My fourth post focusing on the history of the Château de Versailles ended with the execution by guillotine of the Château’s most tragic figures, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, in 1793 (January 21 and October 16, respectively). This fifth post will focus on the history of the Château from 1789 until 1870. Killing the King and Queen may have ended the Château’s role as an official palatial residence, but it did not get rid of the long symbolic shadow that the monument continued to cast. The French Revolution marked the beginning of 155 years of political and social unrest felt on an international scale, and the Château de Versailles would continue to serve as a stage on which key moments of this activity would be played out.
When Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette agreed to leave Versailles for Paris with the protestors of the Women’s March on October 6, 1789, their peaceful departure likely saved the Château from widespread destruction—a fate that later befell the Tuileries Palace when it was set ablaze by the Paris Commune in 1871. Louis XVI left the Château in the care of his Minister of War, Jean-Frédéric, the Comte de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet, with the words, “try and save my poor Versailles!” The Royal Buildings Office kept the Château de Versailles ready for a potential upswing in Louis XVI’s potential fortunes, but in vain; the King and Queen never returned.
Below is a photo taken of damage to the Tuileries Palace following the Paris Commune of 1871, for some context of the ruin that Versailles was spared.
The surrounding town of Versailles was itself devastated by the departure of the royal court. The town had built its identity upon being a court city, with the responsibility of its administration in the hands of the palace governor. In 1789, the town quickly lost its purpose, its governing structure, as well as half of its population of 70,000 people. It would be 1936 before the town’s inhabitants hit that number again.
As the status of the royal family continued to deteriorate, the fate of the Château de Versailles and its belongings became increasingly precarious. During the night of June 20-21, 1791 Louis XVI and his immediate family were caught while trying to flee from Paris. The National Constituent Assembly announced that the royal family had effectively abandoned all of their possessions when they attempted to escape their imprisonment. After the Insurrection of August 10, 1792, the municipal authorities placed seals on the Château de Versailles in order to protect its contents and prevent unauthorized entry. On September 21, 1792, the monarchy was abolished. All property belonging to the royal family was transferred to the French state.
Opinions were divided about what to do with the Château de Versailles. The more reactionary attitudes demanded that it be razed to the ground in a manner similar to the Bastille. However, the French revolutionary government (now the National Convention) was more concerned with their ongoing war against Austria and Prussia. They needed to secure more funds to continue their military campaigns, which had recently (and surprisingly) resulted in several key victories such as the Battle of Valmy on September 20. On October 19, 1792, the Commission of the Arts of Seine-et-Oise was created with the mandate to collect, on behalf of the nation, all items that were deemed to have significant scientific or artistic value from confiscated properties, including those that had formerly belonged to the nobility (such as Versailles), the Catholic Church, and convicts. The Château de Versailles served as a temporary depository for these items before they were relocated to other institutions: paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and other artworks were sent to the Louvre (the former royal residence was being converted into a national museum, and would later open on August 10, 1793); books went to the Bibliothèque nationale; scientific objects to the Arts et Métiers conservatory; musical instruments and sheet music to the Opéra; and the animals of the menagerie to the Jardin des Plantes.
The rest of the Château’s furnishings that were not deemed culturally important were sold off in a series of auctions beginning on August 25, 1793 and continuing through to August 11, 1794. There were no fewer than 17,182 lots that included a wide range of items such as: horsehair mattresses; silk sheets; feather-beds; velvet cushions; damask curtains; mahogany desks; upholstered armchairs and settees; marble tables; brocade tapestries; silver candlesticks; porcelain; mirrors; bottles of wine; kitchen utensils; and much more. A lot of items were acquired by Paris merchants and citizens. However, local demand for royal memorabilia was low. To encourage foreign sales, the French government waived export taxes. As a result, some of the personal contents of the royal family were taken abroad to decorate castles in Germany and manor houses in Great Britain.
