Watercolor and pencil on paper.

An inscribed caption reads:

Vue du Jardin de la Manufacture Royale de Papiers peints de M. Reveillon,

Dans le quel on été faites les premieres experiences de la Machine Aerostatique inventée par M. M. Etienne & Joseph Montgolfier frères

Cette machine avoir 57 pieds de hauteur et 41 de diamètre. Le première expérience publique enfin faite à Versailles, en présence de leurs Majestés et de la famille Royale le 19.7.1783 par M. Etienne Montgolfier, abandonnée à elle-même en sa Galerie.

La seconde fut faite au château de la Muette, le 21 Novembre suivant. L’arëostat avoit 70 pieds de hauteur, 46 de diamètre, et une Gallerie dans la quelle montraient M. D’Arlandes. M. Pilatre de Roxier pour diriger le feu.

C’est le 1er voyage aërien qui au été fait .

Collection of Marius Paulme
Collection of Paul Tissandier
William A.M. Burden, Jr.

Exposition Rétrospective de la Ville de Paris, Paris Exposition Universelle 1900

LaVaulx, Henry C, Charles Dollfus, and Paul Tissandier. L’ae éronautique Des Origines A À 1922. Paris: Floury, 1922. No. 6.

This watercolor depicts the first test flight of the brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier’s hot air balloon on the grounds of the Réveillon wallpaper manufactory at Foile Titon on September 12, 1783.

The Montgolfiers came from a well-established family of paper manufacturers near Annonay in southern France, a trade that proved useful in developing their experiments with hot air. It was Joseph who had first become interested in contemporary discoveries relating to the composition of the atmosphere and he later enlisted his brother when constructing small hot air balloons using bags made of paper. Their first large-scale test took place in their hometown on June 4th, 1783 during which they launched a balloon made of silk and lined with paper, under which a basket of straw and wool was burned; the balloon rose to a height of some 3,000 feet and drifted approximately one and half miles.

Word of their accomplishment spread and before long they were traveling to Paris where they planned a demonstration for the king. For this feat, the brothers collaborated with another paper manufacturer, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, who had established his wallpaper manufactory in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, “where the paper staining and luxury furnishing industries were concentrated.”1 With Réveillon’s help, the Montgolfiers produced a 70-foot tall pear-shaped envelope (the term for bag that contains the hot air). It was made of sky blue and gold taffeta covered with an alum varnish and decorated by foliate garlands and fleur de lys, the twelve signs of the zodiac, sun masks (symbolizing the king), lion masks holding tasseled swags, and eagles supporting festoons. The testing for the royal demonstration took place on September 12th in the garden of Réveillon’s factory, the Foile Titon, and according to the caption of the watercolor it is this first aerial test flight that is depicted.

The caption also chronicles the Montgolfier brothers’ two subsequent flights. A week later, on September 19th, the first public experiment was held on the grounds of Versailles with the King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the royal family in attendance, along with some 130,000 spectators. Because no human had yet experienced balloon travel, three animals were selected as passengers to be sent into the air: a sheep, whose physiology was thought to be similar to that of a human being; a duck, to be used as a control as it was a high-flying bird; and a rooster, to be used as a further control because, although it was also a bird, it did not fly at high altitude.2 The balloon traveled for approximately 8 minutes and landed safely at Vaucresson, 2 miles from the launch site.

The following step was to perform a manned free ascent in the hot air balloon. When determining who should fly the aerostat the king suggested that two convicted criminals, being no one of consequence, should be sent up in the basket should something go wrong. However, a scientist and aviator named Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier protested, insisting that the honor of becoming the first balloon aeronauts should belong to a person of higher ranking. The king was persuaded and it was determined that de Rozier, along with the Marquis François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes would make the journey. On November 21st, 1783 the Montgolfier’s balloon was launched from the Château de la Muette near the Bois de Boulogne, carrying de Rozier and the Count d’Arlanes for approximately twenty-five minutes across five and a half miles. One of the spectators for this flight was Benjamin Franklin, who recorded the event: “We observed it lift off in the most majestic manner. When it reached around 250 feet in altitude, the intrepid voyagers lowered their hats to salute the spectators. We could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration.”3

The present portrayal of the Montgolfiers’ experimental ascent at the Foile Titon was probably painted by Claude-Louis Desrais (1746-1816), nephew of Étienne Desrais, the director of the Académie de Saint-Luc. Claude-Louis entered the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculture in 1764, becoming a pupil of Francesco Casanova and the protégé of Charles Nicolas-Cochin. Between 1768-72 he exhibited his paintings in the annual Exposition de la jeunesse. Although he is primarily known for his book illustrations and fashion prints, “[Desrais] also produced historical compositions that chronicled his time”4 including military, religious, and Revolutionary subjects, as well as cultural events like philosophical salons and the pioneering balloon voyages in late-18th century France, like the present subject. His other illustrated balloon voyages of the time include those made by Charles and Robert in 1783 (figure 1) and Blanchard in 1785 (figure 2), for which engravings are conserved in the Bibliothèque National de France. A drawing in ink and wash held in the Musée Carnavalet attributed to Desrais depicts L’expérience de Molian et Janinet, dans les jardins du Luxembourg, le 2 juillet 1784, a failed ascent attempted by the engraver Jean-François Janinet and the Abbot Miollan (figure 3).

An engraving by Desrais of the same subject as the present watercolor is more widely known and copied, however it depicts the occasion from a higher and farther angle, and the figures are not in the same place (figure 4). No print made directly after the present drawing is known to us.

The present watercolor appears to have been included in the Exposition Rétrospective de la Ville de Paris, part of the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. The Gazette de Beaux-Arts of the same year included an article on the works of art in this special exhibition and says when describing the watercolor: More technical [than a small watercolor depicting the balloon flight of Charles and Robert], although embellished with amusing characters, is the ‘Vue du jardin de la Manufacture Royale de papiers peints, de M. Réveillon,’ attributed to Desrais, representing the first test of a balloon, 19 September 1783 (Collection Marius Paulme). The balloon, with its ornaments and royal figures, holds a prominent place, accessory of an ideal landscape and air travel in the other. Marius Paulme (1863-1928) was an influential collector and expert on French 18th century drawings.

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. Banham, Joanna, and Leanda Shrimpton. Encyclopedia of Interior Design. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997. 1057.
  2. Sharp, Tim. “First Hot-Air Balloon | The Greatest Moments in Flight.” Space.com. Space.com, 16 July 2012. Web. 07 July 2016. http://www.space.com/16595-montgolfiers-first-balloon-flight.html
  3. Ibid.
  4. 4. “Claude-Louis Desrais, A Royalist Allegory.” Dahesh Museum of Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2016. <http://www.daheshmuseum.org/portfolio/claude-louis-desraisa-royalist-allegory/#.V4OlxSMrInU>.

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