October 4, 1734-April 20, 1797

"Dans mon coeur agité, ramène l'espérance."

This chronology served as the starting point for Monville: Forgotten Luminary of the French Enlightenment, a biography of François Henri Racine de Monville, published in 2013. Building on this structure and including the results of much additional research resulted in a text of over 50,000 words, complemented with an index and a extensive bibliography. The French translation, Monville : l'inconnu des Lumières, was published in 2015. Both are available from the publisher, CreateSpace, all the Amazon platforms worldwide, on Barnes & Noble online and on other e-commerce booksellers.

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François Racine de Monville 1734-1797

"De ces riants coteaux, de ce vallon tranquille
Le premier possesseur, m'a-t'on dit, fut Monville
Le Rothschild de son temps!
--Augustin Eugène Scribe (1791-1861)


François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville was the son of Jean-Baptiste Racine de Jonquoy [or Joncquoy] and Marie-Marthe-Françoise Le Monnier.

According to Monsieur de Monville's longtime acquaintance Dufort de Cheverny French flag, writing in his memoirs, he was born in 1733 near Alençon, in Normandy. However, an American author, Diana Ketcham, relying on contemporary records, writes in her well-researched book that he was born on October 4, 1734, in Paris, on the Rue Sainte-Avoie (subsequently renamed the Rue de Temple) in what is now the Third Arrondissement of Paris.

Monville's mother was the daughter of Thomas Le Monnier, a wealthy fermier général, a private citizen contracted to collect taxes through a practice known as tax farming or, simply, farming. He had married his maidservant, Françoise Martory, and received his postion thanks the favors bestowed by his wife on the Duke of Luxembourg.

Monville had only one sibling, an older sister named Marie-Henriette Racine de Jonquoy, who, by her marriage to Jacques-Louis-Georges de Clermont d'Amboise, became the Marquise de Reynel. Her grand-daughter, Françoise-Thérèse Félicité, married Joseph Marie de Grimaldi, prince of Monaco. The young princess was executed on the guillotine on July 26, 1794, at the age of twenty-seven. If her execution had been delayed by only one day, she would have survived, as her great-uncle did, since Robespierre himself was executed on July 27, 1794, and those incarcerated awaiting the guillotine were subsequently released. Many direct descendants of Monville's sister are living today.


Monsieur de Monville is living in Paris with his grandfather on the Rue Neuve des Petits Champs, carousing with his bachelor friends.

Dufort de Cheverny draws this portrait of Monville. He was "L'un des plus beaux cavaliers de Paris." He stood 5 feet 8 inches tall (the French used feet and inches until the Revolution, when the metric system was adopted), and "fait comme un modè tête un peu trop petite mais agréable."

Monville danced so well that he was invited to all the balls. He was an accomplished horseman, excelled at le jeu de paume (today known as real tennis in Great Britain and court tennis in America), played the flute "as well as Amphion," and the harp, and could shoot a bow-and-arrow "as well as an Indian."


It is during the early 1750's that Monville was in Berlin where he was introduced to King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), and performed on the flute in a number of concerts at Frederick's Sanssouci palace in Potsdam. Monville also impressed Frederick the Great when he was dancing with a princess at a ball: "You dance so well that I think you don't know how to do anything else."


Monsieur de Monville marries Aimable Charlotte Félicité Lucas de Boncourt.


Monsieur de Monville is appointed Grand Maître des Eaux et Forêts in Rouen, a position he will hold until 1765. He develops a passionate interest in botany and horticulture.


Monsieur de Monville is widowed. His maternal grandfather soon leaves him a considerable inheritance that will enable him to lead a life of leisure.

Madame de Genlis, at the time Mlle. Félicité Ducrest de Saint-Aubin, describes Monville as "Un magnifique soupirant, jeune, veuf, riche et très beau, noble et romanesque," but, alas, "Il n'est pas de la cour."