The townspeople of Versailles were disheartened by the removal of the Château’s treasures for Paris. They drafted and sent several petitions to the National Convention asking that a second museum be established in the now-vacant residence, trying to establish an economic lifeline for their community. On May 5, 1794 the government honoured their requests by decreeing that the Château would be placed under state protection, and that it would be “conserved and maintained at the expense of the Republic for the enjoyment of the people and to create institutions useful for agriculture and the arts.” Hugues Lagard was hired as head bibliographer for the burgeoning Central Museum of the Arts of Versailles and soon became the driving force behind the project. He was elected as head curator in 1795 and assembled a team of other curators to assist him. These included: for art, Louis Jean-Jacques Durameau, the French artist who painted the artwork on the ceiling of the Royal Opera House; and, for natural history, Charles Philippe Fayolle, a former commissioner of the French Navy who used to have a cabinet of curiosities housed at Versailles. There were three parts to the museum: the first section was a science room located on the ground floor of the north wing of the Château that covered natural history and the physical sciences; the second was a library that could be found on the ground floor of the south wing; and the third was an assortment of paintings, statues, vases, and other collectibles on display in the King’s State Apartments and the Queen’s Apartments. The museum opened on April 18, 1796 and was open for two days out of every ten.
In 1797 Fayolle and Pierre Bénézech, the French Minister of the Interior (whose responsibilities included Public Education and Fine Arts), proposed that the Central Museum of the Arts of Versailles be replaced by a special annexe of the Louvre with works dedicated solely to French painters. Plans were soon underway for the opening of the Musée spécial de l’école française. When it opened in 1801, the new museum contained 352 paintings and 32 sculptures on display, with more than 700 works in reserve. However, it proved to be a short-lived project as its collections were slowly transferred to other institutions from 1803 onwards; it closed its doors for good in 1810 when a new French personality became interested in Versailles (more on him later in this post).
Below is one of the paintings that was exhibited at the Musée spécial de l’école française.
Below is the title page of a guide to the Musée spécial de l’école française. It reads: “Explanation of the works of painting, sculpture, architecture and engraving of the artists of this commune, exhibited in the rooms of the Musée spécial de l’école française, in the national palace, starting on the date of 15 fructidor year 10. Booklet cost: 20 cents (4 sous).” Note that “2 Septembre 1802” has been handwritten onto the page; at the time of the guide’s original printing, France was using the French Republican Calendar.
Other parts of the Château de Versailles did not fare so well in this period. Although the main residence had been saved from demolition, other parts of the estate were sold off and/or left to ruin. All of the palace railings were torn up and used as scrap metal. Craftsmen were directed to remove and destroy all instances of decorative royal insignia including fleurs-de-lys, crowns, sceptres, and royal statuary. The Grand Canal was drained and turned into farming pasture. An arms factory moved into the Grand Commun. In 1796, the Petit Trianon and its grounds were leased to an innkeeper and lemonade seller by the name of Charles Langlois, who opened a hotel and restaurant. Refreshments were served in the French gardens and there was dancing every Décadi (the day of rest that marked the end of the 10-day week in the revolutionary calendar) in the French Pavilion. Squatters moved into the cottages in the Queen’s Hamlet. The Educational Farm was rented out to a farmer named Michel Souhaité and one of the buildings, possibly the barn, burned down at this time. Visitors snatched up souvenirs from the largely unsupervised residences and gardens. A German traveller in the mid-1790s observed: “Versailles has lost 30,000 inhabitants. It is wretched and deserted. The Château is uninhabited. Most of the park […] is neglected. The chateaux and houses of the Trianon are empty, ruined, or destroyed […] A doleful, tomb-like solitude surrounds the wanderer in these sites that were formerly so animated.” In 1800, the Château de Marly was converted into a factory for spinning cotton thread. When the factory went out of business in 1806, Marly was demolished and its building materials sold.
Although the Château de Versailles managed to survive the French Revolution, it then experienced years of overall neglect. A property that massive requires a lot of financial and physical upkeep. Although there were tenants and squatters inhabiting various sections of the grounds, they didn’t have the means to take on such a project. And why would they want to? Versailles was a symbol of the despised monarchy. It was a relic of a despotic regime over which the people had triumphed. There was no singular vision, effort, or responsibility dedicated to its maintenance. There was no one with the interest or, more importantly, enough political power and financial clout to reverse the deteriorating condition of the Château and its grounds. Until Napoleon came along.
Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France took place on December 2, 1804. He had Versailles designated as an imperial palace, although he never lived there. Instead, he mostly resided in the Tuileries Palace in central Paris, and moved between several other official residences such as the Château de Fontainebleau and the Château de Malmaison. Napoleon first went to Versailles in March 1805. Instead of having apartments set up in the main residence, he chose to settle in the Grand Trianon instead. He wanted to use the Grand Trianon as a summer residence while hunting in the woods nearby—the same appeal, it so happens, that had first brought a young Louis XIII to Versailles nearly two hundred years earlier in 1607 (Louis XIII would build his first hunting lodge in 1623). Napoleon decided to have the south wing of the Grand Trianon fixed up to house his mother, Maria Letizia Ramolino, and the north wing for himself and his wife, Empress Josephine. Napoleon evicted Langlois from the Petit Trianon so that he could set it up as a summer residence for his favourite sister, Pauline Borghèse. Napoleon also closed the Musée spécial de l’école française and expelled the people who were living illegally in the Queen’s Hamlet. He wanted all of the arrangements to be ready by May 21, 1805, but it would be July before they were even close. Napoleon’s mother arrived at the Grand Trianon on May 6 and refused to take up residence in the south wing. She felt the château was too outdated and ill-suited to modern needs. Pauline was happier with the Petit Trianon, and stayed there from June through July.
Napoleon continued to have improvements made to the grounds and the châteaux of both the Grand and Petit Trianon over the next few years, including work directed at reopening the Grand Canal. Interestingly, he avoided doing the same for the main residence of the Château de Versailles. This was probably largely due to the fact that the projects at Trianon were already very costly. But Napoleon is also quoted as saying it is “[b]etter not [to] do anything, if one cannot do something that rivals what Louis XIV has done.” If his reign as Emperor had been longer, Napoleon may have eventually expanded his restoration efforts to the main Château. Given time, Napoleon’s Versailles could have contended with the grandeur of the Sun King. But time was something Napoleon did not have: he would rule as Emperor of the French for only 10 years compared to Louis XIV’s 72 years as King.
Napoleon made his first extended stay at the Grand Trianon following the announcement that he was divorcing his wife Empress Josephine on December 15, 1809. He left the Tuileries at 4:00 pm and arrived at the Grand Trianon that night. It was a painful separation for them both. Napoleon went to see Josephine a few times over the following weeks at the Château de Malmaison, and he invited her to dinner at the Grand Trianon on Christmas Day. It was a sad occasion. Josephine was indisposed for a few days after this meeting, and Napoleon threw himself headlong into the distraction of planning for his next marriage.
Napoleon had the Grand Trianon completely re-furnished between 1809 and 1810; by the spring of 1810, it was completely finished and ready to be inhabited. Napoleon married his second wife, Marie-Louise, daughter of his conquered enemy Emperor Francis I of Austria, in April 1810. On June 10, 1810, he brought Empress Marie-Louise to Versailles for the first time. Interestingly, Marie-Louise was a great-niece of Marie Antoinette. Marie-Louise’s grandmother, Maria-Carolina, was one of Marie Antoinette’s many sisters (her favourite, in fact, as they were the closest in age to each other). Napoleon and Marie-Louise returned to Versailles at the beginning of August and stayed there for a few days, with Marie-Louise residing at the Petit Trianon. Although Napoleon had not shown much prior interest in the Queen’s Hamlet, he decided at this point that he wanted to have it completely restored for Marie-Louise. A few of the buildings had to be torn down because they were beyond hope of repair, but thankfully the majority of the Hamlet was saved.
Napoleon and Marie-Louise hosted three separate entertainments during their summers at Versailles. On August 9, 1810, a Molière play was staged at the newly-restored Queen’s Theatre, and a big party was held the next day in the gardens. A circus, built especially for the occasion, hosted a performance of the Franconi brothers, Laurent and Henri. In July 1811, a gondola once more cruised the Grand Canal, this time with Napoleon and Marie-Louise on board. On August 25, 1811 the imperial couple hosted a grand party, “the Feast of the Empress,” which was attended by hundreds of people. The châteaux were lit up by lanterns in different colours, the lakes were illuminated and filled with boats, and guests were entertained by musicians and a choir. The Trianon Theatre hosted both a play and a ballet performance. A lavish feast was served in the Grand Trianon. It was a magnificent celebration, a rival to the great entertainments that had once been staged during the reign of Louis XIV. Attendees of this party must have felt that the night had been like a fairytale.
