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The Treaty of Versailles, centenary of the Signing

Arras, Musée des beaux‐Arts
28 June ‐ 11 November 2019

The Palace of Versailles, the Hauts‐de‐France Region and the town of Arras are commemorating the signing of the peace treaty between the Allies and Germany which took place against the backdrop of the Hall of Mirrors in 1919, exactly 100 years ago.

This historic event will be marked at the Arras Musée des Beaux‐Arts, where some twenty items have been brought together to create a scenography that will enable the public to revisit History and be taken back in time to the very place where this event occurred, the Palace of Versailles and the Hall of Mirrors. Documents, photographs and films will help visitors understand why Versailles was chosen for this event and how, for just one day, the Hall of Mirrors once again had a diplomatic role to play.

The Palace of Versailles at Arras. A decentralised cultural partnership

After the “Roulez Carrosses!”, “The Palace of Versailles in 100 Masterpieces” and “Napoleon ‐ Images of the Legend” exhibitions which attracted over 500,000 visitors, the Etablissement Public du Château de Versailles, the Hauts‐de‐France Region and the town of Arras continue their partnership with a brand new exhibition entitled “The Treaty of Versailles, centenary of the signing”.

In 2011, the Region, the town of Arras and the Palace of Versailles set up a wide‐ranging partnership to display works from the Versailles collections at the Arras Musée des Beaux‐Arts in major exhibitions created specifically for this purpose. This 10‐year cultural collaboration has already resulted in three events: “Roulez Carrosses!” (17 March 2012 – 10 November 2013), “The Palace of Versailles in 100 masterpieces” (27 September 2014 – 20 March 2016) and “Napoleon – Images of the Legend” (7 October 2017 – 4 November 2018).

These exhibitions were accompanied by educational and cultural activities, enabling a large number of people to learn about the history and heritage of the Palace of Versailles and drawing in more than 500,000 visitors.

A new phase of this partnership is opening up with “The Treaty of Versailles – Centenary of thesigning”, a brand new evocation of the Treaty of Versailles, from 28 June to 11 November 2019, two symbolic dates in our history. This specially created presentation will form an integral part of the programme of events commemorating the centenary of the First World War, which the town of Arras and the Hauts‐de‐France Region have been involved with since 2014.

This collaboration meets the objectives shared by the three partners. For the Palace of Versailles, this large‐scale cultural decentralisation initiative is in line with the institution’s mission to democratise and promote the historic and universal heritage of which it is a guardian. It also corresponds with the challenges of the cultural policy of the Hauts‐de‐France Region: making culture and heritage accessible to all types of public, balanced local development and improving the attractiveness of the region. And finally, this project is fully in line with the cultural policy of the town of Arras whose aim is to make cultural life accessible and open to everyone across the local area. These exhibitions also promote the development of innovative educational and cultural activities with the aim of helping people appropriate culture for themselves, especially school children.

An immersive evocation at the Arras Musée des Beaux‐Arts

The exhibition focuses on presenting the moment the Treaty was signed, around the iconic piece that is so representative of the event, the desk made by the cabinetmaker Charles Cressent, which forms part of the Palace of Versailles collection, and on which the document was signed. This piece of furniture is all the more important, as it is represents the last trace of this act of signing, since the Treaty itself disappeared during the Second World War.

By way of an introduction, the political moments of the Hall of Mirrors are described, both glorious and dark, from the Ancien Régime until the 20th century, via some evocative paintings: Louis XIV receiving the Ambassador of Persia on 19 February 1715 by Nicolas de Largillière (1656‐1746) and Prussian field hospital in the Hall of Mirrors in 1870 by Victor Bachereau‐Reverchon (1842‐ 1885) in this same gallery at the height of the Franco‐Prussian War.

The often conflicting relations between the German Empire and France since the 17th century and the symbolic choices made by each nation to mark their alternating victories over each other are also portrayed. From its very beginning, the propaganda of the decor in the arch in the Hall of Mirrors was part of this particular relationship between the two nations.

Louis XIV’s campaigns beyond the Rhine, and notably the plundering of the Palatinate in 1689, had a strong effect and resentment built up in the German soul. Under the Empire, the victory at Iena over the Prussians and Napoleon’s entry into Berlin in 1806 pushed the humiliation to its peak. The proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 could have been the last stage in this relationship marked by symbols, however, after the suffering and damage caused by the First World War, the Allied victory in 1918 opened a new page in this shared story. Versailles was chosen by France, the organiser of the Peace Conference, for the signing of this historic treaty.

There is a bust of Napoleon I on display, part of the Arras Musée des Beaux‐Arts collection, which was disfigured when the museum was bombed in July 1915, and went on display in 1916 at the Petit Palais museum in Paris as part of the exhibition of Damaged works of art or works from regions devastated by the enemy. This serves as a reminder of the fate of Arras and the surrounding region during the First World War.

