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Let's Visit! The Laiterie de Préparation at the Hameau de La Reine
image: a wall of stones marking the former location of the Laiterie de Préparation
The hameau de la reine was a country-inspired estate that was both typical and novel of other aristocratic hamlets from the same time period. Like other aristocratic hamlet-inspired estates, the hameau de la reine had a series of rural-inspired buildings that were designed to emulate a quiet, private country life that was in direct contrast to the constraining and etiquette-laden public life of the city and court.
Floral and vegetable gardens, a carefully planned artificial lake, farm animals, and a canopy of trees which provided the illusion of privacy within a vast public palace estate; all of these trappings allowed Marie Antoinette to set aside the weight of her crown and the political social life that many men and women were indulging in towards the end of the 18th century in favor of a private, yet still upper class existence where enjoyment, not etiquette, ruled.
One of the most emblematic elements of Marie Antoinette's famous hameau de la reine is the dairy; and while the image of a muslin-clad Marie Antoinette skipping along to milk beribboned cows is the stuff of exaggerated fiction, Marie Antoinette did blur the lines between royalty and private individual a different way with the dairy at the hamlet.
While it is well known that Marie Antoinette had a dairy at her hamlet, it is often forgotten that there were actually two dairies on the estate, each with their own unique purpose. There was the laiterie de propreté, or Refreshments Dairy which still stands today; and the laiterie de préparation, or Preparation Dairy which was torn down during the reign of Napoleon. We will be exploring the now-gone Preparation Dairy in today's visit.
image: Detail from a view of the hameau de la Reine in 1786 by Claude-Louis Châtelet. The Preparation Dairy can be seen on the left side, in the background.
Laiterie de Préparation: The Dairy Not Meant for a Queen
What, exactly, was the laiterie de préparation? The Preparation Dairy was where the dairy products created at the Queen's hamlet were actually prepared by the staff. At the Preparation Dairy, milk fresh from the hamlet's cows would be skimmed and pasteurized; butter would be churned; creams, cheeses and even ice creams would be created. The resulting products would then be stored until they were transferred to various places around the Trianon estate, whether it was to the Queen's House for a private supper or to the nearby Refreshments Dairy where the queen and her entourage could taste the dairy products.
While the Refreshments Dairy was designed to be frequented by the queen and her guests, the Preparation Dairy was accessed exclusively by the staff working at the Queen's hamlet. Marie Antoinette likely never set foot inside the dairy, except perhaps to give her approval of the finished interior in 1785.
The Preparation Dairy was not originally a dairy at all. The hamlet was still a work in progress by the mid-1780s, and in 1783 an undefined farmhouse stood in its place. The original building included two rooms and a small cabinet, along with a stone oven; the building may have been used to make cheese. However, in 1785, the decision was made to transform the existing building into a functional dairy so that Marie Antoinette's hamlet had its own exclusive milk products. The building's cabinet was transformed into an ice box, where fresh dairy products could be stored in coolers; and the interior was completely redone.
Prior to 1785, the milk products enjoyed at the hamlet were brought over from a separate dairy, one which had been originally built for Madame Pompadour. With the construction of the new Preparation Dairy, Marie Antoinette was once again making the decision to cultivate a space that was distinctly her domain, not the domain of 'La Pompadour' or even the domain of previous queens. The products created at the Preparation Dairy would all be designated "à la reine," an extension of Marie Antoinette and her influence on her private domain. The new dairy would allow Marie Antoinette to solidify her status as the reigning mistress of her own countryside estate.The production of clean and fresh dairy products was emblematic of her role as a queen, a mother, and a woman.
image: A portrait of Madame Adélaïde Auguié, lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, in the hamlet's Refreshments Dairy by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller
[credit: National Museum of Sweden]
Preparation to Refreshment: Elite Enjoyment
The two dairies at the hamlet served completely different purposes: one was a functioning dairy intended for staff to produce milk and dairy products and the other was an aristocratic space, intended for a reserved group and class of people to engage in a luxury activity.
Despite this crucial difference, the two dairies were not aesthetically all that distinct. The exterior of both buildings matched the same faux-weathered stone, thatched cottage style that permeated the hamlet. And while there are no existing images that show how the interior of the once-bustling preparation dairy truly looked, we can reasonably guess that it was originally not all that different from the initial concept for the Refreshments Dairy. Thanks to existing documentation of later additions that would transform the original Refreshments Dairy into the elegant neoclassical dairy visitors see today, we can see just how much was changed in the dairy intended for aristocratic consumption.
When the Refreshments Dairy was built, its original design included relatively simple elements such as a bare ceiling, plain white walls, and no interior fountains. In 1786 or 1787, the royal designers of Versailles repainted the walls so that they imitated fine white marble and installed a luxurious trompe l'oeil ceiling. The reason for this makeover is unknown, but the end result was bringing the Refreshments Dairy a step closer towards the elite space that it was--and a step farther away from the more simplistic Preparation Dairy that it emulated.
Yet it was not until the reign of Napoleon and the hamlet's subsequent First Empire renovation that the distinctive gilded fountain heads and marble basins, along with the highly ornate central table, were installed in the Refreshments Dairy. Without these ornamental additions, almost all of which were not included in the original plans approved by Marie Antoinette, the inside of the two dairies were probably remarkably similar. Perhaps, as Meredith Martin suggests in 'Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture,' the similarity was too close and the reason for the 1786-1787 additions was to put a firmer line between Marie Antoinette's majesty and the functional dairy.
