Sully in the Days of the Fête Galante

Castle of Sully-sur-Loire

Rural pleasures
When you first see Sully as you cross the Loire, its tall towers rising from the riverbank seem to speak the language of the warrior of times gone by. However, the name of this noble estate is intimately linked with the memory of the minister of Henri IV, the “Great Sully”, who helped restore France alongside the first Bourbon king. When walking in the grounds, however, you also hear the faint echo of another equally brilliant age, one quite unconcerned by feudal struggles and the great affairs of State, for the Château of Sully was where a society concerned only with its own pleasures liked to spend its time at the dawn of the 18th century – a century which made “the sweetness of life” its ideal.     In 1715, on the death of Louis XIV, the Grand Siècle took a decisive turn. Philippe d’Orléans, the late King’s nephew, assumed real power during the minority of Louis XV. Under his Regency, a period of transition began for the kingdom of France (1715-1723). Spirits were refreshed at the close of a reign which it had seemed would never end. New experiments were tried out in many spheres – politics, economics and the arts. Debauchery was in fashion. Manners had become somewhat more relaxed towards the end of Louis XIV’s reign. Young nobles grew bored with the austerity of Versailles, darkened by wars and the influence of the devout Marquise de Maintenon. High society fled the court and made its way to Paris. The capital gained from their presence and shone its light throughout Europe. Private houses buzzed with light-hearted conversation at fine suppers sparkling with wit and the bubbles of champagne.
The departure of Voltaire
Maximilien-Henri de Béthune (1669-1729) was a member of that hedonistic nobility. A Knight of Malta, he spent part of his youth in the army before leaving the service in 1706. Following the death of his older brother, who left no descendants, he inherited the title of fifth Duke of Sully in 1712. An easy-going man, he was seldom present at Versailles, where the writers of memoirs mentioned principally his talent as a dancer. Although a close friend of Philippe d’Orléans, he does not appear to have followed the Regent’s example where feelings were concerned and showed true constancy in affairs of the heart, which was viewed as extraordinary in those days of frenetic intrigue. The object of his attentions was Marie-Jeanne Guyon, widow of the son of former Treasurer Fouquet, to whom Saint-Simon attributes charming conversation combined with “Roman beauty”. The Duke of Sully succeeded in marrying her in 1719, to the outrage of his family.    His circle of friends then included a promising writer, François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), already known as Voltaire. The two men met in Paris where they joined the circle of free thinkers at the Palais du Temple. In 1716, the young writer was accused of publishing a pamphlet insulting the Regent. He was sentenced to exile, first to Tulle and finally to Sully, where the lord of the manor received him gladly that summer. The Duke divided his time between his private house in Paris and his family estate beside the Loire. It is true that the château, a physical demonstration of his prestigious pedigree, lacks the elegant modernity of the “houses of pleasure” which flourished in and around the capital, but, through its proximity to nature, it responded to the fashion for rustic entertainments so popular at the time.   Thus, in May 1716, Voltaire arrived for his first stay at Sully. Other visits were to follow. Often at odds with authority, Voltaire found a new refuge there during the summer of 1719 and again later, until he and the Duke severed relations at the end of 1725, when Maximilien-Henri de Béthune refused to support Voltaire in his dispute with the Chevalier de Rohan whose pride had been wounded by a cruel word. During their happy years of friendship, Voltaire’s letters describe the peaceful months he spent at Sully. The small group of friends who gathered there in the country led a life of pleasure, far from the constraints of etiquette.
Sully-sur-Loire, a source of inspiration for Voltaire
To the east of the château, the guests of the Duc de Sully would walk in the park beside the Loire. Voltaire’s letters describe the “magnificent wood” where the tree trunks were carved with lovers’ names. When evening fell, the groves of greenery were lit by hundreds of candles. In the clearings, furnished like drawing -rooms, masked visitors would dance until dawn. Nights spent at Sully reminded the writer of those he had known at Sceaux in the house of the Duchesse du Maine, daughter of the Prince de Conti and wife of the illegitimate son of Louis XIV and the Marquise de Montespan. Between 1714 and 1715, those famous evening parties hosted a literary coterie of wits whose gaiety and free spirits contrasted vividly with the solemnity of the old court. As at Sceaux, competitions were organized at Sully where, one evening, poets vied with one another. Voltaire, assisted by the Abbé Courtin, a frequent visitor to Sully, took part in those literary tournaments. But he worked on other, more ambitious projects, too, including his Henriade, whose first extracts he reserved for his companions in pleasure.   