The French royal court was never known for subtlety. Louis XIV had mile-high hair and dubbed himself the Sun King after his idol, Apollo, the sun god. In the late 17th century, he expanded the palace of Versailles, which today remains a symbol of lavish, unrestrained (and mostly gold) decorative extravagance.
Prepare to be blinded at “Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette,” on view at the Legion of Honor through March 2013.
The show, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is packed with 17th- and 18th-century glitz and glam, including diamond-studded snuff boxes, precious stone goblets, tapestries, mosaics, Sèvres porcelain, silver and furniture. Many items are rare survivors given that French Revolution leaders criminalized such luxury, and there was thorough pillaging.
“Royal Treasures” also initiates a new partnership between the Legion and the Musée du Louvre, arguably the world’s most famous and revered museum.
On Thursday at the exhibit’s opening, Diane B. Wilsey, board of trustees president of the Fine Arts Museums, signed an accord with Henri Loyrette, director of the Louvre, at the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, with Mayor Ed Lee in attendance.
The agreement secures a five-year relationship between the museums, promoting art and education exchanges. Future loans may include individual items as well as complete exhibits. The accord coincides with San Francisco’s renewed sister-city agreement with Paris, signed by Lee in September.
While there are many notable, elaborate works in “Royal Treasures,” the “Gemmes de la Couronne” room steals the show.
A large, shell-shaped amethyst goblet glows. The multi-faceted bowl stands on a pedestal decorated with rubies, diamonds and enameled gold. Dating from 1685, it is one of many examples from the French Crown Collection of Hardstones.
Other pieces are made from bloodstone-jasper, agate, jade, amber and rock crystal; visitors may find it difficult to believe that Louis XIV once had 823 similar objects, almost always studded with jewels. Cherished since antiquity, some of the semiprecious stones are from the medieval era, or Byzantine or Roman empires, and were remounted by Louis XIV’s goldsmiths.
Snuffboxes are dizzyingly detailed, covered in gems and often featuring enamel miniature portraits, a once-popular art form lost to the contemporary world.
Examples of florid, “feminine” taste — which still characterizes one popular notion of French style — round out the show: a mahogany-boxed boudoir tea set, a wool-silk tapestry folding screen and a mini gold coffee grinder made for Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress.
An enchanting marquetry desk with mechanical surprises is a highlight, with its pop-up bookcase, detachable lap desk and velvet kneeling rest for prayer (or footrest for the nonreligious). The reduced scale reflects Louis XV’s taste, a contrast to that of his great-grandfather Louis XIV; Louis XV also reduced Versailles’ ceiling height and increased apartment partitions.
The exhibition’s final room, a re-imagining of Antoinette’s octagonal boudoir, has a roll-top desk, a bust of the soon-to-be-beheaded-queen and bejeweled objects d’art. Some were partially damaged during the French Revolution, and later absorbed into Napoleon Bonaparte’s collection, for his famed lover Josephine de Beauharnais.
IF YOU GO
Royal Treasures from the Louvre
Where: Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., Lincoln Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes March 17
Tickets: $10 to $20
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.famsf.org