Marie Antoinette at Versailles: The Petit Trianon & Queen’s Hamlet

“I am terrified of being bored.” —Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, at 21 years old

Marie-Antoinette is welcome at the table of my fantasy dinner party as a fellow creative. However you view her life, whether reading the richly-detailed biographies, watching Sofia Coppola’s aesthetic fairy tale or viewing her influence on the runways of Chanel to Dior and Balenciaga, there’s something captivating about this woman and the way in which she expressed herself within her means and the confinement of Versailles. Re-visiting a piece that I wrote, I was struck by how we can get closer to a legacy by looking closely at what remains. While a touch of the fanciful on my part, in many ways, I like to think of Marie-Antoinette as an early influencer – as an interior stylist or style diarist. It is for these reasons and more that I hope you will indulge me by enjoying the following study on Marie-Antoinette’s agency with the Petit Trianon and its hamlet – a place of hers that still remains at Versailles.

Marie Antoinette, film by Sofia Coppola with costume design by Milena Canonero, 2006.

Among the grounds of Versailles, the Petit Trianon and its hamlet were Marie-Antoinette’s turn at the provincial life – as a hobbyist might take up historical re-enactment. There’s something that really captures the imagination here with what was essentially a living, breathing, working set: complete with rustic exteriors, windmill, bridge and players. The hamlet was a blend of fancy and function; as closely as it could be imagined. Whilst some cottages functioned within a model village, their humble facades concealing a wealth of treasures within for the comfort of Marie-Antoinette’s discerning inner circle, other agricultural structures played their part in the running of a working farm in perfect miniature: from the dairy to the barn, model dairy, fisherman’s cottages and guard house.

Back of the Moulin, the watermill cottage built for Marie Antoinette.

Indeed, within vast country estates, features like the hermitage, though mostly decorative, were considered fashionably rustic and romantic – especially if they housed a hermit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these were named ornamental or garden hermits, installed by wealthy landowners for the purposes of a novel form of on-site entertainment. It has been suggested from contemporary accounts that the Welds were such a family within the British aristocracy who kept an ornamental hermit in a purpose-built hovel on the Lulworth Estate in Dorset – like Marie-Antoinette, they too maintained a fort by the lake. Indeed, there stood a long tradition of dotting follies, grottoes or rockeries around the estate of the country house; just one of many eccentricities employed to add to the conversation among guests.

Maison de la reine and the Tour de Marlborough (left) in the hameau, at the Petit Trianon park of Versailles.

Returning to Marie-Antoinette’s venture, The Queen’s Hamlet belongs to a series of improvements made through her own agency. It was near to the Petit Trianon that the Hameau de la Reine sprung, weaving a rustic retreat into the park landscape of Chateau de Versailles. Comissioned by Louis XV as a bijou gift for his maitresse-en-titre, Madame de Pompadour, the Petit Trianon, a French palace in miniature had, been built by Ange-Jacques Gabriel to perfect scale. Marie-Antoinette’s inheritance of the Petit Trianon styled it further as a pleasure palace, owing to her tastes and the abundance of decorative activity at her hand. The jewel encrusted keys now hers (on his ascent to the throne in 1774, Louis XVI gifted his young queen a key decorated with 531 diamonds[1]), Marie-Antoinette had a private estate for her own affairs and rule over a small pastoral kingdom.

It’s in and around the chateau, that Marie-Antoinette’s life, perhaps, had its greatest degree of authenticity. By authenticity, I refer to the queen using tastes that were entirely her own to decorate and inhabit a space. Indeed, of her residency there, the queen famously commented “Je suis moi”. Translating as “I am me”[2], Marie-Antoinette was able to use the chateau and its hamlet as a retreat from the artifice of court life. Interestingly, both these were still fabricated, but, the queen had a space that was entirely hers – down to the guest list. Inviting her close confidantes, this inner circle would work on their accomplishments and, it’s worth noting that while a guest, the King was not permitted to spend the night in this micro-realm belonging to the Queen.

Interior detail from Marie-Antoinette’s apartments, http://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/estate/estate-trianon/petit-trianon.

