Posted by: plbh88 | 04/07/2010

Avoir du chien: Royal pet grooming at Versailles

Although the list of historical inaccuracies in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film “Marie-Antoinette” could probably make a whole blog of its own, one thing that I did appreciate in watching it was the importance given to actually showing dogs at Versailles in the early scenes. Although the young dauphine did have other interests, her love of dogs can be traced back to her childhood at the Habsburg court in Vienna and continued through her adult years; two of her favorites, the princesse de Lamballe and the comte de Fersen, gave the queen dogs as gifts.  She even commissioned dog heads to decorate the arms of fauteuils in her private apartments at Versailles around 1785. Her mother, the empress Maria Theresia, even had one of her dogs stuffed after it died, leaving us a “primary source” of sorts of  how court dogs looked. The dog, in the Vienna Natural History Museum, resembles a papillon dog, but has some unique features that set it apart from the modern breeds that probably descend from it. 

Back to the film, on arriving at the neutral island of Kehl in the Rhine, where she is to be handed off, the future Marie-Antoinette is stripped of everything, from her friends to her clothes and even her dog, a German pug or mops (these were known as doguins or mopses in France, and eventually carlins).  Her first lady of honor, the comtesse de Noailles, assures her mistress with “you can have as many French dogs as you like”.  In effect, the choice of dogs at Versailles made no small list, and the teenaged dauphine quickly set about choosing more than just a few.  In the early-1770s the Austrian ambassador, the comte de Mercy, recorded that Marie-Antoinette’s fondness for dogs would “not be without inconvenience” if she continued adding to her growing pack, noting that two were “far from cleanly in their habits”. 

What was one to do for keeping domesticated animals, especially dogs, groomed at court?  Although they were parodied and caricatured, as seen in a 1771 British engraving, French dog barbers or tondeurs de chien were in high demand and de rigeur for anyone who wanted their pets to appear as fashionable as they did.  I have no idea of the etymological origins of the French expression avoir du chien, which means to be attractive or to have something special, but it could certainly date to this period when luxury dogs were just as much the focus of attention as the people who owned them.

The king’s hunting dogs certainly benefitted from the services of someone specially-trained. Under Louis XIV, the practice was to shave their tails, with the exception of small tufts at the tips. I am still working on figuring out why this was done, and it’s not something that appears in portraits of hunting dogs under Louis XV or Louis XVI. Additionally, dogs had to be marked so that they could be recognized (who they belonged to, what kind of game they hunted, etc.). Unlike horses, which were branded, dogs had the special emblem of their royal master clipped into their fur, a task that had to be repeated every few weeks.  Those belonging to the king, for example, bore an upside down triangle with a cross in the middle, evocative of the close ties between royal power and ecclesiastical authority, on their right flank.  The dogs belonging to the duc d’Orléans, a cadet branch descending from Monsieur (Philippe d’Orléans), brother of Louis XIV,  had the same inverted triangle, inside of which was an open circle.

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