Monville proposes mariage to Mlle. de Saint-Aubin, who declines his proposal. The following year, she marries Charles-Alexis Brûlart de Genlis, a colonel of the grenadiers. He is condamned to death on the guillotine and executed on October 30, 1793. Portrait of Mme. de Genlis [1790] by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.


According to Dufort de Cheverny, Monville goes through a series of mistresses including a certain demoiselle Leclerc, the actress Austrady, the opera star Sophie Arnould, Anne Demerville de Saint-Rémy, known as Madame de Saint-Janvier French flag, Louise Anne Thoynard de Jouy, Comtesse d’Esparbès French flag ...and many others!


In a letter dated March 12, 1762, to Antoine de Sartine, Lieutenant General of Police of Paris, an inspector named Marais reports that Monville had a mistress, Madame de Montregard (née Marie-Henriette Hue), who was married to Pierre Thiroux de Montregard, a tax farmer--but that, “if her husband were to die, Monville would marry her straightaway.” Marais reported that Monville’s manservant had seen the lady several times in his master’s “petite maison sur la Chaussée d’Antin."


Monville meets Jeanne Bécu de Beauvarnier, who will receive the title of Contesse du Barry after becoming maîtresse royale of Louis XV. Monville will maintain his friendship with Madame du Barry until her execution in 1793.


After having rented a number of buildings in Paris, Monville designs his permanent Paris residence, to be known as the Grand Hôtel de Monville, and in 1764 engages the visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée to execute the project, which is completed in 1766.

The neoclassical building was located on the corner of the Rue d’Anjou and the Rue St. Honoré and accompanied by a smaller building, the Petit Hôtel de Monville, which Monville most likely reserved for guests and visitors. Total cost of the project was 111,949 livres.

Contemporary accounts describe the interior with awe and admiration. The interior of the Grand Hôtel de Monville featured a Turkish salon decorated with mirrors and another room designed as an "Arab pavillion with vistas of trees and female nudes." Monville also equipped his Grand Hôtel with central heating, the first such installation in France since the times of the Romans, over 1,500 years previously.

Two views of the Grand Hôtel de Monville, painted by Antoine-François Sergent French flag and engraved by Joseph-Alexandre Le Campion have been preserved in the Cabinet des Estampes of the Bibliothèque Nationale along with a hundred of Boullée's futuristic drawings, which he bequeathed to the library at his death. Talleyrand owned the Grand Hôtel de Monville from 1806 to 1813. The last owner of the building was Catherine Noele Grand de Talleyrand-Périgord . Unfortunately, nothing remains of the buildings themselves; both were demolished in 1855 to permit the construction of the Boulevard Malesherbes.

The contemporary French aquarellist Christian Benilan has depicted the Grand Hôtel de Monville ca. 1774. View Benilan’s interpretations of many other historical buildings in and around Paris as they might have appeared before their destruction.


Monsieur de Monville publishes three of his musical compositions known as ariettes: "Les amours de Village ou Lisette et Colin," "Habitants de ces bois" and "Le Rossignol par son ramage."


Monsieur de Monville defends his reputation as an archer by winning a contest held in the Bois de Boulogne, as described in the chronicles of Louis Petit de Bachaumont in an entry dated October 30, 1771. The Duke of Chartres wagered that Monville would be unable to kill a pheasant on the wing in ten tries with his bow and arrow. In front of a great throng of spectators, Monville transfixed the first pheasant...but missed the nine others.

Monville publishes a collection of short chamber cantatas known as cantatilles: "Le bonheur," "Le Moment," "Le départ de Cloé" and "Le Retour de Cloé."


Monsieur de Monville befriends Louis Philippe Joseph, Duc d'Orleans. During the French Revolution the Duc d'Orleans will change his name to Philippe-Egalite and vote for the execution of his cousin, King Louis XVI.


Louis XVI takes the throne.

Monville, now over forty years old, begins buying property in and near the parish of Saint Jacques de Retz, at the edge of the Forest of Marly, where he will construct his famous Désert. The hamlet had a population of approximately a hundred persons and consisted of several farms.

