The Paris Opéra: Charles Garnier’s Opulent Architectural Masterpiece
by Stephen Gjertson
Footnotes are inserted into the text within brackets.
Many are the architectural jewels of Paris. Notable among them are Notre Dame, Versailles and the Louvre. In a city of jewels however, there is none more dazzling than the Opéra Garnier, now more beautiful than ever after its meticulous restoration. Appraisals of the Paris Opéra have ranged from modernism’s charge that it is nothing more than a pastiche of past styles to Garnier’s own view that was a modern synthesis and development of past styles allied with present technology. Garnier designed the Opéra with knowledge, imagination and skill to perfectly fulfill both its aesthetic and functional requirements. It is an authentic expression of its time, a magnificent and resplendent union of architecture, ornament, sculpture and painting.
Jean-Louis-Charles Garnier was born of humble origins in the worst slum of Paris on November 6, 1825. By 1838 his father, a blacksmith, had completed his climb from poverty to the working class, opening a shop building and repairing small carriages. Garnier’s frail health prevented him from following in his father’s profession. In a time of basic ignorance, education was the best way to the middle class and his mother saw that he obtained a primary education. From 1838 through 1841 he attended the École de Dessin, first informally in the evenings while completing his primary education then, from mid-1839 onward, as a regular day student. There he studied the rudiments of applied design: mathematics, architecture, ornamental sculpture and design. In his final year he won the first grand prize in architectural drawing. The École de Dessin prepared Garnier for the École des Beaux-Arts. To enter the École he needed to enroll in the atelier of an architect who, as his patron, would present him to the school. He entered the studio of Jean-Arnould Leveil, took the entrance examinations and entered the École des Beaux-Arts in early 1842. Shortly thereafter, he transferred to the atelier of Louis-Hippolyte Lebas. Lebas proved to be an uninspiring teacher and Garnier learned more from his fellow students whose friendship, experience and advice were crucial to his development. He later claimed that fellow student Louis-Jules André was a “mentor and almost a professor” to him. Attendance at the many lectures was voluntary, and they gave no examinations. Continued enrollment and advancement depended on winning points in the various monthly competitions. In the yearly Prix de Rome competition, which took place from early March until the end of July, a select few earned a five year trip to the Villa Medici in Rome.
Garnier’s years at the École des Beaux-Arts followed a pattern similar to those at the École de Dessin. They were marked by careful but unexceptional study until the end. He participated in the preliminary Prix de Rome competitions in 1846, 1847 and 1848 and was admitted to the second of the three stages in 1846 and 1848. In 1848 he reached the final stage. The project for that year was “An arts and crafts school, with galleries for the exhibition of the products of industry.” Like many other students, his career at this time hung in the balance. If he failed, he would have to quit school and start earning a living. His mother favored his architectural career; his father preferred a more immediately lucrative trade. Garnier’s design reduced the complex program into a functionally clear and formally coherent plan. It won the competition. At the end of 1848 he traveled to Rome with two friends, who included Jules Thomas, Prix de Rome winner in sculpture. He studied for five years at the Academy in Rome where, in between work on the required envois, he traveled extensively studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. During this time he met and befriended a coterie of Prix de Rome winning artists and sculptors to whom he would later turn to decorate the Opéra. [Those studying at the Villa Medici while Garnier was in Rome, some of whom accompanied him on his travels, were the painters Félix-Joseph Barrias, Alexandre Cabanel, François-Nicolas Chifflart, Jules-Eugène Lenepveu, Gustave Boulanger, Paul Baudry, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau and the sculptors Eugène-Louis Lequesne, Eugène Guillaume, Jacques-Léonard Maillet, Jean-Joseph Perraud, Jules Thomas, Louis-Félix Chabaud, Alphonse-Charles Guméry, Gustave-Adolphe-Désiré Crauk and Alfred-Edouard LePère.] He rounded out his architectural education with a visit to Greece and Turkey in 1852. For his envoi that year he did an informed and beautiful reconstruction of the Greek Temple of Jupiter Panhellénien on the island of Aegina.
Garnier returned to Paris in 1854. His five years of artistic idealism at the Villa Medici were followed by eight years of mundane bureaucratic jobs, slowly advancing through a system in which he could expect to design an important public building only after laboring at various official posts for twenty years or more. Fortunately, his career began at the beginning of Napoleon III’s newly established Second Empire (1853-70) and the inauguration of the vast and ambitious rebuilding of Paris supervised by Baron Haussmann. Garnier received a few private commissions and then accepted several institutional posts including those of auditor, inspector and finally architect of the fifth and sixth municipal districts. He married in 1858.
The Opéra’s Competitions
Plans to build an opera house worthy of Paris had been in the works for almost one hundred years. Many architects had been involved, designs were made, and various buildings were used for theatrical performances, but incessant disputes had continually thwarted plans for a definitive Paris Opéra. In 1861 the new Minister of State, the Compte de Walewski, opened a public competition for the proposed New Opéra. The 170 contestants received a program containing the site description and schematic plans specifying the requirements for the building. The competition, which was unusual for a public project of this sort, was held in two phases. In the first phase Garnier’s design placed fifth out of seven chosen as finalists. The director of the Paris Opéra wrote an exhaustive fifty-eight page program detailing the requirements for the building. Garnier successfully transformed his design and it was unanimously awarded first place for its “. . . . rare and superior qualities in the beautiful and happy distribution of the plans, the monumental and characteristic aspect of the facades and sections.”