The above portrait shows Madame Adélaïde Auguié, a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette and sister to Madame Campan, pouring milk from a fine porcelain pitcher into a basin. This portrait showcases an earlier design of the Refreshments Dairy and in doing so, gives viewers a glimpse of what the Preparation Dairy may have looked like.
The portrait also encompasses the intriguing duality represented through Marie Antoinette's two dairies at her hamlet. The Refreshments Dairy was designed to embody the simplicity of the nearby practical Preparation Dairy while maintaining separate distinctions in line with the social class of its esteemed guests. In the Preparation Dairy, the staff at the hamlet processed the fresh milk and prepared it to be stored or transported; but it was in the Refreshments Dairy, poured and tasted in high-quality porcelain saucers and basins by the queen and her guests, that the milk became à la reine,.
image: detail from an architectural plan for the hameau de la reine; the Preparation Dairy is circled in blue.
Mapping the Laiterie de Préparation: Physical Closeness and Social Distance
The separation between the practical labor behind the dairy products and the elite enjoyment of those products was not the invention of Marie Antoinette's whimsy; it was standard practice, found at earlier and later hamlet-style estates throughout France and the whole of Europe.
However, Marie Antoinette did forgo tradition with the Preparation Dairy in a subtle way that spoke volumes about her vision for this private yet highly personal domain. This diversion from the traditional design for hameau-style estates also helps to break down one of the biggest misconceptions about Marie Antoinette's dairy: that it was designed to be a faux folly farm where Marie Antoinette would twirl about in her muslin skirts, assuming that pasteurized milks and creams came out of thin air or that some half-hearted churning inside a porcelain vase was really creating pounds of butter.
How did Marie Antoinette break tradition in an estate that was, by and large, a product of existing aristocratic trends? Rather than tuck the Preparation Dairy into a separate space outside of the hamlet estate, hidden away from sight and mind, the Preparation Dairy was kept next door to the Refreshments Dairy and was designed to be a seamless part of the hamlet as a whole.
Access to both dairies was controlled by Valy Bussard, the head farmer employed by Marie Antoinette to run the estate; it would be Valy Bussard who corresponded and talked with the queen about necessary arrangements and changes on the grounds, such as an incident where he complained about the resident male goat who had proved himself unable to procreate. The queen, in her reply, agreed to pay for a replacement--but noted that he should look for a goat with a better temperament and of course, a nicely colored coat.
All of this, the placement of the functional diary and the day-to-day management that existed between Marie Antoinette and Valy Bussard, tells us that the Preparation Dairy was not some secret space for labor that must be kept hidden away, lest it give away the appearance of fancied-labor on part of the queen and her entourage. It was a practical, functional and completely recognized part of the hamlet's well-planned world. Marie Antoinette was conscious of the the role that the working dairy played in the hamlet's world, and rather than keep it hidden from view, she sought to incorporate it into the day-to-day life at the hamlet.
While she did not play milkmaid or hold the mistaken belief that peasants were milking perfumed cows, Marie Antoinette did blur the line between royalty and private citizen at her dairy in a different way with her choice to seamlessly include the labor-based Preparations Dairy as part of the hamlet's world.
A carefully cultivated world, where the gardens overseen by farmers would produce fresh fruits and vegetables for her household; where she could take her children to learn about animals and plants from skilled staff; where she could enjoy the company of friends and family without suffocating etiquette; where she could carve out a role as the private elite mistress of a working countryside estate; a world, above all, in which Marie Antoinette the elite and free individual, rather than Marie Antoinette the constrained queen, was the center.
image: aerial view of the hameau de la reine, 2013.
[credit: ToucanWings, CC BY-SA 3.0; no changes]
1793 and Onward
[credit: ToucanWings, CC BY-SA 3.0; no changes]
1793 and Onward
In 1789, the royal family was forced to abandon Versailles and take up residence at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Although she was never to properly return to her hamlet, or ever again enjoy the novel tastings once held at the Refreshments Dairy, Marie Antoinette continued to receive milk and dairy products from her beloved dairy through 1792. For a time, when the royal family was still able to travel to Saint-Cloud, she even had some of the 'hameau' cows transferred to a rented dairy near the country palace. After the family was imprisoned in the fall of 1792, the hameau--and its two dairies--fell quiet.
In 1794, some of the furniture and objects still inside the Preparation Dairy were taken apart and sold during the famous "Petit Trianon" auction. The stone tables inside the Preparation Dairy, once used in the painstaking process of making fresh milks destined for custom-made porcelain basins, were sold for 101 livres. An inventory of the building in 1799 indicated that the Preparation Dairy had been left to deteriorate; the iron pipes which once kept products cool in the cabinet were removed the year before and by 1806, when Napoleon requested an estimate for a restoration of the building, the total amount was almost 1/3 of the entire restoration budget that he had allotted for the entire hameau de la Reine. Due to the expense, and likely due to the fact that it was no longer a functioning dairy, the decision was made to have the building torn down in March of 1810.
During the extensive restoration work funded by Rockefeller in 1933, a small stone wall was erected along the former location of the Preparation Dairy. Over time, the Preparation Dairy has faded into the background; often ignored or given a mention at most, despite its once-crucial role in the day-to-day operations of the world that existed solely inside the hamlet. This stone wall, now almost 100 years old, is all that remains of the dairy that was once employed to create creams, cheeses and milks "à la reine."
- Martin, Meredith. Dairy Queens: the Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine De Medici to Marie-Antoinette. Harvard University Press, 2011.
- Duvernois, Christian, and Halard François. Marie-Antoinette and the Last Garden at Versailles. Rizzoli, 2008.
- Nolhac, Pierre. The Trianon of Marie-Antoinette. T. Fisher Unwin, 1925.