The Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire is in the village of Chaumont-sur-Loire in the Loire Valley, and the name Chaumont is derived from the French chauve mont, meaning “bald hill.” It was initially a fortress built around 1000 by Odo I, Count of Blois. The original château had four sides surrounding a courtyard. However, after it was purchased in 1750 by the aristocrat Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont (who is often considered the French “Father of the American Revolution” because he loved America), he demolished the north wing (the oldest part of the castle) to obtain a clear view of the Loire River and valley.
A description of the château in 1889 notes Chaumont’s changes:
“The chateau is built round three sides of a square, the fourth being open, and affording a wide view across the Loire; and it is garnished with a large number of the round towers with conical roofs, which impart so much of their character to the chateaux of the Loire. The detail is of the usual kind, the most notable feature being the circular staircase already illustrated. There is also a good deal of interest to be found in the chapel. Considering the number of hands through which the place has passed, and the fact that for some time it was a china factory, we ought perhaps to be thankful that so much is left, and to be grateful to the accomplished architect who is rebuilding a portion of it in the fashion in which he thinks it originally was, or ought to have been, built.”
Chaumont also wanted to create jobs for the local people and opened a glassmaking and pottery factory in 1767 that operated in some of the side buildings of the château. In addition, he hired a fairly well-known English glassblower named Robert Scott Godfrey. The director of ceramics was Pierre Berthevin and according to historian Thomas J. Schaeper:
“The ceramics produced … acquired an unusual quality because of the distinctive clay that could be found on the estate. … Godfrey’s fine crystals and other kinds of engraved glassware became quite popular at Versailles and among wealthy circles throughout the country. … Although the manufacture of pottery and glassware seems to have continued at the chateau into the early nineteenth century, Berthevin quit his workshop in 1776 and Godfrey left in 1778. Their departures came about because the two men were in conflict with and jealous of a third artist who had come to live there.”
The third artist was an Italian artist named Jean-Baptiste Nini. He had migrated to Spain and then to Paris. He created magnificent medallion busts of well-known people with likenesses that were amazing even though he never actually saw the people. Because he cast molds, he was also able to reproduce thousands of copies of each image in the form of coins. After Chaumont learned of him, he approached him, and the two men went into business. Chaumont then moved Nini into his château with the understanding that the profits or losses were to be split between the two.
The medallions Nini made quickly became popular among the wealthy. They wanted their image reproduced and it resulted in a brisk and profitable trade. Nini produced many images including one of his employer, 46-year-old Chaumont, as well as America’s Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. In addition:
“Nini’s workshop soon became a noted center of attraction in the Loire valley. Nobles and commoners came to see not only the works of art but also Nini himself. He was a dwarf under four feet tall and had a typically colorful, even tempestuous, Latin personality. If he was in a happy mood when visitors appeared, he would entertain them by plucking tunes on a psaltery that he kept in an old chest. He had a wife and a daughter in Spain, where he was content to leave them. He never accepted Chaumont’s offer to pay for their voyage to France.”
When the French Revolution broke out Chaumont’s assets were seized, and attempts were also made to seize the château. Fortunately, that never happened. Part of the reason was because Chaumont had already transferred ownership to his son, who was an American citizen.
It seemed as if the French revolutionary regime would be unable to touch the château, but then in April 1794, Jacobins tried to get the château torn down. Because of the family’s popularity with the local population that was avoided. Other attempts to seize the château also failed and eventually, it was determined that the revolutionary regime owed Chaumont money, 321,343 francs, but there is no record they every paid him a dime.
In 1810 Madame de Staёl temporarily resided at the Chateau de Chaumont. She had begun a three-volume book on Germany in 1808 that she titled De l’Allemagne. The book praised German literature and philosophy, and after moving into the château, she supervised the editing of her book while living there. That was because Napoleon had banished her from Paris due to her harsh criticisms of him.
At the château, Madame de Staёl also reconstituted the salon that she held in Paris and at her Swiss residence in Coppet. Among those who came to visit during the time she resided at the château was Benjamin Constant, the well-known socialite Madame Récamier, and Sophie de Barante, who stayed for a few days and reported:
“The house … was full of intrigues, for Mme. Récamier was carrying on quietly several innocent flirtations which entertained and occupied everyone. Auguste de Stael, too was then passionately in love with her. M. de Montmorency was piously caught in the toils of her conquering charms, and was occupied for long hours together admonishing her and making her a trifle devout. Mme de Stael, whilst laughing at her little faults, fondled and loved her, for at bottom she was a person devoted to her friends and of fascinating sweetness. Everyone knew, too, that these little flirtations made up a necessary part of her existence, so that all who presented themselves to her had their share in them.”
Napoleon came to view Madame de Staёl’s book on Germany as anti-French because she called the French political structure into question, thereby indirectly criticizing him and his rule. Ten thousand copies of her book were ordered destroyed and Napoleon exiled her again. She was forced to leave France within 24 hours and from the Chateau de Chaumont Madame de Staёl moved onto Fossé and Vendôme.
