In March this year, ground zero for the patisserie world opened in Paris – Cédric Grolet’s new pastry boutique, around the corner from Le Meurice, the historic hotel where Grolet is the award-winning head pastry chef at the Michelin two-star restaurant.
Cédric Grolet was chosen as the Pâtissier of the Year 2015 by Le Chef Magazine, the Best Pastry Chef 2016 by Relais Desserts Excellence Awards, and the winner of Les Grandes Tables du Monde’s Best Restaurant Pastry Chef in 2017 (renowned French pastry legend Pierre Hermé was one of the judges).
A uniformed doorman admits customers, one by one, into the narrow, laboratory-like sanctum. There is no display case. Instead, as in a fine jewellery store, the goods are stored on trays under the counter, from whence the white-coated staff produce each order. You have to arrive early, because when they sell out, they close.
The grapefruit, which looks exactly like a ripe grapefruit, is presented in a box worthy of the jewellery stores on nearby Place Vendôme.
Grolet’s desserts these days have a fruity appearance, a molten-like ganache filling and the taste of fresh fruits is enriched by a hint of vanilla. As they are not overly sweet, the dessert doesn’t leave one overwhelmed even after finishing an entire piece. Which is great, since we will have so much more than just one piece! Upon the first bite, the vivid fruity notes explode in one’s mouth, yet the filling is light enough that it quickly disappears in the mouth.
We might even diversify from cherries 🙂
Although, check out these cherry creations…
Clearly we’ll have to join the Parisians in their pastry obsession! Next June sounds like a good time, not only are cherries in season 🙂 but the pastry show is on again, June 14-17. We’re even willing to deal with the more than 25,000 visitors who attended over the three days this year. They are fellow pastry addicts!
And doesn’t Le Dalí restaurant at Le Meurice look just like a little bear’s playground? 🙂 I wonder if they have a seven course dessert option on the menu…
Isabelle even has her cup ready!
Fun fact: the French phrase for guilty pleasure (péché mignon) directly translates as “cute sin” 🙂
There is a timeless elegance about Dom Pérignon that is comforting and reassuring.
According to Richard Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave since 1990, the vintages produced in the 2000s are some of the best the house has ever produced and can be placed alongside legendary vintages from the 1960s and 1920s. “In my view, it’s really in the top three decades of the last century – it’s that good,” he says.
Which is great, since we tasted the 2000 and 2003 Dom Pérignon Rosé.
The 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé was a turning point for the house, as it represents a move towards a more ambitious, bold style that is a clear departure from the past. The 2000 is also an ideal choice for drinking today. Especially today!
The 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé is a flashy, ripe Champagne that screams Pinot. A dark, intense colour leads to a Chambolle-like nose followed by endless sweet red berries, flowers and spices, all backed up with plenty of richness and density. The wine continues to blossom on the palate, with utterly beguiling detail, clarity and polish, all qualities that resonate on the rich, expansive finish. The 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé is 45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot Noir, of which 25% is still Pinot. Geoffroy says his goal was to make a statement with the 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé; he has done that… and so much more. The 2000 signals a stylistic shift towards a more important, serious style of rosé. This is no easygoing rosé, it is a Champagne that demands serious attention. The 2000 tests the limits of what one expects from a Dom Pérignon Rosé, but the wine is simply marvellous. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2025.
The 2003 Dom Pérignon Rosé is surprisingly delicate and medium in body, with sweet exotic aromatics that linger on a finish that remains marked by a slight element of astringency. Dried flowers, crushed raspberries and sweet herbs waft from the glass in a Rosé that is all about sensuality. With time in the glass, the richness of the fruit becomes more pronounced, while the tannin from the red grapes is also noticeable. The 2003 Rosé vintage is greatly valued for its flavour as well as the conditions that produced it. The vineyard was first touched by severe spring frosts, then an unparalleled heat wave, producing a perfectly ripe and healthy but small harvest. While you can taste fruits like fig and strawberry, the primary flavour is guava and vanilla.
Only a wine that is created in the Champagne region of France, using ‘méthode Champenoise’ and matured for a minimum of 18 months can be called Champagne. Many consider Champagne as only a celebratory drink. There is a reluctance to go further than that. One must remember that champagnes like Dom Pérignon are by origin, great wines. For example, not only is Dom Pérignon perfect to be served at aperitif it is also a complex and intense wine that can be extensively paired with a meal.
Great Champagne, like a great wine is the result of precision and attention to detail. As you sip it, the Champagne offers a gradual revelation of unique sensations on the palate. If you taste viscosity and a fullness of flavours, you are most definitely drinking great Champagne. Chilling a bottle of Champagne for a couple of hours may not be enough. The best way to enjoy the full complexity of Dom Pérignon is to serve it in a still white wine glass at a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius.