He continues buying lots in 1776, 1777, 1779 and 1786. Construction begins on the fabriques or follies, which will include the Chinese Pavilion, the Column House, the Pyramid Icehouse, the Temple of Repose, a Temple of Pan, and an open-air theater as well as a botanic garden with plants from all over the world, hothouses, a herb garden and a vegetable garden.

The Désert was to be Monsieur de Monville's summer home, his résidence secondaire, a refuge from the often insalubrious environment of 18th century Paris.

On December 23, 1774, Monville buys a house on the Rue des Jeûneurs in the village of Neuilly, west of Paris, on the banks of the Seine. He will sell the residence two years later.


Monville, an accomplished harpist, who had played with Christoph Willibald Gluck, his favorite composer, is invited twice a week to accompany Mme. de Genlis.

Monville publishes a third and final collection of ariettes and cantatilles.


Benjamin Franklin [2] [3] arrives in France on December 21, 1776, for the third time, after previous brief visits to France in 1767 and 1769. He brought with him his two grandsons, Benjamin Franklin Bache, nine years old, and 16-year-old William Temple Franklin.

Franklin and his grandsons lived in a home in what was then the Parisian suburb, the village of Passy, placed at their disposal by Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont (1726–1803), one of the French "Fathers of the American Revolution" who subsequently opposed the excesses of the French Revolution, but survived the Reign of Terror. His son of the same name, known also in America as James Le Ray, eventually married Grace Coxe of Sidney, NJ, became a United States citizen and founded the town of Le Ray, in Jefferson County, NY, where they settled.

Franklin first served as a representative of the American colonies, along with Silas Dean and Arthur Lee, and entered into secret negotiations with the French government in order to secure financial aid and military supplies for the United States during the war for independence. Subsequently, Franklin was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary in 1779. For a fascinating account of Franklin's stay in Paris, see this profile by historian Harvey Sicherman.

During his stay, it is possible--although not documented--that Franklin may have met Monsieur de Monville, or may have visited the Désert de Retz.

Regardless of whether Benjamin Franklin visited Monsieur de Monville's Désert, it is certain that Monville, like many Frenchmen of his time, was an admirer of the nascent United States. Busts of both Franklin and George Washington were discovered in the Column House and duly noted the detailed inventory of the Désert de Retz conducted by François Corborand between 1 and 15 Nivôse Year II (December 10-24, 1793) after the Désert was confiscated.

Franklin returned to America in 1785 and was elected as the sixth President of Pennsylvania in 1787. When news of his death in 1790 reached France, the French National Assembly declared three days of mourning


The first structure at the Désert, the Chinese House, is built. At the time it was the only private house in the Chinese style in Europe.

Monsieur de Monville invites his friends to regular readings in the library of the Chinese House; particularly popular were the Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire French flag, by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Encyclopédie compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. The Encyclopédie, published from 1751 to 1772, comprised 16,500 pages, 72,000 articles, and 17,000,000 words.

Visitors to the Désert included the poet Jacques Delille, who published his Jardins, ou l'art d'embellir les paysages in 1782; the poet and playwright Marie-Joseph Blaise de Chenier, and Hubert Robert, who specialized not only in paintng picturesque gardens such as the Désert de Retz, but in desiging them, most notably the gardens on the grounds of the chateau of Méréville, which he designed for the wealthy financier Jean-Joseph Laborde. Méréville was, along with the Désert de Retz, the finest folly garden in France in its heyday.

Another guest was Claude Joseph Dorat, a mediocre poet, novelist and playwright. Dorat attempted to disguiose his failures as a dramatist by buying up large numbers of seats for performances, and his books were lavishly illustrated by well-known artists and expensively produced in order to elicit favorable reviews.


The Pyramid Icehouse (Une glacière en forme de pyramide) is constructed at the Désert de Retz.

On August 5, 1781, Queen Marie Antoinette [2] makes the first of many visits to the Désert in order to take notes for the construction of the her own folly garden, the Queen's Hamlet at Trianon.

