French heritage : Garnier, the architect of the arts

“There is no choosing between the arts, one must be God or an architect,” said Charles Garnier. 

French architecture is celebrated around the world for its eclectic style. It is one of France’s greatest heritages passed down by visionary artists such as Charles Garnier. The famous 19th-century architect left behind works that still delight both the French and tourists two centuries later. His work includes the greatest architectural wonder of Paris, but that’s not all.

His most famous piece is undoubtedly the Palais Garnier located in the centre of the capital, renowned for being the Paris opera house. In 1861, Charles Garnier won the Opéra competition. He then began a series of trips to visit all the major concert halls in Europe to find his inspiration. The building work lasted nearly 15 years, interrupted in particular by the war and the Commune of Paris. While the work was on hold between 1870 and 1873, he lived in Menton on the French riviera, which marked the start of a career in the Mediterranean.

Born in Paris in 1825, Charles Garnier studied at the design school on the rue de l’École-de-Médecine (today the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs), and at the fine arts school on rue Bonaparte. It was in 1848 that he made
his name after winning the Prix de Rome first prize for architecture. For the final round, he was tasked with designing a conservatory of arts and crafts, with an exhibition gallery for products from the industry.

His body of work

While a resident at the French Academy in Rome, he spent a lot of time travelling around the Mediterranean, visiting Tuscany, Veneto, Rome, Sicily and Greece. His travels inspired his style, characterised by his love for colours and his perfect marriage of the three arts: architecture, painting and sculpture. 

Charles Garnier gifted Paris with one of its most spectacular monuments, L’Opéra. His legacy also lives on at boulevard Saint-Germain, where he built the Cercle de la librairie, rue Saint-Honoré with the Panorama Français, and the Marigny theatre on the Champs-Elysées.

The architect is also behind the Nice Observatory, in collaboration with Gustave Eiffel, as well as the Vittel casino and thermal baths, the Monte-Carlo casino opera house in Monaco and Casino Baden-Baden in Germany.

His style

“What is that? That’s not a style. It’s not Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI!”, declared Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III. This was Charles Garnier’s reply: “It’s Napoleon III, Madame, and you’re complaining!” A pioneer of the very popular Second Empire style that the French bourgeoisie would treasure until the First World War, Charles Garnier devoted his attention to spaces to move around in, rural materials offering a broad colour palette, and lighting, which quickly became electric to illuminate the whole setting. 

The famous Opéra Garnier de Paris is a luxurious setting sculpted in marble and other minerals sourced from French quarries, elevated with gilding and majestic paintings, particularly on the ceilings of the reception halls. Numerous statues grace the interior and exterior spaces. 

The Opéra Garnier is a monument that must be visited. For this opera house, Garnier succeeded in establishing his style and his love for showcasing all the arts, in particular through the famous groups of statues by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

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