Champagne loves two things in food: salt and fat! These are true foundations for a lot of the food that we really enjoy… and a sparkling wine tends not to overwhelm that because of its delicate suppleness and bubbles.
Champagne goes particularly well with cocktail-party snacks such as popcorn or truffled french fries. A dry sparkling wine will act as a good foil to salty food, and a rosé has the added quality of being “aesthetically pleasing and aromatically very beautiful”.
Dom Pérignon is very versatile when it comes to food pairing. Which is great since we paired it with the antipasti and the main course. The antipasti had plenty of salt as it is a key element to bring out the liveliness of Dom Pérignon. Dom Pérignon Rosé goes perfectly well with Wagyu beef, which was the main course! Dom Pérignon is a dry Champagne and extremely sweet dishes tend to over-power the palate. While the cherry dessert delights were not overly sweet, they still got paired with our delightfully sweet Singapore Sling 🙂
Dom Pérignon is produced by Moet & Chandon and is the house’s prestige vintage Champagne. Dom Pérignon is always a vintage Champagne, meaning that it’s not made when the harvest is what the chef de cave considers a weak year as all grapes for the vintage must be grown in the same year. It is always an assemblage of chardonnay and pinot noir (roughly half and half, although the final composition can lean as far as 60 per cent on either grape variety). When the harvest is good, the company “declares” a vintage. The first Dom Pérignon vintage was in 1921, released for sale in 1936, while the inaugural commercial release of the Rosé was in 1962. The first Rosé vintage was is 1959, but it was not commercially released and is rarely, if ever, even seen. In 1971 the Shah of Iran ordered several bottles of it for the 2500-year celebration of the Persian Empire. Since 1962, there have been twenty-eight vintages of the Rosé.
The Rosé style has evolved quite markedly since around 2000. It had been obvious for some time that Richard Geoffroy is greatly pushing the envelope of what is possible within the world of grand marque Champagne and Rosé in particular. Today, the fruit is being picked riper and there is more still Pinot Noir in the Rosé than at any time over the last five decades, which means current releases are often powerful, vinous and richly textured. Beginning in 2000, the Rosés all have more than 20% still Pinot compared to the 15-18% that was previously the norm.
Geoffroy describes Dom Pérignon as a wine of paradoxes. “Dom Pérignon is perceived as quite traditional and classic in the minds of consumers, but the reality is quite different. As opposed to the traditional, oxidative style some houses pursue, Dom Pérignon is made in a more modern, reductive style aimed at maintaining acidity and freshness.”
The Exposition Universelle of 1889 was the tenth world’s fair and the fourth to be held in Paris, from 6 May to 31 October 1889. Since 1855, the French had been holding an international exposition in Paris every eleven years (more or less), each more gigantic and wondrous than the last.
In the early 1880s, it appeared that Paris might not again host an international exposition. The previous one had lost money. In spite of the constant stream of boasting in the French journals reporting on the 1878 fair, there was no getting around the stark fact that the 1867 exposition universelle – the culminating festival of the now-despised Second Empire – had produced a profit of almost three million francs, while eleven years later the Republic’s world’s fair lost more than thirty million francs.
There was a bright side to these comparisons, however. Less than seven million people had attended the 1867 fair. Over sixteen million had come to the 1878 exposition. Clearly, here was statistical proof that The People had responded more warmly to the Republic. So, despite the pundits’ predictions of financial catastrophe, the leaders of the government of France decided that the birth of the Republic should be celebrated and vindicated in 1889, the centennial year of the French Revolution. Therefore, intoned Monsieur le President Jules Grévy, be it decreed on this eighth day of November, 1884, that there shall be held, from May sixth until November sixth, 1889, the fourth exposition universelle. Antonin Proust, Minister of Instruction and Fine Arts, was appointed President of the Exposition. A distinguished group of experienced men were placed in charge of the financing, building, and arranging of the Exposition Tricolorée – so-named for the colours of the French flag adopted during the Revolution – Paris would once again be host to the world.
The 1889 exposition was to be an advertisement for the Republican system, which for 18 years had kept at bay the Royalists and Bonapartists on the right and the representatives of various socialist tendencies on the left. The philosophy in power was to be seen as humanist, philanthropic, opening its arms to all of humanity.
“We will show our sons what their fathers have accomplished in the space of a century through progress in knowledge, love of work and respect for liberty,” proclaimed Georges Berger, the fair’s general manager.