In mid-August, the Désert de Retz was the scene of the assembly and testing of one of the world's first aircraft, the Vaisseau-Volant, a human-powered ornithopter designed by a self-educated inventor, Jean-Pierre Blanchard who, like Monville, was born and raised in Normandy, in the town of Les Andelys. Blanchard wrote in 1784 that he had used a moulinet—his term for an air screw or propeller—placed horizontally over his head, to help him leap from the ground: “This I performed, in the year 1781, at Mr. Monville’s, near Saint- Germain-en-Laye.” Although his flying machine failed to leave the ground at a public demonstration in Paris the following May, Blanchard became a balloon pilot, following the lead of the Montgolfier brothers. In 1785, Blanchard and his American co-pilot, Dr. John Jeffries [2] [3], realized the first successful flight across the Channel, and in 1793 Blanchard conducted the first hot-air balloon flight in America, witnessed by President George Washington along with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. After Blanchard's death during his 66th ascension in 1809, his widow, Sophie Blanchard [2], became the world's first woman professional pilot, and her one-woman ascensions rendered her famous throughout Europe until her death in 1819, during her 68th ascension, over the skies of Paris.


Monville is able to reside in the famous Column House, without doubt one of the most unusual residences in the history of architecture. He receives many visitors, both commoners and aristocrats, who were issued tickets at the entrence to the Désert. The Duke of Orleans was Monville's guest for card games.


In October, 1783, Monsieur de Monville is said to have designed an aerial messaging system to communicate with his employees living in the nearby village of Saint-Nom-la Bretèche.

Monville's system could easily have been similar to the acoustic telegraph that utilized metal tubes to communicate over long distances. The system was invented by a 25-year old Cistercian monk, Dom Gauthey, in 1782. Gauthey presented his invention to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris and attracted the attention of the Marquis de Condorcet, who wrote a report on it. A subscription was launched in order to run a trial on a short distance.

Subscribers included the astronomer Jérôme Lalande; aviation pioneer Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier,who died attempting to cross the Channel in an untethered baloon; the radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat, who was murdered in his bathtub; the mathematician Antoine Deparcieux and American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin,

The experiment, directed by Condorcet, was successfully tested in 1783 in Paris over a distance of 800 leagues (approximately 3,840 meters or 14,560 feet). Unable to find additional investors to develop his system in France, Dom Gauthey left for America in order to to seek financial support there. His efforts were unsuccessful, but he did publish a 32-page prospectus in Philadelphia in 1783.

It's also possible that Monville's aerial messaging system might have been a forerunner of the famous aerial telegraph invented by Claude Chappe and his brothers. Their semaphore system was tested in 1791 over a network linking Paris and Lille. Messages could be communicated between the two cities in an hour.


King Gustav III of Sweden (1746–1792) arrives in France on June 7, 1784, for a visit of six weeks in France. Although it was originally believed that Gustav stayed at the Désert de Retz during his visit, recent research has revealed that the king only visited the garden on July 14, 1784. The king is so impressed with Monsieur de Monville's garden that he requests Monville to send him the plans of the Désert de Retz.

On the evening of Monday, June 21, 1784, Queen Marie Antoinette organizes an elaborate celebration--a fête de nuit in honor of King Gustav at the Petit Trianon. It is possible that Monsieur de Monville attended the event.

Thomas Jefferson [2], appointed by the Congress of the United States to replace Benjamin Franklin as minister plenipotentiary to France and join John Adams and Franklin in negotiating treaties of amity and commerce with European nations, arrives in Le Havre on August 3, 1784, accompanied by his twelve-year-old daughter Martha (Patsy) and William Short, a young relative engaged as Jefferson’s personal secretary. Jefferson first resides in the Hôtel de Landron and then at the Hôtel de Langeac on the Champs-Elysées, which becomes the center of American life in Parais. Like Monville, Jefferson is was an amateur agronomist and shipped European grapevines to his estate in Virginia.

