The Story of Versailles
by Francis Loring Payne
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Many State visitors came to see Versailles, even in the days when it was shorn of its glory. Pope Pius VII was there in 1805. From the balcony outside the Gallery of Mirrors he bestowed his benediction upon a crowd that stood below on the terraces. Two days later the Salon of Hercules was the scene of a ball in celebration of the coronation of the first Emperor of France. In May, 1814, Czar Alexander I of Russia visited Versailles with his two brothers, following the example of Peter the Great, who had been there when Louis XV was on the throne. Another historic cortege was composed of Frederick William III of Prussia and his two sons, one of whom, Prince William, was to return to Versailles in the year 1870 on a mission less peaceful. The gates of Versailles opened to the Duke of Wellington in 1818.

Other visitors there were that came to Versailles and, by the good will of Louis XVIII, lodged there—homeless dependents, who dried their laundry at the stately windows of the palace and installed goats and cows on the roofs overlooking the inert bronze fountains.

After the reign of Charles X all the occupants at the chateau left, following the Revolution of July, 1830. Once more the question arose as to the disposition of the palace. Empty, abandoned, "What shall we do with it?" cried the ministers. The answer was found in the project proposed to Louis Philippe that Versailles should become a national depository for souvenirs of French history, surrounded by the splendors of Louis the Great. This suggestion had the king's approval and cooperation. A confusion of offices, rooms, staircases and passages was simplified in the two wings, and the main body of the chateau and long galleries were created for the reception of thousands of battle pictures, portraits and pieces of sculpture, reflecting events and personalities concerned with the story of France.

The Queen's bed-chamber, the apartments of Madame de Maintenon and of the daughters of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour were among those that were altered. In the entrance court of the chateau were placed a group of statues from the Paris bridge de la Concorde, all of them so massive that they were out of proportion to the low surrounding walls.

On the face of the north and south wings Louis Philippe caused to be engraved the dedication of the huge pile and its contents "To all the Glories of France." The sum expended under the direction of the architect, Nepveu, for the creation of the National Museum of Versailles, exceeded 20,000,000 francs (about $4,000,000). The inauguration of the museum in June, 1837, was attended by Louis Philippe and his Queen, by officers of the Army and Government and representatives of French Law, Commerce, Art and Education. Arriving from Trianon, where they had been in residence, the King and his wife entered the palace by the Marble Stairway, traversed the Grand Hall of the Guards (to-day called the Hall of Napoleon) and the halls leading to the Grand Gallery of Battles, where they saw portrayed on canvas all the important military engagements of French armies, from Tolbiac to Wagram. In the Chamber of Louis XIV the King and Queen examined the restorations of the furniture, and found them well done. A royal banquet was laid in the Grand Gallery and in adjacent salons. At eight o'clock His Majesty, the royal family and 1500 guests assembled in the brilliantly illuminated Opera House, where they witnessed a performance of Moliere's Misanthrope and extracts from the opera, Robert le Diable, by Meyerbeer. The spectacle was concluded by a piece written by Eugene Scribe, the famous French librettist, in celebration of the founding of the Museum. At midnight the King and his family led a procession through the galleries of the palace, lighted by footmen carrying torches. At two o'clock in the morning the festivities were at an end and the royal party left for Trianon.

Says a French author, writing two years after the opening of the museum. "When Louis Philippe first cast his eye upon Versailles, he saw at once the impiety of allowing such a monument to sink into utter ruin. . . . He determined that the palace of Louis XIV, without losing its individuality, should become a palace of the entire people; and that the bygone spirit of absolutism should give shelter to the spirit of modern liberty. Versailles, therefore, erected as a homage to individual pride, has become, under the Orleans regime, a great national monument—and certainly the most complete and splendid of its class in all Europe. The temple of luxury was converted into a temple of the arts, and French valor was recorded in immortal colors upon the walls, by French genius."

In the vast edifice Louis Philippe created a pictorial record that embraced not only the great battles from the beginning of the monarchy down to his own day, but the chief incidents that distinguished the reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI; the victories of the Republic; the campaigns of Napoleon; the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X; the Revolution of 1830, and the reign of Louis Philippe. The kings of France, the members of their families and immediate entourage, great French warriors, statesmen, artists, men of letters and science are depicted on canvases that line the immense halls of Versailles. The Gallery of Warriors was arranged by Louis Philippe in that part of the palace formerly occupied by Madame de Montespan. The Gallery of Napoleon, created by removing the partition from a dozen rooms belonging to various members of the royal family, presents a complete history of the Emperor's life. More than a hundred apartments, large and small, were obliterated to make room for the galleries of portraits—a most engrossing exhibition to students of French history. Carlyle said, "I have found that the Portrait was a small lighted candle by which the Biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them."

Unfortunately a considerable number of paintings hung in the new museum suffered in quality through the desire of Louis Philippe to bring his achievement to immediate completion. He gave commissions right and left, always with the stipulation that the artists make haste. But many canvases of high merit, artistically and historically, still grace the walls of these galleries.

Portraits of the four unmarried daughters of Louis XV have been appropriately arranged by the present curator of Versailles, Monsieur de Nolhac, in the apartments on the ground floor where Mesdames passed most of their dull, insignificant lives. Nattier made flattering representations of all of them, sometimes in the costume of mythological characters. Both Nattier and the great La Tour portrayed Marie Leczinska, the mother of Louis XV's ten children. Nattier's likeness shows a smiling, matronly lady with sweet-tempered brown eyes, seated in a chair, the face softened by a frill and a black lace scarf. Many of the portraits at Versailles painted by Charles Lebrun, Madame Vigee Lebrun, Jean-Baptiste and Michel Vanloo, Boucher, Largilliere, Pierre Mignard, Rigaud, are familiar to us through frequent reproduction.

