Charles Garnier (architect)

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Jean-Louis Charles Garnier

Charles Garnier by Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon, circa 1870s
Born 6 November 1825
Died 3 August 1898 (aged 72)
Nationality French
Awards Prix de Rome – 1848
Buildings Palais Garnier (Paris Opéra)
Opéra de Monte-Carlo

The Palais Garnier in winter.

The Casino de Monte-Carlo

Charles Garnier (pronounced: [ʃaʁl gaʁnje]) (6 November 1825 – 3 August 1898) was a French architect, perhaps best known as the architect of the Palais Garnier and the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.



Early life

Charles Garnier was born Jean-Louis Charles Garnier on 6 November 1825, in Paris, France, on the Rue Mouffetard, which is in the present day 5th arrondissement. His father was originally from Sarthe, and had worked as a blacksmith, wheelwright, and coachbuilder before settling down in Paris to work in a horse-drawn carriage rental business. He married Felicia Colle, daughter of a captain in the French Army.

Later in life, Garnier would all but ignore the fact that he was born of humble origins, preferring to claim Sartre as his birthplace.


Garnier became an apprentice of Louis-Hippolyte Lebas, and after that a full-time student of the École royale des Beaux-Arts de Paris, beginning during 1842. He obtained the Premier Grand Prix de Rome in 1848, at age twenty-three. The subject of his final examination was entitled:“Un conservatoire des arts et métiers, avec galerie d’expositions pour les produits de l’industrie”. He became a pensioner of the Académie de France à Rome from 17 January to 31 December 1849. He traveled through Greece which provided him the subject of his fourth year submission, presented at the Paris Salon in 1853. He visited Greece with Edmond About and Constantinople with Théophile Gautier. He worked on the Temple of Aphaea in Aegina where he insisted on polychromy. He was named, in 1874, member of the Institut de France, in the architecture section of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Paris Opera

In 1860, the Second Empire of Emperor Napoleon III began a competition, seeking an architect to design the plans for the new, state-funded opera house. The current opera house, located at the Place de l’Opera, had stood since before the Revolution, and was badly in need of repair.

Applicants were given a month to submit entries, Garnier being one of them. His design was selected from among 171 other entries, and soon the thirty-five-year-old and relatively unknown man began work on the building which eventually would be named for him, the Palais Garnier Opera House. His design was considered highly original,[clarification needed] though most had difficulty in deciding exactly what style he was trying to portray. When asked by Empress Eugenie in what style the building was to be done, he is said to have replied, “In the Napoleon III, madame.”

Construction began in the summer of 1861, though setbacks would delay it for another fourteen years. During the first week of excavation, an underground stream was discovered, rendering the ground too unstable for a foundation. It required eight months for the water to be pumped out, though enough was left in the area which eventually became the fifth cellar for operating the hydraulic stage machinery above. Garnier’s double-walled and bitumen-sealed cement and concrete foundation proved strong enough to withstand any possible leakages, and construction continued.

The defeat of the French army in Sedan by the Prussians in 1870 resulted in the end of the Second Empire. During the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune in 1871, the unfinished Opera was used as a warehouse for goods, as well as a military prison.

The opera was finally inaugurated on February 5, 1875. Many of the most prestigious monarchs of Europe attended the opening ceremony, including the President of France’s new Republic, Marshal McMahon, the Lord Mayor of London, and King Alfonso XII of Spain.

The people who entered the massive building, spanning nearly 119,000 square feet (11,100 m2), were generally awed by its immense size and extensive ornamentation. Claude Debussy described it as resembling a railway station on the outside, and that the interior could easily be mistaken for a Turkish bath.

Garnier’s works represent a Neo-Baroque-inspired style, popular during the Beaux-Arts period in France. He was influenced by the Italianate styles of Renaissance artisans such as Palladio, Sansovino, and Michelangelo, perhaps[citation needed] the result of his many visits to Greece and Rome during his lifetime. He was also a pioneer of architectural beauty as well as function; his opera was built on a framework of metal girders, unprecedented at the time. Aside from being fireproof, steel and iron was much stronger than wood, allowing it to successfully withstand the countless heavy tons of marble and other materials heaped upon it without breaking.

Later work

After completing his Opera house, Garnier retired to Italy, more specifically the city of Bordighera, on the Mediterranean coast where he built the Villa Garnier – his own private residence, in 1871. He contributed various private and public buildings to this town until his death at age 72 in August 1898. His other architectural contributions in France include the Nice Astronomical Observatory, the Marigny Theatre, as well as the opera and the Grand Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo in Monaco.

He was interred in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.


In France


  • In Bordighera, Italy:
    • The Église de Terrasanta
    • The École Communale, today the Mairie de la ville
    • Villa Bischoffsheim (now the Villa Etelinda)
    • Villa Garnier (1871)
    • Villa Studio

External links

Paris Opéra (1875) by Charles Garnier

Architecture as Allegory (Wall Street Journal)


Towering above the center of Paris, a monumental statue of Apollo crowns a 19th-century theater whose architecture and decoration are an opulent tribute to the performing arts. The theater’s official title is “L’Académie National de Musique.” Unofficially it has long been known as the Paris Opéra, or the Palais Garnier. And, in keeping with the theater’s balance of decoration and visionary technology, Apollo, holding aloft his golden lyre, is actually the building’s lightning rod.

Getty ImagesFrom the theater’s statuary to its interior paintings, mosaics and tapestries, a design that was meant to be read like a book.

The Palais Garnier is the masterpiece of architect Charles Garnier (1825-1898), who called his work “the architecture of illustration.” The theater’s statuary, allegorical ceiling and wall paintings, mosaic inlay and tapestries were designed as a harmonious and moving backdrop to the performances on stage.

