The Horses of Marly
by Marie Chapman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The Horses of Marly were commissioned by Louis XV in 1739. Guillaume Coustou chiseled them from Carrera marble. They stood — or rather, reared up — on either side of the horse pond, the abreuvoir, at Marly-le-Roi, outside Paris.
The Marly château, destroyed during the Revolution, was one of Louis XIV’s favorite escapes from his court at Versailles. Marly is now a suburb of Paris, but it retains the charm of a small town.
I realize you know some of this history. You are an educated man, of course. It’s refreshing that even civil servants in France know about art and literature; it’s not true in the U.S. Nonetheless, you’ll bear with me. I’m used to presenting this information to students in a lecture hall, and I find it hard to talk about it in any other way. And it’s crucial information, I promise you that.
Actually, the Coustou statues were not the first made for the Marly Park, and the ones there now aren’t even Coustou’s originals. The originals now stand — “rear up,” why can’t I remember to say that? — in the Marly Sculpture Courtyard at the Louvre. From 1795 to 1984 they stood — damn, “reared” — outside, at the Place de la Concorde. Now you can see cement copies there, as you know. I mean, you can admire them from your own window.
The original casts of a different pair of equestrian statues are also in the same Louvre courtyard. They’re the work of Antoine Coysevox, Coustou’s uncle, and were commissioned by Louis XIV, not XV. These were executed for the Marly Park in 1699, and didn’t budge from there until 1719, when they were moved to the Concorde, and then in 1986 to the Louvre.
As with the Coustou horses, you can see a cement copy of this pair at out your window here. So, the Concorde has four horses, each marking a direction. Oh, and the horses across the street from the hotel I stayed at in Marly are copies of the Coustou originals.
You’re probably wondering why the Coysevox statues were moved from Marly to Paris in the first place. Louis XV was quite young at his ascension, and his uncle ran the Regency government from the capital. The Regent moved the court from Versailles to Paris for fifteen years; he had always hated Versailles.
Obviously, the Coysevox statues were considered too majestic to leave behind at Marly, so near to Versailles. So Coustou made these other ones. In the end, the Coustou horses, although today associated with Marly, will always bear the burden of being considered second-best. At least that’s what I think, and that’s what I tell my students.
Just a word about the titles and then we’ll get to the reason you hauled me in here. The Coysevox ones are called Fame Riding Pegasus — fame is a woman — and Mercury Riding Pegasus. They commemorate Louis XIV’s war victories.
Coustou’s horses, by contrast, aren’t winged; the pair displays no connection to mythology, which is one of its oddities. They certainly are odd. They share one title, Horse Restrained by Groom. Young men — boys, really — work at restraining wild, violent, animals. No one is riding them.
There seems to be no reason for the choice of subject; the grooms don’t stand in for anyone. The horses must represent nature untamed, or unbridled, as it were. There is something unnerving about that, don’t you think?
The Hotel Les Chevaux de Marly — “the Horses of Marly” — is across the small traffic circle from the horse pond flanked by the Coustou horses — copies, in case you’ve already forgotten. Lucky guests, like me, have a full view of the horses from the second or third floor.
I have to say I would prefer to look out at the Coysevox ones, the ones that commemorate something, that fit into a meaningful history. But I did half-heartedly come to appreciate the Coustous. I even started to want to stand up for them, so to speak.
The hotel is mostly famous — well, only famous — for its four-star restaurant, frequented by wealthy couples who don’t know of the rooms upstairs. The four stars are assumed by proxy; if you ever stay there, you’ll decide it merits only two.
The room I was given for my week’s stay, Room One — have you ever heard of such a room number? — gave off a feeling of utter neglect. There was the initial problem of navigating the dining room with my suitcase. The rooms were an obvious afterthought and the only access was by the restrooms and up a tiny staircase.
The door handle to Room One came off in my hand. After fumbling with it, I found a large room furnished with mismatched night tables, armchairs, a desk, and old table lamps. There was a double bed with a ragged dark blue spread on it and an old, but not antique, dresser with an oval mirror. The bed faced the window and thus, the horses.
The only attempt at decoration was on the walls: two nineteenth-century prints of horses promenading through a garden, maybe the Tuileries, maybe the Bois de Boulogne. Not the Marly Park. I’m a specialist of prints as well as a professor, so I spent some time that first afternoon examining these; but as they were not by a major or even minor artist I could not place them.
One resembled a Constantin Guys wash of mounted Parisians in the wood. Guys was greatly admired by Baudelaire, who devoted a chapter of The Painter of Modern Life, about Guys, to horses. He, Baudelaire, thought that horses and equestrianship were signs of modernity. That idea seems strange to us today.
The other print was more traditional, an ink drawing of a fancy carriage with four horses. I couldn’t make out anybody in the carriage; it was obvious the horses mattered more than the people they were pulling.
Ever since my wife died I’ve had a difficult time relaxing in hotel rooms. That was one of our favorite activities, staying at hotels together. Over the years we stayed in quite a few in Paris.
When our friends in Marly invited me, to cheer me up — I’d been feeling a nervous strain — I understood that I’d be their guest. But her mother became ill and was staying there, so I ended up at the hotel.
It was a ten-minute walk to their house, and I would only have to sleep in the room. It didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but I had the sleeping pills and knew they worked well. As long as I got myself out of bed early enough, I knew I’d be fine. If I lingered, I might get those headaches.
My friends assured me they expected me promptly at eight-fifteen every morning, so this gave me reason to hope all would go well. And it would mean I’d avoid hearing their loud son mumbling to himself and playing in his room all night; he was an odd one.
My wife recently passed away unexpectedly. With no children or siblings, I realized how intensely I had come to depend on her. She was the traditional professor’s spouse, preparing meals for me, ensuring quiet so I might work, and driving me to and from the university.
Our vacations were my professional trips, mostly here to Paris. After her death, I managed to avoid Paris for a year, but our Marly friends insisted that I come when they heard the art history convention would be here. I thought that by avoiding our favorite hotels I would get through the trip. I would only be in the city for several hours a day, for less than a week. Then we’d take day excursions to Versailles or Fontainebleau, maybe to the coast.
I always had an aversion to driving, and my wife accepted this without question. So it was horribly ironic that she died in an accident while on her way to pick me up one rainy evening. The police said she must have swerved to avoid a dog — she was like that, selfless.
She was confused by the dark and the rain, and unable to stop from careening into a ravine. She had massive head contusions. The doctors provided details that I’ve endeavored to forget. I’m not sure why they felt so strongly about revealing them, maybe because I’m a professor. People get that way with professors, whom they expect to want excessive detail.
She defecated on impact. The car flipped twice, and the driver’s window smashed. It was one of those old cars made before the windows that don’t shatter. The tip of a large triangle of glass entered her left eye; it was stuck there when they found her. She must have turned to look out at the dog.
One of the doctors was named Hunter, that was his first name. I stared at his name tag as he told me the details. I was already working at blocking them out. On the plane to Paris, I never looked out the window. I was afraid even to turn my head.
Copyright © 2015 by Marie Chapman