Napoleon and Marie-Louise visited Versailles for the last time in March 1813, shortly after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign. Napoleon was forced to abdicate just over a year later in April 1814, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored to power that same year (give or take a hundred days in 1815). The town of Versailles cheered at the prospect of Louis XVIII (younger brother of Louis XVI) returning with the royal court. New staff were hired at the Château de Versailles and the rooms were cleaned and prepared for occupancy. To their disappointment, Louis XVIII and his younger brother (and later successor) Charles X chose not to live at their former home of Versailles. They opted to stay at the Tuileries Palace instead. The Bourbons had returned to France as constitutional rather than absolute monarchs, and living at Versailles would have been too politically contentious. It would have also been too expensive to fix up the main residence at a time when France was making costly war reparations to the countries that had ousted Napoleon.
Louis XVIII and Charles X had to make several liberal concessions to avoid stirring up the same kind of national resentment that had stung their older brother. Charles X was less successful at doing this as he was extremist in his views regarding the power of the monarchy, and the July Revolution of 1830 saw the political tide turning against him in favour of his more liberal cousin, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans. Rioters took to the streets and began to erect barricades. An attack on the Tuileries Palace became increasingly likely, and Charles X fled Paris for Versailles with his ministers and court shortly after midnight on July 31. They arrived around 5:00 in the morning, but chose not to enter the main Château as national guards wearing the revolutionary tricolour were occupying the Place d’Armes. Instead, they went to the Grand Trianon. They waited for Charles X’s son, Louis-Antoine, the Duke of Angoulême1, to join them with his troops from Saint-Cloud. They then moved on to the Château de Rambouillet later that same day. It was at Rambouillet on August 2 that both father and son felt compelled to sign their abdication. They did so with the belief that Charles X’s ten-year-old grandson, Henri d’Artois, the Count of Chambord, would succeed them. However, Louis-Philippe I was instead proclaimed King of the French on August 9. On August 16, the deposed Bourbon family boarded ships that took them to their final exile in Britain.
Louis-Philippe I was the head of a junior branch of the royal family, known as the d’Orléans, who were descended from Louis XIV’s younger brother Philippe d’Orléans2. The d’Orléans did not have a sentimental attachment to Versailles. Louis-Philippe I’s father, Louis-Philippe-Joseph, was actually a bit of a black sheep. Prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution, he had an apartment at Versailles. However, he preferred staying at the Palais-Royal in Paris, which was the official residence of the d’Orléans family. Louis-Philippe-Joseph did not get along well with Louis XVI and his other cousins, and he was enthusiastic about the revolutionary cause. In 1792, Louis-Philippe-Joseph was elected to the National Assembly and legally changed his name to Philippe Égalité. On January 15, 1793 he voted in favour of Louis XVI’s execution; an outcome, it should be noted, that was decided on the majority of one vote. Philippe Égalité would later face the guillotine himself in November 1793. When Louis-Philippe I came to power after the abdication of his cousin, Charles X, he did so with the weight of all this family history. He was determined to prove the legitimacy of his rule, and wanted his regime to be seen as the one that successfully reconciled the different political factions of France.
One of the ways in which Louis-Philippe I tried to unite France under one consolidated message of national glory and memory was to strip Versailles of its royal residence status and turn it into a patriotic museum, the Musée de l’histoire de France. The museum was meant to serve as a narrative history lesson for the nation about the nation. Louis-Philippe I gathered and commissioned a series of artistic works that presented a visual chronicle of France from its earliest medieval roots to the current day. The centrepiece of the museum was the Gallery of Great Battles, which featured paintings of French military victories ranging from the Frankish king Clovis’s triumph at Tolbiac in 496 through to Napoleon’s triumph at Wagram in 1809. A theme centering on military accomplishment allowed for the inclusion of royalist, republican, and imperial campaigns alike. It also provided Louis-Philippe I with an opportunity to showcase his own military career; as a young man, he had served with distinction in the French Revolutionary army. The Battle of Valmy in 1792, a key triumph of the First French Republic and one that Louis-Philippe I himself fought at, was highlighted. Victories dating back to the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI that were still in the range of living memory were included to appease the royalists. Even the memory of Napoleon could be somewhat contained and proudly celebrated within this narrative. Visitors to the History of France museum were meant to get the message that the reign of Louis-Philippe I provided the necessary and happy conclusion to all of this glorious French history3.