By the end of 1884 the exposition Committee had announced a contest for a spectacular centrepiece for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair: a 300 meter tower – a structure far surpassing in height any edifice ever built, that would give the entire fair a single signature structure, a striking symbol of French culture.
It seems probable that Eiffel himself – or, more precisely, Eiffel and his collaborators – first urged the idea of a 300 meter tower as the most audacious spike for the Exposition Tricolorée.
Even before the official announcement of a competition for the design of a 300-meter tower, Eiffel’s company was at work on the plans. Two of Eiffel’s young engineers, Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, and his architect, Stephen Sauvestre, created an initial design of a 300 meter iron tower, one that so pleased Eiffel he made further refinements and improvements, and began promoting it as the ideal World’s Fair monument. After all, it would rise nearly twice as high as the world’s tallest building, the recently completed 179 meters tall Washington Monument in America, thoroughly eclipsing that landmark. Eiffel purchased the exclusive rights to his colleagues’ plans. Thenceforth, the tower belonged to Eiffel. There was no question of the plan being carried forth by his subordinates, even though the idea in its first stages was undeniably their own. Only Eiffel has the financial resources, the professional reputation and the political leverage to carry the project to a successful completion.
From the outset, Eiffel’s plan encountered serious opposition and competition. When he presented his ideas for the 300 meter tower at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1884, detractors and supporters took sides, and the debate began.
The Parisian architects had been the first to strike, outraged that a mere engineer and builder of railway bridges could imagine his iron monstrosity worthy of a central place in their illustrious city. In early February of 1885, Jules Bourdais, architect of the acclaimed Trocadéro Palace, had begun promoting his plan: a one-thousand-foot-tall Sun Column, a classical granite tower of elegant loggias enclosing a hollow centre. Rising up from a proposed six-story museum of electricity, the Bourdais Column would be topped not only by a gigantic searchlight (combined with parabolic mirrors) that would illumine the city, but by a statue of Scientia, or Knowledge. When questioned, Bourdais declined to consider that his design was an engineering impossibility, far too heavy for its foundation, and unlikely to survive strong winds. Instead, he challenged Eiffel to show how elevators could go up and down inside his tower’s curved legs. Now that, Bourdais countered, was the real impossibility!
For a year the architects quietly attacked Eiffel behind the scenes, certain they could persuade the government to choose Bourdais’s Sun Column. But the fair’s commissioner Lockroy, also the minister of trade in the republican administration, was clearly enamoured of Eiffel’s tower, and Lockroy — a swashbuckling classicist and freethinker, a veteran of Garibaldi’s anti-royalist campaign in Sicily, and a man who relished drama — was not easily swayed. He was firmly committed to seeing built a “monument unique in the world… one of the most interesting curiosities of the capital”. And so, on May 1, 1886, Paul Planat, founder and editor of the architectural journal La construction moderne, went noisily public, launching the first of many jeremiads against Eiffel’s tower, denouncing it as “an inartistic… scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron” and excoriating above all its “hideously unfinished” look.
In truth, no project had yet been officially selected, and the very next day Lockroy formally invited all who wished to compete for the great honour of constructing the World’s Fair tower to submit proposals by May 18, 1886. Though Lockroy suggested that the design be for an iron tower of 300 meters, many among the 107 entrants ignored that guideline. One entrant envisioned a gigantic water sprinkler, in case drought struck Paris. Another featured a tall tower built not of iron but of wood and brick. Perhaps the most historically minded design was the gigantic guillotine, so evocative of the very event being unofficially celebrated, the fall of the Bastille. Was it possible, Planat wondered in print, even as the winner was to be announced, that Monsieur Lockroy, reputedly “a man of taste,” might still acknowledge the error of his ways and realize that “there could be no honour in erecting [Eiffel’s] monstrosity… [or] leaving as his legacy this scaffolding”?
By now, others had joined the campaign against Eiffel, asserting that the actual construction of a safe 300 meter tower was technically impossible, as no building that tall could resist the power of the wind. Moreover, how would Eiffel find men willing or even able to work at such vertiginous heights? And what of the danger to those who would come as visitors to ascend such a structure? Of course, Eiffel knew that these naysayers probably understood nothing of his vast experience, the more than fifty wrought-iron railroad bridges he had built in France alone. Erecting those structures had made him thoroughly confident that his mathematical formula for shaping wrought iron would hold up to the worst possible winds. As for the labour question, his workers who had built the bridge at Garabit were already habituated to working 122 meters above the ground. And once the tower was up, he had no doubt it would be perfectly safe. He did not bother to dignify with a reply the strange assertion that such a huge iron tower would become a dangerous magnet, drawing the nails from surrounding Parisian buildings.