The Opéra’s Design
Underlying Garnier’s design of the Opéra are Beaux-Arts architectural principles and methods. French architects throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries developed and concretized these principles and they informed the teaching and projects given to the Prix de Rome students. These principles rested on two fundamental paradigms: the site surrounding the building and the building itself. The building must be successfully integrated with its location and it must successfully fulfill its intended function. The architect conceived a building as a three-dimensional unity achieved in practice through its floor plans (dividing the building into its separate functions), cross sections (organizing the spaces in the plan), and fully rendered exterior and interior elevations (developing the spaces into a unified, three-dimensional whole). The end result was the building’s expressive and emotional impact.
The Opéra is a masterfully designed and completely functional theater that brilliantly fulfilled its purpose, which was not only to present theatrical performances but, of equal importance, to receive a large and dazzling audience which included the Emperor and Empress. The basic plan of the Opéra is both simple and sensible, with excellent proportions. It consists of two clearly defined, easily accessible and practical sections: a forward section of public spaces and a rear section of theater spaces. In designing and decorating the various areas, Garnier ingeniously considered the activities, gender and station of persons within the area. The public space, designed to facilitate the natural progression of people through the building, is subdivided into several principal sections: the Grand Vestibule, which received people from both the pedestrian and carriage entrances (with a separate entrance for the Emperor); a flight of steps leads to the smaller Vestibule de Contrôle, where tickets were taken; from there you enter the huge Grand Staircase, which ushered everyone upward toward the Auditorium, and the Auditorium itself, surrounded by a wide corridor. During intermission, people could mingle in the Forward Foyer and the Grand Foyer, which is flanked by two Octagonal Salons and Small Salons, go out into the Facade Loggia for fresh air, the Fumoir to smoke or the Glacier for refreshments. The theater space is subdivided into the stage and posterior administration sections. The building occupies a roughly diamond-shaped plaza at the end of the Avenue de l’Opéra and is designed so effectively that it looks as if it, the streets and the square were created in harmony by one architect.
Building the new Opéra was a huge and well-coordinated undertaking. To oversee the project Garnier organized the Opéra Agence, staffed primarily by students from the École des Beaux-Arts, guaranteeing assistants who were sympathetic to Garnier’s understanding of architecture. During the course of the project Garnier and the Agence personnel produced over 15,600 drawings delineating both the compositional and decorative, and the structural and technical elements. Construction began in 1861 and was substantially completed by the end of 1874. Approximately two hundred photographs document the construction.
The Artistic Decoration
In the Opéra, Garnier hoped to create a new French school of collaborative decoration where architecture, painting and sculpture formed an integrated and harmonious whole. His precedent for such integration in 19th century France were the Salon Carré and the Salle des Sept Cheminées in the Louvre, designed by Félix Duban, where the arts are united to form a lavish and homogenous experience. To achieve this goal in the Opéra Garnier turned first to former pensioners of the French Academy in Rome. He knew these artists and sculptors; many were his close friends. Like him, they had studied and admired the collective artistic collaborations of the past, particularly those they had seen in Italy. Their similar training, ideals, knowledge of the past and skill were in harmony with his own and he could trust them to enthusiastically and successfully integrate their work with his. Of the fifteen painters commissioned to decorate the Opéra, six had won the Prix de Rome. To these artists Garnier entrusted the most significant decorative programs. [The Prix de Rome winners in painting were: Isidore-Alexandre Pils (1838), ceiling of the Grand Staircase; Félix-Joseph Barrias (1844), ceiling and tympana of the west Octagonal Salon; Jules-Eugène Lenepveu (1847), ceiling of the Auditorium; Gustave Boulanger (1849), the Foyer of the Dance wall panels; Paul Baudry (1850), the Grand Foyer; and Jules-Élie Delaunay (1856), ceiling and tympana of the east Octagonal Salon. Garnier offered commissions to three other winners who turned him down: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel and François-Nicolas Chifflart.] Of the seventy-five sculptors who worked on the Opéra, twenty-four had won the grand prize. The size and scope of the project necessitated more painters and sculptors than had studied in Rome and Garnier commissioned many other notable artists. The scheme required more sculpture than painting so the sculptors greatly outnumbered the painters.
Garnier conceived the Opéra in the spirit of the Renaissance that, to him, formed a single maturing tradition from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Within the context of his own times, he wanted to create a modern synthesis and development of the forms of classicism and romanticism, all operating within the boundaries of the rich Beaux-Arts tradition of which he and his fellows were a part. He felt unconstrained to follow strict classical forms and had the freedom to modify, adapt, embellish or invent as necessary to achieve the effect he desired. He elucidated the spirit of this creative collaboration as follows: “. . . there is, concerning the Opéra, a point on which all minds must agree: that is the role that pictorial and sculptural decoration plays in a monument. . . . Everyone, I believe, will recognize that one must not in this case consider the paintings and sculptures as personal works that can be isolated to form a complete whole. . . . when they occupy the place assigned to them in the building, they lose a part of their individual character, to constitute only true decoration . . . it contributes to the harmony of the building, it completes the building, of which it forms from that moment an integral part . . .”
