Le Palais des Tuileries got its name from “tuile,” the French word meaning “tile,” which referenced the tile factory that stood on the site. The palace, near the Louvre, was first constructed in 1564, under Catherine de Medici, King Henry II’s widow. After Catherine died, the palace was still incomplete, and the monarchs and government officials who followed in her stead continued to build, enlarge, and renovate the structure.
Henry IV extended the palace on its southern side along the Seine, connecting it to the Louvre. In the 1660s, Louis XIV completed the initial construction of the structure, with all of its salons, theatres, and elaborate royal quarters, adding the Pavillon du Théâtre and the Pavillon de Marsan. At this time the Jardin des Tuileries was developed as well, resting to the west of the palace, and became a popular meeting place for Parisians.
The next notable monarchs to take up residence in le Palais des Tuileries were King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, driven to Paris from their luxurious home at Versailles in 1789, during the French Revolution. The palace was stormed by an armed mob in 1792, while Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were still being contained there. The mob overpowered the Swiss Guard, and the royal family escaped – although Louis and Marie were both eventually executed later that year. The palace was then taken over by the revolutionaries, and the Convention organized itself there. A series of other governmental bodies and individuals likewise set up camp there during the political instability of the era, including the Conseil des Anciens, Napoleon, the Bourbons, Louis-Philippe, the Second Republic, the Jacobins, and finally Napoleon III in 1852.
Those who took up residence in the palace made constant renovations to the space, particularly due to the damage the building had experienced during the revolutionary era. During the Second Republic, the link between the Louvre and the Tuileries was completed. Then, during his reign, Emperor Napoleon III made significant and luxurious changes to the palace’s interior, suddenly made more than suitable for lavish, autocratic gatherings and celebrations.
Napoleon’s renovations were not the only architectural changes occurring in Paris at that time. In 1834, Paris underwent Haussmannization, an architectural revamping process led by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. This demolition and renovation of Paris was meant to improve living conditions in the city, which was marked by disease, overcrowding, crime, social unrest, and inefficient circulation and transportation.
The most notable remnant of these city-wide renovations are the long, broad avenues that made navigating the city easier and viewing the city a grand experience. The wide streets bring with them a sense that bigger is better and that Paris is truly modern and luxurious. These wide streets are pictured in early photographs of the palace, particularly by Édouard Baldus in the 1850s and 1860s.
Soon after Haussmannization was completed, Napoleon III was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and the Prussians seized Paris. At the same time, the Third Republic of France was declared, and Parisian workers formed the Paris Commune. Civil war broke out between the upper and lower classes, elite Versailles and working class Paris. In May 1871, the Paris Commune set fire to much of Paris. Le Palais des Tuileries was no exception. On May 23, communards entered the palace, placed explosives inside, and smothered it in kerosene and petrol. The fire burned for days.
Photographer Bruno Braquehais documented the destruction of le Palais des Tuileries, as he did for much of the rest of Paris during its destruction by the Commune. He was able to capture and document the progression of buildings from elegance and magnificence to scrap and rubble.
Braquehais’ many photographs of the palace after it has been subjected to fire are the pivot point for attitudes surrounding the structure. With his images, we see the power and autocracy of autocracy upon Parisian autocracy reduced to nothing but ruins. The palace’s elegance and grandeur is stripped. In Braquehais’ photographs, statues stand with arms and legs missing, the ceilings have disappeared, and walls have given way to create unwanted windows.
The destruction of the palace becomes in these photographs a metaphor for the instability that the French government often experiences as it struggles between monarchy and democracy in the 1800s. By the hands of the citizens themselves, the government – like the palace – is falling apart. Despite their melancholy moods, however, these images, along with the similar works of other photographers who shot Paris during the Commune, became popular among Parisians.
These images began to circulate through the public arena, purchased by tourists and appearing in business periodicals, but were eventually censored by the existing government, hoping to discourage revolutionary attitudes and avoid disturbing the public peace (Luxenberg, 115-116). Braquehais’ images were propaganda as much as they were historical documentation.
Even so, this propaganda was not all suppressive of the Commune. Public officials contested that “the Tuileries ruins symbolized the radical republican threat of the Commune,” and they were in fact “preserved by conservative republicans in power to divert public memory from the Versailles’ merciless repression of everything related to the Commune (Luxenberg, 117). The ruins of the Palace, and therefore images of them, were symbols of freedom from repression. The palace was preserved as ruins until 1883.
Since then, political figures have long debated the reconstruction of the palace, but have never commenced any rebuilding efforts. The Jardin des Tuileries still features the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel constructed under the order of Napoleon I, however there is little awareness for the palace that once stood on the grounds. A single sign, weathered and dirty, stands beneath the eyesight of the typical passer-by on the palace site. The grounds have been completely occupied by vendors, selling trinkets to tourists passing through the gardens on their way to the Louvre, and by people tanning and picnicking on the lawns.
On a more positive note, the site remains a political core for Paris. Political rallies, demonstrations, and marches are held in the gardens even now, reflective of the palace’s rich revolutionary history.