20 May 2014

Great Buildings: Le Petit Trianon and le Hameau de la Reine

By Ginger Myrick

Le Petit Trianon is a small classical Greek chateau on the grounds of Versailles most commonly known as Marie Antoinette’s retreat from the demands of court life. Often referred to as her “playhouse”, it was actually built in honor of another lady, slightly less royal but perhaps more influential in her time. The chateau was originally contracted for the Marquise de Pompadour, the most influential mistress of Louis XV.

Sadly, Madame de Pompadour died four years before the construction could be completed. By the time it was finished and ready for occupation, Louis XV had moved on to a new favorite, Madame du Barry, and the little getaway was consigned for her use. She employed it to host informal supper parties and hunting trips for her royal patron, and it was here during one such outing that Louis XV realized the severity of his final illness. He was rushed back to his apartments and died two weeks later.

When the old king’s grandson was crowned Louis XVI of France, he gifted his young wife, Marie Antoinette, with le Petit Trianon as her own personal refuge. As its mistress, she was free to renovate it however she saw fit. She had always felt a certain fondness for Laxenburg, her family’s summer retreat in Austria, which was more rural and carefree than the other royal residences. Intending to recapture a part of her happy childhood, the new Queen tore out all of the old ostentatious décor and substituted a light and airy theme in its place. She restructured the grounds surrounding le Petit Trianon with a more natural feel, plotting the design after the English gardens en vogue at the time, until it resembled the quaint country manor of her dreams. She also had many innovative new devices installed, mechanical screens and tables that could be raised and lowered through a system of cranks and pulleys.

It was here in her refuge of le Petit Trianon that she began to become her own person, surrounding herself with music and beauty, two things essential to her happiness. She threw all-night revels away from the prying eyes of the public. Even her husband could not join in unless she invited him. She cast aside all pretense of formality, shunning the stilted court etiquette in favor of a more down to earth atmosphere where her circle of friends could cut loose and make merry in any way they wished. For the most part, they simply enjoyed each other’s company, playing cards, listening to music, and engaging in silliness, although outsiders imagined far worse.

There is a formal opera house located within Versailles, but to indulge her passion for performing, Marie Antoinette had her own personal theater constructed at le Petit Trianon. She invited professional theatrical companies to perform there, and she and her cohorts also put on many polished pieces for royal friends and relatives and even the King in attendance. Some of the original backdrops for the sets—works of art in themselves—were preserved and restored and are still on display today.

But it seemed that even this private retreat would not be enough for Marie Antoinette. Although she had redecorated it and made it comfortable, the fact remained that it had been constructed for someone else and passed to her only after belonging to another. She wanted something entirely her own—designed, built, and furnished to her exacting standards. She had always entertained the idea of being a well-loved chatelaine, so she commissioned an entire rustic village complete with villagers to tend it. 

The Queen’s Hamlet, or le Hameau de la Reine as it was known, was Marie Antoinette’s attempt to return to simpler way of life. She began with a seed of an idea in 1783, and the massive project took four years to complete. The fairytale village is set in a rolling green meadowland and consists of eleven
main structures and their annexes centered around a large natural looking lake that was used for boating and fishing excursions. There are five buildings that were reserved for the Queen’s own personal use and cottages for the ‘peasant’ villeins and caretakers, each house with its own private vegetable garden. There is a dairy, dovecote, guard’s residence, a tower, and even a mill that was functional in its time. There were ducks and swans on the ponds, sheep, goats, and cattle in the pastures, and chickens in the brooding shed, everything a real farm would have to supply wool, fresh milk, and eggs. Intent upon getting her royal offspring away from the suffocating atmosphere of Versailles and teaching them about the importance of the outdoors, the Queen spent much of her time at le Hameau with her children and her loyal friends.

Ironically, the illusion of this simple country tableau was extremely expensive to achieve. It was unfortunate that the Queen embarked on such a whimsical endeavor at a time when the common people of France were suffering under a heavy burden of taxes and food shortages. Her personal expenditures added to weight to the title of ‘Madame Deficit’ attributed to Marie Antoinette during the latter part of her tenure as Queen of France and eventually contributed to the downfall of the monarchy and the rise of the French Revolution.

Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a self-described wife, mother, animal lover, and avid reader. Along with the promotion for BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, WORK OF ART, THE WELSH HEALER, and EL REY, she is currently doing a blog tour for INSATIABLE. She is a Christian who writes meticulously researched historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core. She hopes to persevere and show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion. Look for Insatiable: AMacabre History of France ~ L’Amour: Marie Antoinette live now at Amazon!


Kady Winter said...

Fascinating background I hadn't heard before. Been to Versailles twice, but failed to make it to Le Petit Trianon both times. Third time's the charm! Thanks for this post.

Jenno said...

Thank you for this post, Ginger. It took me happily back to a period when I lived near Versailles and often enjoyed visiting Le Petit Trianon and le Hameau. I can certainly recommend both to visitors.

Ginger Myrick said...

I am extremely envious of both of you! I've only been to Versailles through pictures and in my mind. One day I hope to visit the places I've written about. Thank you both for your time and interest.

Grace said...

Lovely post.
thanks for posting it.
Grace x

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing a programme on TV about Le Petit Trianon and it looked so very pretty. I hope someday I'll be able to see it, but thank you for your pictures meantime.

Ginger Myrick said...

Thank you all for your interest. If you happen to check back, there is a great site with tons of beautiful pictures of the entire estate. Much of the property has been restored, but there is still more work planned. I used this site to get visuals while I was writing my book. It was extremely helpful.


Marc Leslie Kagan said...

There are two copies of the building Le Petit Trianon located in San Francisco:

1. The Presidio Heights copy is located at 3800 Washington Street and is designated a San Francisco and national historic landmark. It was built from 1902 to 1904 for Marcus and Corinne (Cora) Koshland. Marcus Koshland was the son of Simon Koshland, who founded Koshland Brothers - a firm importing and exporting wool, hides, and fur. The Koshlands decided to build this house after visiting Versailles. The Washington Street side of the house is a faithful representation of the original Le Petit Trianon. The building, almost 18,000 square feet, has a grand marble staircase leading to a front terrace, and a three-story atrium with marble columns. The first floor features conservatories on either side of a marble rotunda. The house originally had eight marble fireplaces and more than 20 rooms. Daniel Koshland said, “It was always a home,” even with its huge size. It is still a single family house.

2. The Spreckels' Mansion built by Adolph B. Spreckels ca. 1912-1913 on a dramatic viewpoint in San Francisco's exclusive Pacific Heights area, has long occupied a prominent visual and social role in the city. It is one of the few truly grand residences in a town which has always prided itself on social elegance, but has signally failed to match the destroyed wooden palaces of the 19th century with more substantial mansions in the 20th century. Placed at the corner of an unusually large city lot (virtually half a block of choice real estate), it looks above its neighbors in chaste classicizing French Baroque beauty - symbolic of the cultural and social prominence of its chatelaine, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

Le Petit Trianon was a much copied building especially during the Beaux Arts period of Architecture.

Marc Leslie Kagan