Enfilade

Exhibition | Versailles and the American Revolution

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on July 13, 2016

Now on view at Versailles:

Versailles and the American Revolution / Versailles et l’Indépendance Américaine
Château de Versailles, 5 July — 17 October 2016

Curated by Valérie Bajou

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Portrait de La Fayette, 1788 (RMN-Grand Palais / Château de Versailles)

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Portrait de La Fayette, 1788 (RMN-Grand Palais / Château de Versailles)

From 5 July to 2 October 2016, on the occasion of the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the Palace of Versailles dedicates an exhibition highlighting the war during which the fate of three countries met: the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

As the first country to recognise the United State of America as a new nation, it was France’s duty to commemorate the event, especially at Versailles where this decision was taken, where the War of Independence was supported, and where the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783. The exhibition aims to remind viewers of facts that are often forgotten but which bear testimony to the circumstances, scale, and consequences of France’s involvement in the war.

The exhibition recounts the events and highlights the context of French and English rivalry after the Seven Years’ War as well as internal divisions in the French side, the American side between ‘patriots’ and ‘loyalists’, and the English side due to some opposition to the way the settlers were treated. It recounts the decision-making process at Versailles, the personalities of key figures—notably Benjamin Franklin—and the exact locations in the palace where discussions were held. Finally, it explains the international spread of the fighting—from India across the Mediterranean Sea, to the shores of America—and the human losses due to the violence and scale of the battles, the largest of both the 18th and 19th centuries.

The War of Independence has been interpreted by artists from all three countries; so iconic works seen for the first time outside the USA will illustrate the exhibition’s discourse. The generosity of the loans granted must also be stressed, a key example being the Diamond Eagle of George Washington from the Society of the Cincinnati.

The exhibition is the result of scientific collaboration with researchers from American museums and universities, the Congress, and the Society of the Cincinnati, as well as French, Spanish, and English historians. It aims to present different points of view in order to avoid presenting a perspective of the events which is too narrow.

The exhibition will be held in an unusual location, the Battles Gallery, near The Battle of Yorktown, which represents the deciding battle of 1781. Commissioned in 1835 by Louis-Philippe, a year after the death of Lafayette, this commemorative painting indicates that the memory of the war and the sacrifices made had not been forgotten but were kept alive on the other side of the Atlantic like a debt of blood, also explaining the fervour in the famous expression of 1917: “Lafayette, here we are!”

Valerie Bajou : Curator in chief at the national museum of the Palaces of Versailles and Trianon
Scenographer : Loretta Gaïtis

A symposium opened the exhibition on July 5; the programme is available as a PDF file here.

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The catalogue is available from ACC Distribution:

Valérie Bajou, ed., Versailles and the American Revolution (Montreuil: Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2016), 208 pages, ISBN: 978-2353402465, £35 / $40.

imagePublished to accompany an exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, this catalogue is a collective work bringing together contributions from French, American, and British specialists in this field, which together shed light on the importance of the relationship between France and America in the closing years of the Ancien Régime. During the reign of Louis XVI, the Palace of Versailles—the seat of power and government in France—played a crucial role in the history of America, in its struggle for independence, and in the recognition of the United States by the great European powers. In tracing this remarkable story, the catalogue demonstrates the constant interest displayed in the fledgling United States by the French monarchy.

Richly illustrated throughout, it documents the events of the War of Independence, before exploring the consequences of the entry of France into the war, the siege of Yorktown, and the peace treaty signed at Versailles in 1783. Finally, it analyses the origins and development of the mythology of the ‘American Revolution’ in both France and the United States, a source of enduring inspiration for artists and history painters.

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2 Responses

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  1. Don Carleton said, on July 14, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    I am really gobsmacked by the line in the exhibit publicity material quoted here regarding casualties in the American War of 1775-83, viz. “the violence and scale of the battles, the largest of both the 18th and 19th centuries.”

    Huh?! The largest battles, at least in the North American theater, were puny skirmishes by Napoleonic War standards. This sort of egregious error of fact doesn’t do the exhibition organizers, or at least their PR people, much credit!

    • Editor said, on July 15, 2016 at 2:26 am

      Thanks, Don, for the note. I was surprised to read that, too. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Particularly when one throws in the American Civil War, the claim is peculiar (numbers cited here at PBS, for instance, place that war’s death toll at 10 times that of the Revolutionary War). You and other Enfilade readers are far better prepared than I to unpack the details and nuances of the numbers, but I share your surprise. best, -Craig


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