Garnier explains further: “In order that the artists may discover the desired harmony, they must necessarily study conscientiously and with will the placement that their works must occupy; they must let the color, the form and the general disposition of the surroundings penetrate their eyes and their spirit; they must, in a word, identify with the architecture of which they will make a part, because their work, to be perfectly decorative, must have collective virtues. . . they must become in this case quasi-architects themselves.” The artists and sculptors were free to develop individually expressive designs as long as the painters executed their assigned subjects with lines, values and colors in harmony with the surrounding architecture and the sculptors executed the subjects assigned to them in the appropriate medium within the dimensional silhouette that harmonized in size and shape with its architectural setting.
The Opéra’s sculpture is of two kinds: ornamental—the almost immeasurable amount of bands, brackets, capitals, cartouches, consols, corbels, cornices, festoons, friezes, keystones, mouldings, pilasters, soffits and so forth that adorn the walls and ceilings; and statuary—either free standing or some form of bas or high-relief (there are, for example, 68 portrait busts on display in the Opéra’s public spaces). Garnier’s control over the ornamental sculptors was complete. They executed models and final products after his precise designs. The exception was his friend from the Villa Medici, Louis-Félix Chabaud, who began working on the Opéra in 1865 and became virtually a member of the architectural agency. In addition to the sculptures that Chabaud executed for the Opéra’s exterior, Garnier set him apart from the other sculptors and entrusted him with many of the important interior decorative elements that required a sure sense of form and a feeling for composition.
The artists and sculptors were free, within Garnier’s stipulated requirements, to create works of their own design. Garnier commissioned each sculptor to do particular works, specifying the material and theme. Except for portraits, the themes were somewhat flexible and could be finalized in consultation with the artist. He gave them measured silhouette drawings in profile and full face. The sculptors then designed their work within these dimensions and submitted sketches and a plaster maquette to Garnier for approval. He wanted the work to have a fine silhouette and to harmonize with the setting in material, line and mass. The parts must heighten and enliven the whole. When approved, the sculptor executed the full-sized work or works in either the required medium or a model that went to foundries to be cast in bronze or galvanoplasty.
Primary Decorative Schemes
Garnier designed the exterior of the Opéra as lavishly as the interior. The entrance for the Emperor, on the south side, was flanked with splendid caryatids by Elias Robert and crowned with a magnificent, royal eagle. Twenty-two female figures in bronze by Louis-Félix Chabaud adorn the perimeter balustrade. They hold aloft lamps representing in alternation the morning and evening stars.
Sculpture plays a crucial role in the effect of the exterior of the building when viewed from every angle. The shapes made by the free standing sculptural groups enhance and animate the building’s outside contour. The interior of the facade is enlivened by the outside shapes and the patterns created by light and shadow on the bas-reliefs of the upper and lower sections. Gilded busts of seven important composers fill the oculii above the loggia balcony openings and bas-reliefs depicting Architecture and Industry by Jean-Claude Petit and Painting and Sculpture by Théodore-Charles Gruyère adorn the pediments above the outer bays. The perimeter of the attic summit is decorated with smiling and frowning gilded grotesque masks. On the frieze below, above the two large columns between the loggia openings, are four groups of high-relief figures by Jacques-Léonard Maillet. Separating them, above the loggia oculii, are five roundels with figures on each side.
On the left and right side of the facade attic are two corresponding groups representing Harmony and Poetry by Charles-Alphonse-Achille Guméry. These groups, consisting of a main figure and two smaller Fames, were gilded during the recent restoration and they make splendid, scintillating shapes against the blue of the sky and the newly cleaned white stone of the facade. When viewed from the front, at a proper distance, one may see the flytower above the Opéra’s stage rising behind the Auditorium dome. On the two corners are magnificent bronze sculptures of Fame Holding Pegasus by the Bridle by Eugène-Louis Lequesne. At the apex of the flytower is a group of three figures by Aimé Millet, Apollo, Poetry and Music. On the four arcade piers between the five central arches are single figures representing various forms of music (The Idyll, The Cantata, The Song and Drama). Above them are relief medallions containing the profile of four great composers. The combination of architecture (white, colored stone and various marbles) and sculpture (gilded, partially gilt, stone and bronze) forms a unified, harmonious and picturesque effect.
Carpeaux’s The Dance
Undoubtedly, the most well-known piece of sculpture associated with the Opéra is The Dance by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Carpeaux won the Prix de Rome for sculpture in 1854. While in Rome he closely studied the sculpture of Michelangelo, whom he greatly admired. He was a precocious student and disliked the constraints imposed by the yearly envois. Inspired by Michelangelo, his final envois was the powerful Ugolino and His Sons, a work that helped to launch his official career. In 1865 Garnier commissioned him to sculpt one of the monumental groups for the facade of the Opéra. Before he knew the subject, Carpeaux executed a plaster maquette, which Garnier rejected as inappropriately designed for its location. Armed with the correct subject, he restructured the work and created a model that Garnier accepted.
