Why not revise your French history with a little help from the works in the museum, and the digital content created by the Palace of Versailles?Rediscover the history of France from the French Revolution to the interwar period, thanks to our treasure trove of artworks, videos, expert analyses and 3D content.
The French Revolution (1789-1799)
The period we know as the French Revolution, starting in earnest in 1789, was a time of dramatic transformation in France. Political transformation first and foremost, but social transformation too. The Palace of Versailles found itself at the very heart of the revolution. Built to act as the official residence of the French monarchy during the reign of Louis XIV, the Palace still held this status under Louis XVI.
The collections of the Palace of Versailles bear witness to this defining period in French history.
The image below depicts the Tennis Court Oath of 20 June 1789, in a sketch by Jacques-Louis David. You can see the deputies of the Third Estate, along with some members of the clergy and nobility, meeting in the Royal Tennis Court, a short walk from the palace. The Tennis Court Oath was sworn on 20 June 1789, with the assembled deputies vowing not to dissolve their session until they had endowed France with a written Constitution.
Artist Jacques-Louis David planned to paint a large-scale work representing the scene in the Royal Tennis Court. In 1790 he received a commission from the Society of Friends of the Constitution to make his grandiose vision a reality. The work was intended to depict the deputies in action, in their contemporary garb. But shifting political circumstances scuppered David’s plans, and the painting never made it past the sketch stage. The Versailles archives include a fragment of the abandoned painting. Clearly inspired by ancient Greek art, David’s works usually depicted their heroes in the nude. In this surviving sketch the subjects are indeed naked, although David had apparently planned to add clothing later on.
On 23 June 1789, three days after the deputies’ first meeting, the army attempted to evict them from the Royal Tennis Court. One deputy stepped forward and proclaimed “We are here by the will of the people, and only bayonets will remove us.” That deputy was Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau. Hailing from Provence, he earned the nickname “the people’s orator” for his flair and charisma.
The portrait shown here was painted by Jean-Baptiste Gibert.
On 6 October 1789, Louis XVI left the Palace of Versailles. What happened to the palace after the French Revolution?
On 10 August 1792 a mob invaded the Tuileries Palace in central Paris, where Louis XVI had been staying since he was forced to leave Versailles in October 1789. This painting by Jacques Bertaux depicts the struggle between the king’s Swiss Guards and the sans-culottes.
The Consulate (1799-1804) / The First Empire (1804-1814)
On 18 Brumaire of the Year VIII (9 November 1799), a coup d'état overthrew the Directory which had ruled France since 1795. At the head of the new government was a First Consul: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon Bonaparte is shown here during his time as First Consul. In 1804 he proclaimed himself First Consul for life, the same year that he was crowned Emperor of the French under the regnal title Napoleon I.
Napoleon I presented himself as the man to rebuild France after the bloody tumult which had gripped the country since 1789. He also set about conquering the rest of Europe, beginning with the Ulm Campaign of 1805. In the scene shown below, artist Charles Thévenin depicts the surrender of the Austrian army to the Emperor on 20 October 1805:
Later that year the French army won a decisive victory at Austerlitz, as depicted here by François Gérard:
The following year saw another famous victory at Jena, as shown in this celebrated work by Horace Vernet:
On 18 May 1804, Napoleon became the first Emperor of the French. His consecration took place in the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, with the Pope himself in attendance, on 2 December of that year. The Palace of Versailles now houses the immense canvas painted by Jacques-Louis David to commemorate the occasion:
Displayed in the Coronation Chamber, this painting is in fact a copy of an original representation of the scene, also painted by David ... and now on display at the Louvre! David gradually came to be regarded as the official artist of the imperial regime. Napoleon I is shown here in a portrait by François Gérard, himself a pupil of David :
Napoleon’s rule became increasingly authoritarian. The constant wars between France and her neighbours weakened the Empire. In 1814 Napoleon abdicated, paving the way for the ascension of Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, to the throne (see below); but he subsequently returned for a period known as the “Hundred Days,” ruling from 1st March to 7 July 1815.
Defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, on 18 June 1815, marked the end of Napoleon’s reign:
The emperor abdicated, this time for good, and was exiled to the English-owned island of Saint Helena.
To find out more about Napoleon I, watch this video (english subtitles):
The Restoration (1814-1830)
Between 1814 and 1830, France was once again ruled by kings from the House of Bourbon. Following the defeat of Napoleon I at the hands of a coalition of European monarchies, the Bourbons were restored to the throne in the person of Louis XVIII (succeeded by Charles X), establishing a system of constitutional monarchy now known as the Restoration period. Louis XVIII is shown here in a portrait by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin:
Younger brother of Louis XVI, Louis Stanislas Xavier de France lived in exile from 1791 to 1814. When Napoleon abdicated he ascended to the throne as Louis XVIII, "by the grace of God, King of France and Navarre.” He is shown here ceremonially entering Paris by the Porte Saint-Denis on 3 May 1814:
Unlike his predecessors, Louis XVIII refused to take up residence at Versailles and even declined the traditional coronation ceremony.
