The Construction of the Paris Opera

New Histories of Photography 2
September 28 through December 30, 2001
Initiated as part of the sweeping renovation of central Paris begun by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann in the 1850s, the Opera was meant to showcase the wealth and power of Napoleon III's Second Empire. Public interest in the project was kindled when the design competition was won in 1861 by a relatively unknown young architect of humble social background, Charles Garnier (1825-98). Garnier drew up plans for an immense, flamboyant structure covering three acres and spanning 17 stories, seven of them underground. He conceived the Opera as a total work of art--a space for the ultimate encounter of architecture, sculpture, painting, music and dance. Over 90 prominent painters and sculptors eventually contributed to its lavish decoration program.

Excavation of the site in the Parisian ninth arrondissement began in late 1861. Construction was an enormously complicated affair, involving teams of stone masons, carpenters, ironworkers, roofers, plumbers, glazers and mosaicists. The building's vast outer shell was virtually complete by 1869, but further work was postponed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which ended with the fall of the Second Empire and the emperor's humiliating abdication. Although the Opera was widely associated with the ill fortunes of Napoleon III's reign, Garnier succeeded in convincing the new leaders of the Third Republic that it was an important symbol of the nation's cultural heritage and should be completed without delay. The building opened to the public in January 1875 and has continued to be a Parisian landmark.

Garnier's Opera occupies a significant place in architectural history because of its unusual combination of classical and newly introduced industrial elements. Structurally, the building is a composite of traditional masonry walls and a technically innovative framework of iron girders. Yet although Garnier was quick to grasp the practical utility of such modern inventions as structural iron and electric lighting, he was unable to shed the conservative esthetic of his Beaux-Arts training. Judging metal materials to be useful but visually distasteful, he insisted that the Opera's iron framework be hidden behind a facade of opulent marble and hand-carved stone ornamentation. Today, one of our chief sources of information about the remarkable technological underpinnings of the Opera is the extensive series of photographs of the building's construction that Garnier commissioned from the Paris firm Delmaet & Durandelle.

The photographic partnership of Hyacinthe-César Delmaet (1828-1862) and Louis-Émile Durandelle (1839-1917) began in 1860. The firm survived Delmaet's untimely death in 1862, with his widow, Clémence Jacob, taking over an active role in the operation of the business; she subsequently married Durandelle. Until Durandelle's retirement in 1890, the firm specialized in large-format photographs of architectural sites and building projects. These include the construction of the Paris Opera (1862-69), the Sacrè-Coeur basilica, Montmartre (1877-90), and the Eiffel Tower (1887-89).

The work on view here belongs to pivotal moment when French photography ceased to be the province of wealthy amateurs and became a recognized professional occupation. Yet because the photographs of Delmaet & Durandelle were made with painstaking attention to visual form and technical mastery of the difficult wet collodion process, it is difficult today to see them as purely commercial products. They count among the most splendid examples of nineteenth-century architectural photography.

Christopher Phillips
International Center of Photography

This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. The exhibition is supported by a generous grant from The Florence Gould Foundation; additional support was provided by the Eastman House Council and the International Center of Photography Alliance Committee.