The Dance is on the left side of the right outer bay on the Opéra’s facade, one of four sculptural groups that frame the two arches on the outer bays. Garnier stipulated that the groups be a triad composed around a central axis, a specification followed with precision in the groups of idealized figures by Eugène Guillaume, François Jouffroy and Jean-Joseph Perraud. The group by Carpeaux was not as precise, although his figures swirl around a central axis. His highly animated central figure is surrounded by six dancing figures that are clearly more natural in drawing than those in the other three groups. The ensemble, although it appropriately expresses the theme, is rendered less stable than the other groups by the figures in the rear and by the outside shape, which is oval rather than triangular.
Garnier unveiled the facade sculptures in July, 1869 and The Dance caused an immediate public outcry. People accused the work of indecency and poor taste. The naturalism of the drawing and modeling made the girls look too much like ordinary people. Idealized figures were nude; natural figures were naked. To make matters worse, the female figures had no drapery. An outraged viewer threw a bottle of ink at the group, defacing the figures on the left. More knowledgeable critics said that it clashed with the other groups and destroyed the harmony of the facade. Garnier was caught in the middle. He had accepted both the original maquette and the completed sculpture with no objections, yet he was now under extreme pressure from the public and from state officials to have the sculpture removed and replaced. Carpeaux refused to sculpt another group and a state official commissioned a new one from Guméry.
The fall of the Second Empire in September of 1870 stopped work on the Opéra and Guméry died of tuberculosis during the siege of Paris. Afterward, officials made several unsuccessful attempts to replace Carpeaux’s group. The controversy dragged on, was eventually lost in the shuffle and died out. The sculpture remained in place. In 1964, to protect it from air pollution, the group was replaced with a copy. The original is now in the Musée d’Orsay. Carpeaux took advantage of the notoriety caused by the sculpture and produced small busts, individual figures and groups from it. His atelier sold them both before and after his untimely death from cancer in 1875.
The Grand Vestibule
The interior of the Opéra is profusely adorned with sculpture, both decorative and free standing. There are over 75 portrait busts throughout the building and the decorative sculptures are almost innumerable. Between the columns on the walls of The Grand Vestibule (the entrance in use today) are full-length, seated sculptures in marble of Gluck, Handel, Rameau and Lulli. On the lower level, at the end of the corridor connecting the season ticket vestibule to the stairs leading up to the Grand Staircase is the Pythia niche, containing a bronze sculpture of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi by the Duchesse de Castiglione-Colonna.
The Grand Staircase
The Grand Staircase is the compositional heart of the Opéra. All traffic is channeled through the various vestibules and hallways into the majestic stairwell. Theatergoers must ascend the staircase to enter the Auditorium, and Garnier designed the stairs and surrounding cage of pillars and balconies as a major architectural and decorative statement that would “contribute to the general beauty of the building”. On the bottom pedestal of the Grand Staircase railings are radiant, polished copper figures by Albert-Ernest-Carrier-Belleuse. They hold aloft lamps and are crowned with a wreath of lights.
On the landing above and beyond Belleuse’s torchères is the Portal of the Caryatids by Jules Thomas. The exquisite figures, representing Tragedy and Comedy, are executed in six types of colored marble. Garnier wanted polychromatic statues dynamic enough to command the space in the center of the Grand Staircase. Thomas submitted several designs before he satisfied the rather strict demands of Garnier. Thomas wanted to use white marble, but Garnier was adamant. In the stairwell, the surrounding architecture and ornament necessitated stronger color and contrasting values in the sculpture. The final result is indeed striking, a harmonious combination of line, color and values that is integrated with its environment yet inexorably draws the eye toward the doorway to the orchestra stalls. Garnier, with his study of the polychromed sculpture of the Greeks, which he had explored in his Aegina restoration envois, was fascinated by the power and beauty of color and made bold use of colored marbles and polychromed sculptures in the Opéra, resulting in one of the most famous examples of architectural polychromy in 19th century France.
Garnier originally wanted Alexandre Cabanel to paint the large, coved ceiling surrounding the skylight above the staircase. Cabanel’s Rococo-like decorations in the Tuilleries and Louvre were beautiful in pattern and color, well-suited to the lightness of effect necessary in the open stairwell. Garnier was disappointed when Cabanel declined the commission and was reluctantly forced by the state to replace him with the military painter Isidore-Alexandre Pils. Pils, born in 1813, was older than many of the artists engaged in the Opéra. He was a fine military painter, but Garnier felt that his painting lacked “ . . . the coloristic distinction of Baudry, the compositional breadth of Lenepveu, the characteristic design of Boulanger . . .” that was necessary for decorative work.
Nevertheless, Pils had the job, and by 1866 he had begun the cartoons. The ceiling required four large, identically-shaped panels. The subjects, such as The Triumph of Apollo, The Enchantment of Music Deploying its Charms, Minerva Fighting Brutality Watched by the Gods of Olympus and the rather self-serving The City of Paris Receiving the Plan of the New Opéra were complex, filled with figures, horses and exotic animals. By 1868 he had painted only one of the four panels. In 1874, though hampered by ill health, he hoped to finish the remaining two panels by the end of July. In September, 1874 two panels had been mounted. The process was complex. The paintings, like those of the other artists, were executed in the studio, where it was impossible to fully judge the effect they would have after installation on the ceiling. When completed to the artist’s satisfaction, workers erected scaffolds, attached the paintings to the walls or ceiling, then removed the scaffold to properly view the work. The scaffold was re-erected if the artist needed to make any in situ adjustments. In the case of Pils’ Grand Staircase paintings, adjustments were necessary. Garnier considered them “. . . too violent, too harsh, too intense . . .”
