Versailles, France — While horses and dogs were the dominant animals at the Court of Versailles, Louis XIV hand fed his beloved carps while colorful birds and small monkeys were found in the private apartments of the court’s children and royal ladies. It would be Louis XV who would invite cats into the royal household with the introduction of Général, a large black cat who is immortalized in an 18th century painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Exotic animals like the coati, the quagga, an extinct species of zebra, and the crowned crane were among the inhabitants of the palace’s animal collection known as a menagerie. Some 2,000 horses lived in the royal stables and the royal kennels housed 300 hunting dogs with English pointers being a favored breed. Meanwhile Louis XIV would house his own favorite hunting dogs in the first room of his private apartments where each one had its own alcove bed and after dinner, the Sun King would hand out special treats to them that he had made by the royal pastry chef.
The exhibition currently underway at the castle, Animals of the Kings, is showcasing the animals that lived in and around the court particularly during the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. Some 300 paintings, sculptures, naturalized animals, porcelain and objects have been brought together for the show. Animals are depicted in art works in the palace, and the visitor can also admire the portraits of royal pets like Misse, Turlu, Tane, Blonde and Diane but also the majestic General in an oil on canvas on loan from the Elaine and Alexandre de Bothuri Collection. The rare portrait marks the first time a royal cat was the object of a court painting of an animal.
It was Louis XV, who was also fond of making his own hot chocolate in his private kitchen, who would progressively introduce cats into the court. He was particularly fond of Angora cats — one of the most outgoing of cat breeds — and his rather large white Angora cat, Brillant, had its own red cushion installed on the fireplace in the Council Cabinet to watch and listen to the king and his ministers debate the politics of the kingdom. Perhaps Willow, the new first cat, will follow suit at the White House. An 18th century portrait by Jean-Jacques Bachelier of a white Angora cat attentively watching a butterfly can be admired at the exhibition.
The living animal collection, the Menagerie, at Versailles was edified between 1662 and 1664 and welcomed rare animals, notably birds and was an affirmation of the prestige of the king, Louis XIV at the time. The star of the Menagerie of Versailles was without a doubt the elephant from the Congo, a gift to Louis XIV from the regent of Portugal, the future King Peter II, in 1668. He reputedly had a friendly nature although he would occasionally bash in the door of his lodging and explore other parts of the collection. In the spring and summer he was taken for long walks in the park and in the winter months his room was carefully heated. He apparently once sprayed a trunk full of water onto an artist who pretended to throw him pieces of fruits so he could paint the animal with its mouth opened, thus destroying the work in progress. The elephant would die in 1681 and even the king would attend his dissection — for the Menagerie also held a scientific vocation — during which it was discovered that the elephant was a female.
©Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette
The exhibition is running to February 13th.