My fifth post covering the history of the Château de Versailles wrapped up with a discussion about the use of the residence by Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Éugenie in the 1850s-1860s. This sixth and final post in this series will review the Château’s history from 1870 onwards, when darker times returned to France. This was due to the growth of Prussia in the 1860s as a major political player on the European stage. Otto von Bismarck was appointed Minister President of Prussia in 1862 by Prussian King Wilhelm I. Bismarck was determined that his country would lead a unified Germany. He saw Austria and France as obstacles to this ambition, and so he set about conquering and defeating them. On July 19, 1870, heightening circumstances led to France declaring war on Prussia. The French expected an easy and quick victory due to their past experience and reputation as a military superpower, but they were surprisingly outclassed by the might of the Prussians. The Prussians had a larger army, they were more unified, and they had better weapons. Napoleon III was in ill health and the French army was disorganized. They suffered defeat upon defeat as the Prussians pressed further into France. The nation reached a crisis point when Napoleon III was taken prisoner following the Battle of Sedan on September 2, 1870.
A new French government, the Government of National Defence, was established two days later on September 4; this marked the beginning of the Third French Republic. On September 6, this new French republican government renewed its declaration of war against Prussia, even though most of the French army had been captured by this point. By September 15, Prussian troops had reached the outskirts of Paris. They encircled and blocked off the city by September 19-20, marking the beginning of the Siege of Paris. The French government fled Paris for Tours, and then for Bordeaux as the Prussians moved in to occupy Tours. Paris was completely cut off from the outside world; the only communication that could be made was via balloon, carrier pigeon, or letters floated down the Seine river. Wilhelm I1 and Bismark made Versailles their headquarters while the Prussian army besieged Paris for four long months throughout the winter of 1870-1871. Prussian troops conducted drills in the Place d’Armes, and the Hall of Mirrors housed hospital beds for wounded Prussian soldiers.
On January 18, 1871, Wilhelm I of Prussia was declared Emperor of the newly-unified state of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors. He was seated beneath Charles Le Brun’s painting Crossing the Rhine in the Presence of Enemies 1672, sparing any attempt at symbolic subtlety2.
The Government of National Defence capitulated to Germany on January 26, 1871. An initial armistice was signed at Versailles on January 283. The armistice included a provision for the election of a French National Assembly, which would have the authority to conclude a definite peace. National elections followed shortly thereafter on February 8. There was a divisive split between rural and urban voters, and the election results intensified what had already been a fraught political situation. The majority of the French electorate was rural, conservative, and Catholic; this was reflected in the make-up of the corresponding parliamentary members. Many of these members were in favour of restoring a constitutional monarchy. These political attitudes were in sharp contrast to those belonging to the citizens of Paris, whose views were more liberal and republican. Parisians were incredibly displeased with the election results, and they would soon demonstrate this. On February 19, the new National Assembly (referred to as “the Chamber” at the time) met for the first time in Bordeaux and elected Adolphe Thiers as “Chief of the Executive”; the title of “President” was considered too provocative.
On February 26, a preliminary treaty was signed at Versailles between Wilhelm I, Bismarck, and Thiers. On March 1, the German army held a victory parade through Paris—an event that could not help but further antagonize the locals. Wilhelm I and Bismarck left Versailles shortly thereafter. The Treaty of Frankfurt would later make all the terms official when it was signed on May 10. Among these conditions were that France had to pay a five billion franc war indemnity4 and cede more than 90% of Alsace and one fourth of Lorraine to the new German empire—territory that had previously been conquered by Louis XIV two hundred years prior during the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678). It was a crushing defeat on every level, symbolic and financial.
After holding their first meeting in Bordeaux on February 19, the National Assembly made plans to move to Paris. However, the ink had scarcely dried on the treaty with Germany before there was another crisis at hand. A revolutionary government, known as the Paris Commune, seized control of the capital city on March 18, 1871. The National Assembly was forced to make alternate plans and, after some hesitation, they voted to go to Versailles. They held their first session in the Royal Opera House on March 20. The Château served as the base of National Assembly operations for several weeks as deputies decided how they would quell the Parisian revolutionaries. Bunks were set up in the cold and drafty Hall of Mirrors for the deputies to sleep; to keep warm, they had to resort to burning wood panels from the storehouse.
