Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's 1782 portrait of Marie-Antoinette wearing the informal muslin dress and sun hat she favored at her rustic retreat
Summertime is a season for rustic retreats, a time to tune out the world and go on a hike, visit farmer's markets, sit in an Adirondack chair by a quiet lake, maybe even start raising chickens in the backyard. The allure of the rustic is not a new phenomenon, going back at least as far as the Romans, whose philosophers and scholars did their best thinking in countryside lodges. Somewhat more recently, European monarchs and aristocrats created pastoral pleasure houses as an escape from the pomp and rigors of court life. Let's take a look at the most famous of these rustic retreats, Marie-Antoinette's fake peasant village on the grounds of her Petit Trianon at Versailles, the Hameau. Marie-Antoinette had a lot to escape from. She was overwhelmed by the etiquette of Versailles and unable to win over her many critics. Her mother, Habsburg Empress Maria-Theresa, was annoyed by her ineffectual attempts at diplomacy on behalf of Austria. Her husband, King Louis XVI, couldn't consummate their marriage for 7 years, which left Marie-Antoinette's position at court highly vulnerable. (You can read more of the backstory and more information about the Louis XVI style here.) As a wedding gift, Louis gave her the Petit Trianon, a small chateau on the grounds of Versailles, where Marie-Antoinette and her friends would retreat for overnight stays, casual meals, garden walks, and amateur theatricals.
Marie-Antoinette began constructing charming follies in her Trianon garden: a classical temple (image 15), a carousel, a fake mountain. For the last addition to her garden, she asked her architect, Richard Mique, to create a peasant village, or hameau (French for hamlet, and pronounced a-MO), on the outskirts of her property. The results were similar to many other aristocratic gardens at the time. Marie-Antoinette had acquaintances, like the Duc de Condé, who had fake peasant houses on their estates, as well.
There are a few reasons why aristocrats might have been interested in the rustic aesthetic on the cusp of the French Revolution. For one, "rustic" was just another genre, like Gothic or classical, to use as a reference in garden architecture (since garden architecture could be theatrical and fun). Rustic life was also the focus of plays and novels by writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who equated simplicity and virtue. (In fact, Marie-Antoinette may have asked Mique to base the village design on the stage set for one of the plays she and her friends had performed at her Trianon theater.) Dutch and Flemish genre painting, featuring images of peasant life, were incredibly popular in France and England at the time, while contemporary painters like Gainsborough were creating scenes of thatched cottages and hardworking laborers. And, of course, the vernacular aesthetic was the perfect foil to the grandiosity of Versailles, which was oppressive and old-fashioned for the nobility whose business was centered there.
While Marie-Antoinette's hameau was not unique, it was probably the most elaborate, since she was, after all, the Queen. The structures were built in a rustic aesthetic that was not specific to any one region or type. The buildings were mostly half-timbered, and many had thatched roofs and false windows so as to look like they had been built and repaired over centuries. Flowers were planted to grow out of the roofs, suggesting picturesque decay.
The Hameau was composed of several structures: the Queen's House, the Mill, the Boudoir, the Tower, two Dairies, the Guard's House, the Grange, the Kitchen, the Dovecote, and the Farmhouses. About half the structures were for the Queen's use or comfort, like the Tower, the Boudoir and the Kitchen, with its twenty-two burner stove.
The rest of the structures were devoted to the utilitarian aspect of the Hameau. Chickens and pigeons were raised in the Dovecote, the Grange housed feed for the livestock, and a Swiss guardsman named Jean Bersy lived in the Guard's House and was the caretaker of the village. The Farm was a real working farm, run by a family named Brussard, who lived there and oversaw other full- and part-time laborers. The Queen's farm raised rabbits, pigs, cows, and a goat, and grew alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, flax and turnips, among other crops.
There is some archival evidence that Marie-Antoinette was consulted on many of the day-to-day operations of the farm. She was devoted to the farm's produce, and had the fresh milk and other goods delivered from her Hameau even when she was imprisoned at the Tuileries in Paris in the 1790s. Before the monarchy went south, she would invite friends to the Hameau for fresh berries and ice cream, which they would sometimes eat in the Pleasure Dairy. Of course, her involvement was limited to oversight and enjoyment from a distance, as the Farm is at a bit of a remove from the other structures of the Hameau, and it is unlikely that she went often.
The Hameau has long been at the heart of criticism of Marie-Antoinette, much of which was fabricated in the service of an increasingly revolutionary agenda. For instance, she never dressed up as a shepherdess or a milkmaid, though that story has been repeated for generations, even by reputable historians. This legend helped characterize the Hameau as a sort of mean-spirited mockery of peasant life, the royal equivalent of blackface. Another rumor was that the interiors at the Hameau were encrusted in jewels and other over-the-top extravagances. In 1789, a revolutionary committee came to inspect the Queen's domain for evidence of irresponsible overspending, and were surprised by the relative modesty they found.
Let's not get carried away, though. To be sure, Marie-Antoinette had used considerable state funds to create her peasant village, which, despite its functional farm, was essentially an Epcot Center of peasant life. But it was understandable within the context of aristocratic garden estates at the time, an attempt by a Queen to get in touch with a simpler life that must have been more alluring for her than the cold marble vaults of Versailles.
Images: 1 Wikimedia Commons; 2-15 Anna Hoffman.
Sources: I wrote my master's thesis on this topic, so I have too many sources to name with regards to peasants, farmers and queens in the 18th century. But if you're interested in learning more about Marie-Antoinette, I recommend Antonia Fraser’s biography. Sofia Coppola used Fraser's book as the basis for her movie, Marie Antoinette, which includes a wonderfully evocative scene in the Hameau. And Caroline Weber wrote a fabulous biography of Marie-Antoinette through the lens of fashion called Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
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