The Sun King Shines Again

Gérald Van Der Kemp and the Restoration of Versailles

His title is Chief Curator of the museums of Versailles and the Trianons, which makes him a civil servant of the French Republic. But, with his lordly port, his craggy face and his air of authority, Gerald Van der Kemp might well pass for a ruling Bourbon. For the last quarter of a century he has been the boss of the great sprawling chateau and its acres of dependencies, gardens, fountains, ponds and forests. And it is largely through his personal doing that Versailles has begun to sparkle again, has become a beacon of brilliance attracting visitors from all over the world.

Unlike the Bourbons, Van der Kemp was not born to magnificence. In the late Thirties he was a student painter in Paris, with no more capital than a degree in art history. In 1936, he found a job in the Ministry of Fine Arts. In 1940 when the chief job of the Ministry was to save as much as possible of the nation's aoristic heritage from German bombing, he was put in charge of hundreds of pieces of sculpture evacuated from the Louvre to the chateau of Valencay near Tours, the old home of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Prince of Benevento, whose nimble wit and sugared tongue had made him the only man to come through the fifty years of revolutions, civil wars, foreign wars, plots and treasons following the taking of the Bastille in 1789 without ever being on the losing side. He had built this chateau to hold all the works of art that had come his way in the form of bribes, gifts and tokens of admiration during his years as Napoleon's Minister of Foreign Affairs, built it on a grand scale so that there was room for all the works from the Louvre to rest comfortably in the peaceful quiet of the countryside of central France.

But in the summer of 1944 the war caught up with Valençay as columns of defeated German troops fleeing Patton's Third Army poured through. One of these columns was an SS division which had acquired a reputation for ruthless brutality in southwestern France. Some of these troops reported that they had been fired on while passing through the chateau grounds. Immediately, armed patrols were sent racing through the building, They rounded up every one inside it and lined them up with their backs against a garden wall, and got their weapons ready while their commanding officer stamped up and down roaring out insults. "Three of my men have been shot, he shouted, hy cowardly terrorists hiding in this chateau and their bodies have been buried in this garden. You will all die for it, you pig-dogs, and we will burn your damnede precious chateau down to the ground."

Van der Kemp stepped forward, terrified but resolute, and using all his native powers of persuasive eloquence, he begged the raving German to think of the consequences of what he proposed to do. Certainly he might kill a few miserable Frenchmen and the world would never know the difference, but if he destroyed the chateau he would be destroying the Venus de Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, and a hundred more of the supreme and irreplaceable achievements of European civilization, achievements that were dear to the heart of the Fuehrer Adolf Hitler who was fighting a war to defend that civilization, and whose grief and rage at their destruction would be beyond human measure.

The SS officer, moved despite himself by the threat to of civilization and to his own career, grumpily yielded to these arguments and marched his men off leaving the chateau and the gardens of Valençay intact.

There is another version of what happened on that historic day. There are people in the village who will tell you that while someone with a gifted tongue did talk the Germans into backing down, that some one was the owner of the chateau, a lineal descendant of Talleyrand, who numbered among the many noble titles he had inherited a German one, the Prince de Ligne. And he spoke, they will tell you, not as a suppliant but as a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire laying down the law that it was unthinkable that a finger should be laid on these sacred objects and the men who had devoted their lives to preserving them, He spoke as one accustomed to be obeyed, and obeyed he was.

It is impossible after all this time to say which version is correct. For the government of France, the important thing was that its treasures were intact, and they rewarded the man who had been in charge of them through all those dangerous years, Gérald Van der Kemp, with the ribbon of the Legion of Honor and a job as assistant to the curator-in-chief of the chateau-museum of Versailles. When the curator-in-chief died in 1953, he succeeded to the post.

He was ready now to devote himself to the task of restoring the magnificence of what years of neglect and misguided restorations and improvements had dimmed and diminished.

