Sciences at Versailles part 7 : The science show, physics and chemistry

From the infinitely great to the infinitesimal

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) (1788) by Jacques Louis DavidThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Physics and chemistry

While games always occupied an important position in the court of Versailles, demonstrations of chemistry and experimental physics lie at the heart of the science spectacle of the 17th and 18th century. In Paris, as in Versailles, everybody was excited about these amazing and surprising demonstrations.

Jean-Antoine Nollet (1771) by Pasqual-Pere Moles i CoronesPalace of Versailles

The Abbé Nollet

The Abbé Nollet (1700-1770) was famous for his theories and experiments with electricity which held sway until the end of the 18th century when they were debunked by those of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and especially by Gaspard Monge (1746-1818), one of the greatest French mathematicians. Nollet published the first volume of his Lessons of experimental physics in 1743.

In 1758 the Abbé was put in charge of equipping a complete physics cabinet in the Hotel des Menus-Plaisirs, and was given the title of master of physics and natural history to the Children of France (the king's children). He built up a collection of more than 200 demonstration instruments, created "to make invisible things visible" and to illustrate most physical principles. These elegant instruments, which were initially designed to teach the princes, spread to all Parisian salons for private demonstrations.

LIFE Photo Collection

Demonstrations of electricity by the Abbé Nollet in the Hall of Mirrors

Nollet's experimental lessons were immensely popular. They comprised a vast repertory of demonstrations that were staged as shows.

Of all the demonstrations, the electricity demonstration was the one that aroused the greatest enthusiasm in the Court. The spectacle of sparks, flashing lights and electric shocks became a widespread fashion in all the courts of Europe and the Abbé, who had already published a work on the subject, acquired a great reputation in this field.

The Hall of Mirrors (1760) by Daumont, Jean-François (publisher)Palace of Versailles

As recounted by the Duke de Luynes, on 13 June 1746 in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, Nollet formed a human chain consisting first of twelve, then of seventy-four and finally of one hundred and forty people in order to share the electrifying experience of the shock, known at the time as electric "commotion".

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) (1788) by Jacques Louis DavidThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Antoine-Louis Lavoisier (1743-1794)

Financier and farmer general, he became "gunpowder commissioner", but more importantly, he became a renowned chemist. In 1784, he was part of a commission appointed by Louis XVI to study the practice of animal magnetism along with Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin, the astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly and the United States Ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin.

He remains famous for his research into the phenomenon of combustion and rapid oxidation, discoveries which overturned the whole conception of chemistry. His major works are Elementary treatise on chemistry (1789), and the Method of chemical nomenclature (1787).

Telescope of Dom Noël, from BnF collections (1701/1800) by engraved under the direction of Dom Noël and published by Basan and PoignantPalace of Versailles


Optics is the science of all things related to vision. Greek philosophers Euclid, Hero of Alexandria and Ptolemy all distinguished between optics (the science of vision), dioptrics (the science of lenses) and catoptrics (the science of mirrors). During the Renaissance, new breakthroughs in the design of astronomical telescopes and microscopes paved the way for major scientific advances, including confirmation of Copernicus’ theories thanks to observations made with Galileo’s telescope.

Allegorical portrait of Louis XV by Charles-Amedee Van LooPalace of Versailles

Anamorphic portrait of Louis XV

“Viewers may mistake them for illusions or magic tricks,” wrote Jean-François Nicéron (1613-1646), a friar in the Order of Minims in Paris and one of the most celebrated pioneers of optical illusions in art.

In the fourth volume of his famous treatise Curious perspectives, or the artificial magic of marvellous optical effects, published in Paris in 1638, Nicéron describes a particular example of “marvellous optical effects:” dioptric anamorphosis.

It was this type of “magical" anamorphosis, concealing an image within an image, which Charles-Amédée Van Loo used to create his hidden portrait of Louis XV. Already greatly appreciated in the 16th century, such visual trickery was very successful in the 17th and 18th centuries too, reflecting the taste for surprises, illusions and metamorphosis which was one of the defining features of the Baroque aesthetic, as well as a new fascination with optical phenomena.

The centre of the canvas is occupied by an allegorical figure representing Magnanimity, leaning on a white shield with fleur de lys motifs and flanked by allegories for Justice, Military Valour, Intrepidity, Heroic Virtue, Invincible Virtue (represented in the person of Roman goddess Minerva) and Generosity in the form of a young girl. As the painter himself explains in an invaluable description of this work, “these Virtues combine to form the King’s head.”

The illusion is created through ingenious use of refraction. When viewed through a polyhedric lens, precise sections from each of the Virtues are refracted to create a composite portrait of Louis XV in the shield at the centre of the canvas.

Allegorical Portrait of Louis XV (1762) by Charles-Amédée Van LooPalace of Versailles

This work “made great noise” according to Van Loo. Presented at the 1763 Salon and displayed in the painting workshop at the Louvre, it elicited great curiosity: everyone who was anyone in Paris came to see this marvel of optics that was then taken to Versailles and presented to the Marquise de Pompadour and the sovereign himself who was “satisfied and most satisfied.”

Experience of hot-air balloon by Mr Pilâtre du Rosier at Versailles by Editor Esnauts & RapillyPalace of Versailles


In 1783, Joseph Montgolfier discovered the principle of the aerostation by chance when he realized that hot air is lighter than cold air by observing smoke rising up the chimney. The scientist then organized a first experiment at Annonay in the Ardèche. This new discovery aroused the curiosity of the Court, making science a spectacle once again: gravity itself was overcome!

The experiment with an aerostat known as a montgolfière (hot-air-balloon) at Versailles on 23 June 1784

On 19 September 1783, the courtyard of the Palace of Versailles was invaded by a crowd of 120,000 people who came to witness the flight of the balloon owned by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-Etienne (1745-1799). With the help of public subscription, a "celestial globe" was built: made of cotton canvas, it was 18.47 meters high, 13.28 meters across and weighed 400 kilos. That day, in the presence of the king, the queen, the ministers and ambassadors who had come to sign the Treaty of Paris, a wicker basket containing a cock, a duck and a sheep (renamed Montauciel – heavenbound – for the occasion), was attached to the balloon inflated by burning straw. The vessel landed at a distance of 3 kilometers.

Apart from the spectacle, the demonstration brought other factors to the fore. On the one hand, it was important to stress the policy of support for inventors and manufactories: a group of specialized productions were showcased around the balloons, such as paper mills, manufacturers of glue and varnish, sulphuric acid, silk and other textiles. On the other hand, the experiment revealed the inventive genius of a modern country.

The Marie-Antoinette hot air balloon (1784) by Nicolas-François Le Vachez PèrePalace of Versailles

Marie Antoinette’s hot-air-balloon

Two months after this first experiment, on 21 November 1783, Pilâtre de Rozier (1754-1785) and the Marquis of Arlandes (1742-1809) conducted the first human aerostatic flight, travelling from the Château de la Muette to the Butte aux Cailles.

Credits: Story

Catherine Pégard, President of the Palace of Versailles

Laurent Salomé, Director of the museum

Thierry Gausseron, General administrator

Hélène Delalex, curator at the furniture and art object department

Géraldine Bidault, in charge of the photography library and the digitization of the collections, curator of the digital exhibition

Ariane de Lestrange, Head of communication

Paul Chaine, Head of digital service

Gaëlle Bertho, coordinator of the digital exhibition

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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