This stand-off between the conservative National Assembly and the radically socialist Commune escalated into a week of fierce and violent fighting from May 21-28 when government troops stormed through Paris and killed tens of thousands of Communards; many more were arrested and later deported to New Caledonia. At Versailles, wounded Communards were imprisoned in the Orangerie as well as the Grandes and Petites Écuries. Trials for the prisoners were held at the residence, and firing squads then carried out their grim conclusion within the park grounds.
Following the suppression of the Commune, Paris was too hot for the National Assembly to return to—literally: fires had destroyed many public buildings including the Tuileries Palace, the Hôtel de Ville, and the law courts. The National Assembly decided to remain at the Château de Versailles, where they continued to meet in the Royal Opera House. In 1875, a second elected chamber was created: the Senate. This meant that there were now too many parliamentarians for all of them to fit in the Royal Opera House. In the spring of 1876, a new conference chamber was built in the central courtyard of the south wing by Edmond de Joly and Julien Guadet; it was completed in December that same year. This chamber was designed to be large enough to host joint sessions of the National Assembly and the Senate. When the bodies met separately, it was the National Assembly that convened in here while the Senate continued to use the Royal Opera House. As a result, this chamber was initially called “the National Assembly” to reflect the elected body that met most often within it; it later became known as “the Congress Chamber.” In 1879, a majority republican government voted on a return to Paris. The Palais de Luxembourg was made the designated meeting place of the Senate while the Palais Bourbon was used by the National Assembly. However, the Senate and the National Assembly continued to meet in the Congress Chamber at Versailles to elect a president until 1958; René Coty was the last of fifteen presidents to be elected there. The 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic established that French presidents would be elected by the population as a whole rather than by parliament. On rare occasions, the Senate and the National Assembly still meet in the Congress Chamber; the most recent Congress was held there on July 9, 2018.
Below is an illustration of the Royal Opera of Versailles being used as a meeting space for the National Assembly.
Below is an early photograph of the Royal Opera House set up for use by the Senate in the first half of the 20th century.
Below are a couple of postcards that feature early photographs of the Congress Chamber.
Below is a postcard featuring a photograph of the Congress Chamber during the 1913 French Presidential Election.
Below is a photograph of security forces gathered on the Place d’Armes during the 1913 French Presidential Election.
France’s loss to Germany in 1871 had a significant impact on its understanding of national identity. For centuries, France had been one of the dominant military powers in Europe. Even as the nation grappled with the civic turbulence of the French Revolution, it still managed to conquer its foreign enemies. The citizenry could count on one thing whether France was being led by a King, an Emperor, or an elected republican assembly: military victory. It was an appealing national story, one that Louis-Philippe I had used to build his History of France museum at Versailles. It was an oversimplification, of course, as all national stories tend to be. Even losses could be accounted for: occasional setbacks are always suffered en route to a greater triumph. France had always bounced back. Until now. France had been soundly crushed by Germany, serving a humiliating blow to the national psyche. Now, the country was forced to reevaluate. The last 80 years had seen a lot of volatile social change as the French people continuously agitated for a better future. They had no time for any sentimental attachment to the Ancien Régime and its oppressive history, as their focus was determinedly forward-facing. Now, however, that future was less certain. It was hard enough to cope with present circumstances. There was an increasing sense of nostalgia for a past that had been forever lost. If one could find nothing to be proud of in the present, one could look fondly back to a golden age when France had been the leading cultural force in Europe, rather than just the military one. The height of this would have been during the 72-year reign of Louis XIV. And the Sun King’s favoured home, the Château de Versailles, was a symbol for this triumphant and lost moment in French history.
