The Palais des Tuileries, originally called the Château des Tuileries, was located on the banks of the river Seine in the heart of Paris, near the gates of the Louvre to which it was eventually annexed under the Second Empire. It was built in 1564 according to the plans of Philibert Delorme to meet the request of Catherine de Medici. Two imposing pavilions were later added: the Pavillon de Flore and the Pavillon de Marsan. Although the site is now the scene of one of the capital’s most majestic walks, the building that stood there until the end of the 19th century was a true architectural masterpiece that bore witness to the nation’s political changes.
After having hosted Louis XIV until 1671, the place was only used for musical and theatrical performances, except for a brief interlude under Louis XV. It became the “People’s Palace” while the Terror was raging in Paris in 1793, but the building was restored to its former glory under Napoleon I. The Palais des Tuileries was assigned to the new consuls (Bonaparte, Cambacérès and Lebrun) on the eve of Christmas 1799 and then became the government’s palace. The architect Leconte carried out important work of reorganisation there in order to provide to the authorities a palace in condition with flats duly renovated. The work was titanic and completed in record time. Flats for Josephine Bonaparte and accommodation for guests were built and the Conseil d’État [e.g. Council of State], a newly created institution, was installed there. The consuls moved in on 19 February 1800. Bonaparte recovered a floor formerly occupied by Louis XVI then by the Comité de Salut Public [e.g. Committee of Public Safety], and, if Cambacérès chose to live in the Hotel of Elbeuf, Lebrun moved in the Pavillon de Flore. The flats of Josephine were formerly those of Marie-Antoinette. Pope Pius VII was received at the Palais des Tuileries on 28 November 1804 to prepare for the upcoming coronation. During the Restoration, Louis XVIII died there on 16 September 1824. The Palace then became the seat of power under Napoleon III who made it his official residence throughout the Second Empire.
Paris and the Commune or the difficult change of regime (1870-1871)
For 72 days, from 18 March to 28 May 1871, the Parisian insurgents of the Commune attempted to overthrow the nascent Third Republic before being violently defeated by the Republican government during the Semaine sanglante [Bloody Week].
Following the defeat at Sedan in September 1870 and the acceptance of the peace treaty proposed by the German Chancellor Bismarck, some Parisians felt humiliated and began to protest against a Third Republic that they perceived as being bourgeois. The Parisian socialists regretted the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, and the fact that Paris was declared an “open city”. Adolphe Thiers, at the head of the executive, wanted to disarm the Parisians and instructed General Vinoy’s soldiers to recover the cannons stored in Belleville, Ménilmontant and Montmartre. The insurrection began on 18 March 1871 at the Butte Montmartre where the inhabitants had gathered in large numbers to protest. While the order was given to fire by the officers, the soldiers refused to do so and joined the Parisians. The first barricades appeared. After several weeks of bitter fighting, the men of Marshal de Mac-Mahon took over the insurgents. After his victory, the latter declared: “Paris is delivered. Order, work and security will be reborn.”
The toll of the Paris Commune was heavy. There were nearly 20,000 victims, 38,000 arrests and several thousand deported and proscribed to the Caledonian Prison. It was not until 1880 that amnesty laws were passed and the return of exiles and deportees to the metropolis was organised. The Paris Commune became a reference for revolutionary movements in that it can be seen as the first revolutionary workers’ protest in Europe since the Industrial Revolution of 1848. Several revolutionary compositions and songs were inspired by the memoirs of the Commune, such as the famous Internationale written by the Communard poet Eugène Pottier, or Le temps des cerises, whose author, Jean-Baptiste Clément, hit the Parisian streets during the Bloody Week.
A destructive insurrection: the burning of the Palais des Tuileries by the Communards (23 May 1871)
As the defeat drew near, the Communards, anxious to wipe out a past they despised, set fire to the Palais des Tuileries on 23 May 1871. It was a true disaster witnessed by the Parisian photographer Bruno Braquehais (1823-1875), who took nearly 110 photographs recorded in Le siège de Paris : 1870-1871.