Ever since Napoleon's day it had been agreed that Versailles should be restored, but how?

Everything connected with it was a problem, and the problems had found no satisfactory solution for 150 years. In the first place, just what was to be restored? And to what period? Versailles was not built as a museum, all of a piece; it was a living, continually changing home, palace, seat of government.. Its genesis dates from an evening in 1661 when the young king, Louis XIV, was invited to a fete in his honor at Vaux-le-Vicomte, a sumptuous chateau of breathtaking elegance built by his superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet. Louis was frankly envious of a subject who could build a country house that made his palace of the Louvre in Paris look dowdy and old-fashioned, He also calculated, correctly enough, that his superintendent of finances must be stealing him blind to afford such luxury. He clapped Fouquet into a dungeon for the rest of his life, and took into the royal service his stable of architects, painters, sculptors, furniture-makers, tapestry-makers, decorators and gardeners.

In swampy country an easy ride southwest of Paris, the king's father, Louis XIII, had built a glorified hunting lodge, a pleasant informal place where he could retire any time he wanted to get away from the tiresome routines of running a country and going through the burdensome rituals of court etiquette and the still more burdensome duties of performing his conjugal duties with his Queen, the Spanish princess Anne of Austria. On one notable day he had set off for a joyful hunt at Versailles for a joyful hunt when a torrential rain storm made all the roads out of Paris impassable. and he had to slouch unwillingly back to the Louvre. The clergy of Paris, which had long lamented the failure of the King to provide his kingdom with a male heir, sniffed an opportunity for a miracle and prayed all afternoon, and the rain got worse and worse, and the King had no choice but to retire to the royal bedroom, a place that had become unpleasant to him since the execution, for treason, of his handsome young favorite Cinq-Mars, whose presence there had made the presence of Anne of Austria less offensive..The clergy continued their prayers, and kept all the church-bells of the city ringing all night long. And sure enough, nine months later a male child was born in the Louvre. ("What is your name, child?" said the dying Louis XIII playfully one day when his five-year-old son was brought in to see him. "Louis Fourteen, papa." "You are getting ahead of yourself, my child,," said the father.)

Louis XIV did not share his father's distaste for women, but shared his passion for hunting, and his love for the lodge at Versailles.

Early in his life he had a dream about this lodge. He would make it the centerpiece of the biggest and most magnificent palace the world had ever seen. It was to be not merely his home, but the capital of France. In terms of modern Washington, D.C. - another capital planned by a Frenchman and built on swampy soil -- it was to be White House, Pentagon, State Department, Internal Revenue Service, Smithsonian Institution, society ballroom, and National Gallery of Art all rolled into one. And such it was, for more than a century after Louis XIV moved the court into the unfinished structure in 1682. The courtyard of Versailles was always full of carriages coming and going, the halls were always fuoon of courtiers and domestics in their fancy costumes, full of soldiers departing for or returning from the King's endless wars, full of priests and foreign ambassadors and people of every rank and condition on missions of business or pleasure or simply gawking at the world-famous sight and its world-famous decorations. For Versailles was a public place; the great iron gates were never closed. (When in 1790 the Paris mob came all the way out to Versailles to drag Louis XVI and the royal family back to Paris, it might have been stopped and the whole French Revolution thrown out of kilter if someone had closed the gates. But they were so rusted after a century of idleness that they were immovable, and the mob ran right in.)

Whims and fashions changed the shape and appearance of the palace from year to year, sometimes from day to day. Louis XIV, like his great-grandson Louis XV and the latter's grandson Louis XVI, was always tinkering with plans and decorations, tearing down walls and partitions, adding windows or balconies or staircases, ordering new furniture, new hangings.

So the first of many problems which presented themselves to Van der Kemp and his teams of restorers was, which Versailles do we want to restore in this room, classical, neoclassical, baroque, rococo, what? Do we want the taste of Madame de Montespan, or of Madame de Maintenon, or of Madame de Pompadour, or of Marie-Antoinette?