At about the same time, Abigail Adams and her children John Quincy Adams and Abigail Adams (Nabby) arrive in Paris to join John Adams, who would be appointed the first ambassador to the Court of St. James's in London.


In March, Monsieur de Monville sends Gustav III a large-size (1.5 by 2.25 meter) General Plan of the Désert in pen and black ink, grey wash and watercolors, now in the Nordiska museet in Stockholm. It depicts buildings, garden ornaments and plantings. On each side are unique color views of ten fabriques shown as framed paintings and arranged vertically: on the left are the Chinese House, the Rockery, the Temple of Pan, the Open-air Theater and the Tomb. To the right are the Orangery, the Pyramid Icehouse, the Hermitage, the Dairy and the Temple of Repose. Gustav entrusted his ambassador, Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, to send Monville a gold box encrusted with diamonds outlining the royal monogram as a token of his appreciation. The plan and its accompanying plates served as an inspiration for Gustav's gardens at Haga Park and Drottningholm.

Monville drafts a map of the Désert de Retz. Georges-Louis le Rouge French flag , King's Geographer, includes this map as a preface to a series of 24 engravings of the Désert de Retz in Cahier XIII of his twenty-one Cahiers des Jardins Anglo-Chinois.


Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun [2], famous for her flattering portraits of the French royal family, meets Monsieur de Monville at Madame du Barry's château in Louveciennes. She found Monville "aimable et très élégant." It is likely, but not certain, that she may have painted one or more portraits of Monsieur de Monville. Portraits of Monsieur de Monville are also said to have been made by other artists; none of their whereabouts are currently known to the public.

Madame Vigée-Le Brun was not only famous for her painting, but she was also a famous salonnière, one of those brilliant and cultivated women who hosted salons French flag attracting the artists and celebrites of their day.

On October 12, 1786, after recovering from a broken wrist, Jefferson writes the Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart, describing his visit to the Désert in the company of his friend, the English artist Maria Cosway [2].

Jefferson was particularly taken by the floor plan of the rez-de-chaussée of the Column House which used oval rooms to fill out a round structure. He proposed similar plans for renovations at the Hôtel de Langeac, the first Washington Capitol, and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The Pavilion Gardens recreate the love of gardening that Thomas Jefferson expressed in the Academical Village he created at the University of Virginia.

It is also possible that the skylight in Monsieur de Monville's Column House influenced Thomas Jefferson when he designed the plans for his architectural masterpiece, Poplar Forest, his retreat located in Bedford County, Virginia, and the first octagonal house built in America. Jefferson especially liked the light-filled interiors in France, and both the skylight in the dining room and the floor-to-ceiling windows in the parlor are French touches.


The French Revolution [2] begins on July 14, 1789.


With the Revolution in full force, Monville offers to sell his Paris residences to Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, author of the trilogy of Figaro plays, Le Mariage de Figaro, Le Barbier de Séville and La mère coupable, for 400,000 livres. The offer is refused.


On July 20 and 21, 1792, Monsieur de Monville sells all his real estate to an Francophile Englishman, Lewis Disney Ffytche of Swinderby. The price of the Désert: 108,000 livres. There can be no doubt that Monville was able to protect these funds through the efforts of his Swiss banker, Jean-Frédéric Perregaux and that they doubtlessly were the source of his income until his death.

Monville moves to the Rue Neuve des Mathurins in Paris with his companion Sarah, a young actress.


Sought by the police, Monville seeks refuge in Neuilly. The Government confiscates the properties that Monville had sold to Disney Ffytche.

Thanks to the meticulous inventory drawn up at the time and preserved in the Archives of Seine et Oise in Versailles, we know not only how Monville had furnished the Column House but also the names of all the species of plants and trees at the Désert.

Many of the confiscated plants were transferred to the Jardin des Plantes, the principal botanical garden in France.

On April 6, 1793, Monsieur de Monville is the guest of his friend Philippe d'Orleans at the latter's appartments in the the Palais Royal in Paris. During the dinner Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai arrives with the news that the Convention, meeting in the Tuileries Palace across the street, has issued a warrant to arrest the Duc d'Orleans. The arrest follows shortly thereafter.