Extensively renovated as part of Napoleon III’s New Louvre Project, it was the palace in Paris which was most closely associated with his court. For those who saw the Emperor as responsible for France’s humiliating defeat and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, the Palais des Tuileries was a particularly attractive target for revenge. Having just abandoned the defence of the Palais Bourbon, Jules-Henri Bergeret, the elected representative of the 20th arrondissement on the council of the Commune, captain of the National Guard, came to occupy the flats of the Empress Eugenie. From there, he could observe the fighting all the way to the Place de la Concorde, seeing the Versaillais moving inexorably towards the palace. Feeling cornered, he convened an emergency council and chose to set the palace on fire to slow down the progress of the Versaillais and to try to annihilate all traces of the building, which was a majestic symbol of the monarchy and later of the Empire. The numerous barricades erected by the federates prevented the fire brigade from intervening. The building stopped burning on May 25 and the heat was so intense in the still smouldering ruins that it was impossible to get close for several days. Photographs show that although the façades of the palace were still in fairly good condition and the general structure of the building remained almost intact, the roofs had collapsed. Nothing remained of the interior decorations, which had been completely destroyed.
The destruction of the Palais des Tuileries: the impossible memory?
The work of the artists, whether committed to the cause or representing a vision of a devastated Paris, is invaluable in remembering the palaces that have been destroyed. Bruno Braquehais, a pioneer of photojournalism, contributed to preserving the face of these buildings, victims of bombing and fire. The album is part of the Thereza Christina Maria collection assembled by Emperor Peter II of Brazil, which was donated to the National Library of Brazil. Its burnt-out shell, shown here, remained standing until 1883, after which time it finally was demolished.
During these twelve years, there were fierce discussions about the future of the site. After the fire, a palisade was erected around the ruins to prevent curious onlookers and potential looters from entering. Work began on restoring the damaged statues and renovating the railings and terraces in the western part of the garden, which was soon reopened to the public. New works by Auguste Clésinger and Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse were installed in 1872 thanks to the work of the architect Hector-Martin Lefuel. However, the ruins were not protected from the weather and the damage caused by fires in other symbolic places was such that the future of the Palais des Tuileries was not a priority for the government of Adolphe Thiers. The lead and iron rubble of the Tuileries were even used to rebuild the Louvre and the surrounding area. In 1873, the Galerie des Machines and the Petite Galerie, once direct material evidence to the splendour of the Second Empire, were demolished in order to restore the Flore and Marsan Pavilions. The façades of the latter underwent major renovations. The Grande Galerie and the Pavillon des États were restored. The public authorities wanted to make the site a festive and joyful place. In July 1878, for the Universal Exhibition, a balloon was installed on the Place du Carrousel that could accommodate up to twenty people simultaneously and rise to a height of almost five hundred metres, which made it a success. Visiting European sovereigns and Victor Hugo were among the personalities who rode in it. From 1875 onwards, charity events and concerts were held in the gardens near the ponds.
It was up to the Chamber of Deputies to decide on the future of the building, which quickly became a power struggle between the different political groups represented in the Assembly. The architect Lefuel proposed at the end of 1871 to rebuild only the central part of the Palace, while in 1876 Albert Christophe, Minister of Public Works, wanted the Palace restored. In 1879 the deputy Antonin Proust had passed a bill to destroy the Palais des Tuileries, but the debate in the Senate was postponed. After several parliamentary exchanges, the arguments in favour of demolition increased and the idea gained ground among the members of the National Assembly. The commissions in charge of the decision finally considered that the ruins of the palace were not suitable for the construction of modern institutions, especially as the lack of maintenance of the structure made it unhealthy, a request supported by the Republican deputies who wanted to remove this vestige of the monarchy. On the proposal of Claude Monnet, Proust, who had become Minister of Arts, wanted to build there a museum of modern art. Finally, on 21 March 1882, the Proust Law was passed requiring the demolition of the Palais des Tuileries. Although it was decided to preserve the most beautiful façades in order to install them on other public buildings, many of them were never recovered due to the prohibitive cost of transporting them and were eventually destroyed. The existing gardens were enlarged as an extension of the Louvre. Some of the charm of this place, which bears the traces of changes in the regime, still remains in the heart of Paris.
► Read more :
• Les Tuileries, Château des rois, palais des révolutions, Antoine Boulant (Tallandier, 2016)
• La République imaginée, 1870-1914, Vincent Duclert (Belin, 2010)
• La belle Histoire des Tuileries, Juliette Glikman (Flammarion, 2016)
P. Leblanc, June 2021
Translation by Amélie Marineau-Pelltier, August 2021