CIMF 2018 Masthead

Versailles exhibition: Sun King’s court glitters this summer

Heather Wallace

When Louis XIV reigned in far off France, European map makers had only a vague idea about ‘the great southern land’.

It might have taken more than 400 years to get down here, but this December the legendary Sun King opens his gold drenched salons for all to see.

Versailles: treasures From the palace begins at the National Gallery of Australia on Friday 9 December. It’s not just the first time a collection from Versailles has been in Australia—it’s the first time this abundance of treasures have been exhibited anywhere outside of France.

It’s thanks to the close relationship between the NGA and Versailles’ curators; when parts of the palace were scheduled to be closed for refurbishment, an unprecedented decision was made to ship many of its treasures to the other side of the world.

Lantona Fountain of Versailles

Lantona Fountain of Versailles

More than 130 objects will be on display: paintings, tapestries, gilded furniture and personal items like Marie Antoinette’s harp and furniture from her bedchamber. Candelabra from the famous Hall of Mirrors will be installed in the entrance but the largest object will undoubtedly be the 1.5 tonne fountain statue Latona and her children. Louis XIV commissioned the statue celebrating a myth that shows the civilising power of beauty, an unspoken message about what he wanted his gilded court to represent.

The NGA has pulled out all the stops this summer, making this un grand événement for all the senses. Not only are the treasurers seducing the eye, Master Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian is creating a unique orange blossom scent to perfume the entrance. The gallery partnered with Australian aroma marketing company AllSense, who use a dry-air technology to release fragrance without sprays, aerosols or heated oils.

Orange blossom was Louis’s favourite scent and his court was heavily perfumed, bowls of flower petals were strewn around halls and the palace’s fountains featured scented water. Unlike visitors to Louis court who were doused in perfume on arrival, today’s visitors to the gallery will simply be greeted by a subtle scent in the air. Other attractions in this once-in-a-lifetime event are the Versailles themes NGA Playspace for the young and young at heart and garden features.


It’s easy to be swept away by the glamour of the collection, but it’s a great way to experience history first hand in all its power and passion. Courtiers at Versailles might have existed in a privileged, luxurious bubble but just outside the palace ground ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality were brewing seditiously. Exactly how THAT ended up for Marie Antoinette is well known and when you’re in the café you might hesitate to declare “let them eat cake!” (okay, that’s flippant, Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say that).

The exhibition spans a period that has a direct link to Australia’s own history. Louis’s successors were also part of the intense competition to chart and claim the Australian continent, the 18th and 19th centuries’ equivalent of the space race. Names like Recherche Bay, La Perourse and Freycinet mark places around the coastline where our countries are linked. And although James Cook claimed the east coast for Britain in 1770, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville came close to finding eastern edge of the great southern land just two years earlier.


Photo: Heather Wallace

I bet I won’t be the only one entertaining ‘what if’ thoughts as I leave the NGA, wondering what would have happened to history if France had made it here first.

Vive la France!

the essentials

What: Versailles: treasures from the palace
Where: National Gallery of Australia
When: Friday 9 December 2016 to Monday 17 April 2017
Tickets and more information:


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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