Then came an entirely new line of attack, slithering out of that most poisonous undercurrent of French life: anti-Semitism. In June a hateful screed titled The Jewish Question charged that Eiffel, through his German ancestors, was “nothing more nor less than a German Jew.” An entire chapter scourged L’Exposition des Juifs and denounced the proposed Eiffel Tower as “une tour juive”. It was a sad commentary that Eiffel even felt obliged to respond, as he did in the republican paper Le Temps, stating, “I am neither Jewish nor German. I was born in France in Dijon of French Catholic parents.”
On June 12, 1886, Gustave Eiffel was delighted to learn he had won the coveted commission to build the fair’s centrepiece. Despite the campaigns of Eiffel’s opponents, Commissioner Lockroy (to no one’s surprise) had selected Eiffel’s Tour en Fer de Trois Cents Mètres, having deemed the other projects either unworkable or — in the case of the gigantic replica of a guillotine — simply impolitic. Eiffel’s tower was praised as having “a distinctive character… [being] an original masterpiece of work in metal”. Ultimately, Eiffel would be building a potent symbol of French modern industrial might, a towering edifice that would exalt science and technology, assert France’s superiority over its rivals (especially America), and entice millions to visit Paris for the fair to ascend the tower’s unprecedented heights. After all, American and British engineers had likewise dreamed of building a wonderfully tall tower, but they had not been able to figure out the means to do so. Eiffel, the Frenchman, through his years of erecting gigantic and beautiful arched railroad bridges, had solved the mystery, and being thoroughly Gallic, he intended to build with elegance and artistry.
After experiencing the joy of winning the commission, Eiffel entered another painful phase when he estimated the cost of erecting the tower at five million francs, or $1 million. The government, which had originally talked about underwriting that whole sum, now backpedalled, offering not quite a third, or 1.5 million francs, leaving Eiffel to raise personally the remaining millions needed to build the tower. To attract investors, he would be allowed to keep the tower up for twenty years and was assured of all profits from entry fees and restaurant concessions for the whole of that period. But after this agreement was reached, weeks and then months passed with no action and no contract. Eiffel began to worry about ever getting started with the project, much less finished.
Next, further debates arose about where best to locate the Eiffel Tower. In the end, Eiffel once again prevailed. His tower would stand on the Champ de Mars, with the rest of the fair.
However, when the military discovered that their training ground on the Champ de Mars would be forfeited to the Eiffel Tower not just for the duration of the fair but for twenty years, it successfully agitated to relocate the tower much closer to the river. In September Eiffel was working in his office when he learned that he now was to build his tower so close to the Seine that two of the foundations for the legs would require far more complicated compressed-air construction techniques. “These foundations,” he would later complain to Lockroy, “are far more onerous for me than those previously agreed to on the Champ de Mars.”
As the New Year neared, he decided to gamble his personal fortune for the glory of seeing his 300 meter tower rise over Paris. He agreed to indemnify the state for any possible consequence of the tower’s collapsing, hiring top lawyers to ensure the best possible solution and he would raise all the financing beyond the state’s 1.5 million francs as previously discussed. This bold stroke ended the logjam, and on January 7, 1887, he and the French and Parisian governments finally signed off on the long-stalled contract. The contract required Eiffel to use only French labour, materials, and technology and to submit to oversight by an exposition committee. Three weeks later, on January 28, during a winter so severe that Parisians were ice-skating on lakes in the Bois de Boulogne, Eiffel broke ground at the Champ de Mars. At last, the foundations for the tower were begun.
As Eiffel would confess later in a lecture, he felt tremendous “satisfaction” that morning as “I watched an army of diggers start on those great excavations that were to hold the four feet of this Tower that had been a subject of constant concern for me for more than two years. I also felt that, notwithstanding the severe attacks directed against the Tower, public opinion was on my side, and that a host of unknown friends were preparing to welcome this daring attempt as it rose out of the ground.”
The Eiffel Tower was situated to serve as a triumphant towering archway into the fairgrounds from the Pont d’Iéna, and each of its four gigantic feet marked one of the cardinal points of the compass. The east and south feet would stand firmly on deeply excavated grey plastic clay soil undergirded by a solid foundation of chalk. The north and west feet, being closer to the river, presented a more complex situation, requiring compressed-air excavation via sunken caissons. Every morning, through the snows and freezing weather of that harsh winter, great teams of labourers turned out to excavate the four gigantic foundations, with the blue-suited workmen tossing the dirt and rocky debris into large-wheeled wooden wagons to be carted away by horses.
