Marie Antoinette’s mother of pearl and gold boudoir in Fontainebleau is one of the most exquisite and beautiful examples of eighteenth century interior design. It was created in 1786 by Barthélémy, Rousseau and Roland while the gorgeous furniture was mostly created by Riesener and Jacob – a collection of the most gifted and innovative designers of the period.
Not only that but it is believed that Louis XVI himself produced the locks for the doors.
Contrary to popular belief, the French royal court did not spend their entire privileged existence holed up in Versailles, geographically and culturally cut off from the rest of the country. If you believe Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, you would be forgiven for thinking that once she arrived in Versailles as Dauphine, she remained there until the fatal day in October 1789 when the mob carted her back to Paris. Not so. In reality, the court divided their time between Versailles, Rambouillet, Compiègne, Fontainebleau and then later on, Saint-Cloud.
The court travelled en masse to Fontainebleau in the Autumn so that the King could enjoy some of the finest hunting in France. Marie Antoinette was never very fond of the hunt, prefering to follow it at a distance in a carriage rather than become closely involved. A great contrast to the days of Louis XIV when his mistresses were admired for their almost Amazonian prowess in the field as well as the bedroom.
Marie Antoinette was never to become fond of Fontainebleau – it was enormous and sprawling, its stately edifice and richly painted interiors a reminder of its heyday in the sixteenth century when it had been the prefered residence of the Valois kings. There is something barbaric about Fontainebleau, with its dedication to the hunt and its rich, Renaissance interiors that would almost certainly have been extremely unappealing to Marie Antoinette, who felt isolated and desperately bored in her vast state apartment. The courtiers also grumbled – the château had an astonishing 172 apartments in which to house them but they were a whole day’s carriage journey away from Paris and cut off from the world, nestled within the enormous forest.
In an attempt to placate his occasionally petulant wife, Louis encouraged her to commission two exquisite rooms to either side of her state bedchamber – the salle de jeu and, hidden behind her enormous bed, the beautiful boudoir with its shimmering mother of pearl walls and sumptuous furniture, studded like fish scales with mother of pearl.
‘Light spills from the mother of pearl to the framed mirrors which surround the room, and bathes the matt gold panels that complement the pearly sheen of the silver paintwork. These panels combine Pomeian motifs with the garlands of flowers that were famous for their ‘simplicity’. Naturally, they included rose buds, but also, more unusually, daisies, cornflowers and ears of corn entwined with ribbons and garlands. Like the feet of the Jacob chairs and the mother of pearl furniture, the gold panelling repeats the theme of iridescence festooned with ribbons.
A dawn sky painted by Barthélémy floats above the high reliefs portraying the muses, carved in plaster by Roland. The magical effect of these materials and their consummate craftmanship must be completed in our imagination by the vision of voluminous, rustling taffeta, satin or gros de Tours dresses of white, blue or lilac. The reflections of two or three such apparitions in the glimmering light of the candelabra were enough to give an atmosphere of secret festivity to this little room, from which the sound of whispers and carefree laughter would spill out into the adjoining corridors.’ – Marie France Boyer, The Private Realm of Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette had only three years left to enjoy her beautiful room before the Revolution ended the exquisite life that she had created for herself. It is incredible really that the boudoir remains intact, just as she had left it – not just because of the devastation wreaked during the revolution but also as a result of the ‘improvements’ of her successors, notably the Empresses Joséphine and Eugènie, both of whom would later reside at Fontainebleau and make their own changes.