Posted by: plbh88 | 06/05/2010

Bienvenue !

Welcome to my honors thesis blog! Although I’ve been excited for months at the prospect of actually researching, the idea of keeping a blog has only helped further inspire me to continue working and organize my thoughts. Here I will be keeping a record of the progress of my research in Paris and the surrounding area this summer, generously supported by the McCormack family through the McCormack-Reboussin scholarship, as well its development over the upcoming fall and spring semesters at William and Mary.

I started with a lot of different ideas last summer when I began the scholarship application. My original plan was to look at the micro-role that animals played within the broader spectrum of court life and manifestations of royal authority in Ancien régime France. In studying the different kinds of animals that existed at the French court, specifically as it evolved at Versailles ca. 1660 to 1789, I wanted to explore the figurative and literal spaces they occupied to understand what animals actually meant to kings, courtiers, and servants alike in addition to the function that animals contributed to the image of royal power. Were they simply luxury items, representative of royal prestige and wealth? Was there a deeper symbolism or motivation (political, economic, philosophical, etc.) to keeping domestic and wild animals at court?

So I kind of just copied and pasted that from my first set of notes. However, I can say that although I started with a pretty broad topic (animals at court in all their facets), I’ve sharpened my focus on a specific group/type of animals: the royal hunting dogs.

Animals in general have long played an important role as symbols of political practice in France. In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, personal emblems such as Louis XII’s porcupine and François I’s salamander attest to the importance of animals in royal iconography and representations of political power. From Louis XIV to the Revolution, however, attitudes towards animals changed that allowed for manifestations of political authority on multiple levels. Louis XIV designed Versailles in order for all eyes to be fixed on the monarch and his family. The dogs that abounded there both physically and in the architecture and interior decoration of the château can in effect be interpreted as extensions of loyalty and obedience to the king. In order to understand life at Versailles, it is impossible to ignore the presence of the hundreds of dogs that lived there and the multitude of people involved in their care.

Not only were these dogs necessary for hunting and symbolic of fidelity and of human power over nature, but numerous offices at or appointed charges at court (which were designed to keep the nobility under the king’s control at Versailles in the first place) relate to their care. The etiquette that regulated court life applied to the royal hunting packs, and the adherence to this code, even with respects to dogs, helped legitimize it. Additionally interesting to note are nobles who, wishing to achieve royal favor, made gifts of hunting dogs to the king. There definitely was an important political and cultural component to these animals often dismissed as symbols of royal decadence  and waste (critics of pre-1789 French society often pointed out the disparity between the treatment of the king’s dogs and the poor ; in 1793 revolutionary mobs even went so far as burning abandoned dogs alive in Paris, attesting to their important role in popular conceptions of court life). To discuss this animal phenomenom as it played out at Versailles, I’m visiting sites and examining objects and artwork related to the topic in addition to looking at archival records and period memoirs.

The emotional investment in these dogs is something else that I hope to address. Were they simply “props”, or did their owners actually care for them? What can this tell us about our relations with and attitudes towards animals in the twenty-first century?  Memorialists record Louis XIV’s hate of small lapdogs.  Yet both he and successors took an active interest in their hunting packs, with one author going so far as to describe Louis XV “working like a dog for his dogs.”  In addition to written sources, to answer these questions I am focusing in on royal commissions of individual dog portraits under Louis XIV and Louis XV, who even made sure that their favorite dogs’ names were included in gold lettering directly on the canvases.  Although some of these were painted for Versailles, they were eventually moved to other royal residences, such as Marly for Louis XIV and Compiègne under Louis XV. What did this canine decoration at châteaux removed from the public eye mean to its royal owners? What elements of the personality of the Sun King or of Louis Le Bien-aimé do these commissions reveal in light of the etiquette that reigned at Versailles?  Is it going too far to presume that, in light of French military defeats of the mid-eighteenth century, Louis XV and Louis XVI wished to nuance their images, balancing the martial iconography of a victorious Louis XIV for that of vigorous, athletic “hunter” kings?

On another level, royal fiscal reforms and preventive measures were taken as early as the 1720s that affected canine care at Versailles. By the 1780s, entire positions and titles that had granted their owners enormous sums were either abolished entirely or significantly-modified.  Others, however, continued up until 1792, when the royal family was imprisoned and the Republic was declared.  What do these developments reveal about attitudes towards the royal hunt as an expression of political power?

This topic combines my interests in early-modern French history and art/architectural history, especially the decorative arts given that these hunting dogs were often the reason for why much art was commissioned in the first place (portraits, animal furniture like doghouses) and that canine figures can be found prominently in everything from the sculptures to the furniture and ceramics commissioned for the French court. I have also always been interested in the “personal” side to the study of history; by this I mean looking past the battles, important documents, etc. In studying something like the life and times of Louis XV’s dogs for example, it is possible to imagine what life was actually like on a day-to-day basis for historical figures who too-often seem larger than life. The amount of surviving “material” such as engraved dog collars and written accounts only helps further visualize this “day-to-day” aspect of life in a place-Versailles- that is now a museum and no longer inhabited.

In addition, one of the sites that I am focusing on, the royal kennels or chenils, no longer exists (they were destroyed in the 1860s to make way for new municipal structures). I hope to uncover more of this little known site, part of the dehors or outside of Versailles, that lodged 250-300 dogs, in addition to their special staff, essential to the existence of the royal hunt. More than a diverting pastime, the hunt was a political tool whereby the king showed not only physical prowess, but also the capability to effectively lead and maintain order.

I’m very lucky in that I have been living in France since June of 2009. I am studying at the Sorbonne for my junior year, which has given me access to several useful university libraries. I was also an intern at the Louvre in the decorative arts department this semester, which not only gave me access to their library but also that of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux (the collective agency that runs all the state museums in France, headquartered in Paris). I am currently interning with the international liaison of the Société des Amis de Versailles and the American Friends of Versailles, which, together with my experience at the Louvre, has given me amazing contacts in the museum field who have already agreed to show me parts of Versailles not normally open to the public.

Additionally, my work at the Louvre gave me experience in working at the Archives Nationales in Paris, whose system/workings I was unfamiliar with. There I was working on reading and transcribing two eighteenth-century inventories, which helped reacquaint me with period handwriting and vocabulary. I’ve already had the opportunity to request and examine several archival materials related to my thesis. I’m looking forward to continuing reseach this summer once I finish classes in early-June!

Misse et Luttine, chiens de Louis XV, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1729, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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