And when we choose one or another, do we look for original works or do we try to make duplicates?

Some of the original furnishings and decorations are simply gone forever. In Louis XIV's great days, the state furniture of Versailles was all in massive silver - tables, armchairs, sideboards, mirrors, sconces - hundreds of pieces. All of these objects, superb examples of the silversmith's craft, were melted down in 1690 to help pay for the king's last disastrous wars and replaced by intricately carved and gilded wood.

Versailles was a symbol of all the Revolution was against, and the Revolution stripped it bare. Its art treasures--the Mona Lisa, the Titians, the Rubenses and all--were carted off to the Louvre or to other museums. The tapestries were burned to recover their gold and silver thread. The furnishings were more or less honestly inventoried; some of them were put in storage and some were sent to various government buildings, but the great majority were put up for public sale to help pay for the mounting costs of Revolution. So anxious were the Revolutionary leaders to see the last of Versailles and all its reminders of autocracy that they let foreigners buy up objects from the palace tax free, and astute buyers came from all over Europe, and from as far as New Orleans, to snap them up. Much of today's Buckingham Palace is a legacy of the taste of the then Prince of Wales, later George IV, whose agents took away shiploads of treasures.

Some of the revolutionists would have been pleased to burn Versailles to the ground. Napoleon, who succeeded them, had other ideas. He was anxious to refill the vast empty shell of the ancient glory he was trying to reproduce, and he spent a fortune keeping the walls and roof in repair. But refurnishing the whole immense building would have cost as much as a war and wars always came first for Napoleon. (Which is why he sold Louisiana shamelessly and illegally to Thomas Jefferson for a few barrelfuls of plugged nickels.).

For the century following the fall of Napoleon, France had ambiguous feelings about Versailles. For some it was a symbol of the glory of the old regime; for others it was a symbol of decadent tyranny. King Louis Philippe, who came to the throne after his cousin Charles X was booted out in the revolution of 1830, got the idea of turning Versailles into a unifying force by making it a museum dedicated, as bronze letters still announce on the facade, to "All the Glories of France." He saved the building from falling into ruins. He also remodeled it, changed its character, squeezed out what was left of its soul. The elegant 18th-century decorations that remained seemed impossibly frivolous to the taste- makers of the 1830s and '40s. Some delicately carved panels in their subtle pastel shades were turned around to face the walls, and the rooms redone in a pale gray which was the height of fashion then and seems impossibly dumpy today. What was left of the old decorations was ruthlessly repainted. The walls were hung with hundreds of historical paintings, mostly of French victories, by the leading painters of the day. For a century and more this coarse chauvinist hyper-icon was the Versailles that tourists saw.

Curators and historical scholars did their best, but funds were few and nobody really cared, and building and grounds were both running down fast. The cavernous Hall of Mirrors, where the victorious King of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor in 1871, and where the peace treaty imposed by the victorious French was signed in 1919, putting an end to World War I and setting the stage for World War II, had been splendidly redecorated for these occasions.. But no one cared to do anything about the roof, which was almost completely rotted and ready to collapse in the early 1920s when an American millionaire, John D. Rockefeller jr. came through with an offer to pay the bill for patching the holes.

When Van der Kemp took charge, he decided that it was impossible to undo the work of Louis Philippe entirely. He would maintain the museum of the glories, keep the paintings, but dispose them more rationally, and redecorate the rooms in which they hung with 18th-century tapestries to take away the cold gray museum look. In addition, he would restore the principal apartments in the center of the chateau to recreate, as far as possible, the atmosphere and the life-style of the 17th and 18th centuries. If any of the original furniture and decorations could be found and refurbished, so much the better. If not, equivalent pieces from the same period would do. If there were not enough of these, then imitations, based on surviving fragments or old descriptions, would be made by artisans trained in the traditions of the old crafts.

