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Louvre Atlanta: Louis luxury

By Porter Anderson
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The first large change-out of artworks in the three-year Louvre Atlanta cycle of exhibitions at the High Museum trades charcoal drawings for cabinetry and sketches for silver.

"Decorative Arts of the Kings" comprises three galleries of ceramics, tapestries, furniture and works in metals from the palace lives of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. (See an interactive gallery highlighting pieces from the three reigns)

Replacing "The King's Drawings," this new show opens Saturday and is the second supplemental display for the ongoing "Kings as Collectors" exhibition. (Read about the opening last October of the three-year Louvre Atlanta program)

Seen for the first time in the United States, these 53 carefully chosen pieces offer what High director Michael E. Shapiro calls "an intimate look at the lifestyles of France's richest and most powerful royalty."

Indeed, these gleaming porcelains, rococo carvings, sparkling silver and gold filigree and intricate fabrics may today shine in the halogen beams of modern showcase lighting as symbols of what ended that "richest and most powerful royalty."

The establishment in the 17th century of great royal factories to fill French palaces with luxury helped chart the collision course between the aristocracy and the citizenry. The French Revolution of 1789 was spurred by just such luxury. An untold number of priceless works were lost in the fury of the upheaval. When the Louvre was opened not as a palace but as a museum for the people in 1793, only 124 works of decorative art were there.

"Before the reign of Louis XIV, the kings of France were always moving," says Marie-Laure de Rochebrune, the Louvre's curator of decorative arts, "from one residence to another one. Each time, when they left a residence, everything was removed, the residence was emptied.

"In 1649, Louis XIV had to leave Paris very quickly because there was the beginning of a siege of the wall of the city. And he went to Saint-Germain-en-Laye and found the castle completely empty, no bed to sleep in or anything. So he said, 'It's impossible, all the royal residences must be furnished all the time.' "

The Sun King's founding of the Manufacture Royale de Tapisserie des Gobelins brought together the tapestry-making efforts of the realm.

And a 1667 decree set up the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne, or furniture-maker to the Crown, charged with outfitting all the residences.

France in Georgia

The High reports that since the ambitious Louvre Atlanta sequence of exhibitions opened in October 2006, some 205,000 people have visited the museum. That figure ranks it as No. 5 in High exhibition attendance history. (A 1999 impressionism show tops the records, with 252,333 attending.)

Of that 205,000 figure, director Shapiro says, some 40,000 have been schoolchildren.

And memberships in the museum's programs have grown to 50,000 households, a figure the High says ranks it among the top 10 American museums in terms of membership.

Shapiro says the three-year project of rolling exhibitions has created longer-lasting partnerships with corporate sponsors than might be the case in a more standard, three-month one-time exhibition. Key sponsorship is provided by High board member Anne Cox Chambers, Accenture, UPS, Turner Broadcasting (parent company of CNN), Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and AXA Art Insurance.

The total budget for the program is $18 million, of which nearly $17 million has been raised, the High says.

In talking about the importance of the project to the Louvre, the museum's de Rochebrune makes a special point to mention the $6.4 million of the total cost that's going to Paris as a donation. That money is earmarked for a restoration of the ancient palace's 18th-century French decorative arts galleries -- the source of this exhibition's works and the area of de Rochebrune's curatorial purview.

Such a funding boon for the world's largest museum has not gone down easily with some, however. Amid a heated debate in Paris about a plan for the Louvre to participate in a cultural complex in Abu Dhabi with a sort of "branch" location, the Louvre Atlanta project has come under some question in France.

High officials say the Louvre Atlanta program is different from the Abu Dhabi plan, which is closer to what the Guggenheim has done in creating five permanent locations for its collections in New York; Bilbao, Spain; Venice, Italy; Berlin, Germany; and Las Vegas, Nevada. Indeed, the Guggenheim is expected to have a location in Abu Dhabi, too. By contrast, the Louvre Atlanta program is an art-loan sequence, which also has participation from the Denver Art Museum, with a show opening there in October.

Louvre Atlanta's next major entry is the October 16 opening of the second year-long show, "The Louvre and the Ancient World," a gathering of more than 70 works from the Louvre's Egyptian, Near Eastern and Greco-Roman antiquities collections.

And also opening October 16 is "The Eye of Josephine," a survey of more than 60 pieces from the Greco-Roman and Egyptian collections in Paris, all installed by the Empress Josephine Bonaparte at her residence, Malmaison.

A 1782 Sevres bust of Marie Antoinette, after the work of Louis-Simon Boizot, stands in a High Museum gallery.



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