French historian, poet, and humanist Pierre Girauld de Nolhac was one of the first people in France to pick up on this changing appreciation for the history of the Ancien Régime and the role that Versailles served in it. He was hired as a curatorial assistant for the History of France museum in 1887, and then as curator in 1892. At the time, the museum of Versailles was still arranged around Louis-Philippe I’s vision of French military history. Outside of the museum, many other parts of the Château and its grounds had once more been neglected and left to ruin. De Nolhac recalled the advice his manager gave him upon the start of his 33-year tenure at the Château: “Don’t be zealous, young man. Write books about Versailles if you like, but leave in peace this museum that no longer interests anyone.” For decades, Versailles had been bereft of any wealthy benefactors interested in managing its costly upkeep: it had been 22 years since the last pair, Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, had been ousted in 1870; 44 since Louis-Philippe I was exiled from France in 1848; close to 80 years since Napoleon I’s last visit to the Grand Trianon in 1813; and, of course, 103 years since Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were forced to leave Versailles for Paris.
De Nolhac was not wealthy, but he was passionate. And what he lacked in funds he made up for in ideas, including where and how to secure the resources necessary to restore the Château. He championed the conservation of Versailles by stressing that it had both historic and artistic value. He stated that Versailles, stripped of its political function, stood as “a decorative arts museum [that was] unique in the world.” De Nolhac would go on to achieve two nearly impossible tasks that, at first glance, seem to be in opposition: he managed to modernize Versailles while simultaneously resurrecting its forgotten history. He laid the groundwork for returning the Château to its former appearance on the evening of Louis XVI’s final departure, while equipping it with the contemporary amenities required to service a vast number of day-tripping guests. It was a daunting project but, happily for Versailles (and everyone who has since enjoyed learning about the Château and/or touring its halls), de Nolhac was up for the challenge.
De Nolhac knew that Versailles was a historical monument worth conserving, but this was not the opinion of most people at the time. Versailles was just another government building that lacked any qualities sufficient to fire up narrative imagination or historic enthusiasm. National heritage funds and interest had been prioritized on buildings that dated back to Antiquity or the medieval period; structures from the 17th and 18th centuries were not yet given their due. Nor were French classical artists, whose achievements were being overlooked in favour of those from the Renaissance; de Nolhac himself had originally pursued a career studying the Italian Renaissance. By the time de Nolhac arrived at the Château de Versailles, France had completely forgotten about the artists and architects responsible for its construction. The Château’s level of historical research, curatorial care, and financial resources were inadequate. So too were the visitor numbers. De Nolhac sought to resolve all four issues. He was the first scholar to reconstruct the history of Versailles from the papers of those who had built, altered, and maintained it. He found a story worth telling in the Château’s original identity under the Bourbons, and set about sharing it with the rest of the world. He brought the Château into the mainstream of professional historical research and curation. He acquired state funding for restoration work—a feat that at times required him to overcome the view of the Château as an uncomfortable relic of the Ancien Régime. De Nolhac also sought to diversify income streams, notably from public and private philanthropy, as he knew that state funding could never meet the Château’s staggering demand for resources. He also used modern media to grow the Château’s popularity with the public. In 1906, the residences and grounds of Versailles were placed on the national conservation list for the first time. In 1907, the Société des Amis de Versailles was established with the aim of supporting restoration work to the grounds and residences of the Château; it was a sister organization to the “Friends of the Louvre” society created in 1897. De Nolhac proved that the successful management of Versailles could begin to depend on historians and curators rather than rulers and politicians.
Unfortunately, de Nolhac’s efforts were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Paris and Versailles remained beyond the reach of the German army throughout the war, and so the Château de Versailles remained largely unaffected. Some of its art works were evacuated during an initial threat of invasion in 1914, and then again in 1918 due to air raids. I discovered some interesting pictures in the Château’s archives dating from this time period that show attempts to protect the garden statuary, which I’ll share below.
