Versailles and the Forbidden City, a look at two centuries of France-China exchanges

Versailles and the Forbidden City a look at two centuries

It is the flagship event of the 60th anniversary of the relationship between France and China. The exhibition “The Forbidden City and the Palace of Versailles” has been open to the public since Tuesday April 2 in Beijing. Diplomatic and cultural exchanges with very current echoes.

From our correspondent in Beijing,

If the strength and constancy of the Franco-Chinese relationship were told to us, they would probably come through this exhibition on the privileged links between the court of the kings of France and that of the emperors of China between the middle of the 17th and the end of the 18th century. Red woodwork, yellow ocher tiles… In the darkness of the pavilion of “ literary brilliance » of the Forbidden City, the nearly 150 objects from the collections of the two palaces tell the story of a mutual curiosity and interest in culture and especially science.

“King’s Mathematicians”

Ten years after its presentation to the French publicthe fiftieth anniversary exhibition “China at Versailles” arrives before visitors to the Forbidden City, augmented by the collections of the Imperial Palace Museum. In the gallery at the center of the exhibition, objects from France and China echo each other, bringing back two centuries of exchanges initiated by the Jesuits. Louis XVI then understood that his contemporary Kangxi was as closed as an oyster. He decides to send the clerics of the company of Jesus to the emperor of China, who refused to receive foreign ambassadors. The latter will present themselves at the gate of heaven of the “old palace” as the Chinese say, as the king’s “mathematicians”.

Thanks to their scientific, gastronomic and geographical knowledge, the Jesuits won the trust of the emperor », Explains Marie-Laure de Rochebrune, general curator of the national museum of Versailles. “ Which was something unheard of in China at that time and which aroused a certain amount of jealousy among certain mandarins and among other religious congregations, and led to what was called the quarrel over rites. Some will criticize the Jesuits for being too accommodating to Chinese rites, which will lead to the closure of the Society of Jesus in China. »

The Jesuits could no longer practice in Europe, but were still active in China until the end of the 18th century, including Father Amiot, who died of a heart attack upon learning of the death of Louis XVI.

Technology transfers

Through the Jesuits, the King of France was able to send gifts to the Emperor of China, who was a great enthusiast of clocks. Among the objects appearing on the exhibition poster, a very beautiful pocket watch made by one of the best watchmakers in Paris, with the portrait of Louis XIV in profile on its case.

Louis XIV had scientific instruments sent to the Kangxi Emperor, because he understood that, through science, the Emperor of China could be seduced. The essential means of penetration by the Jesuits into China was really astronomy. », adds Marie-Laure de Rochebrune, taking visitors to a strange sphere with inscriptions in Manchu.

Compass of the arrival of the ambassadors of Siam.

This scientific instrument was made by Father Verbiest, a Flemish Jesuit predecessor of the French Jesuits who, for their part, brought to the Chinese court a large gilded bronze rapporteur, also presented in the exhibition. “ Jesuit fathers of all nationalities fulfill extraordinary missions at court », Underlines the curator. “ Some are architects, some participate in the construction of the summer palace pavilions north of Beijing, some are painters like Brother Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit who accompanied the Qianlong Emperor on important battles in northern China . » The drawings of his victories will be etched in Paris.

Selfies with Chinese fans

One of the events that developed the passion for China at the French court was the arrival of the ambassadors of Siam (the old name of Thailand) in 1686, with their endless list of gifts. finish. A large painting recalls the event at the heart of the exhibition. Among these diplomatic gifts, there are Indian, Japanese and Thai objects, but also Chinese objects: Chinese silks, Chinese lacquerware, screens from Beijing and numerous pieces of goldwork, including a Chinese silver jug enhanced with gold, acquired in 2018 by the Château de Versailles.

Chinese silver jug, part of the gifts from Siamese ambassadors to the French court.

