Saturday 14 November 2015

Dogs, Cats, Parrots: Pets at Versailles

Versailles was not only inhabited by people but also by animals. Pets were quite common among the nobility and the royal family had the luxury of been able to fully indulge in their passion for their pets.

Dogs were already an established companion at Versailles from the time of Louis XIV. The Sun King had several Great Pyrenees which were bred in Spain. Marie Thérèse, too, indulged in a love for pet dogs. Cats were not a common pet at this point. The superstitions of the medieval world meant that cats were often connected with evil forces and as such scorned as pets.

No less than two dogs are featured in this family portrait of Louis XIV

Cardinal Richelieu was one who nevertheless were fond of his feline friends. More than a dozen could be seen strolling through his apartments and casually lying on his state papers. Unlike most other courtiers in France the Cardinal actually had two caretakers employed to look after his cats - the cats lived in a separate room next to his bedroom and it is said that upon his death the fourteen cats and their caretakers inherited quite a large sum of money as well as a house to live in.

Surprisingly enough, the names of all fourteen cats has survived: Soumise (Richelieu's favourite), Mounard le Fougueux, Gazette, Ludovic the Cruel, Mimi-Paillon (an Angora), Felimare, Ludoviska (a Polish cat), Rubs sur l'Ongle, Serpolet, Pyrame, Thisbe, Racan and Perruque.

Cardinal Richelieu and his cats

Louis XV seemed to have been fond of both dogs and cats. He dedicated a salon in his private apartment to his hunting dogs - these lovely pups would sleep in there and the King would often come there to play with them after a hunt. It has been claimed that during the reign of Louis XV the poodle was mascot-dog of the court.
The king himself had poodles; a favourite of his was given the name Filou. Both Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska were fond of cats as well; a particular favourite was white Angoras. Madame de Mirepoix also favoured Angora cats but she preferred a grey sort.

Ponne, Bonne and Nonne - hunting dogs
of Louis XV. These were probably allowed to
sleep in the King's antechamber
Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette were both great dog-lovers and a particular favourite with them both were Papillon dogs - these had been introduced during the reign of Louis XIV. Madame de Pompadour also had two Phalenes with the names of Inez and Mimi.

Detail of a dog belonging to Marie Leszczynska in her
coronation portrait
The Austrian ambassador Mercy-d'Argenteau wrote back to Empress Marie Theresia that Marie Antoinette was very fond of dogs and had requested that another pug (tawny with a black nose) be sent from Vienna. In the same letter he also comments dryly on how unclean the dogs she already had were. For one the carpet in the Antechamber of the Grand Couvert had a hole in one corner where the two dogs had scratched through; her apartments were often covered in muddy foot-prints.

As can easily be imagined these pampered pets were not trained and could be quite a pestilence to the servants who had to clean up after them. Some could be aggressive but few as much as a dog owned by the Princesse de Conti - it was said that she trained it to bite her husband!

The young Louis XV walking his two dogs
It was not everyone who appreciated the hordes of dogs and cats that could be found everywhere. The young son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Louis Charles, were easily startled and did not care for the loud barking of the many dogs. The dogs also contributed to the often disgusting smell that haunted the galleries and private chambers. Since no servants were charged with tending to the dogs they would usually just relieve themselves wherever they pleased.

Pets became such a trend with the court that they are often seen in the official portraits of both royalty and nobility. Even foreign statesmen who made the court of France their home joined the trend. The Swedish ambassador Carl Gustav Tessin brought a Dachshund with him which was promptly featured with him in the official portrait of the ambassador.

Mimi, Madame de Pompadour's King Charles Spaniel by
Christophe Huet
Not only the traditional pets (or what we would class as such) such as cats and dogs were in vogue. Exotic animals were in high demand and this was not meant for the menagerie. Parrots and monkeys were especial favourites since they could escort their owners and make a fashionable statement. Goldfish were introduced by Portugal during Louis XV but they never really caught the hearts of the French aristocracy.

Madame du Barry was one who had a great passion for parrots and the ornate birdcage of hers has returned to her former apartment at Versailles. It was quite likely the home of an emerald-green parrot given to her by an officer of the navy who received a knighthood in return. Once she was banished on the death of Louis XV her colourful companion accompanied her. Another fan of parrots was the Duchesse du Maine.

Madame du Barry's bird-cage

Likewise, it was not uncommon to give a beloved pet a good send-off when it died which usually meant erecting special tombs.


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  2. I never think of a Cat, Dog or Parrot as a "Pet" These can become a friend of the human who owns such an animal. The usual term we have is "pet", but it seems to me this term belittles the special friendship that can exist between an animal and a human.

  3. Dogs were a common presence at Versailles, with various breeds owned by members of the royal family. They served not only as loyal companions but also as hunting partners. Hunting was a popular activity among the French nobility, and dogs played a vital role in these pursuits.