Below is a postcard of German prisoners “passing through Versailles.” The message handwritten on the card reads: “I received your 19 cards. It’s here [accounted for?]. Tender kisses, Irene.”
In 1919, the Château de Versailles was given an international spotlight when it was chosen as the place for the signing of the most important of the peace treaties that officially ended WWI. It was no accident that the Hall of Mirrors had been selected as the stage for this piece of political theatre. The French had not forgotten their earlier humiliation when German leaders had used the Hall of Mirrors for three of their victory laps in 1871: the first was the declaration of Wilhelm I as Emperor of Germany on January 18; the second was the signing of an initial armistice between France and Germany on January 28; and the third was the preliminary treaty signed on February 26 that ended the Franco-Prussian War. It was also no coincidence that the date for the signing, June 28, was five years to the day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie the Duchess of Hohenberg, had been assassinated.
In preparation for the signing ceremony on June 28, the parquet floor of the Hall of Mirrors was covered with 24 Savonnerie carpets that were carefully sewn together, edge to edge, by seamstresses. A large horseshoe-shaped table was placed in the centre of the Hall of Mirrors with a small desk and other small tables enclosed within it. The tables were where the signatories and other members of their group sat while waiting their turn to sign the Treaty, one at a time, at the desk. Outside this configuration, rows of benches spanned almost the entire length of the Hall of Mirrors. Journalists were seated on the north side of the Hall, near the Salon of War, while other guests were accommodated on the south side, near the Salon of Peace.
At 1:45 pm on June 28, 1919, the signatories from the Allied nations began arriving. Their cars passed through the Gate of Honour on the east side of the Château. They were dropped off at the entry to the Queen’s Staircase, near the Marble Courtyard. The crowd cheered the 2:10 pm arrival of French President Georges Clemenceau. The German delegates made a less conspicuous entrance on the opposite, western side of the residence (the one that faces the gardens). They entered through Madame Victoire’s apartment, where they were met and escorted to the Hall of Mirrors by Pierre de Nolhac. France’s bitterly earned revenge was finally at hand as the German delegates filed in, tears in their eyes. The stipulations of this new Treaty of Versailles had been hammered out over a six-month period among the Allied powers with no input from Germany. In fact, all of Germany’s counter-proposals had been firmly rejected on June 17 after the draft of the Treaty had been submitted to the German delegation. The Germans had no choice but to give their assent to the proposed concessions, as the Allied powers had threatened to immediately resume hostilities if they refused. So it was a solemn ceremony with no music or air of celebration, lasting only 50 minutes.
At Clemenceau’s invitation the German delegates, Hermann Müller and Johannes Bell, were the first to sign the Treaty. Other signatories followed, including Clemenceau (France), Woodrow Wilson (United States of America), David Lloyd George (United Kingdom) and Sidney Sonnino (Italy). At 3:55 pm, the final signature had been made. The German delegates left the Hall of Mirrors first, exiting through the gardens. They were followed by Clemenceau, Wilson, Lloyd George, and Sonnino, who were met with cheers by the crowd that had gathered on the Water Parterre. Victory?
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. The most controversial article in this Treaty of Versailles, later known as the War Guilt Clause, forced Germany to accept that it was entirely responsible for the war. Germany was expected to make reparations amounting to a 1921 total of 132 billion marks (roughly equivalent to $442 billion US/$584 billion CDN in 2019) to compensate the Allied powers for all wartime losses and damage. Germany also had to give up 65,000 square kms (25,000 square miles) of territory and a population of 7 million people, including the Rhineland. There were other conditions that benefitted France at the political and economic cost of its enemy. John Maynard Keynes, a British economist and Versailles negotiator, stated that this was an attempt to “set the clock back and undo what, since 1870, the progress of Germany had accomplished.” Germany had been paid in kind for the humiliation it had bestowed upon France 48 years earlier. But the Treaty of Versailles proved not to be a document that managed to establish a meaningful, lasting peace. Instead, it was a time bomb. When Adolf Hitler was declared Chancellor of Germany on October 28, 1933, it started ticking5,6.
