In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Palace of Versailles required considerable restoration work. After the tragic death of the curator Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré and among the crowd of applicants for this sought-after position, Gerald Van Der Kemp out of the lot becoming for twenty-seven years The Chief Curator of Versailles.
Gérald Van Der Kemp passionate about art
Gérald Van Der Kemp born in May 1912 in Charenton-le-Pont, continued his studies at the lycée de Nantes where he was passionate about painting and drawing. At seventeen he returned to Paris, and in order to survive made some caricatures for newspapers, some movie sets and some preparation for the Fine Arts. After the Foreign Legion in Morocco and then a passage at the Sorbonne, he enrolled at the Louvre School, obtaining at the age of twenty-four, his license in archeology accompanied by his diploma. The director of the National Museums Henri Verne summons him and offers him the title of independent attaché with a salary of 800 francs per month!
Chargé de mission at the Department of Drawings and Engravings of the Louvre in 1936, he stood out during the Occupation by saving art objects, facing an SS division to protect in particular the Venus de Milo and the Slaves of Michelangelo. , transferred to Valençay. This earned him a magnificent citation and his nomination in the Order of the Legion of Honor in a military capacity: “By his courageous attitude, Gérald Van Der Kemp preserved from fatal destruction the museum deposit which was entrusted to him and limited the progress of the fire started in the city of Valençay by the Germans of the Nazi division Das Reich ... ”.
Already nicknamed "VDK", at the age of forty, he took on the post of chief curator "in office" at Versailles in 1953 following a real combination of circumstances: his predecessor Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré was the victim of an accident car in Canada in April; while the greatest conservatives in France are scrambling for this post, André Cornu, Secretary of State for Fine Arts, chooses and appoints him definitively two years later.
He discovers Versailles in an almost lamentable state: “When I got there, it was disgusting, empty, dead. I wanted him to become alive again, beautiful to look at, what he was in the days of kings. It had to be furnished, clad, dusted off ”. Versailles no longer fascinates, but luck is with VDK: Sacha Guitry is filming between July and September 1953, his film “If Versailles was told me” and offers part of the rights to the protection of the Palace of Versailles.
Gérald Van Der Kemp's missions
VDK begins by abolishing the visits to Versailles made by the guards and replacing them with guided tours organized by students; he then set up a restaurant and public toilets under the Gabriel wing (as in the big museums), feeling that the brand image of a cultural establishment is due to its quality of services; he organized his first major exhibition in 1955 "Marie Antoinette, archduchess, dauphine and queen" helped by the contribution of Baroness Elie de Rothschild. The result was not long in coming: more than 250,000 visitors passed.
VDK feels that it needs permanent specialists and encourages the mastery of artisanal know-how; he began by developing workshops for models, carpentry, watchmaking, gilding, tapestry, cabinetmaking, sculpture; he created a large archives service and a photo lab. In this way, he facilitates the restoration of the Grand Trianon, the Museum of the History of France, the apartment of Mme de Maintenon, the apartments of Louis XV, the apartments of Madame du Barry, the dining room of Louis XV at the Petit Trianon, the king's bedroom, Louis XVI's games room, his library, and dozens of other lounges, antechambers or small cabinets. He also takes care of the renovation of the Napoleonic rooms of the National Museum of the History of France created by Louis-Philippe.
Having acquired a great notoriety, nicknamed "the Commander", qualified as a Man of restoration and furnishing, VDK succeeds in reconstituting the Queen's room, in the state of 1788-1789 with hangings, furniture, woodwork similar to this time. He must finish in style ... with the restoration of the Hall of Mirrors. In 1973, he prepared for this new adventure by giving a dazzling evening sponsored by Marie-Hélène de Rothschild. He thus raised $ 250,000, the start of an extraordinary sponsorship. The Hall of Mirrors, restored to its original splendor, was inaugurated in June 1980.
Support from politicians and patronage
After some misunderstandings with the chief architect André Japy, however retired, VDK knows that it needs political support and listening “ears”, because without relations, no funds to restore the premises. Thus he can count on André Malraux, Minister of Cultural Affairs, who is organizing the repatriation of a masterpiece from the Louvre to Versailles.
He also intends to refurnish Versailles with the original furniture scattered around the Louvre or Fontainebleau or to recreate copies of the furniture as originally. Thanks to his political knowledge, Michel Debré Prime Minister at the time had a decree passed in February 1961 “all paintings and works that belonged to Versailles must be returned to the National Museum of Versailles and the Trianons”. VDK himself tells: “I started a fight to the death with my colleagues from other national museums. No one wanted to "let go" of furniture or paintings. I needed them to give Versailles back that life that had deserted it ”.
He developed patronage through his own connections and his second wife, traveling to Europe and America to find generous benefactors. He himself organizes sumptuous dinners welcoming Grace Kelly and Herbert Von Karajan. Elected to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1968, assigned in 1980 to the domain of Claude Monet in Giverny, he died at the end of December 2001 in Paris.
Tributes to the great chief curator
Great personalities pay homage to him after his death, in particular Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière elected in 2006 to the former seat of Gérald Van Der Kemp who says "We cannot take a step in Versailles without seeing the imprint of his passage". Alain Baraton, chief gardener of Versailles, expresses himself “Anyone who knows the history of Versailles knows that we owe him in particular the restoration of the Queen's bedroom as well as the restitution of furniture, including the King's office, masterpieces. 18th century cabinetmaking, scattered here and there in the ministries according to the whims of republics and revolutions; this was Van Der Kemp's lifelong work: reweaving the two silks in the royal apartments identically took 25 years for the Queen's bedroom and 30 for the King's bedroom respectively ”.
Gérald Van der Kemp was a true precursor of modern patronage. Public money being scarce, he worked with ardor and success to convince major collectors around the world of the absolute need to support and finance the restoration of Versailles in order to preserve our heritage. Placed in the exclusive service of the arts, this elegant, respectful, energetic, voluntary leader of men remained in his post for twenty-seven years, having succeeded in making the Palace of Versailles a magnificent showcase of French decorative arts, a major pole heritage.
- "They saved Versailles", by Franck Ferrand. Perrin Editions, 2003.
- "A gentleman at Versailles", by Franck Ferrand. Edtions Perrin, 2005.
- “The Gardener of Versailles” by Aalain Barraton. Grasset, 2006.