We knew we would be wowed when we visited Versailles given the images we had seen of the lavish architecture and décor. But we were surprised when the two buildings on a much more comfortable scale to the human form, the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, rose to the top of our favorites list. The day we trekked to the famed palace, the weather was wicked for much of our time there—the rain blew sideways to the point that nothing stopped it from soaking us, including the plastic curtains mounted to the golf carts that carried us from building to building. The deluge prevented us from seeing many aspects of the grounds that we would have loved to explore, which we were prompted to remember when we opened an email and saw an exhibition of Lalanne sculptures on these very grounds.
Lalanne Sculptures at Trianon
We invite you to do a bit of armchair traveling with us through this post. The installation is titled “The Lalanne at Trianon” and is being staged by the Palace of Versailles in partnership with Galerie Mitterrand. The works by sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, which will dot the English Gardens from the Petit Trianon to the Queen’s Hamlet, will be on view through October 10, 2021.
The Lalanne sculptures are poetic and surrealist animal sculptures that create a dialogue with the bucolic atmosphere of the location. It is an exceptional opportunity to discover some of the couple’s major works, such as the emblematic Choupatte (Géant), 2016, (above) and the Wapiti (Grand), 1996. Assisted by the Lalanne family and several collectors, Galerie Mitterrand has chosen a selection of the Lalannes’ sculptures that showcases an impressively diverse range of their works made over a period of fifty years.
The Lalanne sculptures were curated by Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand and Laurent Salomé, the director of the National Museum of the Palace of Versailles and Trianon; and financial support for the exhibition was contributed by Dior. Just how long have these artists been creating? The Lalannes have been sculpting since the 1950s, drawing their inspiration from nature. Their works are based on playful associations imbued with humor and poetry. All their lives, they paid tribute to nature through their works by evoking fauna and flora in sculpture.
Claude Lalanne, who was trained at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, has an exceptional reputation for her works, which is now celebrated worldwide. She freezes natural forms and instinctively transforms them into sculptures, tables, chairs, benches, and mirrors. François-Xavier Lalanne has a very different approach to sculpture; he is convinced that sculpture, and more generally a work of art, can have a function. While the focus is molding and assembly for her, it is drawing and construction for him. They are stylistically diverse, as well: it is classical and architectural for François-Xavier, and organic and baroque for Claude.
The choice of location is ideal for showcasing the Lalanne sculptures both scenically and historically. Marie-Antoinette commissioned the hamlet, nestled in a corner of the English Gardens, and the series of small thatched pavilions designed by the architect Richard Mique. These were perhaps inspired by the tales of Perrault or the fables of De La Fontaine during the reign of Louis XIV, or the Pre-Romantic works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in her own time.
A Brief History of the English Gardens at Trianon
A few years previously, the Petit Trianon, which opens onto the English Gardens on one side, satisfied the same desires for Madame de Pompadour and then Madame Du Barry. To deepen this story a bit, we thought we would share a bit of history about the English Gardens on the grounds of the Petit Trianon.
When Marie-Antoinette took possession of the Petit Trianon in 1774, she began thoroughly remodeling the gardens. Louis XV’s botanical gardens were replaced by a vast Anglo-Oriental Garden, more in keeping with contemporary tastes. It featured natural features such as the Grotto. In designing these new gardens, Marie-Antoinette made a conscious decision to limit the number of buildings. She ultimately settled on two ornamental structures, the Belvedere and the Temple of Love, both designed by her official architect Richard Mique.
Mique began working on his design for the folly, which would become known as the Temple of Love, in 1777. On May 5th of that year, he presented the queen with a model made of wood, plaster and wax, crafted to his precise instructions by sculptor Joseph Deschamps. Uncharacteristically, Marie-Antoinette approved the plans immediately with no modifications. The monument, set on an island in the river, stands atop a circular platform with seven steps. Twelve Corinthian columns are topped off with a low-profile cupola of Conflans limestone, covered with lead and painted to resemble wood. The underside of the cupola features sculpted caissons and rosettes arranged around a central panel created by Deschamps.
Measuring some two meters in diameter, this centerpiece features a quiver, arrows and flaming embers, interwoven and adorned with roses and olive branches. The entablature is composed of an architrave with soffit sections adorned with rosettes and Arabesque scrolls, inside and outside, along with a composite cornice. The floor of the monument was designed by the marble craftsman Le Prince, incorporating veined white, Languedoc red, and Flanders marble. Construction started immediately and concluded in July 1778.
The masonry is the work of Guiard. As the centerpiece of this new monument, the queen turned down the sculpture proposed by Deschamps and instead installed a copy of Bouchardon’s Cupid fashioning his bow from Hercules’ club (1750), originally intended for the Hercules Room but relegated to the Château de Choisy in 1752. Marie-Antoinette had the statue transferred to the Louvre to allow sculptor Louis-Philippe Mouchy to produce a copy. Mouchy’s copy was removed from Le Trianon during the Revolution and spent some time at Saint-Cloud before being returned to its original location in 1816. The folly was thoroughly restored in 2006.
The Belvedere was also designed by Mique, and completed in 1781. This folly is set atop the little mound which overlooks the lake. It is an octagonal pavilion crowned with a low-profile cupola largely concealed by the surrounding balustrade. Above the four windows are low-relief sculptures representing the four seasons. Four patio doors open onto the interior, whose walls are adorned with remarkable mural paintings by Sébastien-François Le Riche. The ceiling, showing cherubs frolicking in a clear blue sky, was painted by Lagrenée, while the floor is paved with a marble mosaic. The queen used the Belvedere as a lounge in the summer time. With its many doors and windows, the light flooded in and the space created the impression she was ensconced in an open-air living room.
The grotto within the grounds that completed in 1782. We’re hoping to visit Versailles in the summer at some point so we can see the fountains flowing, blue skies above, and an abundance of green leaves. Until we do, we’ll just have to live vicariously through the incredible events we come across in our inboxes and on social media.