Outside of wars and treaties, the Château de Versailles had been attracting more favourable attention from an audience that de Nolhac was eager to court: wealthy Americans. Their interest coincided with the beginning of de Nolhac’s position as museum curator at the turn of the 19th century. Gilded-Age American tycoons had a lot of money to spend, and several of them did so by building elaborate residences that were modelled on the main Château and its residences of Trianon7. Furnishings and art pieces from Versailles, once sold for rock-bottom prices during the French Revolution, suddenly became hot commodities on the international art market. The French pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 was designed to be a replica of the Grand Trianon, and people crowded inside it to see the pieces of Sèvres porcelain and Gobelins tapestries that were on display.
In 1919, de Nolhac took advantage of the surging American interest in Versailles that came about as a result of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s involvement in the Treaty of Versailles. In that same year de Nolhac curated his final exhibition, which took the American War of Independence as its theme. You may recall that two of the three treaties of the Peace of Paris were signed at the Château de Versailles on September 3, 1783; Britain accepted the independence of the Thirteen Colonies as part of these peace agreements. This exhibition would have been like catnip to philanthropic American millionaires. Versailles was sorely in need of their help, as the grounds and buildings were in bad shape. World War I had disrupted restoration work at the Château, and large amounts of funding were required to get it started up again.
De Nolhac retired in 1920. His successors continued his work of restoring and refurnishing the Château de Versailles. Curator Pierre Verlet, a renowned specialist in French furniture and decorative art, was instrumental in tracking down and identifying much of the Château’s furniture that had been sold off in 1792-1793 to various museums, galleries, warehouses, and depositories across France. Under his direction, negotiations were made with these institutions to have some of these pieces returned to the Château. In 1922, Versailles began to charge its visitors an entrance fee.
Versaille’s newest champion arrived on the scene in 1923 when American philanthropist and multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. toured several cultural sites in France, including Versailles. In 1924, Rockefeller decided to donate money to assist with the restoration of three of them: Reims Cathedral, the Château de Fontainebleu, and the Château de Versailles. He provided the Château de Versailles with 2.166 million dollars (roughly equivalent in 2019 to around $30 million US/$39.7 million CDN) that funded a massive program of restoration work that even extended to the Queen’s Hamlet, which had suffered the most from years of neglect. It is kind of ironic, and no exaggeration, to say that American money saved Versailles—just as it was French money and military arms that had helped earlier with the creation of America8. In a letter to the French President, Rockefeller wrote that he was moved to make this donation “not only because of my admiration for these great outstanding products of art, the influence of which should be continued unimpaired through the centuries to the enrichment of the lives of succeeding generations, but also because of the admiration which I have for the people of France, their fine spirit, their high courage, and their devotion to home life.”
World War II led to the boarding up of many of the Château’s windows, as well as the storage and evacuation of its furnishings and artwork to the countryside—including the table on which the 1919 Treaty of Versailles had been signed. The Nazis began their occupation of Paris on May 19, 1940 and arrived at Versailles shortly thereafter. Surprisingly, Nazi troops were largely respectful of the Château de Versailles. To them, the Château was a historic site in which the German Reich had been born. It deserved reverence, not vandalism. Many Nazi soldiers visited the Château while they were on leave in Paris, as if taking part in a pilgrimage. They may have occasionally aimed a derisive kick at the location where the Treaty of Versailles had been signed but, overall, the Château fared better under the hands of its occupying forces than may have been expected. The Château was spared any damage by later Allied bombings, although there were a few casualties suffered by the town of Versailles itself.
Below is a poster that reads, first in German and then in French: “Caution! Any damage to the Versailles Castle and the art treasures it contains is strictly prohibited. Any collection or removal of objects is theft. In all cases, severe punishments are to be expected. Der Feldkommandant: Beckmann, Generalmajor.”
On a lighter note, below are some photos that were taken at Versailles after WWII was over.
