At the dawn of the French Revolution, just steps away from the seat of the Monarchy, the founding act of French democracy took place. On 20 June 1789, in the Jeu de Paume room near the Palace of Versailles, the deputies took an oath not to adjourn before adopting a Constitution for France.
In search of a solution to the serious financial crisis his government was going through, Louis XVI convoked a meeting of the Estates General in the spring of 1789, i.e. a meeting of the three orders – the Nobility, the Clergy and the Third Estate. The deputies of the Third Estate were hoping for reforms. They were quickly disappointed and refused to submit to royal power. They refused to seat by order, and joined forces with some deputies of the clergy to solemnly comprise the National Assembly on 17 June 1789. The King tried to oppose this Assembly by closing the Salle des Menus Plaisirs at Versailles, where they were meeting. Finding the doors closed on 20 June, the deputies went to a nearby gymnasium where the “jeu de paume” (an early form of tennis) was played and took the famous Jeu de Paume Oath:
“We swear not to separate and
to reassemble wherever circumstances require,
until the Constitution of the Kingdom
is established and built on solid foundations.”
The founding event of French democracy, the Jeu de Paume Oath is the origin of the separation of powers and national sovereignty. It led to the creation of the National Constituent Assembly which, in August 1789, voted to abolish the feudal system and adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
Built in 1686, this game room is in fact private property. The royal family, especially the King, went there to play “la paume”, the ancestor of modern tennis. On 20 June 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate took their famous Jeu de Paume Oath. In Year 2 (1793), a decree was issued by the Convention deciding that this room belonged to the Nation. It has known various fortunes since then.
The workshop of Antoine-Jean Gros in 1804, then a military hospice in 1815, and once again a workshop to the painter Horace Vernet under the reign of King Louis-Philippe, this former gymnasium was totally restored during the 3rd Republic. The restoration work on the building and its decoration was placed under the direction of architect Edmond Guillaume (1826-1894). It began in 1880.
Edmond Guillaume erected a Doric aedicule supported by two marble columns from the Domes Grove in the Gardens of Versailles and topped by a bronze rooster by Auguste Cain. It houses a marble statue of Sylvain Bailly by René de Saint-Marceaux. Around the room, the names of those who signed the oath are painted in a frieze of foliage. Twenty busts ordered from contemporary sculptors evoke the most imminent men of the Assembly.
On the north inside gable, a painting by Luc-Olivier Merson dated 1883 replicates the design of the Jeu de Paume Oath painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1791 and now preserved at the Palace Versailles. Produced in just a few months by the painter with the help of four assistants, this monumental painting measuring ten metres by six is a remarkable technical feat.
On 20 June 1883, the Museum of the French Revolution was inaugurated in the Jeu de Paume Oath Room.