Although the royal château at Compiègne had been rebuilt by Ange-Jacques Gabriel in the period between 1755 and 1788, Napoleon I nevertheless thought the residence not sufficiently imperial, and so in 1807 he ordered further architectural work. The architect Berthault rearranged the interior, the wel-known artists Girodet, Dubois and Redouté were responsible for the painted decoration, and Jacob-Desmalter and Marcion made the furniture.
The garden was landscaped in the English style and arranged such that the forest of Compiègne seemed merely its continuation – an effect which can still be seen today. And it was in 1810 that the archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria was welcomed to Compiègne by her future husband, just as Marie-Antoinette had been 40 years earlier. After celebrating the wedding in Paris, the imperial couple returned to Compiègne. The court returned there in 1811 along with the young King of Rome. During the Restoration, princes of the royal family made brief stays there. In accordance with French royal tradition, Charles X stopped there in 1824 on returning from his coronation in Rheims, and in 1832 Leopold I of Belgium married there the princess Louise, Louis-Philippe’s eldest daughter.
In 1848, the estate became the property of the State. Prince Louis-Napoleon visited Compiègne while opening the Compiègne-Noyon railway line. His first visit as Emperor took place in 1852, and amongst the hundred odd guests was Eugenia de Montijo, the future Empress. The Emperor was to visit Compiègne again in 1853 and 1855. Subsequently, a few rooms were redecorated and some furniture was changed to suit the tastes of the time. Only two building projects were undertaken: a wing separating the large courtyard from the kitchens and a theatre (unfortunately unfinished).
From 1856 onward, Compiègne became the imperial court’s autumn residence. It was during this period the famous “Compiègne series” began: for a month and a half, about one hundred guests were brought to the estate in special trains. The political, artistic and scientific elite of the Second Empire was thus entertained in Compiègne. The Musée du Second Empire, as a reminder of a glorious past, naturally took a central place in the palace complex.
Visitors may choose between various tours of the historical rooms of Compiègne palace. The Emperor’s suite and the Empress’s suite were reserved for imperial couples, while that of the King and the Queen of Rome was reserved by Napoleon for foreign sovereigns. Charles IV of Spain stayed in these rooms after his abdication in 1808, as subsequently did Louis and Hortense, King and Queen of Holland, and finally the king of Rome. Because of the relatively few symbols of empire in these rooms, Louis XVIII chose to reside there during his particularly ‘political’ stay in Compiègne in 1814. During the Second Empire, these rooms performed the same functions. And when no sovereigns were in residence, the apartment was occupied by the princesse Mathilde.
Entrance to the Emperor’s apartment is made via an imposing vestibule, the famous Salle des colonnes, and the arrangement of the columns corresponds exactly to that in the exterior colonnade fronting the cour d’honneur. Next, the great formal staircase leads to the Salle des Gardes du Roi and the emperor’s dining room. Both the Salon des Cartes and the Salon de réception are preserved in their Second Empire state. The emperor’s bedchamber and the library are remarkable for their wealth of Empire-style decoration by Jacob Desmalter. The palace chapel was designed for use by the sovereigns and those closely connected with them. The Galerie de bal, restored to its Second Empire state, has at one extremity a statue of Napoleon 1 and at the other one of Madame Mère. The Galérie Natoire, built in 1858, contains a series of paintings on the theme of Don Quixote.
The empress’s apartment, situated in the north wing of the terrace, possesses a fine First Empire dining room. It was here that Marie-Louise ate her first meal with Napoleon on 27 March 1810. During the Second Empire, this room, the Salon des Fleurs and the small salon were occupied by the Prince Imperial. The Third Salon was the empress’s formal reception salon. Her bedchamber is of an extraordinary luxuriousness. This rooms is linked directly to the charming boudoir which served as a bathroom. The apartment finishes with the Salon de Musique restored to its Second Empire state.
The Queen’s, and subsequently King of Rome’s, apartment possesses a fine staircase graced with a reproduction of the Belvedere Apollo. The bed chamber is a particularly interesting First Empire room. Napoleon wished this room to be as sumptuous as possible since it was for foreign sovereigns. And indeed Marcion’s furniture perfectly matches the wall upholstery and the carpet. The subtly mirrored bathroom has a ‘lawn in flower’ carpet rewoven from fragments of the original. The apartment known as the “appartement double de Prince”, thus described since it was designed for princely couples, was used by Jerome, King of Westphalia, and his wife in 1810 and 1814. Divided into three parts during the Second Empire, this apartment housed a number of prestigious guests: notably, Jerome again, his son, Prince Napoleon and his wife Clotilde, princess Matilda, the prince and princess Murat, etc. This apartment has an enormous bed chamber and the only bed alcove in the whole of the château. The colour scheme of the ensemble is interesting: violet and buff for the bed, golden yellow with violet tassels for the curtains, and carpets with a green ground copied fro, the original carpeting. The second salon is also remarkable for upholstered panels ‘in lined and shaded golden damask’, giving the impression of material blowing in the wind, one of the finest creations of the workshops of Lyons of the beginning of the 19th century.