The History of France museum was initially a great success when it was inaugurated on June 10, 1837, dedicated “À toutes les gloires de la France” (To all the glories of France). Louis-Philippe I’s eldest son, Ferdinand-Philippe, the Duke of Orléans, had recently married Hélène Louise Élisabeth of Mecklembourg-Schwerin on May 30, and the inauguration was part of the continued celebrations. There was an opening ceremony in the Gallery of Great Battles, where Louis-Philippe I gave a speech. There was then a tour of the museum followed by a performance of Molière’s comedy The Misanthrope in the Royal Opera House; the Opera had been painted red and gold especially for the occasion, covering up its original colour scheme of emerald green, blue, and silver. A torch-lit tour of the museum concluded the evening, with guests stopping to admire a statue of Joan of Arc that Louis-Philippe’s daughter, Marie, had made4. Victor Hugo congratulated Louis-Philippe I on making “a national monument of a monarchical monument”—high praise from the man who had championed the conservation of French historical sites such as the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and Mont Saint-Michel. French writer Alexandre Dumas and French painter Eugène Delacroix were also in attendance at the opening.
Unfortunately, as is the case with any history or national story that focuses solely on the role of kings, heroes, and battles, a wider realm of social forces and ideas were left out. Many revolutionaries felt that their contributions had been overlooked. Louis-Philippe I’s historical interest was very selective, and it also did not extend to the historical integrity of the premises in which his museum was housed. Versailles had been entirely transformed and, as previously mentioned, not by a family member who felt inclined to protect it. Two wings in the Château de Versailles that had formerly contained royal apartments, the south and north wings (built 1679-1689), were gutted in order to create the display areas of the new museum. “Before Versailles could be restored,” Louis-Philippe I confided to a friend, “partitions had to be knocked down, these rats’ nests destroyed and the usurped space reconquered.” The rats’ nests he was referring to were the rooms that had once belonged to Louis XVIII and Charles X; apparently there were a few hard posthumous feelings left unresolved between the cousins.
Like Napoleon, Louis-Philippe I was more fond of the Grand Trianon than the Château de Versailles. He took up residence there in March 1832 while he worked on his History of France museum. He enjoyed spending time at the Grand Trianon with his family5. His son and daughter-in-law, Ferdinand-Philippe and Hélène of Mecklenberg-Schwerin, settled into the attic of the Petit Trianon a few weeks after their marriage in May 1837. In October of that same year, one of Louis-Philippe I’s daughters, Marie d’Orléans, married Alexander of Württemberg in the chapel at the Grand Trianon.
Louis-Philippe I was later forced to abdicate during the February Revolution of 1848. Like Charles X before him, Louis-Philippe I made a final stop at the Grand Trianon while en route to exile in Britain. His museum at Versailles soon fell out of fashion. But it had already managed to give the Château de Versailles a new purpose—one that sustains it to this day. Louis-Philippe I made the Château a tourist attraction. The success of this new role was furthered when two new railways providing service between Paris and the town of Versailles were opened in 1839-1840. They allowed for increasing numbers of day-trippers from Paris, which provided the local economy with a very welcome financial boost.
Below is the cover page of a guidebook to Versailles that covers the Gallery of Great Battles, dated to the reign of Louis-Philippe I.
Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, next ruled France as President from 1848-1851 and then as Emperor Napoleon III from 1852-1870. Napoleon III used Versailles as a venue to receive important state figures and host grand parties. One such visitor was Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Napoleon III had lived in London for several years during his political exile, and he really admired the city and the English people; his grand reconstruction of Paris, carried out by Baron Haussmann from 1853-1870, was inspired by London’s city layout. In addition to the esteem Napoleon III had for the British, he was also mindful of their role in his uncle’s downfall. So there were a few different motivations behind his efforts to improve English-French relations. Queen Victoria was invited to attend France’s first Exposition Universelle, which was held in Paris from May 15 to November 15, 1855. Queen Victoria visited France from August 17-28, 1855.
On August 20, 1855, nearing 66 years since Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had last roamed its halls, Victoria toured the Château and its grounds. On August 25, a reception was held in her honour at the main residence. There was a ball in the Hall of Mirrors, followed by a banquet in the Royal Opera House. The Marble Courtyard, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Royal Opera House were all illuminated by gas lamps. The first photographs of Versailles were snapped upon this occasion (shown below). 1,200 guests attended the event dressed in their best evening suits and crinoline dresses. Hundreds of chandeliers, candelabra, and torches were reflected in the mirrors. Garlands of flowers were hung from the ceiling. The guests glittered in their gold and diamond jewelry. Napoleon III waltzed with Victoria, and Albert with Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugénie. After dinner, there was a fireworks display. Following that, there was another ball that continued until 3:00 in the morning. The night was a success, and Napoleon III was able to count on British trade and military support for the rest of his reign.
Below are the first photographic images taken of Versailles by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, showing the Château as it appeared in anticipation of Queen Victoria’s visit.
Below is the daguerrotype of the above image.
Below are a couple of illustrations made of other activities taking place at Versailles in the late 1850s.
Napoleon III added a couple of galleries to the History of France Museum: one celebrated the French Conquest of Algeria (1830-1847), and the other the victories of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Empress Eugénie also had an interest in commemorating history at Versailles. In 1867, she converted the Petit Trianon into a museum dedicated to the memory of Marie Antoinette; the timing of this coincided with the second Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) held in Paris from April 1 – November 3, 1867. Eugénie had the Petit Trianon refurnished as closely as possible to how it would have looked when Marie Antoinette lived there. To do this, she set up a commission that successfully tracked down 144 pieces of furniture, art work, and other belongings of Marie Antoinette that had been sold off during the French Revolution. She also restored the gardens surrounding the Petit Trianon and the small pavilions located within them. Eugénie’s passion for Marie Antoinette was years ahead of the curve: it would be 88 years before the former Queen’s image and popularity recovered enough to allow for another exhibition dedicated to her in the main residence in 1955; it would take twenty years more after that to have Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber opened to the public for the first time in 1975.
At this point, I’m going to wrap up this post on the history of the Château de Versailles while things are still on a bit of a high note. I will conclude my series on the History of the Château de Versailles next time with a sixth and final post that will begin with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Thank you for reading!
1 Charles X’s son, Louis-Antoine, the Duke of Angoulême, was married to Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie-Thérèse, on January 9, 1796. The couple technically ruled France for 20 minutes in the time between Charles X signed his abdication and Louis-Antoine was forced to do the same.
2 King Louis-Philippe I was the great-great-great grandson of Louis XIV’s brother, Philippe d’Orléans. He was also the great-great grandson of Philippe II d’Orléans, who had acted as Regent of France during Louis XV’s age of minority.
3 Little did Louis-Philippe I know that his reign would not be the happy conclusion to a turbulent period of French history; the 19th and 20th centuries had a lot more in store for France.
4 Interestingly, Louis-Philippe I’s daughter Marie studied under Ary Scheffer, the Dutch-French Romantic artist that I discussed in my post about the Musée de la Vie Romantique.
5 Louis-Philippe I’s wife, Queen Marie-Amélie, was also related to Marie Antoinette. Maria-Carolina, Marie Antoinette’s sister, was Marie-Amélie’s mother. So Marie-Amélie was Marie Antointette’s niece. Now, Maria-Carolina had another daughter, Marie-Theresa of Naples and Sicily. Marie-Amélie and Marie-Theresa were sisters. Marie-Theresa had a daughter, Marie-Louise, who eventually became Napoleon’s second wife. So Empress Marie-Louise was Marie-Amélie’s niece, and Marie Antoinette’s great-niece.