The Duc d'Orleans will be executed on November 6, 1793. His son will become Louis Philippe I, the last King of the French, reigning from 1830 to 1848.

On May 14, 1793 (25 Floréal I), a residence permit was issued to “Citizen Nicolas Henry [sic] Racine Monville” in Neuilly-sur-Seine. The entry in the registry, which can be consulted in the Neuilly Archives, describes him as “5 feet 6 inches tall, with chestnut hair and eyebrows, blue eyes, a sharp nose, a small mouth, a round chin, a bare forehead and an oval face.”


In the midst of the Reign of Terror, on May 17, 1794, Monsieur de Monville is arrested in the nearby town of Saint-Nom-la Bretèche at the Château de la Bretèche, the home of his friend Denis Thiroux de Montsauge.

In July, Monville is imprisoned in the Conciergerie then tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. His "crimes" included "anglomania" and sybaritism!

After his trial, Monville is transferred to the Hôtel de Talaru French flag a maison d'arrêt on the on the rue de Richelieu,renamed Rue de la Loi. Jean-Joseph Laborde, the owner of the chateau of Méréville, was also incarcerated here until his execution in April, 1794.

While in custody, Monville enjoys his own apartment and food brought in by a caterer. A young lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Louis-Joseph Billecocq French flag, also incarcerated in the Hôtel de Talaru, wrote his impressions of Monville, whom he had befriended, in his prison journal that was not published until 1981. Billecocq reports that 60-year old Monville was "Le meilleur joueur de volant du lieu." Monville improved his game of badminton while awaiting the executioner!

Through another stroke of luck, with the death of Robespierre, Monsieur de Monville escapes the guillotine. He is released on August 5, 1794, eight days after Robespierre's execution.


François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville dies on March 8, 1797, while residing at 64, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré in Paris. Cause of death was an abscessed gum. Death occurred four days after dental surgery.

Despite what has been reported elsewhere, Monsieur de Monville died a wealthy man. The inventory after his death required almost two months to complete, from March 14 to May 6, 1797. The document is preserved and may be consulted in the French National Archives and consists of over a hundred pages, itemizing the furniture and decorative objects and artwork, clothing, linens, kitchen utensils, wines, books and crockery as well as all of Monville’s other personal effects. Monville's possessions included a jacket in grey vicuña, and his wine cellar was stocked with more than 750 bottles of the best vintages.

Since Monsieur de Monville had no known progeny, the proceeds of his estate were bequeathed in equal amounts to his three great-grandnieces and his great-grandnephew, all of whom were minors and represented by guardians: Princess Athénaïse Euphrasie Louise Philippine Grimaldi (June 2, 1786 – September 11, 1860), Princess Honorine Camille Grimaldi (April 22, 1784 – May 8, 1879), Jacqueline Stéphanie de Choiseul-Stainville (1782-1861) and Antoine Clériadus de Choiseul-Stainville (1783-1809). Little is known of any of these four descendants of Monville's sister except that Jacqueline Stéphanie, married to the Duke Philippe-Gabriel de Marmier French flag, "led a life as a coquette as long as she could attract lovers," according to the Journal of writer and academician Xavier Marmier. Numerous descendants of Honorine and Jacqueline are living today. Both Antoine Clériadus and Athénaïse died childless.

Writing in his memoirs, Dufort de Cheverny observed acidly, "Il avait mangé jusqu'à son dernier écu et ne laisse que des dettes. Après avoir sacrifié à toutes les filles dont il changeait à chaque nuit, il vivait depuis six ans avec une jeune personne des petits spectacles."

Alexandre de Tilly French flag, another longtime acquaintance of Monsieur de Monville, delivered a more appropriate epitaph: "En traversant la Révolution, Monville trouva cependant le secret de mourir dans son lit et d'obtenir la grâce des Sylla et des Marius français qui n'en faisaient à personne."


This page revised March 27, 2017.

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