In the years following the inauguration of the National Museum, Versailles was once again the scene of ostentatious fetes in the halls, gardens and splendid Opera House. When Louis Napoleon succeeded Louis Philippe as head of the French nation, he came to Versailles with his bride of three days, the beautiful Eugenie, to see the portraits of Marie Antoinette, for whom the young Empress cherished a special admiration.

On an August night in 1855, "the grand court of the chateau shone with a brilliance resembling day. The profile of the great edifice was outlined in small lights. In the gardens, arches and columns were raised and the fountains showered rainbow torrents. The Hall of Mirrors presented a spectacle whose splendor recalled nights when Louis XIV strolled here in brocade and ruffles. Garlands hung from the ceiling, thousands of lights reproduced themselves in the lofty mirrors and shed scintillating floods upon the handsome costumes of the invited ones." Thus the Moniteur Universel described to its readers the reception offered by the Emperor of France to Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort and the future King of England. A few years later Emperor Napoleon III commanded another fete amid the grandeurs of Versailles, this time in honor of the King of Spain.

But the days and nights of royal spectacles at last came to an end—and for all time. In the month of September, 1870, the chateau offered refuge to German soldiers wounded in the short but bitter war with France. In the Oeil-de-Boeuf, the Council Hall, the little apartments of Louis XV and those of Marie Antoinete were placed four hundred invalid cots. By October, Bismarck arrived in the town of Versailles. During the next five months he resided on the Rue de Provence, in the villa of Madame Jesse, widow of a prosperous cloth manufacturer. His quarters were the center of diplomatic action during the period that preceded the signing of the shameful peace terms. January 18, 1871, the anniversary of the day on which the first king of Prussia had crowned himself at Konigsberg (1701), was fixed for the proclamation of William II as German Emperor, in the Hall of Mirrors. In the phrase of a chronicler of that time, "It was impossible for the boldest imagination to picture a more thorough revenge on the traditional foes of Germany than the proclamation of the German Empire in the storied palace of the Kings of France. With the shades of Richelieu and the Grand Monarch looking down upon them did the Teutonic chieftains raise as it were, their leader on their shields, and with clash of arms and martial music acclaim him kaiser of a re-united Germany." King William passed from the altar in the middle of the Gallery to a platform at the end of the hall and there took his place before the colors, surrounded "by a brilliant multitude of princes, generals, officers and troops." When he had announced the re-establishment of the Empire, and when Bismarck, "looking pale, but calm and self-possessed," had read to the assemblage the Proclamation to the German people, "the bands burst forth with the national anthem, colors and helmets were wildly waved, and the Hall of Mirrors shook with a tremendous shout that was taken up and swelled till the rippling thunder-roll of cheers struck the ears of the startled watchers on the walls of Paris," where roar of cannon night and day summoned the French to surrender. Thus the German Empire was born at the very seat of French Monarchy.

The armistice terms were signed at Versailles on the twenty-eighth day of January. One month later the representative of stricken France and Bismarck, sitting in the Chancellor's headquarters, affixed their signatures to the Peace Preliminaries, by which France surrendered Alsace (except Belfort) and Lorraine, and agreed to pay within three years a war indemnity of five thousand million francs.[*]

After the departure of the Prussians from Versailles (March 12, 1871), the Deputies of France arrived from Bordeaux, the temporary capital, and lodged in the Hall of Mirrors, which then became a dormitory, as it had on occasion been a hospital ward, a ball-room and the banqueting hall of royalty.

The insurrection of the Commune of Paris compelled the ministers to seek a place of security at Versailles. Once more the palace was chosen as the seat of Government. The ground floor, the upper floor and the attic, the picture galleries, even the vestibule of the Queen's Stairway and the servants' quarters served as offices for ministers and secretaries. The Department of Justice was installed in the Guards' Hall, the Oeil-de-Boeuf and the rooms of Marie Antoinette. The Secretary of Public Works directed his affairs within walls that had sheltered the nefarious Dubarry. The official Journal was printed in the palace kitchens. For several years the Opera House, the north wing, and the intimate apartments of Louis XV were given over to the National Assembly.

A Republican fete offered in 1878 by the president, Marshal MacMahon, was attended by twelve thousand guests. Once more the fountains of the north parterre were illuminated, but this time with electric bulbs instead of oil lanterns. There were ingenious fireworks on the Tapis-Vert that would have astounded even the courtiers of the Grand Monarch. In the Galerie des Glaces, Dussieux tells us, there was a ball "not exclusively aristocratic, but nevertheless very gay and animated."

Within the past forty years the treasury of the French Republic has not infrequently been taxed for repairs at Versailles and Trianon. More than a million francs were spent on the chapel alone. Improvements in the park, including the restoration of the Basin of Neptune, the Orangery and the Colonnade, cost another million.

"This Versailles," exclaims a French author, "does it not attract to our country strangers without number, does it not lend lasting prestige to the land of France? . . . Outside of the Invalides and the Louvre, what edifices equal it in evoking the memorable periods with which they are associated? What lasting respect do these annals of stone and bronze merit from men of taste! These salons, gardens, statues, works of art, attached irrevocably to the Past, bid us pause and ponder long upon the matchless Story of Versailles."

[*]The final treaty of peace between France and Germany was signed in the Swan Hotel at Frankfort, Germany, on May 10, 1871.


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