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Review of Goldstein, Claire. Vaux and Versailles: The Appropriations, Erasures, and Accidents That Made Modern France

Article Citation: 
XIV (2012): 145–147
(Matthew Senior)
Article Text: 

Goldstein, Claire. Vaux and Versailles: The Appropriations, Erasures, and Accidents That Made Modern France. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.  ISBN 978-0-8122-4058-0. Pp 270. $59.95

In December of 1661, Finance Minister Nicholas Fouquet was arrested in Nantes, at the orders of Louis XIV, charged with embezzlement and lèse-majesté, and eventually sentenced to life in prison. The team of artists who had created Foucquet’s Vaux-le-Vicomte and sustained its brilliant culture (Félibien, La Fontaine, Le Brun, Le Nôtre, Le Vau, , Scudéry, and others) was recruited by Louis to build Versailles and celebrate his glory, even as hundreds of orange trees and other plants were uprooted from Vaux and transplanted to Versailles. Fouquet’s arrest, graven in the memory of contemporary dix-septièmistes by the opening scenes of Rosselini’s La Prise de pouvoir, signifies, in the heroic narrative of the Sun King, the bold decision by the young king to govern alone and inaugurate the process of creating, ex nihilo, the modern absolutist state; a mercantilist empire; and a unique French classical style in architecture, garden design, dance, painting, political spectacle, and literature.

Claire Goldstein’s Vaux and Versailles revisits Fouquet’s arrest and the confiscation of his cultural and political vision by Louis XIV, in order to ascertain what aspects of what became known as classicism were derived from Vaux. “The appropriation and erasure of Fouquet’s daring roturier project made possible Louis XIV’s consolidation of the modern nation-state. Vaux provided the king a medium and a vocabulary with which to write the rule of his grand siècle …” (176). Analyzing the work of artists the king stole from Fouquet, Goldstein contrasts their work at Vaux, under the friendly patronage of a finance minister who himself composed rimes and enigmas and created an atmosphere of emulation and collaboration, with their work at Versailles, where an atmosphere of conformity, ambition, repetitious panegyric, as well as the colossal scale of the new château and park, lead to feelings of anxiety and paranoia. In a series of parallels, we see, in every case, the original idea at Vaux and its replication at Versailles.

Chapter one examines Moliere’s Facheux, performed at Vaux in August of 1661, as part of the lavish fête for the king, contrasted with its performance three years later as part of the Plaisirs de l’île enchantée. Subsequent chapters analyze Mme de Villedieu’s Favory, tapestries designed by Le Brun for Vaux and Versailles, literary visits to Versailles by Félibien, La Fontaine, and Mlle de Scudéry, Neptune’s Grotto at Vaux, explicated by La Fontaine in Le Songe de Vaux, the Grotte de Thétis and commentary by Félibien, and a concluding chapter on La Quintinie and horticulture.

At Vaux, Molière’s comédie-ballet gently ridiculed its courtier audience for their slavish conformity to fashion and manners, while at Versailles the same play was used, paradoxically, to enforce rigid conformity to such manners. Molière effected this change in perspective and meaning by adding a new prologue designating the king as the author of the play, a role reinforced by his elevated position as spectator of the play during the fête. Goldstein skillfully explains the political work of the fête, which, by means of lavish gardens, hydraulic fountains, and poetic conceits transforming Louis and Fouquet into Hercules, Apollo, or Alexander, “forged equivalence between the host and his domain.” Evocative details unearthed by the author concerning the staging of the fête explain how such equivalences were formed, “… Molière’s troupe make their entrance out of machines engineered to look like garden statues and trees” (35). There are many such vivid moments of historical re-creation in the book that succeed in capturing and reproducing the “plaisir,” “merveilleux,” and “enchantement” that poems, paintings, fountains, and tapestries from the period sought to evoke. Two such moments are the treatment of Le Brun’s paintings in the Salon des Muses at Vaux and the grottos of Neptune and Thetis at Vaux and Versailles. After a thorough explanation of the manufacturing process of tapestries at Vaux, Goldstein presents Le Brun’s painting of the victory of the muses over the other arts, “at the literal summit of the room” (72). The salon is carefully reconstructed architecturally followed by a vision of the salon through the eyes of the dream-narrator of La Fontaine’s Songe de Vaux, who, upon entering the room, feels his soul filled with an inexpressible sweetness similar to what he had experienced in the physical presence of the muses, “sous le plus bel ombrage de l’Hélicon.”  Looking at Le Brun’s painting, the dream-narrator is thrilled to see the muses “logées dans l’une des plus belles chambres [du] palais” (74). Through the work of Le Brun, La Fontaine (and its careful reconstitution by Goldstein), we share in La Fontaine’s vision of the muses taking up residence in Fouquet’s château.

The work of decoding and interpreting such expertly reconstructed scenes is equally lucid and cogent. We are told that Felibien’s ecstatic praise of the king seems “comically hyperbolic” (105); careful readings of prefaces and dedications to the king reveal, however, that the monarch was theorized and celebrated as both the author and the aim of all artistic production at Versailles, the “efficient and final cause” of spectacles in Aristotelian terms. The melding of the natural and the artificial in garden theory is similarly well explained. According to the traditional presentation of this trope, Nature and Art are combined by garden artists to form a “third nature.” At Versailles, however, this idea was superseded by the theory of the king who operates independently, according to his own art, without the necessity of nature, at liberty to fabricate his own exterior environment. Many of these ideas seem extravagant, Goldstein explains, when applied to the individual man who was king; however, when related to the infinite, meta-subject created by the fiction of the king, such extravagant ideas produced powerful emotions and deep identifications.

Vaux and Versailles is an exemplary interdisciplinary work that opens up many new fields of enquiry; it brings the spatial turn in recent theory to bear, very creatively, to early modern France; the book restores Vaux to its rightful place in architectural and cultural history and proposes the promeneur of Vaux and Versaillesas an interesting counterpart and forerunner to the flâneur of modern Paris, London, and Berlin. The only argument I found myself resisting in this work is its insistence on the originality and ideality of Vaux, at the expense of a totally derivative and dystopic Versailles. Vaux is a “troubling forebear” that “haunts” and “destabilizes” Versailles. Formerly autonomous artists are robbed of their individual voices at Versailles, whose gardens are “illegible and anxiogenic.”

The disappearance of the individual courtier into the royal essence at Versailles had its progressive and historically inevitable aspects. Such collective fusion inspired emotional and aesthetic responses that were as intense and authentic as the experiences Fouquet created at Vaux. Where Goldstein sees erasure, theft, and destruction of an artistic heritage, one could also see continuation and reabsorption, as the Bourbon kings, through their appropriation of Vaux, continued to forge an alliance with the noblesse de robe and the rising middle class.  

Matthew Senior, Oberlin College

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