Posted by: plbh88 | 17/05/2010

History told through objects

I have always been fascinated by objects and the stories that they can tell. In history especially, we often lose sight of the unique testimony provided by historic sites and material culture, focusing our attention instead on texts. Buildings, furniture, objets d’art and more mundane, utilitarian items are personal links to the past, building a bridge between us and the people who touched, used and lived with them on a regular basis. For my thesis, the many related objects- dog collars, furniture- and surviving spaces in the château provide a unique testimony of the presence of animals at Versailles that cannot be conveyed by documents alone.

To show the importance of objects in my study, I plan to discuss, among other things, the niches de chien like those that the archives reveal existed at Versailles, Marly and other royal domains. Prior to the seventeenth century, it seems as though most royal dogs slept with their masters, with some like Mistodin, a greyhound belonging to Louis XI in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, even receiving their own nightclothes. The 1328 inventory of Clemence of Hungary, however, cites “two double coffers of silk for a dog”. The actual word niche does not appear before the seventeenth century. Before the development of smaller, indoor breeds, most dogs were used for the hunt and lived in large kennels specially built on the grounds of royal estates. One interesting topic that I plan to explore later at the Archives Nationales in Paris are the plans and reports of the royal kennels at Versailles, which span from 1684 to 1778.

By the time the court was installed at Versailles, animal accomodations had developed. For example, a billiard room added to the king’s private apartments in 1693 took on a second function as cabinet des chiens that lodged Louis XIV’s favorite dogs; its proximity to his bedchamber allowed the king to personally tend to and feed the dogs himself. Louis XV created a similar space ca. 1738, called the antichambre des chiens, where he could keep his hunting dogs in “two double niches de chien of bleached giltwood…each one with a mattress of padded red carpetting and bordered by a little braid of aurora-colored trim, and two smaller mattresses of wool and linen”. Both kings even commissioned portraits of their favorite dogs; an important collection of these portraits commissioned by Louis XV in the 1730s and 1740s can be seen at the châteaux of Compiègne and Fontainebleau, with those of Louis XIV ordered for Marly now part of the Louvre and displayed at the musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in the Marais. These developments reflect the changes in attitudes towards pets, specifically dogs, could in a way be integrated “into the family”, even that of the king, so to speak. 

Furniture specifically designed for canine use was a further reflection of the court’s magnificence and prestige. Those ordered by Louis XIV in the late-seventeenth century, for example, were decorated with marquetry in imported woods.  Records from 1696 preserve an order of two such dog beds. Crafted by Aubertin Gaudron, master joiner in ebony, these beds, essentially doghouses, were destined for the château at Marly and made of veneered walnut with ebony marquetry and gilt bronzes. Measuring over a meter long, the beds could accomodate two dogs each. Red velvet imported from the Low Countries was used to upholster the dogs’ pillows;  early-eighteenth-century paintings by Alexandre-François Desportes at the musée de la Chasse et de la Nature and Jean Ranc (a French artist who made his career at the Bourbon court of Spain) show such cushions trimmed with gold-trimmed tassels and braid.

Painting of a dog cushion and spaniel at the court of Philippe V of Spain, grandson of Louis XIV

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