Louis XVIII was the driving force behind the Charter of 1814, which many considered to be a compromise solution retaining certain progressive elements of the Revolution and the Empire, while also restoring the Bourbon dynasty to the throne. The new king thus pursued a policy of reconciliation, although he became less and less liberal as time went on. Louis XVIII died in 1824.
In 1824 Charles X, brother of Kings Louis XVIII and Louis XVI, was the next member of the Bourbon dynasty to ascend to the throne as King of France. More than thirty years after the onset of the French Revolution, he sought to embody the continuity of the French monarchy.
In this respect Charles X differed from his brother, renewing with royal tradition and holding a grand coronation at Reims cathedral on 29 May 1825. This ceremony appeared to indicate a return to the traditions of the Ancien Régime, and a sign that the new king intended to ignore the changes which had reshaped French society in the intervening years. Charles X is shown here returning to Paris after his coronation, on 6 June 1825:
Did you know? The Palace of Versailles still has the carriage in which Charles X rode to his coronation! It is on display in the Gallery of Coaches, near the palace... or in your own home, thanks to our virtual tour:
Charles X’s coronation ceremony was grandiose but outdated, stoking the growing public unease that his rule represented an unwelcome return to the past. In 1830 the king was overthrown by a revolution which took place on 27, 28 and 29 July, subsequently dubbed the “Three Glorious Days." Forced into exile, Charles X fled to England.
You’re probably already familiar with “Liberty Leading the People,” the famous painting by Eugène Delacroix now on display at the Louvre ... That work is a symbolic evocation of those three days of revolution, which resulted in Louis-Philippe I – the son of the Duc d'Orléans, and thus scion of the cadet branch of the Bourbon dynasty – being elevated to the throne. This new regime was to be known as the July Monarchy.
The July Monarchy (1830-1848)
In 1830, Louis-Philippe I became king. Convinced that he had an important political role to play, and keen to distance himself from his cousins and predecessors Louis XVIII and Charles X, Louis-Philippe refused to be crowned King of France. He instead took the title King of the French, breaking with established royal tradition.
But who was Louis-Philippe?
Here he is in a painting by François-Xavier Dupré:
Louis-Philippe was at pains to emphasise his break with monarchical tradition. On 31 July 1830 he left the Palais-Royal and headed for the Hôtel de Ville. Artist Horace Vernet’s depiction of that day portrays the French people united in their unanimous enthusiasm for this “saviour” of the Republic.
Vernet’s painting "The Duc d'Orléans leaves the Palais-Royal for the Hôtel de Ville" is a glorious scene in which Louis-Philippe is the hero. Vernet’s vision is somewhat detached from reality, since he fails to include the riots which actually took place in the capital in the last days of July.
Louis-Philippe promised a new regime inspired by the British model: a parliamentary monarchy. On 9 August 1830 he swore an oath before the assembled Chambers of Parliament to abide by the Constitutional Charter (the Charter of 1830, proclaimed on 14 August). Artist Eugène Devéria captured this historic scene in a painting which you can explore in the video below (english subtitles):
Louis-Philippe, the "Citizen King,” sought to distance himself from both the preceding monarchy and the Republic. Keenly aware of the political divisions which had riven the country since 1789, his aim was to unite the French people. It was partly for this reason that he decided to transform the Palace of Versailles, the former home of the Kings of France, into a museum dedicated to “all the glories of France" – as per the inscription still visible on the Dufour and Gabriel pavilions which flank the main palace.
Inside the Palace, the famous Gallery of Battles, inaugurated in June 1837, perfectly embodies Louis-Philippe unifying ambitions.
But, faced with growing opposition, Louis-Philippe was eventually toppled by another revolution in February 1848. The King had become increasingly conservative and removed from the French people: the July Monarchy came to an end with his abdication, on 24 February 1848.
Second Republic (1848-1852) / Second Empire (1852-1870)
The revolution of 1848 thrust France into the age of democracy. On 25 February, the day after the abdication of Louis-Philippe, the Second Republic was proclaimed. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, was elected as a deputy, and subsequently as President of the Republic.
This painting by Charles-Philippe Larivière shows the "Triumphant Entrance into Paris of Louis-Napoleon Prince-President":
The Second Republic represented a clear break with previous political regimes, introducing universal male suffrage and definitively abolishing the practice of slavery in French colonies. At Versailles, the collections include a major work commemorating this historic moment: the “"Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies" by French artist François-Auguste Biard.
Discover this painting in our video profile:
However, less than four years after his election, the coup d’état of 2 December 1851 transformed the presidency of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte into a new imperial regime. Louis-Napoleon took the title Napoleon III. The Second Republic formally came to an end in 1852, replaced by the Second Empire.
Napoleon III established an authoritarian regime which placed restrictions on certain liberties, but nonetheless received popular backing at the ballot box. The new emperor also sought to renew with the past splendours and military glories for which many were nostalgic. As part of this strategy, the Palace of Versailles was used on many occasions as a sort of diplomatic tool, playing host to a number of foreign heads of state.
