November 20, 2012
Thanksgiving is the time when you get to use all the best stuff in your kitchen: the gravy boat, the fancy napkins, and, of course, the turkey deep fryer. Louis XIV and the other French monarchs who succeeded him obviously didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but they did bring out the good stuff when setting the table. Some of the objects in Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette, open through March 31, 2013 at the Legion of Honor, are examples of these items; they’re just like the things you set your table with, but with a “royal” twist.
You’ve probably moved past the first dining room set that you bought off Craigslist, but no matter how nice your table is, you likely didn’t have it custom-made to feature your royal markings. Louis XIV’s mosaic tabletop is made of semi-precious stones and features, among other things, some of his official emblems, like the lyre of Apollo and fleurs-de-lis. It was made by the Gobelins manufactory, a workshop responsible for many of the objects used to decorate Versailles and the other royal residences.
Your coffee grinder probably doesn’t symbolize any great shifts in aristocratic living, but that’s because you’re not Madame Pompadour. Her coffee grinder, made of solid gold and outfitted with a nifty ivory handle, represents a change in French society during the mid-18th century when aristocrats embraced a trend called “servant-less living.” Without so many helping hands around, Madame Pompadour may have used this grinder herself at the lavish dinner parties for which she was famous.
Your prized casserole, perfect for sweet potatoes with marshmallows or green beans and fried onions, may have been handed down to you from your grandmother, but it’s doubtful that it represents one of the most important geo-political alliances of the 18th century. This set of porcelain, made by Sèvres in 1757, was given by Louis XV to Maria Theresa, empress of Austria, to symbolize a new alliance between the countries, as they turned against their common enemy, Prussia. Prior to this agreement, France and Austria had been archenemies for 300 years, so this gift of fine porcelain was an important validation of their new relationship.
You may have some warring factions of your own at the Thanksgiving table and fewer servants than you may like, and even Martha Stewart couldn’t match a table set by Marie-Antoinette. But, before you throw the turkey in the trash in despair, just remember that her meals didn’t end with a family game of scrabble, a nap in front of the football game, or Uncle Frank’s best stories, even if you’ve heard them all one thousand times before.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco!