A Temple of Pleasure, A Temple of Art: The Structural and Social Veneers of Opulence in Charles Garnier's Paris Opéra
Art History Senior Thesis
Research funded by Provost Office's Senior Fund and the Dr. B. Katharine Stroup Brooks Fund.
At the height of opulence in Second Empire France, Napoléon and Haussmann’s restructuring of Paris called for the construction of a new opera house, selecting from a smorgasbord of competitors the architectural design of the virtually unknown Charles Garnier. The plan employed all manner of techniques in order to present its decoration and composition as a veritable litany of formal styles, combining the Neoclassical with the Néobaroque, all with an affinity for the Beaux-Arts. Garnier’s vision implements modern technologies, while also rediscovering classic methods, and utilizes atypical materials to achieve classic ends, ultimately establishing the space as truly eclectic masterpiece, that, in its opulence, stands as a monument to Second Empire decadence. In reaction to the Opéra’s inauguration, Duelin de la Mouzelle writes that the “gay, splendid edifice responds perfectly to the idea that we shall have one day of the Imperial era.” The empire, the building’s construction, and contemporary Paris itself, however, stand at the edge of a precipice, with social and structural revolutions promising an end to such unchecked splendor, manifested in the advent of iron architectural construction. L’Opéra seemingly participates with a dying aesthetic, however, despite its veneer of grandeur, in its construction the building engages in conversation with these developing technologies and ideas, implementing them in ways that bolster traditional ends. In this way, Garnier’s Opéra transcends its clinical opulence, instead notably participating in the social and cultural movement of late nineteenth century France.