Even in an era when scientific discoveries were being made with astonishing rapidity, man’s first piloted flight in 1783 ranked as an awe-inspiring event. The Montgolfier brothers began experimenting with balloon flight in southeast France during the summer of 1782. After trials with a sheep named “Montauciel” (“Rise to the Sky”), Etienne Montgolfier and Jean-Baptiste Réveillon constructed a taffeta balloon about 75 feet high and 50 feet in diameter. It was decorated with fleur-de-lis, signs of the zodiac, and suns bearing images of Louis XVI’s face. The first untethered flight with a human took off from Paris in November 1783, and landed all of five miles away.
- This and other French terracottas from the 17th through late 19th century are illustrated in James David Draper, “French Terracottas,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 49:3, Winter 1991/92 (download as PDF).
- In the John Adams miniseries on HBO (2008), Thomas Jefferson and the Adamses watched the balloon ascension in Paris in November 1783. The balloon looks very similar to the illustration at the beginning of this post: kudos to the producers for doing their research! Incidentally, I was worried that the John Adams series would be yet another made-for-TV smear job, diminishing the Founding Fathers – but there are enough substantial quotes from Adams, Jefferson, Washington and others to bring the series up to a thought-provoking level, and overall it was well produced and well acted.
- Clodion’s Balloon Monument is mentioned in my book Innovators in Sculpture as an example of the level of skill artists had reached by the late 18th century. For more works by Clodion (Claude Michel), see this Wikimedia page.
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