Pils and his two assistants, one of whom was Georges-Jules-Victor Clairin, spent eight days modifying large sections of the works. Because the four paintings are essentially viewed as a single unit from below, they are similar in design and patterning, a central group flanked by groups of figures on each side, all seen against a light sky. The result was astounding and pleased Garnier, who praised them enthusiastically: “It is warm painting, which envelopes you . . . and harmonizes marvelously with the marbles and stone of the stairs. . . . In this great ensemble, where the importance of the color dominates the whole, where the composition and design, in spite of their merit or rather because of their particular merit, tend to disappear in leaving the supreme place to conventional coloration, one finds again the breadth of the decorators of the Renaissance and the breadth of execution of a Velásquez and a Rubens.”
The Forward Foyer
The Forward Foyer overlooks the Grand Staircase before one enters the Grand Foyer toward the front of the building. Garnier initially intended the tympana and vaults of this large room to be painted by five artists, including William A. Bouguereau and François-Nicolas Chifflart. Bouguereau, a Prix de Rome winner the same year as Paul Baudry, declined the invitation. Chifflart declined as well. Eventually, all of the decorative work there was executed in mosaic by Venetian mosaicists. Salviati did the figurative work after cartoons by Paul-Alfred de Curzon, one of the five originally designated artists and a good friend and traveling companion of Garnier’s from the Villa Medici. Although Curzon did not receive the official commission until 1870, Garnier asked him to begin the cartoons in 1868. Facchina did the elaborate decorative work. The Forward Foyer reflects Garnier’s passionate interest in mosaic. An inscription in the ceiling states: “Decorative mosaic has been applied for the first time in France for the ornamentation of this vault and the popularization of this art.” He abandoned his initial idea to decorate the Auditorium ceiling in mosaic as too costly, but he used mosaic here, on the flytower “ox-eye” and the ceiling of the Facade Loggia.
The Opéra’s Auditorium seats about 2,000 people. Four tiers of balconies surround the ground floor, culminating in elaborate forward boxes to the left and right of the stage, with their sculptured caryatids by Gustave-Adolphe-Désiré Crauk and Alfred Édouard Lepère. The coloration is muted gold, set off by the red theater boxes and seats with an occasional balancing accent of muted green on the cartouches decorating the front of the loges. Garnier intended the color of the Auditorium to tastefully set off the dress and appearance of fashionable ladies and to prepare the audience for the performance, putting them in a proper mood for the music and dance to follow.
The large, circular painting on the ceiling provided a decorative canopy over the lavish, guilded architecture and ornament of the Auditorium. Garnier gave this important decoration, The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night, to his friend from Rome, Jules-Eugène Lenepveu. After six tries, Lenepveu had won the Prix de Rome in 1847 with his dynamic depiction of the Death of Vitellius. In 1872 he was appointed director of the Academy of France in Rome.
When Garnier had relinquished the idea of mosaic for the ceiling he changed the plan to fresco. The medium was then changed to oil because the law required an incombustible ceiling, a condition ingeniously met by using twenty-four copper panels affixed to an iron armature. The panels were removable and Lenepveu painted the ceiling in a studio at the Opéra, located beneath the outer Auditorium dome. Lenepveu submitted his color study for approval in 1865, shortly after receiving the commission, but he was unable to begin his work on the actual panels until they arrived at his studio in January 1873. Painting in oil mixed with a little wax (to limit the effect of the gas from the chandelier) he made rapid progress and the panels were ready to install in April of 1874.
Lenepveu’s romantic, “whirlwind” composition is filled with felicitous figures flying through the heavens, reminiscent of those by many 17th and 18th century Italian and German decorators, such as Andrea Pozzo and Matthaüs Gunther. Garnier did not want the color of the Auditorium or the ceiling to be overly bright, which he felt would be indiscreet in such a setting, so Lenepveu used restraint in his harmonies. The golden sun influences the color on one side and the cool moon influences it on the other. Garnier felt that the painting brought together “all the allegories that bear some kind of relation to the place’s function.” Hanging from the center, beneath the painted ceiling, was an immense crystal chandelier weighing more than eight tons.
[In 1960, to focus attention on the then neglected building, André Malraux, the French minister of culture under Charles de Gaulle, commissioned Marc Chagall to paint a new work for the ceiling of the Auditorium. The work by Chagall, installed in 1964, hides the painting originally done for that location by Lenepveu, although the Lenepveu still exists behind it. As one might expect, the ceiling by Chagall is opposed to the entire Beaux-Arts project as designed and supervised by Garnier. It is completely out of harmony with the architecture and ornament of the Opéra and the other 19th century decorations that embellish it, all of which were commissioned and approved by the architect. As a whole, or in part, the Chagall ceiling exhibits none of the qualities considered essential in a work of art by Garnier and the artists with whom he worked. The simplistic and garish color, a crucial element to Garnier, is out of harmony with the Auditorium decor. This disrespect for Garnier’s conception of the Opéra, where the architecture and decorations form an integrated and harmonious whole, was a symptom of the 1960s, when the anachronistic juxtaposition provided an obvious and highly visible way to mock the tradition represented so forcefully by the Opéra—a tradition against which many at the time rebelled. After the costly and long overdue restoration of the Opéra, one can only hope that the Chagall will someday be removed and the Lenepveu will be cleaned. This will restore the integrity and beauty of the Auditorium and regain the harmony and unity of the Opéra as conceived by Garnier.]