The Trianon interiors themselves had a countryside influence – Martin Chapman, curator of European decorative arts at the San Francissco museum believes that Marie-Antoinette handpicked, so to speak, the flowers decorating a 239-piece dinner service ordered from the Royal Manufactory of Sèvres in 1784[3]. Along with sunflowers and daisies, this rustic motif of cornflowers, roses and pansies spills out across the textiles, bronzes and furniture. If we were to consider the language of flowers, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the rose had a familial significance for Marie-Antoinette – it being the symbol of her Hapsburg family in Austria. Looking into the Jacob bedroom suite, we see floral painted walls and the use of organic fabrics like cotton and wool. These touches are far from the gilded cage of Versailles with its riotous abundance of silks, mirrors and sumptuous rococo flourishes and, I feel, especially telling with regards to Marie-Antoinette’s character. The feel here is one of comforting intimacy with loved ones and nature.

A plan of the Petit Trianon and its gardens.

Marie-Antoinette oversaw her improvements to the Trianon gardens throughout her residency at Versailles. The works can be grouped around her commission and continued patronage of new botanical gardens and landscaping in the English-style, a small theatre and the Hameau itself. In 1783, Richard Mique was tasked with building a model village from the ground up around an artificial lake; this feature would complement the extension of the gardens to the North. From that faithful summer to 1786, Mique brought the Queen’s Hamlet to life. He started to the south of the stone bridge with a careful curation of reception areas – from the faux-windmill to the boudoir, Queen’s house, billiard room and stove room. These structures formed the succession of illusory cottages mentioned earlier with their concealed treasure-trove interiors. To the other side of the bridge, agricultural buildings took shape: the barn, working dairy, model dairy, fisherman’s cottage and guard house[4].

Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller – Queen Marie Antoinette of France and two of her Children Walking in The Park of Trianon.

Such ‘working set’ buildings were indeed, the ideal stage for her tableau vivant – a fanciful notion whereby Marie-Antoinette would act as though she belonged to a painting of a charmingly rustic scene (one where the actual realities of 18th century farming were broadly brushed over with bonny lambs and the cleanly pressed trappings of an idealised shepherdess). The pastoral idyllic, as it could be called, brought the queen close to nature in a way that was palatable and pleasant; a country setting for herself and children. This isn’t to say that the hamlet wasn’t a real farm. Walking further down the bank would bring you to the working farm, which, up until the Revolution, ran stables, a pig sty, sheep pen and hen house. Marie-Antoinette employed Valy Bussard – a farmer who brought function to the proceedings – for the purpose of routine maintenance and agricultural duties. Seeing these performed by a working farmer would’ve been highly educational for Marie-Antoinette and her party throughout the seasons and food produced on the farm made its way to the royal table as an extension of the farming calendar.

Artifice and rusticity were the making of the Queen’s Hamlet. This duality is brought to life by the existence of both a model dairy and a working dairy proper. The laiterie d’agrément or ‘pleasure dairy’ was built by Mique in white marble – a luxurious enterprise for the time and the setting for polite tastings. This room housed a collection of gilded porcelain dairy ware; such an esteemed outfit were lavish recreations of the sets used in a working dairy, manufactured with the exclusivity of their Parisian maker. This pleasure dairy functioned as a type of aristocratic playground and was a site of indulgent consumption for Marie-Antoinette and her friends. Its produce came from the nearby working dairy or laiterie de preparation – where it was prepared through pure function. Servants would use this plain stone dairy to fabricate all manner of delicacies, then serve these in the lavish counterpart to be admired and sampled by the queen and her guests. Like the hermitage, other examples of the pleasure dairy exist in an established tradition – constructed by the royal and elite for their gardens. Such buildings had connotations of natural connection, the nurturing female body and even fertility along with physically representing the very cornerstones of industry and virtue.[5]

Marie-Antoinette, then, throughout her hamlet and Trianon was exploring the various roles that she could play: be that as decorator, matron, landowner or hostess. It was, in many ways, the crafting of a lifestyle. I think that this is especially relevant today, speaking as a woman myself who loves to create various interiors and build spaces where I feel truly at home.

Read about the comb as a love token in Medieval and Renaissance Europe here
Read about Benvenuto Cellini’s famed Salt Cellar here

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used:

[1] Moonan, W. (2008), ‘Marie Antoinette: Home Furnishing Queen Goes Pastoral’, The NY Times, Jan. 25. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/25/arts/design/25anti.html (Accessed: 11/03/19)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘The Queen’s Hamlet’, Chateau De Versailles, available at: http://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/estate/estate-trianon/queen-hamlet#history-of-the-premises (Accessed: 11/03/19)

[5] Martin, M., Dairy Queens: The politics of pastoral architecture from Catherine de Medici to Marie Antoinette (Harvard University Press), Introduction.

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