Based on the rich collection of iconography held at the Palace of Versailles (paintings, contemporary photographs, plans and archive documents), the preparation of the gallery for the events of 28 June is described. The desk was placed at the centre of the room, together with a neo Louis XIV style chair loaned by the Mobilier National. The act of signing is evoked symbolically by a gold enamel pen, on which is engraved the word PAX. It was made in 1919 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty, but was not used on 28 June. It was presented to the Palace of Versailles only recently, and is on display to the public for the first time. An oil painting on canvas by Léopold Delbeke shows a still empty Hall of Mirrors in expectation of the event. Visitors will really feel they are entering the 1919 setting as there will be a projection of this commemorative work.

The various protagonists who were gathered behind the long table at the exact moment when the Germans signed the Treaty will come to life via an audiovisual animation of the painting held by the Imperial War Museum in London, by William Orpen, the official painter of the event.

Finally, the public will be able to extend their experience by immersing themselves in the documents associated with the organisation of this day: plans, photographs, admission tickets to the ceremony… and by browsing through headlines and articles from various regional, national and foreign newspapers.

In the last part of the exhibition, Year 10 pupils from the Jean Monnet d’Aubigny‐en‐Artois school, and Year 12 pupils from the European class at Lycée Guy Mollet and the literary class at the Lycée Gambetta‐Carnot in Arras were invited to spend the whole school year working on the restitution and transmission of this historical event, looking at three main topics: how the Treaty was received in the local press, the Treaty and its geopolitical consequences at a global level, and the presence of disfigured war veterans at the ceremony. After visiting the museum, meeting the exhibition curators and the scenographer, and visiting the Palace of Versailles, the work that the pupils have produced will close the presentation.

The ceremony

Several weeks before the day of the signing, the Palace of Versailles was getting ready to host the event. Palace staff and members of government worked together to adapt the former royal residence in order to bring the signatory powers together. The Hall of Mirrors was rearranged for the occasion: the floor was covered with twenty‐four carpets from the Savonnerie Manufacture dating from the time of Louis XIV. They were brought by the Mobilier National and sewn together edge to edge. The northern end of the Hall was reserved for journalists while guests were placed on the south side. In the centre, delegations from the Allied and Associated powers sat with their backs to the mirrors, behind a long table covered with a velvet cloth. Facing them, beneath the composition on the ceiling called The King governs by himself painted by Charles Le Brun, stood an 18th century desk by the cabinetmaker Charles Cressent, chosen to present the document to be initialled.

The ceremony lasted fifty minutes. There was no pomp, no music to celebrate this solemn moment. 27 delegations represented 32 powers. The four main Allied nations sat at the centre of the large table: Georges Clémenceau, President of the French Council of Ministers, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister and Vittorio Orlando, Prime Minister of Italy.

The German delegation was housed on the edge of the Estate, at the Hôtel des Réservoirs, which was protected by barriers to prevent any demonstration of animosity on the part of the population. At 2.40 pm on 28 June 1919, Hermann Müller, German Minister for Foreign Affairs (who had arrived two days before, replacing his predecessor who had resigned after refusing to sign), accompanied by Dr. Bell, Minister of Transport, left their residence. The delegation was driven to the Palace through the Park. After walking through the historical ground‐floor rooms and galleries and climbing the Queen’s Staircase, the German plenipotentiaries entered the Hall of Mirrors through the Peace Room at 3.10 pm. Clemenceau was standing and invited them to be the first to sign the Treaty. Next, each delegation approached the desk to sign. Instead of sitting at the Louis XV desk, Clemenceau signed the Peace Treaty standing. Wilson did not use the pen provided, but signed with his own pen, as the Germans had done. At the end of the ceremony, the Germans left discreetly by car, returning to their hotel and then leaving France immediately. Meanwhile, the representatives of the Allied nations went out into the Park, where a crowd that the security guards had not been able to restrain applauded them for a long time.

The Treaty of Peace at Versailles

After four terrible years of war, the first truly global conflict in history finally came to an end at Versailles in 1919. The Treaty of Peace between Germany and the different Allied nations was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors, on the day that marked the anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo and in the very place where the German Empire had been proclaimed in 1871.

Although it is present in the collective memory, the date 28 June 1919 is not so firmly imprinted as 11 November 1918, the day the Armistice was signed at Rethondes and which marked the end of the fighting. It was nevertheless a major historical event that was played out on that day. The choice of date and place for the signing were symbolic and political acts. Almost half a century after the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors, Georges Clemenceau savoured his revenge.

Negotiations proved difficult. The Paris Peace Conference, which had been in session since 18 January, drafted the text. Germany was excluded from the discussions; the Allies debated the issues without them, but struggled to find common ground. France wanted to definitively remove any threat from Germany. Great Britain, on the contrary, wanted to allow Germany to retain its status. President Wilson dreamed of a peaceful world with the establishment of the League of Nations (LN) that he was attempting to set up. Italy wanted the territories it had been promised in 1915. After some heated discussions, the treaty, consisting of several hundred articles, was finally presented to Germany on 7 May 1919. The terms were very harsh. Germany’s counter‐proposals, submitted on 29 May, were all rejected, and as a result the German dignitaries refused to sign. On 17 June, the Allies gave them five days to decide. Germany eventually conceded.
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