The Grand Foyer
The Grand Foyer comprised the largest and most complex decorative program in the Opéra’s interior. Like the rest of the Opéra, it is Garnier’s personal synthesis of all past styles. The walls are alive with gleaming, gold ornamental sculpture and the flat ceiling contains a large, rectangular panel flanked by oval panels at each end. These are surrounded by a cove containing twenty irregularly shaped panels, nine on the sides and one on each end. On the walls beneath, above each of the ten doorways, are painted oval medallions personifying the music of various countries and ethnic groups. Atop each of the twenty columns between the ten doors, separating the medallions, are sculptured figures personifying The Qualities Required by Artists. The foyer was the most prominent gathering place for promenading spectators during intermissions. Garnier entrusted the paintings to his old friend from the Villa Medici, Paul Baudry.
Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry was one of the most brilliant artists of his time. He had won the Prix de Rome at the young age of twenty-two. In Italy he fell under the spell of the great Renaissance masters, particularly Titian and Correggio and, above all, Raphael. He returned to Paris and painted some of the finest portraits and nudes of his day. His insightful portrait of Garnier, painted in 1868, seven years into the Opéra’s construction, shows the architect sitting rather awkwardly on his drafting table, pausing to reflect in the midst of work, his fine-boned face surrounded by unruly black curls. Unfortunately, like his paintings in the Opéra, it needs to be cleaned.
When Baudry learned that Garnier wanted him to decorate the foyer of the new Opéra, he realized immediately that the enormity of the project required a vast amount of expertise and knowledge about which he still felt unsure. His portraits and easel paintings, with their impeccable enameled surface, were meant to be viewed from a normal distance. The paintings in the Opéra would be seen from a distance of forty-two to almost sixty feet, necessitating a broader way of composing and painting for which he felt unprepared. To equip himself for the Herculean task he closed his studio in the spring of 1864, renounced the material advantages of Paris and returned to the Villa Medici in Rome, where the director, Victor Schnetz, gave him the Turkish Room. There, as in his student years, he entered into serious study. He painted eleven full-sized copies of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, studied Raphael’s Vatican frescoes, the decorations of the Carracci in the Farnese Gallery and made many preparatory drawings for the Opéra.
Baudry returned to Paris in August of 1865, signed his contract with Garnier, and threw himself into his work with monumental dedication. Inspired by the frescoes and Sibyls of Michelangelo, Baudry asked Garnier to modify the ornamental decoration of the foyer to accommodate paintings (eventually the eight Muses) above the pillars between the doors and to reduce the size of the vertical partitions between the ceiling paintings, expanding their size. Garnier rightly felt that this would decrease the general architectural unity between the walls and the vault, but the sincerity and enthusiasm of his friend led him to “give up a part of this general unity to make way for the painters.”
By the end of 1866 Baudry had completed all of his preparatory sketches and cartoons as well as one cove ceiling panel and all ten medallions. The often overlooked medallions are delightful, beautifully designed ovals of nude genii against and azure sky. In the evenings during the winter of 1867-68 he prepared small-scale panels of Raphael’s tapestry cartoons of the Acts of the Apostles in the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). By June of 1868 he had completed the ten side panels. In July he went to London and carefully copied Raphael’s famous works. Back in Paris, he began working on the two large end panels, Parnassus and The Civilizing Poets.
In 1869 Baudry sketched out his plans for the three remaining ceiling panels. In April of 1870, before beginning the final phase of the project, he returned to Rome, where the new director of the Villa Medici, Ernest Hébert, met him with enthusiasm and gave him the Turkish Room once again. In June Baudry traveled to Venice to study Veronese and the Venetian decorators. This study proved to be critical, for the three ceiling panels are the crowning jewels of the Grand Foyer. Despite their obvious merit, several of the decorations for the cove are treated like huge easel paintings and lack the unity of color and pattern necessary to harmonize them into an integrated whole. Unsure of his ability, Baudry was learning as he went along. By the time he got to the actual ceiling he had assimilated the lessons of the Venetians and created three vibrant and exuberant paintings that are perfectly unified in scale and pattern. His color is vivid, his drawing is sure and his handling is broad and painterly. The cove panels are tied to the earth; the ceiling panels are opened to the heavens.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July, Baudry returned to Paris and, like many other artists, shouldered a rifle and did his part in the heroic defense of the city. After the insurrection and suppression of the Commune he moved into a studio in the attic space over the Opéra’s west Secondary Staircase, where he painted the three ceiling panels and the eight Muses. At last, in July of 1874 he was putting the final touches on the paintings.
