Hameau de la Reine: Marie Antoinette’s Country Retreat
After Louis XV died and Louis XVI came to power, he gave Marie Antoinette a rustic retreat, called the Hameau de la Reine and Petit Trianon. The Hameau was in the park of the Château de Versailles and consisted of 86 acres. It was a spot where Marie Antoinette and her friends, the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchess of Polignac, could pretend they were commoners. In fact, Marie Antoinette was often seen strolling through the gardens dressed in a crumpled white muslin gown and wearing a straw hat.
At the time, model farms, called hameau’s, were popular. They were espoused by the Physiocrats (a group of 18th century enlightened economists who believed France’s wealth derived from “land agriculture” or “land development.”) Among the model farms successfully operating was one created by Louis Joseph, prince of Condé. His was known as the Hameau du Chantilly and was situated in a garden with seven rustic cottages. The thatched-roof cottages were juxtaposed against a surprisingly richly and highly decorated interior, which astonished and amazed visitors.
Having been delighted and inspired by Hameau du Chantilly, Marie Antoinette decided to create her own hameau and used her favorite architect, a neoclassical French architect named Richard Mique. Hameau de la Reine, as it came to be called, was constructed between 1782 and 1783, and, when finished in 1788, it not only added ambiance to Petit Trianon but also transported visitors to another world: A world where a stream turned a mill wheel, where an artificial lake served as home to ducks and geese, and where twelve rustic cottages with their leaded glass windows were sprinkled around a lake.
The Hameau de la Reine was idyllic and often described as a fairy tale hamlet. It had a combination of Norman, Flemish, and French influences, and it appeared to be located deep in the countryside. It offered visitors natural gardens, winding paths, and picturesque views. As it was a working farm it also had “sheep that baaed, pigeons that cooed, and hens that cackled.” In addition, twelve cottages* served special functions: five were reserved for the Queen and the others had select agricultural purposes. The cottages were also placed on the lake’s east bank and arranged in a crescent shaped to allow them to offer a bucolic and quaint view from across the water.
Besides the cottages, there were several other buildings. These included a grange (barn), a dovecote (a structure that housed pigeons or doves), réchauffoir (warming room used to prepare the Queen meals and add finishing touches), the Marlborough lighthouse-shaped tower (used for storage), plus “winding up the sides of a mimic mountain, which afforded pasture to a snowy flock of sheep, was a cow-house.” There was also the hameau’s dairy that was placed next to the lake and which served as the dairy’s refrigerator. It was a shuttered dairy with a thatched roof and must have hardly seemed rustic with its white marble pilasters and veranda. Lattice work also surrounded it, and covering the lattice-work were roses, jessamines, and woodbine that infused wonderful scents. Bowls and vases, pans and sieves, and pails and churns were inside the dairy with some hanging from the ceiling and with the milk often found sitting inside porcelain vessels. There were also two cows. At least one person claimed they were named Dorothy and Fanny and that their “glossy hides delicate forms, and small short horns were worthy of being immortalized by the pencil of [artists].”
In the middle of this idyllic hamlet were two buildings connected by a gallery. The first building was the Queen’s House, an unpretentious and cheerful abode that, similar to the other buildings, had its own garden. The Queen’s house also had two floors. At one end of the house was a spiral staircase in a round tower that allowed access to what was known as the room of the nobles and a large living room. In this house was also the Queen’s private chambers, salons, and parlors. Connected to the Queen’s House was the Billiard House, with entrance into it gained between the two buildings by a gallery decorated with trellises and vases of faience from St. Clement.
Despite Marie Antoinette’s image that she and her entourage wanted to pretend they were farmers, she used the area for leisurely walks and small intimate gatherings. (She also dressed up as a shepherdess or dairymaid to play roles on stage.) Marie Antoinette was proud of her hameau’s success and according to one nineteenth-century Charles Duke Young, a historian and biographer of the Queen:
“She would invite the king and the rest of the royal family to garden parties, where, at a table set out under a bower of honeysuckle, she would pour out their coffee with her own hands, boasting of the thickness of her cream, the freshness of her eggs, and the ruddiness and flavor of her strawberries, as so many proofs of her skill in managing her establishment.”
The Queen also insisted that the hameau serve as an educational tool to help her royal children learn about farm life. Thus, everything at the hameau was done to ensure realism and there was nothing lacking.
“There was a farmer named Valy, a guard named Vercy, a little boy who drove the cows, a maid-servant who carried the milk. Because Marie Antoinette and Mique thought of everything, her Hameau de la Reine was lauded by everyone who visited. One amazed visitor wrote, ‘The queen … [has] thought of everything, even to painting the fissures in the rocks, the cracks in the plaster, the bulging of the beams and bricks in the walls, as though time would not ruin rapidly enough the playthings of a queen.'”
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*The Oakland Tribune notes that three of the cottages have since been demolished.
-  Rocheterie, Maxime de La, The Life of Marie Antoinette, 1892, p. 176.
-  The Lady’s Magazine (and Museum), 1837, p. 394.
-  Ibid.
-  Young, Charles Duke, The Life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, 1876, p. 115.
-  Rocheterie, Maxime de La, p. 176.
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