A keen hunter, King Louis XVI had long coveted the birth place of his cousin, Duke of Penthièvre. On 29 December 1783 he realised his dream when the Duke finally sold his estate to the king to the tune of 16 million French livres. The Château de Rambouillet then became a royal residence and has remained the property of the heads of state ever since, including the president of the Republic today.
Château de Rambouillet at the time of the Duke of Penthièvre, engraving by Rigaud
When she learned of the king’s new acquisition, Marie-Antoinette was far less enthusiastic than her husband. Legend has it that on laying her eyes on the château for the first time, the queen described Rambouillet as a ‘gothic swamp’. A description that referred at once to the medieval architecture of the building – a style that was not fashionable at the time – and the marshland on which the gardens were laid out. She much preferred Trianon in Versailles. What would she do at Rambouillet? Except for accompany the king on his interminable hunts on the estate...
King Louis XVI still had high hopes that his wife would learn to appreciate the estate. But what could be done to appeal to the queen? The first idea was to knock down the main residence, build it anew and make it more accommodating for the court’s long sojourns. This plan was soon abandoned, however, due to the prohibitive costs of the work. The king then decided to refurbish an apartment, richly furnished and decorated with the latest styles to please the queen. Located on the first floor of the château’s west wing with views over the courtyard, the apartment consisted of a series of rooms including an antechamber, a study, a bedroom and three wardrobes. The finest craftsmen of the time were hired for the job, most notably those employed by the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, the department of the Maison du Roi responsible for the order, upkeep, storage and repair of all the movable furniture and objects in the royal palaces. The utmost was done to make Marie-Antoinette’s stays at Rambouillet as pleasant as could be.
Noticing the queen’s lack of interest in her new apartment, King Louis XVI commissioned another space, probably inspired by Marie-Antoinette’s hamlet at Versailles that was the apple of her eye, with the intention to give her a place where she could spend time on her pastoral hobbies at Rambouillet.
A dairy was built, which was kept a closely guarded secret from the queen. It was an elaborate building, designed and decorated in a style inspired by the latest schools of thought advanced by the philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment. Constructed in the style of a small Greek temple, it consisted of a dairy tasting room and a ‘cool room’ for contemplation and relaxation. The delicate ornamental sculptures made by Pierre Julien depicted a wide repertoire of pastoral and mythological references that promoted breast milk, a gentle nod to the endorsement of mothers nursing their own infants by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his treatise Emile, or On Education. The building was set in an enclosure also containing a ‘preparation dairy’ and pavilions, including one for the king’s leisure.
In June 1787, the queen went for a stroll when an artificial hedge collapsed before her: to her delight and amazement, she discovered the wonderful surprise organised by her husband. The ruse planned by the king is a testament to his continued desire for the estate to appeal to his wife of whom he was especially fond.
> Learn about the Pass’ Marie-Antoinette
Further reading (in French):
Antoine Maës, La Laiterie de Marie-Antoinette à Rambouillet. Un temple pastoral pour le plaisir de la reine, pub. Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2016, 111p
Thierry Liot, Rambouillet au XVIIIe siècle, pub. P.A.R.R, 2010, 124p