In Versailles, horses trot, gallop and make a great show

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Equestrian portrait of Leopold de Medici, 1624-1625, Castle of Konopiste, lent by the Czech Republic, in the Galerie des Glaces

The opening gallery of the exhibition “Cheval en Majesté” at Versailles is spectacular. Designed as a grand stable, it shows the horses’ heads sticking out along a grand corridor designed in the Galerie de Pierre haute of the museum, the usual exhibition rooms being too hot in the summer. First, King Charles XI of Sweden, then Louis XIV th, Napoléon, Elisabeth of Austria, Queen Victoria and Napoléon III all had their favorite horses. The theme of the show is the love of men for horses as Buffon defined it in his 200 page chapter devoted to them in his “Histoire Naturelle”. The thirty volumes lavishly illustrated by Bouchardon and Delafosse are a reference work of naturalist research during the Enlightment. The exhibition, conceived over the last ten years, by Hélène Delalex, curator at Versailles and director Laurent Salomé since 2016,  includes loans from  the European royal courts of Stockholm, Vienna, Dresden and Turin, American museums such as the Getty and the Metropolitan and the Veterinary school of Maisons Alfort. With its 300 pieces, it is at the dimension of the Royal Palace of Versailles where the Olympic riding events are taking place.

David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, “Finske”, Charles XI’s Finnish draft horse, 1680, Stockholm Nationalmusem

The luxury with which kings represented their horses shows how indispensable they were to their prestige and their daily life. On the Ehrenstrahl very large portraits, the horses (who each have a name, Kortom, Sultan, Red Rose, Mustafa…) have white hair on their back. The veterinaries of Maisons Alfort explained to the curators that it corresponds to where the saddle wears out their hair. While showing us around for two hours! Hélène Delalex marveled at the number of fascinating encounters she made while researching this exhibition, which was originally planned at the Grand Palais ten years ago. She found the major work of the show, the portrait of Leopold de Medici exhibited in the Galerie des Glaces, completely by chance while visiting the castle of Konopiste in Bohemia. It was not prominently exhibited but she was startled by the white hair of the horse and the tiny 7 year old child, son of Grand Duke Come II and the archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria. sitting on top of it. The horse was offered to the child by Charles de Lorraine who was exiled inTuscanny. When the horse died, hi long hair was kept in a precious  trunk. This is when she decided to make it the focus of the show.

Wilhelm Richter, “Elisabeth of Austria on her horse Avolo”, 1876, Budapest, Hungarian National Museum

The Empress Sissi had a common passion with her husband, horses. And a small section shows their collection. Queen Victoria red her mail on horseback as Edwin Landseer amusing portrait shows. Bonaparte brought back a horse from the battle of Aboukir in July 1799  and changed its  name to Marengo after he won the battle, on June 14, 1800. This Horse Hero became a star. The posthumous painting by James Ward  is full of symbols where he contemplates the channel and the sun sets in the sea.  He was eventually captured by the English at Waterloo in 1815, and when he died his skeleton was kept as a relic.

James Ward, Marengo, the Arab charger of Bonaparte, 1824, Alnwick, Collection of the Duke of Northumberland, Alnwick Castle

After a series on the equestrian art, come the war paintings in Salle de Crimée: Eugène Delacroix‘s fight between the “Giaour and the Pacha”, Frank Craig‘s fascinating vision of Joan of Arc, “La Pucelle” leading her army with red lances like in Paolo Uccello‘s paintings, and in the following room, horses die on the field.  Studies by Le Brun, an episode of the “Retreat of Russia” by Boisdenier, and a riveting portrait of a dying soldier at the Battle of Reichshoffen by John Lewis Brown are very moving. Festive horses and ornamented saddles as well as richly decorated armors are exhibited in the Salon d’Hercule.

Three equestrian armors are exceptionally united in the salon d’Hercule: from Turin, Paris and Dresden

The very large exhibition which makes you walk miles through the castle, ends with portraits of horses as models, in the apartments of the Dauphine which are not usually open to the public. “Le chevalier pie” by Paulus Potter, lent by the Getty,  is probably the most striking, with a number of studies by Géricault, Delacroix and Carle Vernet. The theme of the horse terrified by a storm is also developed. Lady Godiva, naked on her horse and painted by John Collier is a great final portrait.

The first gallery of the show is decorated to look like a Royal stable

You will be exhausted at the end of the visit and yet there are many more horses to be discovered in the park, including those of Bassin d’Apollon in gilt lead. The stables where carriages are displayed and the Orangerie, where Eva Jospin exhibits her 107 m long embroidery, are exceptionally open from 9 am to 6.30 pm. And the Académie Equestre with Bartabas is open all summer. So plan a whole day or a night at Versailles if you have time.

Bernini, Louis XIV as Marcus Curtius, 1681-1688, in the Orangerie

Do not miss this amazing exhibition sponsored by CMA CGM, a newcomer in the cultural world!. Until November 3, at Chateau de Versailles. You can also visit at Château de Marly nearby, an exhibition on Royal horses from Louis XIV th to the Revolution.

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