A caption on the back of the photo below reads: “Priceless works of art, which were hurriedly removed from the Palace of Versailles at the outbreak of war, are being returned to the famed galleries. Only a score of rooms are open to visitors as workmen tackle the slow exacting job of reorganizing the museum. The art treasures are being arranged in chronological order, according to the date of their execution.”
The most severe consequence of World War II for the Château de Versailles was that, similar to World War I, there was another devastating interruption of its crucial repair and restoration work. There was a critical shortage of funds, manpower, and materials to care for the residence (such as firewood). Many of the rooms froze during the severe winters of the 1940s. The apartment roofs leaked due to their rotten beams, and the resulting humidity damaged the interior decoration and collections. In the park the ponds no longer held water, and weeds had invaded the flower beds.
The illustrations above and below were printed in All the News from Versailles on December 15, 1949 as part of an article called “Expedition to the castle: the misery of the palace is not even golden.” The illustration above shows a line of tourists holding umbrellas while viewing Louis XIV’s bedroom because the roof of the apartment does little to keep out the rain. The illustration below shows an “intrepid tourist” dressed in everything one should bring for their visit to Versailles: a helmet to protect one’s head from falling stones, an umbrella to guard against rain while touring inside the apartments, a ladder to see over the palisades, and boots to keep one’s feet dry. Although the images were meant to be humorous exaggerations of the conditions at Versailles, they underscore a serious reality: that the Château was on the verge of ruin.
Below are a series of screenshots of Versailles taken from a short video titled “the Great Misery of French Castles” produced by The French News. This video was shown as part of a news reel on August 3, 1950 in French cinemas prior to the film being shown in an attempt to rally public support to fund restoration projects. The film opens with the Château de Versailles and shows the state of its overgrown gardens, waterlogged roof, and the scaffolding in the Hall of Mirrors. The film can be seen here in its entirety. It is really hard to find any images of the Château from this time that show its deteriorated condition—this is the best I can do at this time.
A heavy snowstorm brought the Château to its breaking point in 1951 when water began to collect in the Hall of Mirrors. In 1952, a public appeal for funds was made to the public on the radio by André Cornu, the French Minister for the Fine Arts. He warned that Versailles was on the verge of ruin, and argued that the Château was “a flagship of Western civilization” whose loss would be felt around the world. His passionate words fired up local and international enthusiasm for the task of restoring Versailles, which Cornu estimated would cost 5 billion francs (very roughly $141 billion USD/$187 billion CDN in 2019). A national committee made up of prominent political, social, and cultural figures was formed to run the Sauve-garde de Versailles (Saving Versailles) campaign. Artists Henri Matisse and Maurice Ultrillo, writers Roger Nimier and Jean Cocteau, as well as several French businessmen immediately became patrons. The campaign was a success, managing to raise enough funds in three years to begin critical restoration efforts. Among the many generous donors were the five sons of John D. Rockefeller Jr, who continued the tradition of their father’s philanthropy at Versailles by donating 250 thousand dollars to the campaign (roughly 2.33 million US/3.08 million CAD in 2019).
On June 27, 1953, Gérald Van der Kemp was made Chief Curator of the Château de Versailles; a post he would hold until 1980. Van der Kemp was young (41 years old), charismatic, shrewd, and occasionally controversial9. During World War II Van der Kemp worked at the Château de Valençay, where several art pieces from the Louvre (the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Borghese Gladiator) had been secretly evacuated to keep them safe from the Nazi occupiers. In 1944, Van der Kemp was transferred to the Château de Montal where he was put in charge of the paintings that had been hidden there, including the Mona Lisa. He began his career at the Château de Versailles in October 1945 when he was appointed deputy conservator. He began working as second-in-command to the Chief Curator, Charles Mauricheau-Beaupré, from April 1946 onwards. Van der Kemp stated that when he took office in 1953, Versailles was “disgusting, empty, and dead.” He was determined to bring the Château back to life, to make it beautiful again, and to restore the glory it had formerly held in the “time of Kings.”