In 1855, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom was hosted at Versailles during her state visit:
In this painting, by Karl Girardet, you can see the open-top carriage of Queen Victoria arriving at the Queen’s Hamlet on the Trianon estate.
Napoleon III’s reign nevertheless ran up against opposition from many quarters, not least Parisian literary circles. Nicknamed “Napoleon the Little” by Victor Hugo, one of France’s greatest writers, the emperor was the subject of fierce criticism.
Forced into exile in Jersey, Victor Hugo authored a pamphlet in which he declared that: "This Bonaparte has no support in the army; he is a counterfeit effigy, made of lead not gold; there is no way that French soldiers will be sucked into rebellions, atrocities, massacres, attacks and betrayals in the name of this false Napoleon."
Victor Hugo, Napoleon the Little (1852)
Find out more about Victor Hugo ... with our video (english subtitles):
Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, was also a staunch critic of the Empire. This prominent literary figure combined her crusade against poverty with the fight for greater recognition of women’s rights.
This portrait of the writer, from the collections of the Palace of Versailles, was painted by Thomas Couture in 1859.
In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. Defeat at the Battle of Sedan on 1 September 1870 forced Napoleon III to surrender to Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, and his chief minister Otto von Bismarck. This defeat forced Napoleon III to abdicate, bringing his reign to an end on 4 September 1870. This marked the end of the Second Empire, and the advent of France’s Third Republic.
France, defeated and invaded by the Prussians, witnessed the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.
Third Republic (1870-1940)
Following the fall of Napoleon III, a new Republic was proclaimed. Opposition immediately sprung up on both sides. On the one hand, the monarchists intended to reinstate a King; on the other, the "Communards" refused to accept the defeat at the hands of the Prussians and attempted to establish their own “social” republic. Entrenched at Versailles, the new government led by Adolphe Thiers sent in the army – dubbed the "Versaillais" – to suppress the Communards. The week of 21 to 28 May 1871 came to be known as the “bloody week.”
Watch this video to explore the portrait of Adolphe Thiers, President of the French Republic from 1871 to 1873, as painted by Léon Bonnat (english subtitles):
In the years after the suppression of the Paris Commune, a new sense of hope gradually emerged. The challenge facing the fledgling Third Republic was to win the backing of a majority of French citizens, and in doing so to instil a genuinely republican culture. Successive presidents attempted to rally the nation around certain shared values: the Marseillaise became the national anthem, 14 July became a national holiday, and efforts were made to highlight the positive reforms of the French Revolution.
This painting by Alfred Roll, now in the reserve collections of the Palace of Versailles, is a perfect illustration of this strategy. At the centre of the scene stands Sadi Carnot, President of the Republic, surrounded by citizens from all walks of life during a commemoration ceremony at the Neptune Fountain in the Gardens of Versailles. Roll’s painting depicts the celebration of the centenary of the calling of the Estates General in May 1789.
President Carnot is thus celebrating the birth of the French Republic in the heart of the historic domain of the Kings of France: the new republic extending an olive branch to the royal past. The scene painted by Roll was one of the first major, symbolic republican ceremonies held in France.
At this time France was also being rapidly transformed by the Industrial Revolution, and experiencing something of a golden age. 1889 saw the inauguration of the Universal Exposition in Paris – of which the French Revolution was a key theme – with the Eiffel Tower erected to mark the occasion.
One hundred years on from the French Revolution, as France entered the period now known as the “Belle Époque,” a remarkable sense of enthusiasm, nostalgia, curiosity and excitement grew up around Versailles and the Ancien Régime. The Palace of Versailles had come to be seen as an emblem of the country’s shared heritage; it was in this period that artists from all horizons began to appropriate the royal palace, and Versailles inspired homages and imitations all over the world.
However, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 put an abrupt end to this optimistic era. As the war raged, the Palace of Versailles went into action too: artworks were protected against the risk of bombing, tours were arranged for wounded soldiers, charitable activities were hosted in the gardens, the palace was used for political events… Versailles undoubtedly played a role in the war effort.
The photograph below was taken in February 1915, and shows a military parade in the palace’s Honour Courtyard:
You can find out more about the Palace of Versailles during the Great War in our web series, produced in partnership with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France:
The Armistice of 11 November 1918 was followed by the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919.
This photograph shows French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, flanked by American President Woodrow Wilson, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and Italian Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino, on the eve of the signature of the Treaty:
This famous peace treaty definitively marked the end of the First World War. Considered a peace treaty by the victors, but more like a diktat by the defeated parties, the Treaty of Versailles sowed the seeds for the second global conflict, which would break out twenty years later.
Almost half a century after the German Empire had been proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors, Georges Clemenceau savoured his revenge. On 28 June 1919, the defeated Germans signed a peace treaty in that very same room. In this brand new short film, go behind the scenes of this historic occasion (English subtitles available).