The time he spent beside the Loire was even more marked by the theatre, the height of fashion in society at the time. Voltaire wrote a tragedy, Artémire, first performed at Sully in the fall of 1719. The Duke’s guests performed as amateurs and appeared on a stage built in the great hall on the first floor of the keep. During the 18th century, many châteaux had stage equipment of varying degrees of sophistication, ranging from a real theatre to an attic containing simple wooden frames covered with stretched canvas. The installation disappeared from Sully in the mid-19th century, but fragments of it may remain in the château’s storerooms. Today, “Voltaire’s theatre” consists of a small apron stage, a fairly recent assembly of wooden parts with which the old components seem to have been integrated. For example, a large gilded wooden Cupid, probably dating from the 18th century, appears all the more charming because, according to tradition, it witnessed an important episode in the writer’s love life.   In fact, the air at Sully seems to have favored Voltaire’s love affairs. There he met Suzanne de Livry, the niece of a distinguished gentleman of the town to whose house she used to retire for the night. The young girl spent many days at the château where she joined the Duke’s friends to take part in plays. Her love for “the boards” led her to perform parts written especially for her by her famous admirer. Captivated by her charm, he encouraged her theatrical endeavors and even helped her join the Comédie Française. However, the lovely girl, who showed more enthusiasm than talent, left no deathless impression there … That Sully-born liaison has long been associated with one of the finest portraits of Voltaire, a work by Nicolas e Largillière. The sitter apparently ordered it in 1718 to offer to Miss de Livry as a gift. Today, specialists give it a later date, between 1724 and 1725, and therefore after Voltaire’s time at Sully. 
The art of living under the Regency
Restored in 2006-2007, the suite of rooms at the château of Sully on the first floor of the 18th century block is centered on the bedroom. Under the Regency, in spite of an art of living increasingly focused on the individual, this room still expresses the social mores which ruled the aristocratic world. The love of pomp appears firstly in the treatment of the walls, the greatest attention being paid to the fireplace. Since the very early 18th century, mantelpieces were surmounted by a mirrored panel, often set in a carved and gilded frame. This “royal fireplace”, in the style of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the architect of Louis XIV, became the essential focus of the décor. The other walls had to continue the impression of splendor and great tapestries fulfilled that requirement. Since 2007, the bedroom walls of the château of Sully have been hung with six tapestries recounting the story of Psyche. They were woven in the early 17th century, reproducing part of a prestigious series made for François I. Although the notion of modernity prevailed in the 18th century in the decorative arts, the use of tapestries in a somewhat old-fashioned style could be tolerated provided that their rarity celebrated the grandeur of the family heritage. That was the case with this story of Psyche, the upper border of each of whose panels bears the arms of Maximilien de Béthune, son of the Great Sully and his wife Françoise de Créqui. The 1729 inventory at the Sully mansion in Paris describes, under the number 198, a set on the same subject comprising seven tapestries, attributed to a workshop in Bruges and estimated to be worth the considerable sum of one thousand five hundred livres. In the bedroom, all eyes are drawn to the “duchess-style” bed, because of its size and the richness of its materials. The “duchess-style” model had been the most favored since the reign of Louis XIV. Without curtains at its foot, it is open like a stage set, unlike the traditional “French style” high poster bed which is closed within its four corner columns. In 1729, most bedrooms in a Paris mansion were furnished with duchess-style beds. The walls of the Duke of Sully’s bedroom were covered with precious crimson damask trimmed with gold. His wife’s appears to have been even more spectacular. The alcove of her bedroom, situated on the pavilion floor overlooking the garden, contained a bed combining crimson damask and green satin, all unified by gold embroidery featuring flowers. Apparently, the beds at Versailles were built in the same way. The bed reserved for the Duke is opulently adorned with embossed velvet and silver trimmings. His wife’s bed has purple velvet “cutouts” against a yellow satin background, a decorative technique similar to the one used for the remarkable early 17th century duchess-style bed recently acquired by the Department of Loiret. Its fabric, a sheet of flame-red wool, is certainly not as rich as those described in the archives, whose fragility often prevented their conservation. However, the quality of its decoration makes it one of the best examples of the new taste which appeared at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. The series of strips defined by interlacing ribbons form an abstract network enlivened by naturalistic motifs, including small tendrils of plants and the wide flower basket, which adorn the “grand headboard”. The overall composition is reminiscent of the panels carved by certain decorators, especially those of Nicolas Guérard.
Oriental art
