In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor of the French, under the title Napoleon I. As the architect of France’s recovery following the Revolution, from the moment he took power, he dreamed of turning Versailles back into the privileged place of power it once was.
Napoleon's legacy at Versailles
Not long after his accession to the throne, Napoleon Bonaparte set about tackling Versailles. He quickly commanded his architects to draw up plans for restoring the Palace, as well as the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, where he intended to install his mother, Letizia Bonaparte, and his sister, Pauline – Princess Borghese.
From 1804, the Palace of Versailles, like the other former royal residences, became a residence of the Crown once more, under the management of the Emperor’s household, while the various other occupants of the premises were swiftly evicted. In 1810, he had windows installed in the arches of the peristyle at the Grand Trianon, in order to make his passage through it on the way from his apartments to those of the empress more comfortable.
Now an imperial residence, the Estate of Versailles was carefully maintained.
Having enlisted various architects for the major job of reconstructing the Palace and handling the new arrangements, Napoleon hesitated. Pressed for a decision by his architects, he told them: “Just because Louis XV wasted a million pounds, doesn’t mean it’s OK to waste forty!”
1814 marked the end of the First French Empire. The period known as the “Restoration” was initially embodied by Louis XVIII, who wished to reconnect with the hereditary monarchy of his older brother, Louis XVI; but he soon gave up the Palace and abandoned Versailles, which subsequently went into a hibernation from which the king’s cousin, Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, was to retrieve it.
The Napoleonic legend
The “Citizen King” tried to distance himself from the monarchy and the Republic. Well aware of the political divisions that had riven France since 1789, Louis-Philippe wished to unite the French around a common cause and history.
This is one of the reasons why he decided to transform the Palace – the former residence of the kings of France – into a museum dedicated “to all the glories of France”.
The Gallery of Battles is the perfect example of this: to the military victories of Clovis and Louis XIV were added those of Napoleon, including Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Wagram, etc. It was, in Louis-Philippe’s own words, a “magnificent summary of our military history”.
Among the works illustrating Napoleon’s great military feats were many that were expressly commissioned by Napoleon himself. In fact, the Emperor realised very early on the power of printed words and images in creating his legend. Indeed, official paintings were an excellent way of publicising his military victories.
Louis-Philippe, fascinated by the “iconic” Napoleon, set about creating historical galleries in honour of the former emperor; today, these are known as the Consulate and Empire Rooms.
The Palace curators of the 20th century organised a long row of rooms, in the attics, in which was displayed, in chronological order, the history of France from the time of the French Revolution. Naturally, the First French Empire and its key figure, Napoleon I, took pride of place.
See Napoleon at Versailles
Follow the guide!
To the Grand Trianon
The Grand Trianon still bears traces of the imperial family’s presence: it’s where you’ll find the Empress’s apartment and the Emperor’s private chamber – Louis XIV’s former chamber, which Napoleon had redecorated to his taste.
Although the Grand Trianon was built for Louis XIV, most of the interior décor that remains is from Napoleon’s time, its living rooms still contain their First Empire furnishings, ordered to replace those of the Ancien Régime, which were sold during the Revolution.
To the Palace of Versailles
On the ground floor of the South Wing, the Consulate and Empire rooms still contain almost all of the paintings that were commissioned by Napoleon to glorify his own victories and later highlighted by Louis-Philippe.
On the first floor, on exiting the Queen’s Apartments, you come to the Coronation Chamber, and its huge canvases, which include the famous painting “Sacre” (“Coronation”), depicting, in particular, “the coronation of the Empress Josephine”. A few more steps take you into the majestic Gallery of Battles and its thirty-three paintings glorifying France’s military might.
The Palace attics, on the top floor, accommodate the small- and medium-size paintings depicting the history of the Revolution, the Consulate and the Empire.