12 OCTOBER 2021 - 13 FEBRUARY 2022
From its location in the heart of a vast forest in the Île-de-France region, the Palace of Versailles has always fostered a new relationship with the animal kingdom. From animals as objects to be studied or collected to those used as political attributes and symbols of power, what were the relationships between the Court and the domestic, wild and exotic species of the animal world?
The exhibition aims to illustrate the bond between the Court of
Versailles and animals, whether “companion animals” (dogs, cats and birds,
mainly), exotic beasts or “wild” creatures. No study of the Palace during the
reign of Louis XIV would be complete without considering the Royal Menagerie,
which the Sun King had installed close to the Grand Canal. It was home to the
rarest and most exotic animals – from coatis to quaggas, cassowaries to
black-crowned cranes (nicknamed the “royal bird”) – constituting an
extraordinary collection in which the king took ever greater pride.
The animals in the menagerie were also a great source of
inspiration for the artists of the time: they helped Claude Perrault with his
Natural History, as well as serving the Royal Academy of Sciences as subjects
for dissections and, later, Louis XV and Louis XVI, in their naturalism
As well as the actual animals that were collected and studied,
animal symbolism was used to represent power. The exhibition illustrates the
link between the establishment of Versailles as a seat of power – from the
construction of the Palace itself on the site of Louis XIII’s old hunting lodge
– and animal symbolism.
Part of the exhibition is devoted to the daily hunt – a key
activity pursued by warrior kings in times of peace as a form of training and
demonstration of power. Consequently, it features prominently in royal
The exhibition aims to shine a new light on the animals of
Versailles and help visitors discover the key aspects of animal life on the
Estate. The symbolic and political natures of animals
are also evident in the décor of the Palace. Their use as symbols, particularly
those inspired by ancient and medieval stories of nature, is extensive,
bringing a new dimension to Versailles.
In addition to decorative items from the interior of the now
long-lost menagerie – in particular, the paintings by Nicasius Bernaerts –
there are well-known garden sculptures, such as those in the Latona Fountain
and the Maze. The latter, which no longer exists, comprised no fewer than 300
animals made from lead, arranged into a scene from Aesop’s fables and depicting
a vision of the world in which animals make political, often moralising, always
educational, pronouncements. In all, 37 sculptures recovered from the
erstwhile grove will be on display.
The animals themselves will return in droves
to Versailles, because they never disappeared completely. They live on in the
work of the king’s top painters: from Bernaerts, Boel and Le Brun to Desportes
and Oudry, many artists produced portraits of these exotic, wild and more
familiar animals. As well as paintings, there will be portraits woven by the
Gobelins Manufactory plus animals that were dissected, engraved, then preserved
at the Academy of Sciences and in the King’s Garden, which is now the National
Museum of Natural History. On display will be the skin of the Asian elephant
gifted to Louis XV, which was donated to the Pavia Museum by Napoleon, and the
skeleton of the very first elephant at Versailles, which was presented to Louis
XIV by the king of Portugal and lived at Versailles for 13 years.
The exhibition will focus on the place and
role at Court of companion animals to both the royal family and courtiers.
Companion animals were present everywhere, enlivening the royal apartments,
brightening up the daily lives of children and adults alike, as is evident from
many portraits. It is clear that many of the sovereigns, such as Marie
Lesczcynska, wife of Louis XV, chose to surround themselves with their favourite
The Court’s interest in the animal world led to greater sensitivity towards animals, in direct contrast to the Cartesian theory of animal-machines. Madame Palatine and, later, Madame de Pompadour, were particularly passionate about them.