Van der Kemp was shortly assisted in this task by having Versailles serve as a filming location from June 6-September 6, 1953 for the French movie Si Versailles m’était conté (“If Versailles were told to me”), known more widely by its English title, Royal Affairs in Versailles. The film retraced the history of the Château de Versailles from its origins up until the French Revolution. The film starred Sacha Guitry (Louis XIV); Claudette Colbert (Madame de Montespan); Jean Marais (Louis XV); Micheline Presle (Madame de Pompadour); Orson Welles (Benjamin Franklin); Lana Marconi (Marie Antoinette); as well as renowned French singer Edith Piaf as a revolutionary woman singing Ça ira (“It’ll be fine”), an emblematic song of the French Revolution, at the gates of Versailles. Although historians criticized the film’s romanticized depiction of the Bourbons upon its release in 1954, it was considered a success. In addition to raising the Château’s international profile, the film also benefited the residence by donating some of its profits to the Sauve-garde de Versailles campaign.
In 1955, Van der Kemp hosted an exhibition about Marie Antoinette with the assistance of Baron Elijah (Elie) Robert de Rothschild, a prominent French businessman and art collector. The two men managed to obtain, on loan from various international collectors, numerous pieces of furniture, paintings, and other art objects that had been sold off during the French Revolution. Seeing the pieces in their original place of origin provoked enthusiasm for the idea that Versailles could, eventually, be partially refurbished. Like Empress Eugénie, Pierre de Nolhac, and Pierre Verlet before him, Van der Kemp became determined to decorate the rooms of the Château de Versailles with their original furniture. However, he went a step beyond his predecessors and obtained political support for the task. In 1961, he managed to secure a commitment from the French government that obligated French public institutions to return any items they had in their collections that had formerly belonged to Versailles. Van der Kemp also convinced several private buyers to happily and freely donate back to the Château various artworks and furnishings that they had previously acquired on the international art market. Van der Kemp had a knack for soliciting gifts of these objects, as well as receiving considerable financial support from wealthy donors which was then used to buy back other pieces. Van der Kemp was further supported in his efforts through his second marriage, in 1963, to American heiress Florence Russell Bennett Harris. Harris had a vast social network that she was happy to put to use and, in 1970, she founded the Versailles Foundation to complement the work of the the Société des Amis de Versailles. Harris’ and Van der Kemp’s combined dedication, influence, and diplomatic skills paid off as large numbers of original items from the Château were successfully recovered. The reacquisition of the Château’s lost artifacts continues to this day10.
In 1972, Van der Kemp stated: “France has four large locomotives that continue to fascinate people: Versailles, Madame de Pompadour, Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon. On these names, we can always find money.” Van der Kemp could stand by this statement as he spent his 27-year tenure as Chief Curator using those four names to fund a lot of crucial projects at Versailles. One of the first major undertakings was the restoration and reopening of the Royal Opera House. Van der Kemp invited Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain to inaugurate it on April 10, 1957—nearly 102 years since a reception had been held in that same space for Elizabeth II’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
Van der Kemp next focused on the rehabilitation of the Grand Trianon. In 1959 he made arrangements with French President Charles de Gaulle to convert one of the wings of the Grand Trianon (the Trianon-sous-Boise) into a presidential residence. As a result, the Grand Trianon benefitted from extensive renovations and upgrades made between January 1963-June 1966. The Grand Trianon hosted many political heads of state beginning with Russian President Nikita Kruschev in 1960 and followed by American President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy in 1961. The Grand Trianon would later serve as the venue for the 1982 G7 Summit.
In the 1960s Van der Kemp improved guest amenities at the Château by having a restaurant and modern toilets installed. Guests were also, for the first time, allowed to wander the residence on their own, free from the restriction of a guided tour. Projects focusing on the Marble Courtyard (1966-1980), the Petit Trianon (1954-1970), the Grand Écurie (1970s), the gardens (1970s), the apartments of Madame de Maintenon (reopened in 1975), Marie Antoinette’s Chamber (also reopened in 1975), the King’s Room (1978), and the Hall of Mirrors (1974-1980) were carried out with Van der Kemp’s guidance. Many sources credit Van der Kemp as being the “saviour of Versailles.” When he retired in 1980, he shifted his energy and influence towards restoring another French treasure: Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny.
