A Royal Bedroom: Gender, Class and Material Culture

By Esther Griffin van Orsouw

For my PhD research at the University of Warsaw, I investigate the consumption of art by the Sobieski family and their contemporaries in the late 17th and early 18th century in relation to space. I consider what type of objects the royals surrounded themselves with, whether they favoured any objects in particular, what spaces were thereby created, and what these spaces and objects tell us about the creation of a royal identity. As part of the PALAMUSTO project, I also take the research of my nine colleagues into account by comparing data using digital tools and by sharing qualitative information on our individual research topics.[1]

In this blog I will put forward a case study about Marie Casimire de La Grange d’Arquien (1641-1716), or Maria Kazimiera in Polish, who made her way from France to the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth as lady-in-waiting of the queen, eventually becoming queen herself. I have taken into consideration the research of my colleagues who focus on gender and architecture, the bedchamber and ceremonial, interior decoration and colour, and exotic objects – as is key to our project.

Having married the wealthy nobleman Jan ‘Sobiepan’ Zamoyski (1627-1665) in 1658, Maria left for a trip to Paris in 1662. She was accompanied by Aleksander Jarocki, a courtier of her husband who was responsible for her stay abroad. Jarocki’s letter of 24 June 1662 shows he was confronted with different customs, one of which was the reception of guests while lying in bed, or la ruelle.[2]

Figure 2. A. Bosse, Visit to the new mother, etching with engraving, 1633. MET Museum.

This custom was introduced by Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet (1588-1665), in the first half of the 17th century. The marquise received many aristocrats and famous intellectuals in her blue salon in Paris, lying on her bed with her guests placed on chairs between the bed and the wall; a space called la ruelle, which gave name to the custom.

Maria writes on 22 June 1662 to Jan Sobieski (1629-1696) – her future husband whom she had already met before marrying Jan Zamoyski and with whom she maintained a clandestine relationship – about the new beds she had bought in Paris.[3] She would also receive noble guests lying in bed.

Maria returned to Poland in 1663, bringing her beds with her, as well as the custom of la ruelle. Maria married Jan Sobieski after the death of Zamoyski in 1665. In 1676 they were crowned king and queen of the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth. Maria would practice the custom of la ruelle throughout her life. On 20 July 1690 Fagiouli, the secretary of the Papal Nuncio, writes about a visit of the Nuncio in Warsaw saying that “he was with the queen, who received him in the alcove, having seated him on a stool by the bed where she lay, with complete familiarity”.[4]  

Figure 3. S. Bombelli, Miniature of King Jan III Sobieski with Queen Maria Kazimiera, Oil on Metal sheet, 1677. National Museum Warsaw.

Was the adoption of this ceremony by Maria an expression of feminine critique on the political and social order, like it was as part of the salon culture of theprécieuses (intellectual women) in Paris in the mid-17th century, or was it simply an imitation of the fashion it had turned into? The précieuses used the important skill of conversation to exchange knowledge and raise their social importance. The guests in their salons would not be limited to the nobility.[5] To centralise his power and have absolute control, king Louis XIV would target all elements that threatened his authority, including the précieuses, who constructed their own rules.[6] By supporting authors who ridiculed the précieuses, the cultural importance of their salons was soon to come to an end.[7]

The Polish king did have a richly decorated bed in his chamber, but he did not adopt the French custom of receiving lying in bed. He dismissed it as unfit for a king.[8] As such, Sobieski not only marked himself as a righteous leader, but he also supported the gender conventions of keeping official business and politics outside of the bed, and thus away from his spouse, confirming male/female boundaries. This was made evident in the royal bedrooms in the Wilanów Palace, developed in several stages since 1677. The decorative scheme of the palace and the gendered identities it supported for both king and queen, created an image of marital bliss, of a brave and wise leader and a pious wife and mother. Yet it did not necessarily match the actual behaviour of Maria Kazimiera and her husband.[9] 

Figure 4. BurgererSF, Queen’s Bedroom in the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów, 2012, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Queen%27s_Bedroom_in_the_Wilan%C3%B3w_Palace.jpg

The queen’s bed had a canopy and curtains made of white satin. They were embroidered with Chinese patterns of birds and delicate figures, complemented with tassels and edges of lace. Similar fabric was also used to dress furniture in her room. More expression of colour could be found on religious images and light-hearted paintings of ladies dressed in white and red, a Venetian mirror, a cabinet of Florentine craftmanship decorated with silver and ‘pietra dura’ mosaics and Turkish and Persian carpets.[10] The queen’s bedroom would lead to a cabinet filled with mostly religious art works, appropriate for a pious queen.

