Our current exhibition Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn is full of historic documents, artifacts and art, designed to put you in the shoes of people fighting for freedom across the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But between the pamphlets and portraits, you’ll find one piece that’s distinctly modern: a sugar-paste sculpture of Versailles. And for its story, we’ll have to head to Mexico.
Curator Richard Rabinowitz tells the story of traveling to Mexico in 2008, to the city of Guanajuato. They were hosting their annual festival of Alfeñique, the art of sugar sculpting most associated with Dio De Los Muertos. Among the entries in the competition was an ornate replica of the local basilica. “I got this lightbulb idea that if he could do the basilica, he could do Versailles.”
Benita Rodrigues Alvarez and Martín Avila were commissioned to create the sculpture, even though the two had never seen Versailles. The sculpture is done in sugar paste tinted with vegetable dyes, and was shipped to New York in three pieces, with miraculously little damage.
But why Versailles? And why in sugar? “Sugar represented an enormous proportion of the wealth of the French kingdom,” said Rabinowitz. “Maybe thirty percent of the total foreign income came from trade in sugar. It was the great commodity in the eighteenth century landed world.” That wealth allowed the French to aid America in its revolution, but it came at a price: the lives of the slaves that produced the sugar in the Caribbean. “Versailles survives, but it was in some ways a kingdom based on sugar.”