This event will whet the taste for China among the French elite », Says Marie-Laure de Rochebrune. “ There will be a real fascination with everything that comes from China and that we don’t yet know how to make. At that time, all of Europe ordered large table services from China and there was a real craze for fans. All the ladies want to be represented with it in paintings. »

If social media had existed in the late 17th century, it would have been full of selfies with Chinese fans. Same wonder for the painted silks and Chinese wallpapers that we find everywhere, even in the queen’s cabinet, and especially for the porcelain from China, well considered “white gold” at the end of the 17th century. “ It’s an extraordinary material », Continues Marie-Laure de Rochebrune. “ We talk about all kinds of hypotheses, each more outlandish than the last, because we don’t know the composition of Chinese porcelain. »

Sinophiles and Sinosceptics

At the end of the 18th century, France ended up discovering the mystery of Chinese tableware: the famous kaolin, white clay which, when cooked, whitens further. Among the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition at the Forbidden City, two large Sèvres vases from the Versailles collections.

“It’s a fun return to send porcelain to China, since it was an obsession since the Medici court in the 16th century to rediscover the techniques of Chinese porcelain which was imported at great cost», recalls Christophe Leribault, the president of the Château de Versailles. “ This led to the discovery of kaolin deposits, Limoges and Sèvres porcelain. So it is a tribute to China to send French porcelain which is inspired in their decorations by Asian iconography. »

Portrait of Voltaire, by Largillierre.

Between 1775 and 1789, there was a passion in the royal family for these Chinese decorations. Chinoiserie which influences all the arts and which we find in the exhibition through drawings of Chinese scenes, but also in architecture with the Anglo-Chinese kiosks and gardens.

What is interesting to note is that among French intellectual elites, there is also a great interest in China », Indicates the chief curator of the national museum of Versailles, in front of a portrait of Voltaire by Largillierre at the start of the exhibition. “There were two clans in Paris in the 1750s. There is the Sinophile clan, led by Voltaire and by Bertin the minister of Louis XV, and then there is the Sinophobic clan, led by Diderot and Montesquieu. Voltaire, who is an atheist, reads with passion the stories of the Jesuits in China. He wrote a tragedy called The Orphan of China in 1755. »

French enamels and baroque music

The growth of exchanges between France and China owes a lot to Kangxi and Louis XIV, who have many things in common, underlines the museography through portraits of sovereigns who wanted to be protectors of the arts and sciences. Both have in common that they were orphans by birth and had spent a long time in command: 72 years for the French king, 61 years for the Chinese emperor, which leaves time to establish a correspondence, despite the distance.

In addition to diplomatic gifts, the courts of France and China will place orders. Here again, the interest would be mutual according to the designers of the exhibition . We always tend to think that it is the Europeans who seek to know Chinese technologies like porcelain and silk, but the opposite is also true. », underlines Marie-Laure de Rochebrune.

Enameled teapot by Joseph Coteau from the Sèvre factory, commissioned by the Emperor of China.

The emperors of China were keen, for example, to know French technique in enamelsadds the curator . There were enamellers in Canton, but the emperor found that their production was not as beautiful as French enamels. He therefore ordered a teapot enameled by Coteau, an enameler painter from the royal factory of Sèvres, so that it could be copied by Chinese enamellers and so that they could learn this French specialty.» The Chinese side did not put any vetoto the arrival of objects, says the management of the Château de Versailles. No opposition from Chinese censorship which has screwed propaganda in recent years against external influences, including that of the Jesuits and a supposed decadence of the Qing dynasty, of Manchu origin.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 12-date tour of the Royal Opera Orchestra of the Palace of Versailles in China, which will offer Vivaldi, Handel and some French music to Chinese audiences. “China opens up to ancient music» ,assures Laurent Brunner. “ There is still no symphony ensemble here that plays music from the 17th century», continues the director of shows at the Château de Versailles. “The French specificity is also this technique which allows you to play on old instruments, and that fits well with Versailles.»

The Forbidden City and the Palace of Versailles », exchanges between France and China in the 17th and 18th centuries, from 1er April to June 30 in Beijing.