When we visited Washington DC, we had the privilege of seeing the National Gallery of Art. Ever since Lafayette, some connection between America and France, however tenuous, has existed. One of the strongest bonds between the two countries is the American love of French art. When we think of French art today, we instantly imagine the Impressionists. Our National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, however, houses one of the finest collections of 15th to 18th century French art in the world, thanks in part to the benefactors who saw something of America in those French artworks. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century documents the rich and varied collection of artworks and shows how this French connection tells us as much about American history as it does about French history. The painting above, of Diane Poitiers topless, is one of the masterpieces of the collection. A replica hangs in the Château de Chenonceau and is a reminder of the beautiful mistress of Henry II of France, Diane de Poitiers. I would call this portrait the “Mona Lisa” of France.
We decided to rent a car and drive to the Loire valley to see some of the châteaux. The Châteaux of the Loire Valley are part of the architectural heritage of the historic towns of Amboise, Angers, Blois, Chinon, Nantes, Orléans, Saumur, and Tours along the Loire River in France. They illustrate the ideals of the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment on French thought and design in the Loire Valley. The “Château des Dames” or Chenonceau was built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, and successively embellished by Diane de Poitiers then Catherine de Medici. Chenonceau was protected from the hardship of the revolution by Madame Dupin. The iron, but very feminine, fist in the velvet glove has always preserved Chenonceau during times of conflict and war in order to make it a place of peace. The château was built on the site of an old mill on the River Cher, sometime before its first mention in writing in the 11th century. The current château was designed by the French Renaissance architect Philibert de l'Orme. An architectural mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance, Château de Chenonceau and its gardens are open to the public. Other than the Royal Palace of Versailles, Chenonceau is the most visited château in France with over a million visitors per year.
In 1668, Louis XIV purchased Trianon, a hamlet on the outskirts of Versailles, and commissioned the architect Louis Le Vau to design a porcelain pavilion (Trianon de porcelaine) to be built there, to escape the pomp and rigid formality of court life with his mistress Madame de Montespan. In only a few years the fragile porcelain tiles deteriorated and Louis XIV had it torn down to be replaced with a more robust building.
In 1687 Jules Hardouin Mansart built the Grand Trianon, considered the most refined group of buildings anywhere in the domain of Versailles, on the site of the “Porcelain Trianon”. It is located at the end of the right end of the cross of the Grand Canal seen in the map to the right by the red box. In 1717, Peter the Great of Russia, who was studying the palace and gardens of Versailles, resided at the Grand Trianon; the Grand Palace at Peterhof is copied on Versailles.
We happened to visit during a special exhibition, Les Dames de Trianon (Ladies of the Trianon) which features all the kings’ women, the wives, the daughters, the sisters, the mothers, the ladies-in-waiting, the mistresses. Versailles is trying to revive interest in the often-overlooked Grand Trianon by hosting exhibitions here, like last year’s successful “A Taste of the 18th Century,” which brought together modern designers’ creations inspired by the 18th-century. I will be presenting images of the paintings from the exhibition in addition to images of the Grand Trianon.