A Look At What It Was Like to Visit Versailles in the Late 18th Century

I’m here to take you away to see more of the Visitors to Versailles 1682-1789 exhibit that was held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. And, for the next few minutes, I want to highlight two American men mentioned in the exhibition who traveled to Versailles around the American Revolution and what their experiences might have been like.

Part of the Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles by John Vanderlyn, 1818-1819

For those of you that don’t know, Versailles was the royal residence of the Bourbon kings from 1682 until 1791, when King Louis XVI was arrested during the French Revolution. During its time as a royal residence, certain areas of the palace and gardens were open to members of the public who were dressed appropriately. This open strategy was politically calculated, drawing on the long tradition of granting French subjects access to their ruler. But it wasn’t just the French that paid a visit to the royal palace and gardens. Foreigners, including Americans, also came to see this spectacular site and some even called upon the king and members of his court. Let’s do a quick look at what it was like for them.

Did you know that the gardens of Versailles are some of the larges in the world, spanning 1,976 acres? To get around the gardens and the palace without breaking a sweat, people of means would take a sedan chair.

The above sedan chair was made in France around 1783 and is typical of those used around Versailles to transport people the way we would use a taxi today. Characterized by its elegant, restrained outline, this particular portable chair bears the coat of arms of France and Navarre encircled by the chain of the Order of the Holy Spirit. It would have carried courtiers or members of the royal family. Visitors could also make use of sedans, the so-called chaises blues (blue chairs) named for the color of the porters’ uniforms, for travel within the town of Versailles and to the palace. If you’re perplexed how a sedan chair was used, the image below should help you out.

So, who might have gone past you in a sedan chair at Versailles during the late 18th century? Here are two American gentlemen who are known to have been there.

Allow me to introduce you to Colonel John Laurens, aide-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. If you are familiar with the musical Hamilton, you already know his story. This miniature portrait of him in his military uniform was painted by American artist Charles Wilson Peale in 1780. In 1780 the Continental Congress named Laurens a special envoy to France to help Benjamin Franklin secure additional support for the American cause. According to the information in the exhibition, Laurens spoke excellent French and was untiring in his mission, but his bluntness ruffled a few feathers at court. Nevertheless, his determination ultimately paid off. In 1781, Laurens obtained France’s commitment to station a fleet off the American coast, enabling Washington’s army to defeat the British forces at Yorktown.

Portrait of Elkanah Watson painted by John Singleton Copley in 1782, via a photo I took of it at the exhibition.

Another American gentleman who paid a visit to court was Elkanah Watson. Mr. Watson was a businessman who went to Versailles in 1779 to deliver dispatches from the Continental Congress to the French foreign minister. It’s likely that in this portrait he is wearing the suit he acquired in Paris earlier in his trip. After he delivered the dispatches, Mr. Watson left for England, where he commissioned this portrait. According to the placard that accompanied this painting, he is known to have appreciated the portrait for its appealing naturalism. It’s hard to see here, but worth noting that the ship in the background flies the American flag, which symbolizing George III’s formal recognition of the United States. This would have been especially important to someone like Elkanah Watson.


Part of the Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles by John Vanderlyn, 1818-1819

I can’t even imagine what it was like for someone like Mr. Watson or Colonel Laurens to see Versailles and its gardens for the first time, coming from the world of colonial America. I have to believe that they would have taken some time to enjoy exploring the spectacular grounds. Each of these tokens in the photo below, granted four persons access to the gardens of Versailles. It’s not known how the tokens were distributed or for which 1785 event they were issued, but I’m sure they were treasured and using tokens was a great way to ensure the gardens didn’t become overcrowded.

As I mentioned, the majority of Versailles’ gardens were accessible to the general public, except for the fenced-in groves which were locked to protect against vandalism. To access the groves, one had to know someone in possession of a key. The Master Key, shown below the tokens in the photograph, was made in France between 1760 to 1774. This key and ones like it, were used to open those special spaces. As a writer of historical fiction, I naturally wonder what people would have done to gain possession of such a key and what exactly went on in those private spaces.

Part of the Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles by John Vanderlyn, 1818-1819

Stay tuned for more posts about museum exhibitions I’ve gone to over the past year or two. If you don’t want to miss them, please subscribe to this blog.

Please note most of the information included in this article was taken from the placards of the Visitors To Versailles exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.



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