Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chantilly’s Grace

Château interior

My recent news piece on the Dahesh Museum’s upcoming exhibition of Islamic ornamentation in Dubai brought to mind that great art is often housed in the world’s most beautiful places.

I first came upon Château de Chantilly in 2006, while serving as a Public Affairs Director for Hoffmann-La Roche, the pharmaceutical company.  The Château, about 30 minutes outside of Paris, was the site of one of several dinners held over the course of a marketing conference.  However, instead of touring the manor house, or looking at its world class art collection, Roche herded its executives into the dining room, and then took us to the site of a (then) recent wedding which pared some sports figure with a spokesperson for some rock-and-roll cable channel.  A more damning indictment of corporate America would be impossible to conceive.

However, I would not let a chance to see masterworks (nor bask in a romantic milieu) slip by, and I managed to visit the Château at length before returning to New York. 
The Château is an architectural marvel.  The original mansion may have been built as early as 1528 (there is some dispute over the actual date), and was later rebuilt after extensive destruction during the period of the French Revolution. Architect Honor Daumet completely redesigned the Château when it was rebuilt in 1875-1881, and the front entrance and courtyard are remarkable in their beauty and grandeur.  My favorite interior of the entire complex is the chapel of the Hearts of the Princess of Condé, though the Hall of Honour is also lovely.
The Château was bequeathed to the Institut de France in 1897 and is now a park and racecourse.  The grounds offer stunning gardens and fountains, and the Château façade is interesting from any angle.
But most importantly, the Château houses the Musée Condé, perhaps the greatest collection of art in France after the Louvre.  Imagine if you will, a manor house holding a Botticelli, a Raphael, a Watteau, a Corot, let alone a Van Dyck, a Greuze, a Reynolds and a Delacroix!  And that is not the half of it, for the Château de Chantilly also holds over 1,300 manuscripts, and a library of over 12,000 volumes, including a Gutenberg Bible.  There is an extensive collection of incunabula along with Revolution-era textiles and furnishings, and several miniatures of merit.
My favorite work at the Château is the self portrait of Ingres (see below).  One of the great masters of academic art, Ingres painted (and drew) several different iterations of his self-portrait.  Ingres’ soulful nature, his passion for excellence, and, yes, his remote and imperious manner, are all visible here. 
Why this dispatch on the Château de Chantilly?  Two reasons, really.  First off, for many people passionate about the arts, France begins and ends with Paris.  The Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Paris Opera House, and one has ‘done’ France.  But this is not the case.  Château de Chantilly is just one of many artistic treasure chests that dot the French countryside.  And, also, an elegant place and setting for art is as essential as the art itself.  Just as beautiful and magnificent churches help bring the believer closer to a religious experience, so too museums must reflect the beauty and grandeur that is contained therein.  These are sacred spaces, and, as such, demand a certain majesty. (Of course, sometimes a hideous place also reflects the collection it houses – see New York’s Guggenheim, which looks rather like a toilet.)
Readers planning a trip to France are advised to visit the Château de Chantilly.
Ingres self portrait

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