The king’s bed is described by Fagiouli after a visit to Wilanów: “…where there is among other things a bed whose canopy is woven like a tapestry all of gold, jewels and pearls, given to him by the Persian King […]. In the room where the bed is located, there are also hanging, like trophies, various shields and sabres decorated with jewels, on the tables you can see golden vases and bowls and a huge amount of silver and filigree ornaments”.[11] The shields and sabres, possible war spoils from Sobieski’s battles with the Ottomans, enhance his image of warrior and hero, simultaneously demonstrating his appreciation for the beauty of such foreign objects. Valuable objects from different origin and paintings from well-known artists like Rembrandt complemented the room, highlighting the king’s rank and worldly knowledge. The king’s bedroom would lead to his Chinese Cabinet, in keeping with European fashion.

Figure 5. Unknown artist, Maria Kazimiera and her children, Oil on Canvas, 2nd half of the 17th century, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen – Staatsgalerie Schleissheim, Inventory number: 2433 https://www.sammlung.pinakothek.de/en/artwork/ma4dkknGrO (retrieved 22-12-2021).

Wilanów did not have a kunstkammer (art chamber) as such, but worldly art and precious artifacts could be found all around the palace, including in the bedroom. This study shows that collected items like paintings, artifacts, shields, and sabres may not play the leading role in making a bedroom a significant space of representation, yet are part of the overall scheme of the space and the identity it helps to create. By mapping objects and researching spaces in a holistic manner, I am curious to find out what role art objects played in the different spaces of Maria Kazimiera, her family and contemporaries and what meaning they carried there.

Figure 6. EU Horizon Funding Logo.

Esther Griffin – van Orsouw is an Early Stage Researcher of the PALAMUSTO network and a doctoral student at the University of Warsaw, Poland. Her individual research focusses on art collections of Polish and European royals and nobles in the late 17th and early 18th century and the use of digital tools to study such collections.

Personal links:

https://www.palamusto.eu/consortium/doctorandus/esther-griffin

https://ihs.uw.edu.pl/esther-griffin/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/esthergriffin


[1] This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 861426.

[2] L. Kukulski,  Maria Kazimiera d’Arquien de la Grange : Listy do Jana Sobieskiego (Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1966) p. 173-174.

[3] L. Kukulski,  Maria Kazimiera, 172.

[4] G. B. Fagiuoli, Diariusz Podróży Do Polski (Muzeum Pałac w Wilanowie: Warszawa, 2017 [1690-91]) p. 96.

[5] M. Tebben, ”Speaking of Women: Moliere and Conversations at the Court of Louis XIV,” Modern Language Studies 29.2 (1999): p. 190.

[6] V. Herold, “In the Shadow of the Sun King:  The Précieuse,”  Paroles Gelees, UCLA French Studies 14.1 (1996): p. 35.

[7] Herold, “In the Shadow,” p. 31.

[8] https://www.wilanow-palac.pl/visiting_the_bed_of_queen_mary_how_la_ruelle_fashion_reached_poland.html (consulted 22-12-21).

[9] B. Arciszewska, “The Royal Residence in Wilanów and Gender Construction in Early Modern Poland” in S. Frommel (ed.), Homme bâtisseur, femme bâtisseuse: traditions et stratégies dans le monde occidental et oriental (Paris : Editions Picard, 2013) p. 137-150.

[10] Kwiatkowska, A., Inwentarz Generalny 1696 z opracowaniem (Muzeum Pałac w Wilanowie: Warszawa, 2012).

[11] G.B. Fagiuoli, Diariusz Podróży, 101.


Cover Image. Photo by E. Griffin, Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów, 2020.

Figure 2. A. Bosse, Visit to the new mother, etching with engraving, 1633, MET Museum, Accession Number: 51.501.2235 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/387770 (retrieved 22-12-2021)

Figure 3. S. Bombelli, Miniature of King Jan III Sobieski with Queen Maria Kazimiera, Oil on Metal sheet, 1677, National Museum Warsaw, ID number: Min.910 MNW https://cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl/pl/katalog/523173  (retrieved 23-12-2021)

Figure 4. BurgererSF, Queen’s Bedroom in the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów, 2012, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Queen%27s_Bedroom_in_the_Wilan%C3%B3w_Palace.jpg  (retrieved 22-12-2021).

Figure 5. Unknown artist, Maria Kazimiera and her children, Oil on Canvas, 2nd half of the 17th century, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen – Staatsgalerie Schleissheim, Inventory number: 2433 https://www.sammlung.pinakothek.de/en/artwork/ma4dkknGrO (retrieved 22-12-2021).

Figure 6. EU Horizon Funding Logo.

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