Some concessions of course had to be made to contemporary tastes. While every effort was made to reproduce seventeenth-century sights, it was obviously undesirable to reproduced seventeenth-century smells. The Versailles of the Bourbons had nothing in the way of what are now called sanitary facilities, nothing except some foul closets which had to be constantly emptied with wheelbarrows. Even when plumbing began to be introduced in the nineteenth century, Versailles lagged behind, and there is a story of a very old lady who remembered the court of Louis XV and who came back for a visit after all the turmoils of the revolutionary age and went sniffing through the dilapidated halls, and exclaimed on entering one particularly noisome corridor, "This odor brings me back to a very beautiful time."

Thanks to old inventories and modern research it was possible to know what had been where originally. Laying hands on the objects was another matter. The Louvre was not going to give up the Mona Lisa, in fact, it was not disposed to give up anything, but Van der Kemp pulled the proper strings and a number of valuable, if less celebrated, paintings and sculptures were pried loose. The richest prize was a huge Veronese, Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee, which the Republic of Venice had given to the King of France. (It was originally called The Last Supper, but the church authorities found the unbridled luxury out its setting offensive, with Christ and the apostles drowned in a sea of magnificent draperies and a crowd of "jesters, dwarfs and Germans," and it was only saved from burning by a change of title. To serve as a proper setting for this masterpiece, Louis XIV had ordered a chapel replaced with what is now one of the principal rooms of the palace, the Salon d'Hercule. The work was carried out under Louis XV, and included a splendid ceiling painting - The Apotheosis of Hercules -- by François LeMoyne, who worked for years to achieve something that could stand beside the grandeur and opulence of the Veronese. The LeMoyne painting was in place and needed only to be cleared of two centuries of dirt and varnish to shine again in its original freshness, but the Veronese was irreplaceable. Finally, the Louvre consented to let it go, and it was moved over to Versailles and replaced in the magnificent frame that Louis XV had originally ordered for it.

Other treasures were found in a variety of caches. Some had simply been put in storage in the 18th century and were still on hand. Some were acquired by exchange with museums, were bought or were gifts. Funds were always the problem. What money was allocated to Versailles went largely to its physical up-keep, to installing central heating, keeping the gardens blooming, repairing the miles of pipes that feed the ponds and fountains, and plastering 300 years of cracks in walls.

With what money was left over. Van der Kemp mobilized a small army of master craftsmen from the dwindling band of highly skilled artisans de luxe who were one of the glories of France in Louis XIV's day and are still probably the best in the world. Fungus and rot had to be scoured out. Moth-eaten curtains had to be mended. New hangings, bedspreads, chair covers had to be woven, embroidered or stitched in work-shops that had changed not at all, except for the introduction of electric light, since the chateau's palmy days. A staff of nine seamstresses under Madame Brocard - 82 years old and head of a business which is now in its third century - worked nine years to re-create the embroideries in the queen's bedchamber.

Every room in the palace takes years of work to restore. Some might have taken decades if short cuts had not been found. In the great Hall of Mirrors, for example, there once stood 24 torchères, carved and gilded life-size figures which held flaming torches. Only four of the originals have survived. There are not enough skilled craftsmen left to carve replicas in several lifetimes. A solution was found by the father-and-son molders, Leon-Paul and Paul-Henri Berthaut, who are currently making replicas in plastic which, when polished and gilded, look just like the originals. The secret was a polyester mold, which can be applied, then peeled off the statue in one operation; to make traditional plaster casts of these contorted figures would have demanded hundreds.

Some crafts were all but dead. Van der Kemp wanted a living museum, and one way to give the impression of life was to keep all the clocks ticking. But who could repair and adjust and keep in working order all the intricate marvels of the 18th-century clockmakers? One man could do it: Pierre Bécard, a crusty old gentleman now in his eighties. He never takes a vacation, for fear one of his beloved clocks, each of them representing months or years of work, will run down, and he regularly walks miles of parquet floors to wind up the delicate mechanisms he has rescued.

