For her newest exhibition at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam acclaimed photographer Viviane Sassen has created new work inspired by various accounts of the French royal court in the 17th and 18th centuries. She wove these stories into a melancholic narrative drenched in eroticism, power, intrigue, illness, decay, and death.

Numerous fascinating stories lie behind the exhibition Venus & Mercury at Huis Marseille. Many were inspired by the lives of Marie-Antoinette, royal mistresses, poisoners and soothsayers, as well as by the erotic and medical histories that surrounded the French royal court in the 17th and 18th centuries. Venus refers to the Roman goddess of love and lust, and Mercury to quicksilver, the heavy liquid metal that was long used to treat venereal diseases. Each of the fourteen galleries tells a separate story; together they form a linked sequence of remarkable histories, with accompanying poetic texts by Marjolijn van Heemstra. Some of these stories are related by the actress Tilda Swinton in a hypnotic video installation. Besides multimedia installations, the exhibition includes unique works created with paint and collage techniques, posters, and free-standing monumental pieces.

A dark-skinned baby, reputedly the illegitimate daughter of the Queen of France – Louise Marie-Thérèse, who was born in 1664 – is one of the illustrious figures from the history of the French court that inspired Viviane Sassen to make a number of unique works treated with ink and paint and hung in the Garden Room at Huis Marseille.

Another inspiration was the simple, airy, white cotton gown in which Queen Marie-Antoinette was painted in the 18th century by Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, supposedly scandalous attire that caused a major furore. The dress inspired Sassen’s installation White Linen in the Upstairs Gallery. Several of the other galleries in Huis Marseille are also devoted to work inspired by events in the exciting life of a young queen who would ultimately lose her head at the guillotine. But Viviane Sassen gives these and other stories new and fascinating interpretations. In her hands a grand piano takes the form of a guillotine, and the queen’s secret letters are presented as fiery objects, the photos painted over with flaming colours symbolising the queen’s hidden passion for her supposed lover.