In 1979, the Château and grounds of Versailles were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On April 28, 1995 the French government approved the creation of the Établissement public du chateau, du musée et du domaine national de Versailles (the Public Establishment of the Palace, Museum, and National Estate of Versailles), known as the EPV. This new institutional entity allowed for greater administrative unity and autonomy in the management of Versailles, guided by the Ministry of Culture. 2003 saw the launch of the “Grand Versailles” project: a €500 million euro, 17-year development programme that would see the restoration, expansion, and modernization of the Château, its grounds, and associated residences. Tickets and other commercial activities make up 50% of the cost of this work; the rest is covered by philanthropy and sponsorship. This project was in full swing when Neil and I visited the Château in 2017; Marie Antoinette’s apartments and the Queen’s House in the Hameu de la Reine were both closed for restoration work (to my mild disappointment, but understanding). They have since reopened, so here’s hoping we can return one day and see them!
That concludes my history of the Château de Versailles. I’ll now move onto touring the residence, which will be split into two posts: part 1 covers the front gates, the Marble Courtyard, the King’s Private Apartments, and the Royal Opera House; part 2 features the Royal Chapel, the King’s State Apartments, part of the History of France Museum, and the Hall of Mirrors. Then I’ll write about the Petit Trianon, the Hameau de la Reine (Marie Antoinette’s farm hamlet), and the Grand Trianon (one post will cover its history, and a second will tour the residence).
Lots of content coming your way! I hope you enjoy it!
1 Prussian King/ German Emperor Wilhelm I had previously visited Versailles when he was a teenager in 1814, during the War of the Sixth Coalition that had seen the forced abdication of Napoleon I.
2 The crossing of the Rhine river by French troops during the Franco-Dutch War on June 12, 1672 didn’t actually involve any military engagement between French and Dutch forces. The French simply waded through the Rhine river when its water levels were low. Louis XIV wasn’t even present for the crossing! Nonetheless, many writers and artists misrepresented this scene for propaganda purposes as a feat worthy of Alexander the Great, one of Louis XIV’s idols.
3 This makes 7 Treaties of Versailles, for anyone who has been counting.The one contemporary audiences are most familiar with, signed in 1919, brings that total to 8.
4 Not coincidentally, this war indemnity was an equivalent amount (proportioned according to population) to the one that Napoleon demanded Prussia pay to France following their 1806 loss in the War of the Fourth Coalition. Prussia signed the Treaty of Tilsit with France on July 9, 1807. 5 billion francs in 1871 is roughly equivalent to $414.5 billion USD/$549 billion CAD in 2019.
5 And thus the gears were greased for the Franco-German antagonism upon which two major conflicts of the 20th century would later turn.
6 The Treaty of Versailles was followed up by another agreement, the Treaty of Trianon, signed on June 4, 1920. It had a similarly disastrous effect on the country of Hungary, such that the word “Trianon” is synonymous with national loss. Read my post about the history of the Grand Trianon to find out more.
7 For example, the design of Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt’s Marble House in Rhode Island, built from 1888-1892, borrowed from the Petit Trianon (shown below).
8 It could be argued that French money and military involvement in the creation of America through its support of the American Revolutionary War contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution and, thus, the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. So does this mean things have come full circle? Maybe Versailles wouldn’t have needed American money to restore it if the monarchy wasn’t brought down?
9 Gérald Van der Kemp served with the French army at the beginning of World War II, but was taken prisoner in Normandy. He managed to escape on June 30, 1940.
10 The collections website of the Château de Versailles has a “News” tab where you can select “Enrichment of Collections” and see what items have most recently made their way back to the Château. Filter for “furniture” and “art objects”.