Today I visited what site of Louis XIV’s residence of Marly, near Versailles in the department of the Yvelines. I ended up walking super far because, of course, the train station of Marly-le-Roi is not the closest station. I got off there, when I should have gotten off at Louveciennes, the town right before. It was a nice walk, however, and it’s interesting to see how both towns have retained their village aspect since they were both built around royal country estates whose major prosperity ended around 1789.
Built between 1679 and 1686 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Marly was not open to the public like Versailles, but rather to courtiers handpicked by the king. Basically, it was a private country retreat and was said to be the king’s favorite, even more so than Versailles. Twelve pavilions bounded the walk from a magnificent series of fountains and waterworks that led to the king’s pavilion at the center of the domain. Invitations to what were known as the Marlys, the several-day excursions to the estate marked by spectacles and a relaxed etiquette, were highly prized. The duc de Saint-Simon recounts eager courtiers imploring “Sire, Marly”; they were literally begging to be invited. In effect, the only ones invited to Marly were those of the sword, the oldest families whose military origins dated to the Middle Ages. These were the same nobles who had revolted against royal authority during the Fronde in the 1640s and 1650s, and along with the lavish lifestyle offered by Versailles, the Marlys were a concentrated effort by Louis XIV to keep these would-be upstarts under royal control. Among the privileges of Marly was participation in the king’s hunt, which took place every day. Although Louis XIV hunted at Versailles, Fontainebleau, Chambord, etc., the exclusive nature of Marly made its hunts all the more prestigious.
Although they survived the ravages of the Revolution, the pavilions were almost entirely destroyed by the first decade of the nineteenth century after domain’s owner, an industrialist, installed a cotton factory in them and then dismanteled most of them to use the material to build more; Napoleon finished the demolition job in 1811 after purchasing it for its game-filled woods. Today, all the foundations are marked and there are illustrated interpretive signs throughout the parc. Apart from two bassins and one of the water parterres, the fountains and lakes still exist, and copies of the original statues, now at the Louvre, were just installed this year. It was actually a really enjoyable tour, there were lots of people just sitting around the bassins, walking their dogs, picnicking, and sunbathing.
It is no surprise that the king chose to decorate his private retreat with elements that recalled his preferred sport. The exterior of the guest pavilion of Diana, goddess of the hunt, was marked by sculpted dogs over windows and doorways. The paintings installed in the king’s private apartments at Marly, however, are unique in that they represent actual dogs part of the king’s packs. Created by François-Alexandre Desportes, these veritable canine portraits convey a personal side of Louis XIV that is often forgotten, the authoritarian image of the Sun King and the glory of Versailles often taking precedence. I visited the Musée-Promenade, a local history museum located on the grounds, at which a painting of an unidentified dog stalking a pheasant and a partridge is exhibited along with two preparatory works. Desportes painted Louis XIV’s eight favorite hunting dogs- Bonne, Ponne and Nonne, Blonde and Diane, Folle and Mite, and Tane- after receiving his first commission in 1702. He received a second order in 1714 for Lise, Nonette, Zette, and the fourth unidentified white dog. The idea of capturing favorite canines in oils caught on, with the prince de Condé commissioning overdoor paintings of Baltazar, Briodor, and Fanfaraut for Chantilly by an artist probably trained by or otherwise in the entourage of Desportes. A member of the royal Academy of painting and sculpture, Desportes began his career at the Polish court of Jan Sobieski; upon his return to France in 1696, he became the most important animal artist in France up until the 1725, when a fifteen year old Louis XV began to commission similar works from another artist, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, the son of a Parisian artist and art dealer and also a member of the Academy.
Although he continued the tradition of his great-grandfather at Marly, Louis XV’s greatest architectural achievement and preferred residence was Compiègne in Picardie. In several rooms of this château, Louis XV installed portraits by Oudry of his favorite dogs, including Misse and Turlu (1725), Polydore (1726), Gredinet, Petite Fille and Charlotte (1727), Blanche (ca. 1727), Mignonne and Sylvie (1728), Perle and Ponne, Luttine and Misse (1729), and Fine-Lize and Lize (1732). These canine favorites were joined at Compiègne in 1739 by paintings representing Cocoq and Merluzine, Florissant and Pompée, Hermine and Muscade, and Jenite and Zerbine. These were the work of Desportes, who maintained royal favor and admiration up until his death in 1743. Oudry’s royal patronage also continued up until his death 1755; after painting Louis XV’s dogs, he went on to create whole royal hunting scenes that were subsequently adapted by Louis XVI, who commissioned copies in which he had himself painted in his grandfather the king’s place. They show the king not only astride a horse in the thick of the chase, but also leading dogs himself on a leash during a peaceful break. A very human image of the king engaging in one of his passions is revealed by these canvases.
Both Desportes and Oudry sketched from life, visiting the royal kennels at Versailles and other royal domains. Draughtbook in hand and pencils at the ready, they even attended royal hunts to gain firsthand experience with their subjects. As notes Xavier Salmon, director of Fontainebleau, given that these portraits were destined for the private apartments of domains already removed from the public eye of Versailles, the feat of satisfying the personal taste of the king and not the predictable expectations of the state must have been all the more important. In light of this, these canine portraits reveal not only the types of dogs used for the hunt, details on collars, etc., but also provide a glimpse into the mindset and personalities of Louis XIV and Louis XV, for whom they were specifically-conceived.
It goes without saying that these dogs were indispensable to the success of the hunt, which was in and of itself an important element of Ancien régime kingship that actually continued into the Empire and Republican periods. Not only a sport, hunting was a manifestation, a “spectacular liturgy” to quote Philippe Salvadori, of the king’s mastery of both man (as seen in the order and hierarchy of the officers and servants of the hunt) and beast (demonstrated by the prey in addition to control of the dogs). It was a show of the sovereign’s physical strength and vigor, in addition to a metaphor of and training ground for battle. Both Desportes and Oudry show the skill and talents of the king’s dogs as they stalk birds, rabbits, wild boar, wolves, foxes, and deer. Is it going too far to infer that these canine portraits represent a sort of reverse anthropomorphization of the king’s strength and skills as they played out across fields and forests? By this I mean to ask whether Desportes and Oudry meant to represent the king’s power and command using his hunting dogs as metaphors.