Baudry’s years studying decorative art paid off, particularly in the three ceiling panels and the Muses. He was able to temper his sophisticated 19th century academic naturalism with a broader and more decorative stylization of the figures and a lighter and joyous color palette in harmony with Garnier’s glittering and richly ornamented architecture. Although he was influenced by and drew inspiration and encouragement from many painters of the past, he created a decorative art that was distinctly his own, an art that would reach its apex several years later in The Glorification of the Law, his ceiling decoration for the Palais du Justice. In August and September of 1874, before installing his paintings in the Opéra, Baudry exhibited (at his own expense) the 371-square-meter cycle of thirty-three panels in the Salle Melpomène at the École des Beaux-Arts. They excited great public interest and universal acclaim. The paintings returned to the Opéra on October 15, when the immense task of mounting them and the Grand Foyer chandeliers began.
The work of Baudry amply justified Garnier’s aim to create an artistically expressive and harmoniously unified combination of the arts. The American muralist Kenyon Cox lauded Baudry’s accomplishment: “In size alone the series of paintings in the Opéra forms perhaps the most colossal scheme of decoration carried out by one man since the great days of Italian art, but it is the high intellectual and artistic character of the work that most concerns us. Baudry’s color is always pleasing . . . . Of decorative design on a monumental scale he is more nearly the master than Ingres or than any of the moderns. In the nice balance of his filled and empty spaces, the elegance of his silhouettes, the binding and weaving of lovely lines, he is unfailingly felicitous. His pattern is always perfect, and it is always perfectly related to its surroundings and perfectly expressive of the sentiment of the subject in hand. No one has composed better since Raphael and Veronese . . . . As to Baudry’s drawing, he was . . . a master draftsman, every line being full of knowledge and intelligence, of elegance, and of that clarified expressiveness which we call style. In the great single figures of the Muses there is a much softened reminiscence of his studies of Michelangelo, but in general his types are more like Raphael’s though with a crisper and more nervous accentuation of the bony structure . . . .”
The French were no less lavish in their praise. Wrote René Ménard in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts: “We have seen all the grand decorative paintings executed in Europe since the beginning of this century, and we experience a sort of patriotic pride in thinking that none can bear a comparison to the Foyer of the Opéra. A country which, after so many misfortunes, can still produce such works, has no right to despair about the future, for if art is not a force in itself, it is assuredly a decisive expression of the vitality and intelligence of a nation. The French school will count henceforth one more glory: M. Baudry comes to take the first place among contemporary painters, and a high rank among the masters of all times.”
The American painter, Will Low, devotes considerable space to Baudry’s life and art in his book A Painter’s Progress. He rightly observes that in its setting the Opéra ceiling “appears confused in parts, and lacking in the definition of its pattern as a whole; . . . This may be due in measure to the height at which the works are seen, and even more to their shape and framing”. The Civilizing Poets, in particular, lacks sufficient patterning of values to clarify its complex jumble of figures. Like the Pils, this was due in part to the fact that they were not painted in situ and the artist made no adjustments after their installation. Nevertheless, Cox sums up Baudry’s achievement by calling them “one of the greatest and most successful schemes of architectural decoration in existence, perfectly suited to their surroundings and entirely in harmony with the uses of the building.”
Some people suggested that copies of Baudry’s paintings be installed on the ceiling to protect the originals from the heat and dirty fumes of the gaslights below them. In 1881, after experimenting with the possibility, Garnier replaced the gaslights in the Opéra with electric lights and gave the Baudrys their first cleaning. During the 20th century, misguided “restorers” covered them and the other foyer paintings—already very dirty—with a thick varnish colored with yellow ochre, a symptom of the destructive and ignorant modernist aesthetic. The Baudry’s were carefully cleaned during the recent restoration of the Opéra and they look immeasurably better than they did when I viewed them in 1974. Orpheus and the Maenads, however, looks over-cleaned, especially in the background. Nevertheless, as a whole they have regained much of their magnificence and we are once again able to see them as they appeared to an adoring public at the inauguration of the Opéra on Thursday evening, January 5, 1875, when they were hailed as the finest decorations of their time.
The Octagonal Salons
The two Octagonal Salons flank the Grand Foyer, extending and animating the effect of the larger room. Garnier had originally intended that Félix-Joseph Barrias and Jean-Léon Gérôme paint the ceilings and tympana of these salons. Gérôme declined the commission and Garnier turned to Jules-Élie Delaunay, who was perhaps a more felicitous choice for decorative work. Barrias decorated the west salon; Delaunay decorated the east. Barrias was a distinguished and serious painter, a Prix de Rome winner in 1844. His works exhibit a warmth and charm that reflects his study of the Italian decorators. In the tympanum depicting Rustic Music he created a graceful and happy idyll. The drawing is strong and poetic and the color and decorative effect are fine. One wishes, however, that Barrias had scaled his figures in all of the panels slightly larger, to correspond with those by Delaunay, which better fill their allotted space. Garnier was pleased with their work and stated that it was among the best in the Opéra.
Next to the Octagonal Salons, on the outside of the building behind the fireplaces, are the Small Salons, tranquil rooms away from the clamorous crowd in which guests could engage in conversation. Their ceilings are less successful than the rest and now appear to be over-cleaned. They contain single figures painted by Georges-Jules-Victor Clairin.