The appeal of the East continued to grow from the mid-17th century onwards. Lacquered furniture and ceramics from China and Japan delighted enthusiasts and particularly Maximilien-Henri de Béthune, a taste which had become a family tradition. As early as 1679, an inventory taken during his father’s lifetime shows that the château of Sully was an extraordinary heaven for collectors – evidenced by a bedroom and a gallery decorated with precious fabrics, mirrors and ceramics as well as furniture such as cabinets, tables, side tables and armchairs, painted to imitate lacquer. Other examples of chinoiserie dating from that time are the apartments in the old fortress which were decorated in the latest fashion, as embodied by the Porcelain Trianon, then just completed by Louis XIV. Fifty years later, the same idea persisted with the fifth Duke. In Paris, his wife’s apartment contained several chests and cabinets varnished “in the Chinese style” and quantities of fine porcelain enriched the paneling of the gilded gallery. Bigger vases were assembled as decorations, designed to stand on the mantelpieces or the principal items of furniture. There are also numerous cabinets and small tea or coffee tables displaying cups imported from the Far East. The Duke appears to have admired the efforts of oriental ceramicists to imitate artifacts from distant lands. In France, as in the rest of Europe, that competitive factor was important in the development of the ceramics industry. Some potters developed clever ways of achieving a clay similar to that used for porcelain because of its delicacy and luminosity. Following the first experiments in Rouen, the Saint-Cloud manufactory came to dominate in France during the first quarter of the 18th century with the production of porcelain described as “tender” because it did not contain the kaolin present in Asian models.
Time recaptured
What remains today of that century when art and pleasure flourished? At first sight, our heritage seems modest. The most we see is the delicate geometry of the balcony above the main entrance and the alignment of some windows in the shadow of the keep. We must look at old pictures to understand how the 18th century part of the home of the Dukes of Sully once looked. In 1900, a fine classical façade rose above the moats between the towers of the keep to the north and the “little château” to the south. Its architecture was simple, its most important effects being reserved for the main entrance tower, thus harmonizing it with the hefty walls of the older parts of the building. After a fire in 1918, the building fell victim to restorers who chose to sacrifice it by constructing a supposedly mediaeval curtain wall alongside the moat, thus mimicking the theoretical excesses of the famous Viollet-le-Duc. Part of the original façade remains on the main courtyard but the alterations to the upper stories made it impossible to restore it to its original state internally. It was not until 2006 that a suite of three rooms was created on the first floor as a simple evocation of the spirit of the 18th century.   However, the quality of its interior layout is what distinguished this main building. A study of the accounts records of the building works proves that it is a fine example of that “art of within”, a sphere in which French architects were passed masters. Attributed to a certain Jean Morin, the building was constructed between 1767 and 1770 on the orders of Maximilien de Béthune (1730-1786), the seventh Duke of Sully. He and his wife moved into new apartments there on the first floor while their children and some servants occupied accommodation on the various other levels. In the living quarters of the master and mistress of the house, the convenience of the corridors and the numerous mezzanines contributed to the comfort of those spaces dedicated to private life. They followed the model of the “convenience” apartment as it had been defined in the first half of the century, while the keep was used for display and reception. Although undertaken rather late, the construction works echoed those planned by the fifth Duke of Sully early in the century when Voltaire used to visit. In 1717, the “fat tower” which used to stand in the lower courtyard was demolished, thus opening up the view of the park. At the same time, unfortunately, the simple words “building” and “apartment” in the new accounts tell us little about the efforts at modernization undertaken in the residence. 
The castle in the 18th century
Conversely, the detail of the documents analyzed, especially the inventories of 1786 and 1787, enable us to reconstitute the lives of the château’s inhabitants in the years before the Revolution. First, let us climb the spiral staircase which divides the keep. On the first floor, the impressive volume of the great hall lies before us. Everything here breathes tradition: the old tapestries adorning the walls and especially the crimson velvet dais embroidered with the arms of the Sully family, symbol of the dignity of a duke and peer. At the back of the room stands the theatre where Voltaire directed the fair Suzanne de Livry’s first steps on the stage. The neighboring “king’s bedroom” no longer fulfils the wholly symbolic function it had at the end of the 17th century. The sumptuous bed has disappeared, as has the tapestry depicting the Voyages of Jacques Coeur, to be replaced by panels of blue damask on which hang gilded picture frames. Numerous seats await the visitors who will arrive in the evening to enjoy themselves at the card tables in what became the “assembly room”.   