Portrait of Sophie Blanchard, Famous 19th Century Female Balloonist
On the night of July 6, 1819, Marie-Madeleine-Sophie Armand Blanchard stepped into her hot air balloon one last time. Blanchard, a renowned balloonist noted for her performances above Tivoli Garden in Paris, gathered to ascend before a crowd eager to see her display. Blanchard was noted for her spectacular show; a true performer, she did not merely ascend into the air in her custom-built balloon—replete with the small, gondola-shaped silver car pictured here—but also launched fireworks from her balloon.
An account published about 60 years after that July night gives a sense of Blanchard’s show:
In addition to the Bengal lights and golden rain which were suspended beneath her balloon, she carried, in her car, along with torch to light them, a second lot of fireworks attached to a parachute. There was a flourish of music, a blaze of fireworks, and Sophie Blanchard arose in a glory.
The show must have been thrilling for audiences at Tivoli. In addition to Blanchard’s celebrity—between 1812-19, she was the most famous balloonist in Europe—her ascensions over the Parisian garden were otherworldly. “I imagined myself in fairyland,” an audience member said after witnessing one of her shows.
But it was that commitment to pure spectacle that ultimately led to Blanchard’s final performance, when a hydrogen-filled balloon and fireworks proved a deadly mix for the pioneering aeronaut. That July night, Blanchard’s balloon caught fire and, though she had escaped numerous mishaps in the past, this mistake proved inescapable. The audience watched as Blanchard’s balloon was engulfed in flames and plummeted through the night sky until it crashed on the roof of 15 Rue de Provence. Blanchard fell from her signature gondola and died after tumbling from roof to ground.
As Atlas Obscura notes, Blanchard’s misfortune was also the death of “balloon-mania,” a fad that had swept through Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Blanchard was one of the many women who contributed to early aeronautics and, like most, she entered the field through her husband, pioneering balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Her own fame, however, outstripped her husband’s, whom she outlived (he too had fallen from his balloon, though not in such a memorable fashion). Sometime after her husband's death, she was even appointed the official aeronaut of France by Napoleon, an honor that was continued under Louis XVIII’s Restoration monarchy.
This print of Blanchard owned by the Library of Congress is one of many produced during her lifetime, indicating her celebrity. Dated August 15, 1811, it commemorates a flight over Milan, Italy. The image, despite its incongruous rendering of Blanchard’s head and body, gives a sense of the balloonist’s memorable performances. She stands in her gondola-shaped basket wearing a feathered hat and empire waist dress, carrying a flag in one hand while the other holds the ropes attaching gondola and balloon.
This particular print is part of the library’s Tissandier Collection. Named for balloonist brothers Gaston and Albert Tissandier, the collection holds 975 objects documenting early aeronautics across Europe. Among its sizable holdings the Tissandier Archive includes images of famous balloonists like Blanchard, as well as illustrations of fanciful, and, thankfully never built, designs for flying machines—like this flying machine designed by Swiss watchmaker Jakob Degen in the early 19th century. Though this image of Madame Blanchard lives in Washington, D.C., she herself rests at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, her grave marked by a “humble mausoleum.”