The Glacier and Fumoir
Two areas on opposite sides of the Opéra were left unfinished after the inauguration of the building, notably the Glacier (the gallery designed for sorbets and refreshments) and the Fumoir, (smoking lounge). On the east side, the rectangular gallery of ice, which was linked to the Grand Foyer, housed the bar and was decorated with rich, sonorous tapestries representing the months of the year. The round Glacier proper was decorated with eight light and colorful tapestries manufactured in 1873 and 74 by the Gobelins, after cartoons by Alexis-Joseph Mazerolle, representing types of food and drink. The Glacier restaurant, intended for season ticket holders who wanted to eat before a performance, was never installed. In 1889, Georges-Jules-Victor Clairin decorated the ceiling of the Glacier with a high-keyed and airy painting of a bacchanal. The gallery and salon on the west side of the building intended as the Fumoir became a museum and library. Small circular salons acted as entrance vestibules connecting the Glacier and Fumoir to the Forward Foyer. Just before the Opéra’s inauguration Auguste Rubé decorated the rotundas of these salons—the Salons of the Moon and the Sun—with motives of ice (cold, for the sorbet room) and fire (heat, for the smoking room). Unfortunately, to Garnier’s frustration, Rubé mistakenly reversed the schemes.
The Foyer of the Dance
Ballet was a mandatory part of French opera and every opera had to include one or more dance segments. In the Foyer of the Dance, with its huge mirror on the end wall, the ballerinas mingled with guests after a performance. The room spans the back of the building on the same floor as the Forward and Grand Foyers. It is not open to the public. Architecturally, this was considered by some to be the least successful of the Opéra’s rooms. Nevertheless, Garnier defended his design as appropriate for the use of the space. It was decorated with sculptures by Félix Chabaud and four large paintings by Gustave Boulanger depicting amorous, bacchic, martial and rustic dance. In oval medallions set within the elaborately decorated cove beneath the ceiling Boulanger painted portraits of twenty famous dancers from throughout the Paris Opéra’s history. Gustave-Clarence-Rodolphe Boulanger won the Prix de Rome in 1849. He went on to paint Neo-Classical genre and Orientalist subjects. His figures are massive and robust in style bordering, in some paintings, on caricature. Boulanger was one of the first painters to finish his work at the Opéra. By 1868 he had completed his four panels. They were ready for mounting in September, 1874.
Like Carpeaux’s sculpture on the same theme, Boulanger’s paintings of the dance elicited a storm of protest when they were first exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts before installation in the Opéra. They were hung side by side and lost their individual identity, becoming an assemblage of cavorting nudes that offended some people and brought accusations of vice and debauchery against the project. They narrowly escaped being burned. Of particular merit is Martial Dance. In a scenario similar to Carpeaux’s The Dance, two Greek soldiers circle around a heroic central figure with upraised shield in a barbaric pyrrhic dance.
A Monumental Legacy
Garnier’s career after the Opéra was filled with both architectural and bureaucratic activity, but the Opéra will remain his principal legacy, as the finest and most exuberant expression of the Beaux-Arts architectural and decorative tradition. Garnier died on August 3, 1898 following two strokes. His funeral was attended by the most important people of his day and filled with solemn pomp, befitting a man of his accomplishments. He was buried in a simple family grave, bearing witness to his humble origins.
Garnier believed that architectural technology was the scientific means to an artistic end. The artistic end was the impression the architectural ensemble made on the hearts and minds of the cultured audience for whom it was created. In the interest of art he methodically concealed the technology behind a magnificent veil of fine limestone, multi-colored marble, gilded stucco and bronze, colorful mosaics, rich tapestries and sumptuous paintings. His conception of art and architecture as collaborators creating a unified and harmonious whole was triumphantly achieved in the Opéra. It took fourteen years of Garnier’s life to complete. Paul Baudry spent ten years preparing for and executing his decorations in the Grand Foyer. The result was one of the most beautiful buildings created in the 19th century, a lasting tribute to the incomparably rich and varied Beaux-Arts tradition and a theater worthy of the city to which it belonged.
In the mid 1990s, the French government began a twelve-year project to completely restore the Opéra Garnier. The theatre was restored and modernized in 1995. In 2000 they unveiled the cleaned and restored facade. In May, 2003 the Grand Foyer reopened after a complete renovation and restoration that included the paintings, floors, mirrors, statuary, ornament, chandeliers, marble and drapery. The final phase focussed on the building’s perimeter, including lamposts, stairs, lateral facades and cupola. The entire project was completed by 2007.
Cox, Kenyon, Concerning Painting, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1917.
Fontaine, Gérard, Charles Garnier’s Opéra: Architecture and Exterior Decor, Centre des monuments nationaux, Éditions du Patrimoine, Paris, 2000.
Fontaine, Gérard, Charles Garnier’s Opéra: Architecture and Interior Decor, Centre des monuments nationaux Monum, Éditions du Patrimoine, Paris, 2004.
Garnier, Charles, Le Nouvel Opéra de Paris, (2 volumes), Paris, 1878-81, with 6 folios containing plates of the art and architecture, 1876-80.
Low, Will H., A Painter’s Progress, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1910.
Mead, Christopher Curtis, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra: Architectural Empathy and the Renaissance of French Classicism, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.
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