Alongside it, a passage leads to the new building, linked to the keep by a small pavilion built against the west side of the Villeroy Tower, today the Verrines Tower. The private apartments of the master and mistress of the house begin here with the first antechamber of the Duchess. With windows on the courtyard side, it served as a small dining room heated by a ceramic stove. We continue our walk, still on the courtyard side, through the second antechamber whose double door opens on to the duchess’s bedroom, the principal room on this floor, occupying the whole width of the block, but with windows only on the side overlooking the moats. A pier glass hangs between the two casements. Above the red marble fireplace, surmounted by another mirrored panel, hangs the portrait of a woman and child. The yellow damask lining the walls gives the room a warm atmosphere. The same material covers the bed, which is crowned by a little canopy resting on curved supports, echoing the model most favored since the middle of the century in what is known as the “Polish-style”. Some cabinets, probably ordered from Paris, add the delicacy of their fine rose-wood marquetry. A small table in the center of the room displays porcelain cups. This impression of amiable grace is repeated in the boudoir, a small mezzanine room adjoining the bedroom which likewise enjoys the view over the greenery of the park. With their light tones, the toile de Jouy which lines the walls and the few chairs add to the cheerfulness of this refuge. Printed colonnades of this kind had been the most successful product of the Bavarian manufacturer Oberkampf since 1760.   The two bays of the “new building” adjoining the main entrance tower contain mezzanine rooms created for the couple’s private moments. The biggest rooms overlook the moats while the others, used only for service, overlook the courtyard. On that side, in addition to a small stone staircase leading to all levels, are wardrobes containing the commodes and bidets which were considered essential from then on. A door under a tapestry leads from the Duchess’s bedroom to the bathroom. Its stucco walls imitating marble, completed in 1771 by Gazetty, form a precious casket around the bath. A small alcove opposite the window overlooking the park frames the oval tub in tinplated copper, concealed beneath a wooden panel and a calico-covered mattress to form a day bed.   The adjoining boudoir, for the Duke’s use, is similarly comfortable and decorative. It contains a welcoming sofa beneath the large mirror at the back of the niche opposite the window. An imaginary Orient inspires the décor of this room with the shimmering motifs of its beautiful “painted Peking” wallpaper. At nightfall, the glow of candles would illuminate the porcelain flowers which bloom along the metal branches of the chandelier and the fireplace sconces. This was a world of fantasy and illusion, the essence of the late rococo style. Behind the niche of the boudoir, a secret staircase leads to the mezzanine where the Duke had his private domain, focused on an elegant “laboratory” hung with green satin.   His bedroom occupies the first floor of the main entrance tower, a symbolic position with the additional advantage of a view over the central prospect of the gardens. It is now the only room to have retained its former size, if not its appearance. Once again, the archives describe for us the décor introduced in about 1770. Compared with its former states, all notions of solemnity have been banished. The toile de Jouy hanging is interrupted, above the red marble fireplace, by a large vertical mirror crowned by a medallion portrait. The same material covers the Polish-style bed and the comfortable seats which furnish the room: Two writing desks and a pair of corner cupboards complete the furnishing. One cannot leave the room without casting an amused glance at the four Turkish ceramic figures which again betray the Duke’s penchant for the exotic.     In the late 18th century, the château of Sully-sur-Loire succeeded in combining the prestige of its secular history and the convenience and comfort demanded at the time. The new block commissioned by the seventh Duke continued to be occupied by his descendants in the 19th century. It underwent some internal changes but they were less radical than those which affected the rooms in the little château where volumes and decors were reiterated in the taste of the 16th and 17th centuries. A statement of condition produced in 1902 presents the image of a large family house where the contributions of successive generations could still be perceived. That fine harmony was destroyed by a fire in 1918. The 18th century then fell into oblivion. Thanks to the rehabilitation work undertaken by the Department of Loiret and the refurbishing now in progress, the château of Sully-sur-Loire once again represents a carefree and joyful era. Following in the footsteps of Voltaire and of the most likeable of its Dukes, the venerable residence is gradually returning to the days of the fête galante.
Credits: Story

Conseil départemental du Loiret

Directeur du château de Sully-sur-Loire - Benjamin FENDLER -

Textes : Thierry FRANZ
Photos : Adeline GAFFEZ

Conception de l'exposition virtuelle : Adeline GAFFEZ

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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