The château was eventually neglected and purchased by the Count d’Aramon in 1833. Vicomte Joseph Walsh was next to own the château. He attempted to repair and update it but costs were too high and he was forced to sell it, which he accomplished on 17 March 1875.
The new purchaser and owner was 17-year-old Marie-Charlotte Say. She was heiress to the Say sugar fortune founded by her paternal grandfather. She fell in love with the château when she saw it and could not resist purchasing it and its adjoining 1,025 hectares of land.
At the time, apart from the Rothschilds, she was the wealthiest heiress in France. That meant that she could have anything she wanted. To demonstrate her immense wealth, a friend of her husband, a dandy sort of fellow named Gabriel-Louis Pringué, once noted:
“She handled the millions the way we play with a ball, railing against the steep price of things without ever hesitating to buy herself whatever her heart desired. When she wanted a friend’s company, she never conceded that her invitation, by telegram or telephone call, might be declined. In such a case she would be plunged into childlike despair, claiming to have been abandoned by everyone. … She would decide to have her yacht prepared for a faraway cruise in the same way as she called for her car for a trip to her tailor.”
Three months after purchasing the Chateau de Chaumont, Say married Prince Henri-Amédée de Broglie in Paris and became known as Princess Amédée de Broglie. After the marriage, Say allowed her husband to take charge of the renovations at the estate. De Broglie then hired and commissioned Paul-Ernest Sanson to renovate and improve the château and its grounds.
To accomplish the improvements three stages were undertaken. The first stage lasted between 1875 and 1900 and involved restoring and modernizing the château. For instance, the chateau’s stone walls had deteriorated and needed new stones, which were then replaced one by one. Sanson also restored many rooms and stairways and architectural features were added or remodeled in Renaissance style during this time. In addition, in 1877, Sanson also designed and built luxurious stables that were among the first buildings in Europe to have electric arc lighting.
The second stage involved acquiring more land and expanding the estate. The estate’s original size was more than doubled, eventually reaching 2,500 hectares by 1917. In addition, land improvements were made that included draining swamplands, removing rocks, filling in ditches, creating usable ponds, and clearing neglected woodlands and fields so that the land could easily be ploughed and made profitable. In addition, de Broglie improved roads and created pathways.
In 1884, the third stage began. It consisted of creating grounds under the direction of landscape architect Henri Duchêne, who was also responsible for gardens at the Chateau de Bouges, Chateau de Maubranche, Chateau de Vaux-le-Pénil, and many others. The gardens at the Chateau de Chaumont included such novel things as a water tower, dog cemetery, and a rustic bridge.
Despite all the ongoing renovations, newspapers regularly reported on events held at the chateau along with what the fashionable guests who appeared were wearing. Here is one partial report about the château and its guests in 1881:
“A brilliant circle of guests is now staying at the Chateau de Chaumont, … a celebrated old house situated on the Loire, and with a drawbridge and moat. The hostess is musical, and guests all play or sing well; … The favourite morning costume among the ladies, whether they walk or shoot, is a brown cloth skirt with coloured jersey bodice; either a large felt hat with a long plume, or a small toque with a gay bird at the side. Some of the elder ladies adopt a moyenage costume which is in keeping with the style of the house. Leather chatelaine bags suspended on the left side, high-laced boots over coloured stockings that match their striped woollen kilted skirts, are salient features of their costumes.
In the evening, again, their dresses are magnificent; low square bodice ornamented with flots of lace and natural flowers, such as chrysanthemums, late roses, & c. Mme. de Viel Castel, one of the party, adopts the Greek style of headdress, with its simple bandeau. Many of the guests appear at breakfast in narrow clinging dresses of soft woollen material, made with long pointed bodices and small panniers on the hips; for, whatever may be said to the contrary, slender figures are more admired just now than stout ones, and all that can be done in the way of high sleeves and bunches of draper to give the waist a tapering effect is carried out to the utmost.”
De Broglie died on 5 November 1917 and Say donated Chateau de Chaumont to the government in 1938. She died a few years later in Paris on 15 July 1943. Today the château is a museum and every year a Garden Festival is held from April to October that allows contemporary garden designers to display their work in an English-style garden.
-  The Builder, v. 57 (London, 1889), p. 148–49.
-  T. J. Schaeper, France and America in the Revolutionary Era: The Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, 1725-1803 (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995), p. 24–25.
-  Ibid., p. 26.
-  É. Herriot, A. H. Ward and A. Hallard, Madame Récamier, from the French of Édouard Herriot, v. 1 (New York: W. Heinemann, 1906), p. 215.
-  G. L. Pringué, 30 ans de dîners en ville (Paris: Revue Adam, 1950), p. 251.
-  Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, “Paris Fashions,” November 16, 1881, p. 5.