M. Bécard loves his work so much so that he refuses to be paid for it. But others equally devoted to Versailles cannot be so disinterested. Someone has to pay people like Pierre Paulet, who came to Versailles for a two- week job in 1940 and is still repairing pictures 36 years later. He is currently working on ceiling paintings that go back to Louis XIV, and on one of Louis Philippe's showpieces. Taking of the Smalah of Abd- el-Kader, 56 feet long. Someone has to pay the sculptors, the casters, the gilders, the locksmiths, the braid- makers, the cabinetmakers, the master weavers who reactivated the old wooden looms of Lyons, working with the finest Chinese silks in fantastically complicated patterns which sometimes cannot progress faster than a couple of centimeters a day.

It was soon apparent to Van der Kemp that his skimpy funds allocated by the government of France would not keep all this work going at a rate that would produce visible results in his century.. He had to turn to the private sector. Unfortunately, the private sector in France, though well endowed with both funds and objets d'art, is reluctant to attract the attention of the tax-collecting people by making large public donations.

In the United States, on the other hand, the government gives tax advantages for personal donations to museums, and it was there that Van der Kemp turned. His first coup was in 1949, when he was invited to an evening at the home of the famous society hostess Lady Mendl, who had another guest she was sure he would like - Barbara Hutton, then touted by the gossip columns as the richest girl in the world.. They were soon on first-name terms, and she proved a ready recipient for the waves of talleyrandian charm that poured over her.. About three in the morning, the conversation turned to Marie Antoinette; Van der Kemp remarked casually to Miss Hutton that he had heard that she wass the owner of a magnificent Savonnerie carpet which had belonged to the unfortunate queen. Didn't she think the rug really belonged back in all its richly-colored historic richness in the Queen's apartment at Versailles? Of course, said Barbara; it would be much better there than where it currently was, in a New York warehouse.

This was the opening of a flood of donations from overseas, much of it from the United States. Van der Kemp commuted regularly back and forth between Versailles and the United States, regularly meeting new millionaires, being royally received by them in their splendid homes and receiving them still more royally in his own. His wife, who had been repeatedly reminded in previous days that her address was less fashionable than the one of the lady sitting next to her, could now savor the delight of sending invitations and thank-you notes on letter-paper marked at the top with the three simple words: Chateau de Versailles.

Van der Kemp got on famously with the millionaires, particularly the Texas millionaires, partly because he could make them realize how much in common Louis XIV had with them: the same love of grandiose display, the same self-assurance, the same unwavering belief that the world was a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked by a confident hand. I enjoy, said Louis once, living in a world where the difference between I want and .I shall have is so small that it is not worth talking about.

The work will probably never be entirely completed. But Van der Kemp hopes that before he retires (he is 65 now) at least the central part of the giant structure will be restored. He hopes also to make a good beginning on the nearby Petit Trianon, a sort of toy palace used to get away from the stifling round of protocol and etiquette at Versailles, which even Louis XIV sometimes found too much for him.

Louis XIV's idea of intimacy, the Grand Trianon--also nearby-- was still pretty overwhelming for his successor's taste. Louis XV therefore commissioned a new and smaller building, the Petit Trianon. It reflects the taste of his mistress the Marquise de Pompadour. Unlike the old king's lady friends, whose interests were confined to sex, gossip and religion, or in the case of Madame de Montespan witchcraft, Pompadour had a finely developed taste for all the arts, and the design of the Petit Trianon proves it in every charming detail. It is the only building at Versailles where the rooms are obviously built to be lived in rather than to be displayed. Nothing remains of the furnishings of the Pompadour period, but Marie Antoinette loved the Petit Trianon, too, and a couple of rooms have already been restored.

The work continues.

Smithsonian Magazine March 1977

©1977 Robert Wernick