For all its glory, the theater owes its existence to an attempted regicide. In 1858, Paris’s Opéra was in the Rue Le Pelletier, near a dark alley—a security nightmare. On Jan. 14, as Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie drove to a gala performance there, an Italian conspirator, Felice Orsini, hiding in that alley, tossed three bombs into the street, killing 150 people. Napoléon and Eugénie escaped, but the emperor ordered the construction of a new Opéra as soon as possible—well isolated to prevent lurking assassins.

A design competition opened in December 1860 with a month’s deadline; it drew 171 submissions. The winning architect, Garnier, was a blacksmith’s son who had studied at the École des Beaux Arts, taking its Grand Prix de Rome for architecture in 1848.

Work commenced in July 1861 on the site of what is now the spacious Place de l’Opera. Almost immediately an underground stream flooded the foundations, so Garnier reworked his plans, erecting his theater on a double concrete vat containing the water—hence the notorious Opéra Lake. Though his flamboyant architecture was rooted in the Renaissance and Baroque styles, Garnier innovatively built it over a fireproof iron skeleton.

By the end of 1863 Garnier had chosen the artists and sculptors to produce the iconographic interior decoration of the ceilings and walls, among whom were the painters Paul Baudry, Jules Lenepveu and Isidore Pils, and the sculptors Aimé Millet and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. All École des Beaux Arts alumni and Prix de Rome laureates, their academic finesse stood them in good stead when producing the vast neo-Baroque allegories that Garnier commissioned.

The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 stopped construction on the opera house and resulted in France’s defeat and Napoléon III’s abdication. But when the old Opéra Le Pelletier burned in 1873, the government quickly appropriated money for Garnier’s Paris Opéra, and it was inaugurated by President Patrice Macmahon on Jan. 15, 1875. Due to a government slight, however, Garnier had to pay 120 francs to attend the opening gala, which included hugely popular scenes from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots” and Fromental Halévy’s “La Juive.”

The Palais Garnier is visible down the entire length of the wide Avenue de l’Opéra running southward to the Louvre. In fact, the paired columns of the theater’s main facade were intended to complement those of Claude Perrault’s East Front of the Louvre, completed in 1670. Garnier persuaded the civic planner Georges Haussmann not to plant trees along the avenue to preserve the unobstructed view between the two.

Today, Garnier’s “architecture of illustration” can be read like a book. Viewing it from across the Place de l’Opéra, your eyes move from the solid ground-floor entry, its repeated arches sheltering the entrance doors, upward to the main floor with its massive paired columns, its balconies and its row of round bull’s-eye windows each containing the bronze bust of a composer. The busts reveal which departed masters were most important to 19th-century France: Rossini, Auber, Beethoven, Mozart, Spontini, Meyerbeer and Halévy.

At the roof level, defined by the elaborate cornice of sculpted masks of comedy and tragedy, the flattened green dome of the auditorium is crowned by Millet’s immense “Apollo” and flanked by two gilt-bronze allegorical groups, “Harmony” on the left and “Poetry” on the right, by the sculptor Charles Guméry. And when this facade is viewed from just the right angle, the splendid domed roofline is further defined by the triangular gable of the stage housing behind it.

The main entrance arches are flanked by sculptural groups each representing a different art form. Deservedly, the most famous of these is Carpeaux’s ebullient “La Danse,” whose swirl of riotous male and female nudes initially scandalized critics. In 1964 a full-scale copy by Paul Belmondo was placed at the Garnier entrance—the precious original is now safely housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Inside the entrance vestibule, monumental marble statues of Gluck, Handel, Lully and Rameau represent opera’s founding fathers according to 19th-century France.

In the great multistory stair foyer, the sinuous upward sweep of the broad staircase lifts the eye to Pils’s four large ceiling paintings, whose luminous reds, yellows and seductive flesh tones shimmer in the light of a thousand incandescent lamps, which impart further texture to the rich settings of carved stone and gilt. For the banisters and balustrades, Garnier gave full vent to his love of rare stone in combination—pink granite, pink marble, onyx, scagliola and superb mosaic designs on the floors.

With its balconies and mirrors the stair foyer is a space not only to see but in which to be seen. Garnier wrote: “The sparkling lights, the resplendent dress, the lively and smiling faces, the greetings exchanged; all contribute to a festive air, and all enjoy it without realizing how much the architecture is responsible for this magical effect.”

The dramatic main portal of the auditorium is flanked by massive bronze and polychrome marble figures representing “Comedy” and “Tragedy” by Gabriel-Jules Thomas. And as you enter, you are dazzled further by the resplendent trappings of crimson and gold. Eight paired Corinthian columns support the upper parts of the house, from which hangs the 6½-ton bronze chandelier made famous by novelist Gaston Leroux’s phantom.

After savoring Garnier’s rich neo-Baroque effects, the eye finally arrives at what should be the auditorium’s harmonious apex, only to encounter a brash discord: Marc Chagall’s mid-20th-century ceiling. Installed in 1964, it was the French government’s attempt to soup up what modernist critics then deemed an eyesore. Painted on canvas, the ceiling was installed over Jules Eugène Lenepveu’s original, “The Times of Day.” Garnier intended Lenepveu’s allegory, painted on fireproof copper panels, to sum up the allegorical works in the rest of the theatre, including Baudry’s majestic designs in the Grand Foyer out front. Its model, preserved in the Musée d’Orsay, reveals a graceful composition of airborne deities in the manner of the 18th-century Venetian painter Tiepolo.

It is lamentable that during the extensive restoration of the Opéra Garnier, completed in 2007, Lenepveu’s ceiling was not restored to its rightful place. Chagall deserves his due, but not here.

—Mr. Scherer writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.