11205 THE ASCENT OF THE MONTGOLFIER BROTHERS’ BALLOON LES FLESSELLES ON 19 JANUARY 1784, LYON, FRANCE BY JOSEPH AUDIBERT Lyon. 1784. Measurements: Height: 17″ (43.2 cm) Width: 12″ (30.5 cm).

Gouache on paper.

Signed semi-indistinctly, lower right:
Audibert fils inv. pinxit 1784

LaVaulx, Henry C, Charles Dollfus, and Paul Tissandier. L’ae éronautique Des Origines A À 1922. Paris: Floury, 1922. No. 10.

The Gaston and Albert Tissandier Collection
Collection of Paul Tissandier
William A.M. Burden, Jr.

This gouache depicts the flight of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon Les Flesselles on 19 January 1784 in Lyon. It was painted by the Lyonnais decorative artist Joseph Audibert, and is signed Audibert fils inv. pinxit 1784.

The Montgolfier brothers began their large-scale aeronautic experiments in 1783, culminating in the first manned hot air balloon ascent made by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes at the Château de la Muette on November 21st. Early the following year, a new montgolfière was launched by Joseph Montgolfier and Pilâtre de Rozier, and it is this flight depicted in the present painting.

The balloon was called Les Flesselles, after Jacques de Flesselles (1730-1789), a royal civil servant. De Flesselles served as the Intendant of Lyon from 1768-1784 and was strongly devoted to all aspects of the city; he supported the Académie de Lyon, and encouraged technical and scientific development, including his sponsorship of the Montgolfier’s balloon.

The balloon’s envelope was far less decorative than previous examples, made of plainer gray linen with a paper lining. Two allegorical medallions decorated the exterior, one representing History and the other Fame, and a banner with the ‘de Flesselles’ name and coat of arms. A wicker basket capable of carrying six passengers, 22 feet in diameter, was secured below the envelope. The flight was originally scheduled for Saturday, 16 January 1784, however, rain and snow the night before severely damaged the balloon. The following day, although poor weather continued, the aeronauts attempted an ascent against their better judgment, which resulted in the envelope collapsing and catching fire during inflation. It was decided that the second attempt would be made only after the weather improved. After one more day “the skies had cleared enough to anticipate a flight on Monday, January 19. In spite of the fact they had serious doubts on the wisdom of ascending with a hastily repaired balloon, Montgolfier and de Rozier donned their formal dress”1 and prepared for the ascent. They were to be accompanied by Prince Charles de Laurencin, the Comte de Laurencin, the Comte de Dampierre, and the Comte de Laporte.

The inflation began shortly before noon and by one o’clock the tethers that fastened the balloon to two large stanchions were cut. What followed however, were a series of unfortunate mishaps. First, a young assistant named Fontaine threw himself into the basket; his sudden added weight hindered the rising aerostat and caused it to shake. Furthermore, two of the ropes held fast and the entire craft drifted westward. “Still tethered, yet partially ascended, it lifted several yards off the ground, striking the heads of several onlookers.”2 While mayhem erupted below, the final two ropes were cut, but this jolted the balloon and the upper half of the sphere was torn. There was nothing the passengers could do but try to keep the balloon afloat by stoking the fire. “It drifted toward the river where de Rozier was reputed to have said, ‘Gentlemen, we are going to go down into the Rhone’.”3 The aeronauts struggled to maintain altitude but to no avail and they crashed, the balloon engulfed in flames. However, apart from a few minor injuries the seven balloonists walked away unscathed, the flight was considered a success, and with it the art of ballooning entered a flourishing new era.

The present gouache was painted by the 18th century Lyonnais artist Joseph Audibert (fl. 1746-1785). Although little is known about his life, he is nonetheless described in Natalis Rondot’s “Les peintres de Lyon du XIVe au XVIIIe siècle” (1888) as a relatively important figure in the artistic life of Lyon in the 18th century:4 “There have been few major ornamental works. [The artist] Donat Nonnotte was the most employed in the decoration of public festivals, and Joseph Audibert was renowned for works of this kind.”5

Between 1748-49 Audibert was responsible for decoration of the salle de spectacle (theatre) at Nîmes. He is next mentioned in the accounts of the French theatre decorator, architect and town planner Jean-Antoine Morand, in whose workshop he was employed. The studio specialized in interior decoration and trompe l’oeil painting. An entry of 1750 records “A fresco work made in half by M. Audibert, received the other half for myself,” indicating that Audibert was paid independently by the same patron.6 When Morand left Lyon for an extended stay in Italy between 1759 and 1760 he entrusted Audibert with the conduct of his workshop.

Another apparently independent commission undertaken by Audibert was for a set of theatre decorations for the Château d’Hauteville. Made in 1777, they comprise a group of twenty panels painted on both sides to form backdrops of various settings for the theatre of the château. They include a neoclassical salon, a rustic interior with kitchen, the garden of a château with tree-lined avenue, and a forest (figure 1). Today this set is in the collection of the Swiss National Museum at the Château de Prangins.

Beginning in the 1760s, Morand began a program of urban development for the town of Lyon that included an enlargement of the city, particularly the neighborhood of the Brotteaux, a neglected area on the left bank of the Rhône, for which he established a circular plan and connected to the city with a bridge. He was aided in these initiatives with the support of Jacques de Flesselles, and on the occasion of the balloon ascension Morand was engaged to oversee the spectacle. He supervised the construction of a “circular enclosure of 190 feet in diameter furnished with three rows of steps” built by the master carpenters Guillet and Jacquet.7 At the center of this open air amphitheatre was built a circular enclosure surrounding a platform on which the balloon was secured prior to takeoff.

All of the features of this spectacle appear in Audibert’s painting. His decorative work relating to public displays and his professional connection to Morand signify that it is undoubtedly a contemporary eyewitness recording of the event, rather than a product of the artist’s imagination. Audibert produced two further views of this flight from what appears to be the opposite sides of the amphitheatre as well. An etching entitled Expérience Aérostatique signed ‘Audibert delineavit’ is illustrated in Sylvain Chuzeville’s Vie, oeuvre et carrière de Jean-Antoine Morand, peintre et architecte à Lyon ay XVIIIe siècle (2012, ill. 54b) (figure 2), while a drawing is signed “audibert fils invenit et del” and is conserved in the Musée Carnavalet under the title L’ascension d’une Montgolfière (figure 3).

This picture, along with four others forming a group, represents a period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when all of Europe, and France in particular, became preoccupied with the hot air balloon experiments made by inventors and early aeronauts, and it formerly belonged to the William A.M. Burden collection (as described in Carlton Hobbs Inventory No. 11201).

(Complete group of ballooning images comprises Carlton Hobbs Inventory Nos. 11201, 11202, 11203, 11204 and 11205.)


  1. Kotar, S L, and J E. Gessler. Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2011. 22.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Chuzeville, Sylvain. Vie, oeuvre et carrière de Jean-Antoine Morand, peintre et architecte à Lyon ay XVIIIe siècle. Thèse de doctorat en histoire de l’art dirigée par Philippe Bordes, présentée et soutenue publiquement le 22 juin 2012. Université Lumière-Lyon 2. 63.
  5. Rondot, Natalis. Les Peintres De Lyon Du Xive Au Xviiie Siècle. Paris: impr. de E. Plon, Nourrit et Cie, 1888. 32.
  6. 6. Chuzeville, 62.
  7. Ibid., 238.

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