A photographer's perspective of visiting Versailles.
Throughout the famines during the latter stages of the reign of Louis XVI, his wife the Queen Marie Antoinette, responded to the bread famine with the words “Let them eat cake”. The line in French is "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche”, brioche being not so much a cake of the variety that we would stick a candle in for a birthday, but more a luxury bread enriched with butter and eggs. Blissfully unaware to the plight of the proletarian, the Queen didn’t see the difference between there being no bread, to that of no wheat.
As much fun as it is to belittle the image a spoilt, decadently out of touch Queen as an ignorant fool, whose lavish lifestyle saw her head sliced off by a deliberately blunted blade, there is no such proof or supporting facts that Marie Antoinette ever uttered the words. The original document attributing the phrase to her was of poor credibility and it was out of character for her. The Queen's English-language biographer, Antonia Fraser, wrote in 2002: “[Let them eat cake] was said 100 years before her by Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV. It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither.”
From the very moment you arrive at the statue of King Louis XIV at the entrance of Versailles you understand the following will be nothing short of an extravagant experience. From the gold embalmed suns on the gates, the sun being the symbol of Louis XIV, to the grand statues in the facade and the marble courtyard. Everything is layered in luxury, and the former royalty of France were no strangers to opulence… and cake.
After having walked through the chambers of the King and Queen it struck me that I think my Queen sized bed is actually larger than the Queen's bed. It makes you wonder if people were shorter back then. I must admit, my bedroom doesn't have as many footstools or candelabras nor any velvet wallpaper, however with a larger bed than the Queen I can liken myself to Royalty. Photography is permitted within the Château itself, but you are not allowed to use a tripod or flash. Indeed you must check in your tripod before you can even enter.
The most opulent room in Versailles is that of the stately Hall of Mirrors. It also presents itself as the most tricky to photograph as there was always a constant stream of people flowing into the grand corridor that overlooks the gardens. Unless one gets to the palace extra early to be the first inside the château when it opens and then run to the hall of mirrors, or know someone who knows someone to sneak you in after hours, one must resign themselves to the crowds. I tried to be creative and found a shot with the beautiful chandeliers as my subject, close focusing on the crystals so the background would blur nicely. Sometimes in photography you can't always take what you want, but try with what you can get and you'll be impressed with the results.
All this talk of cake. I don't really care who told who to eat it, but I want it. Thankfully there is a Laudrée inside the Château so I was able to fulfil my delicious desires before I was to tackle the massive gardens. As you walk through the meticulously manicured lawns, parterres of flowers and sculptures you will find 50 fountains. The consumption of water is enormous, the fountains consuming more water than the city of Paris as a whole. To gather the water needed the King had grand aqueducts built and reservoirs dug, pumps run and three rivers diverted, the Eure, the Bièvre and the Seine. This crowning jewel in the palace gardens was to consume one third of the entire construction budget. If you would like to photograph the fountains, please choose your dates wisely, as they only run on certain dates. Check the Versailles website for precise information.
When you have such a magnificent garden, why would you need to go anywhere else? So Louis XIV built himself a little holiday house on the other end of the properly. The Grand Trianon was used to receive guests have have light meals away from all the bothersome formality of the court. It later became used as a guest house for many of the high Royals. Entrance fees here are separate from the château and gardens, but you can get a combined ticket to see them all at little extra cost.
Next door is the domain of the Queen. Marie Antoinette was gifted the Petite Trianon where she spent vast amounts of time. No one was allowed to enter without her expressed permission, not even that of her husband Louis XVI. Tables were constructed with pulleys and the floor was to open up so the servants could set the table unseen by the Queen. She even went as far as having a rustic farmhouse built to give the feeling they were deeper in the country than the village of Versailles. She and her closest friends would dress up and play peasants among the dairy and dovecote.
In every aspect Versailles can only be described as sheer opulence, from the gold trimmings to the grand vistas. It is hard to imagine today that the royal family found the Louvre too inferior that they felt the need to create Versailles. And whilst the Louvre has foundation dating to medieval times, the Château of Versailles was built relatively quickly. It is no wonder they had their heads cut off. The château and gardens are an enormous place to visit and shooting them provides many challenges and many rewards as well. Myself, along with my team at Aperture Tours offer day visits to Versailles to focus solely on improving your photography skills, and maybe a little cake, but most making sure you walk away with images fit for a King in the most opulent palace in the world. Grab your camera and come join us.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours (formally Paris Photography Tours) and heads up the tours in Paris. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.