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Getty's 'Luxury and Liberation' spotlights French Revolution opulence

Revisit the culture of late 18th-century France at Getty all-day symposium

The excess and extravagance of Versailles comes roaring back to life in a one-day-only program taking place at the Getty Center on Jan. 24.

In concurrence with the L.A. Opera’s staging of the Figaro trilogy, “Luxury and Liberation: Art and Revolution in 18th Century France” will focus on the opulence of the aristocracy immediately leading up to the French Revolution and includes lectures, an opera recital and tours of the Getty’s renowned collection of furnishings and decorative arts from the era.

Perhaps no piece will be more of a draw than the chaise de toilette — where a woman sat while her hair and makeup were done — of Marie Antoinette, which is being put under the spotlight after quietly residing in the Getty’s galleries for some 40 years. Purchased at auction from one of Newport’s famed “cottages” in the early ‘70s, the exquisitely carved chair was made for Louis XVI’s consort around 1787. While most of us associate the last Queen of France with towering, 3-foot-high coiffures showcasing flowers, birdcages and jewels, this particular piece of furniture never witnessed such frippery.

“This chair was part of a bedchamber suite at Petit Trianon [the small chateau on the grounds of the palace], where life was much more relaxed than it was at Versailles,” says Charissa Bremer-David, the Getty’s curator of sculpture and decorative arts. “Here, instead of having a whole group of people watching while her morning routine was performed, which was normal at Versailles, she might have just her children or perhaps her ladies with her. She would have her hair powdered and curled before dressing. The chair, which swivels, was usually positioned by a window that looked out onto beautiful English garden and it’s easy to imagine her sitting there, with the windows open, listening to birds singing.”

In keeping with the less formal atmosphere, the chair features carved bands of ivy and lily of the valley on the arms and legs, intricate wickerwork on the back, and enchanting little pinecone feet. Long gone, however, are the original paint colors and upholstery. “We know from the other pieces of the suite that survived and are back at Petit Trianon that the ivy was painted green, the trellis work was blue, and the white lily blossoms had green leaves,” says Bremer-David, noting that the piece was hastily upholstered in russet-hued velvet in order to get it ready for the Getty’s 1974 opening. “The original upholstery was a white cotton fabric embroidered in wool floss with carnations, roses and cornflowers embroidered in sprays.” (The museum hopes to restore the chair to its original state after more scientific research is performed on things like paint pigments and oxidation.)

The chaise is not the only piece of furniture with ties to Marie Antoinette and the doomed Dauphin that occupy the sumptuous paneled rooms of the Getty’s South Pavilion. There are also four gilded bronze wall lights that illuminated a small, private room in Versailles where the queen would often retreat for a rest; and four gilt wood side chairs that sat in the octagonally-shaped Belvedere Pavilion in the midst of the Petit Trianon’s gardens.

The event, which runs from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and includes coffee, breakfast pastries and lunch, is $60 per person. For tickets, go to www.getty.edu/visit/cal or call (310) 440-7300.

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