The Lady of Versailles

Francois Dischinger

Former journalist and political advisor Catherine Pégard is the culture curator of the famous French château Louis XIV built.

A few years ago, Catherine Pégard was in Le Bon Marché buying a bed for the apartment that came with her new job. Where did she want it sent? the Parisian saleswoman inquired. To Versailles, Pégard answered a little sheepishly, explaining that she had a second home there. Where in Versailles? Um, the château. That’s your second home? The Château de Versailles?

Indeed it is, and, no, France has not restored the monarchy while you weren’t looking. Among his final appointments as president, Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011 named Pégard to run the world’s ultimate château, with its 2,143 windows and 80 acres of mowed lawn. It was a maverick choice, and France dutifully erupted in the kind of grandiloquent snorting it has elevated to an art form. The basic rap was that Pégard does not hail from France’s cultural establishment, trailing impressive curatorial credentials and fancy diplomas. She spent most of her career as a magazine journalist before Sarkozy invited her to be his political advisor. The nerve, one French art blog huffed: “Now anybody gets to be president of a museum, provided they please the prince.”

Pégard, 60, felt the barbs, and they stung. “Yes, there was a lot of criticism at the beginning,” she recalls, “but if I thought I couldn’t do it, I would have had the dignity to say so.” She spent her first year getting a feel for her oversized second home. “I went through each of the 2,300 rooms at night with the security guard, doing la ronde de la nuit—that’s a four-mile walk,” says Pégard. “The silence is total. You see things you don’t see during the day. With everything I do, I do my homework first.”

Almost three years in, no one’s treating Pégard like an interloper anymore, and she can sleep soundly in her presidential apartments (although she says she prefers to sleep in her old Paris home in the sixth arrondissement). She’s managed to win over the prickly (almost 1,000) courtiers who staff the château and run its massive apparatus. How many people does it take to change the château’s lightbulbs? A lot—there are 23,000 of them.

“You can’t come to Versailles like the young master. The conservation people own Versailles, and you need their cooperation,” says celebrated landscape architect Louis Benech, who is reimagining one of the château’s wooded glens. “[Pégard] was clever not to treat the place as territoire conquis—conquered territory. She’s quietly entered her role, asking questions, listening.”

I met Pégard at Le Bristol, a hotel near the Élysée Palace, her old stomping grounds from when she whispered in Sarkozy’s ear. “I have looked at power from the outside as a journalist, then I was at the heart of power when I worked for the president, and now I am at the seat of power—from 400 years ago. I did everything backwards,” she says.

I have met quite a few French grandees, and you usually don’t need anyone to tell you they’re important; their self-regard can hit you from across the room like too much aftershave. Not Pégard. She was dressed in a simple pantsuit, her hair loose, and smiled quizzically as she sized me up. She still operates more like a journalist than a culture queen, which explains how she has managed to disarm her critics.

Last year was the 400th anniversary of André Le Nôtre’s birth, which made it a big year indeed for the château, and a kind of baptism by fire for Pégard. The hero of Versailles’s gardens, he’s the man who laid out a large part of the château’s vast parkland, which extends over three square miles. (Central Park is just under one and a half square miles.) Much of what we associate with the great French formal gardens—the stately parterres, the manicured hedges, the subtle play of perspective—is Le Nôtre’s legacy.

So his is not the kind of legacy a rookie like Pégard wanted to screw up. “Le Nôtre is a lot more than a gardener—he’s one of the great architects of Versailles,” she says. “His influence is felt everywhere. Washington, D.C., has taken much from him, for example.”

Unfortunately, one of Pégard’s first exhibits honoring Le Nôtre taught her a hard lesson in the pitfalls of patronage. She allowed a little-known South Korean tycoon to rent Versailles’s exclusive Orangerie for a show of his nature photographs. Yoo Byung Eun, known as Ahae, also contributed several million dollars to Versailles restoration projects. Such are the bargains cash-strapped institutions sometimes make. The bargain turned sour when, more than a year later, Ahae was linked to the sinking of a ferry he owned in Korea, as well as financial fraud. He was recently found dead in Korea, an apparent suicide. Pégard couldn’t have known any of this, and she protested in the French press that no one in either the French or South Korean governments had a bad word to say about Ahae when he started his spending spree in 2012.

Pégard’s predecessor, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, first threw the 17th-century château and its park open to contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. The contrast of styles, sometimes jarring, was meant to elicit outrage, and in this it succeeded. (Although it must be said, the Sun King would undoubtedly have recognized a kindred spirit in Koons’s gilded Michael Jackson.)

Pégard has kept up Aillagon’s practice—for one thing, it helps draw younger visitors—but with less nose-thumbing and more logic. She first chose Giuseppe Penone as a guest artist. Penone is a leading exponent of Arte Povera, an art movement that favors simplicity and elevates the everyday. Penone’s medium is large, leafless trees. At Versailles, their stark trunks bantered wittily across the centuries with Le Nôtre’s dandified hedges. Her second pick makes Penone look positively rococo: Strewn around the immaculate gardens are what appear to be meteorites. They did not drop from space, however, but from South Korean sculptor Lee Ufan’s fertile imagination. Pégard says Lee is continuing Penone’s dialogue with Le Nôtre—a dialogue filled with empty spaces and long pauses. (It’s also no coincidence that Pégard chose an Asian artist. Visitors from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are the third most numerous group at Versailles, after the French and the Americans.)

“At first, inviting modern artists was more about provocation,” says Pégard. “Now we need something with a more natural relationship to Versailles. The works of both Penone and Lee connect directly to the setting. Versailles is a living thing. It’s not just a museum. My ambition is to make Versailles live.”

That vitality is felt within Benech’s re-imagined Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau (Water Theater Grove), a secluded glen that Louis XVI destroyed in 1775, which reopens next spring. Benech’s plan nods respectfully to Le Nôtre’s visual sleights of hand—“Everything with him is a cheat, but Le Nôtre was the best cheater,” he says—and repeating rhythms. But the new Bosquet will be anything but a slavish homage to the master. Its centerpiece is a series of three fountains that string together golden glass spheres in calligraphic curlicues. Jean-Michel Othoniel, the artist, used the same Murano baubles to garland the metro station outside the Comédie-Française; it’s by far the wackiest metro station in Paris.

Of course, to make Versailles live, you’ve also got to make sure the plumbing works, which is no easy matter when most of the cast-iron pipes in its 22-mile underground network are more than 300 years old. This, too, is very much on Pégard’s mind. On a snowy day last year, she looked on, beaming, as a giant crane gently removed the goddess Latona from her perch atop Jules Hardouin-Mansart’s great fountain, which, in another of Le Nôtre’s sly tricks of perspective, you don’t notice until you walk smack up to it. The gilded iguanas and turtles, looking a little startled, were lifted out over the following days. The fountain, out of commission for more than a year, reopens September 31. Its hydraulics, an engineering marvel in Le Nôtre’s day, were shot.

To Pégard, it’s all of a piece—fixing the pipes, updating the palace’s visual vocabulary: “Versailles is more than a history book. It’s a rendezvous with style, but the floors still need to be waxed on Mondays. That’s 2,500 liters of wax a year!”