There’s a soulful depiction of a nymph from the famous Baths of Apollo Grove at Versailles, a recent copy; a cast-iron copy of the statue of Diana at Versailles that stands alone in a grove; and a marble statue of Empress Joséphine titled Meditation, a copy of an original by François Joseph Bosio. There are also the stag heads on the gate, which were sculpted by Claude Poirier in 1703 for the menagerie at Versailles. They were restored in 1785-86, though it is unclear whether they were placed there when La Lanterne was built in 1787 or when Bennett revamped the premises in 1891.
The Fort of Brégançon
Goetz opens the chapter on the Fort of Brégançon, wrapping up the trio of presidential residences of France, with a question: “Why did the French lumber itself with a ‘fort,’ a beguiling seaside residence where you can’t even go swimming?” The picture-perfect Mediterranean setting is the answer, of course. The history of the building, set within its own peninsula that has its own microclimate, is long and storied, beginning as a medieval military post during the ninth century. “It was only in the fifteenth century that defensive works were built on the islet, which belonged to the Marquisate of Iles d’Or, a handsome title that King Francis I bestowed on his Master of Ships,” Goetz explains. “In the late sixteenth century, Brégançon belonged to the king, who nevertheless sold it to Boniface de la Mole (a name appropriated by Stendhal for his novel The Red and the Black.)”
The towers were first modernized by the Honoré de Gasqui family. In 1919, the French army abandoned the site and the government rented out the fort to the man who would do the most extensive upgrading, Robert Bellanger. He was “a left-of-center politician” who served as the undersecretary of the navy under Prime Minister Camille Chautemps in 1930. Not only did he outfit the property with running water and electricity, he built the causeway and the road leading to it, and erected the picturesque outer wall. “It was thus Bellanger who turned an uncomfortable fortress, reinforced in the late nineteenth century, into a gem,” Goetz writes, noting it was Charles de Gaulle who turned this building into a presidential residence. “Perhaps General de Gaul appreciated Bellanger’s 1930s taste; or maybe he enjoyed the account of the capture of the Fort of Brégançon by Captain de Leusse at the end of World War II; or the lack of beach may have appealed. (Can you imagine de Gaulle on a beach?)”
Though de Gaulle was not known for sinking his toes into sand, President and Claude Pompidou are pictured sporting it up in a boat, and President and Madame Giscard d’Estaing are photographed treading the choppy waters, illustrating how presidents could actually go for a swim. The chapter is picturesque, the nature surrounding the fort lush in spite of the fact that the ground is very dry. The air is very humid, Goetz explains, which turns the surroundings into a true botanical garden on the rocky clump that peters off into the sea.
Modernity and History Meet in Presidential Residences in France
Like the other residences featured in the book, there is a surprise in store when the interiors are shown. Modern art and furnishings have been introduced into each of the homes, the contrast a bit startling at first but apropos, as modern times exist more dynamically than history does given we are in the midst of living within them. And yet, the depth of the timeline into the past often makes the bygone attributes of architecture seem that it is antiquity that firmly has the upper hand because it looms so large contextually. I thoroughly enjoyed the historical breadth presented in the book, along with the visual beauty. If you’re a fan of France, this is definitely one for your coffee table or your bookshelf. You can purchase it from bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores, or through Rizzoli.