As Eiffel and his work crews got busy, and the tower began to look like a reality, the influential L’Illustration continued to mock it as little better than “a lighthouse, a nail, a chandelier… it would never have been allowed but for politicians who have the idea it’s a ‘symbol of industrial civilization.’” Horrified at the scale of what they saw taking place, the tower’s enemies mobilized for a last-ditch effort to stop the hated “scaffolding.”
On February 14, not three weeks into the digging of the foundations, forty-seven of France’s most famous and powerful artists and intellectuals signed their names to an angry protest letter addressed to Paris official Adolphe Alphand, Baron Haussmann’s right-hand man and principal organizer of this and the past two World Fairs. The letter, published in Le Temps, vehemently lamented the soulless vulgarity of such an industrial behemoth, this “dizzily ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a black and gigantic factory chimney, crushing [all] beneath its barbarous mass.”
Among the signatories were France’s most hallowed names — the greatest painters of the age, Ernest Meissonier and Adolphe William Bouguereau; the celebrated writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas fils; poet François Coppée; composer Charles Gounod; architect Charles Garnier; and dozens of other important Parisians — with all insisting fervently: “For the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonour of Paris. Everyone feels it, everyone says it, everyone is profoundly saddened by it, and we are only a weak echo of public opinion so legitimately alarmed. When foreigners visit our Exposition they will cry out in astonishment, ‘Is it this horror that the French have created to give us an idea of their vaunted taste?… And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genius of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal.”
Lockroy and Eiffel had suffered through so many anti-tower attacks that this latest rarefied blast served only as a high-profile opportunity to take the offensive. Interviewed at his giant noisy workshop in the suburb of Levallois-Perret, Eiffel sounded positively sanguine in his creation’s defence: “I believe that the tower will have its own beauty. The first principle of architectural beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its use. What was the main obstacle I had to overcome in designing the tower? Its resistance to wind. And I submit that the curves of its four piers as produced by our calculations, rising from an enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will give a great impression of strength and beauty.”
Eiffel instructed those clinging to the past that there was ample patriotic glory in the “tallest edifice ever raised by man… there is an attraction and a charm inherent in the colossal… It seems to me that this Eiffel Tower is worthy of being treated with respect, if only because it will show that we are not simply an amusing people, but also the country of engineers and builders who are called upon all over the world to construct bridges, viaducts, train stations and the great monuments of modern industry.”
With his tower finally launched, and the work site busy with daily progress, Eiffel could even afford to be merely amused for the readers of Le Temps at the artistic establishment’s attack: “They begin by declaring that my tower is not French. It is big enough and clumsy enough for the English or Americans, but it is not our style, they say. We are occupied more with little artistic bibelots… Why should we not show the world what we can do in the way of great engineering projects… Paris is to have the greatest tower in the world, after all… In fact, the tower will be the chief attraction of the Exhibition.”
On March 26, 1888, Eiffel and his engineers measured the completed first platform. It was perfectly horizontal. He would later write, “Joined by a belt of girders, the piers formed a solid table with a wide base. The sight of it alone was enough to brush aside any fears of its overturning. We no longer had to worry about a major accident, and any minor ones that might occur now could not compromise completion of the structure.”
Little bears on the first platform 🙂
Eiffel’s two years of planning were paying off. “Each piece [of the tower] had to be designed separately, taking into account the variable inclination of columns and braces along every foot of the tower’s height. In addition, every rivet hole had to be drawn in at precisely the right spot, so that all the on-site workers would have to do was to place one-third of 2.5 million rivets, the rest being placed at the shops in advance… all calculations had to be accurate to one-tenth of a millimetre.”
As soon as Eiffel had his all-important first platform balanced, he opened a canteen there to serve food and save his men the time and trouble of clambering up and down for coffee or a meal. Now on lovely spring days at noon his men had their lunch up in the open air and breezes. Here, “a chunk of coarse bread serves as the pièce de résistance to a toothsome bit of boiled meat, or a spoonful of mutton gravy, or an artichoke, or a trifle of chicory salad.” This system also enabled Eiffel to make sure that no worker drank too much wine, thus becoming a danger to himself and others. Pay increased along with the height of the tower, ranging from eight cents an hour for unskilled labour to fourteen cents an hour for most skilled. The construction pace was relentless.
Gustave Eiffel was pleased with the tower’s rapid progress, and by July 4, 1888, was ready to welcome and woo eighty of Paris’s most influential journalists at a summer banquet to be served on the tower’s first platform. Eiffel, in a formal frock coat suit and best silk top hat, awaited his guests at the base. Almost to a man, the writers whose words informed France on politics, science, letters and art appeared for their fête-in-the-sky wearing similar outfits. They set off up the stairs amid much chattering, exclamations over the gigantic girders creating the latticework, and high spirits at being among the first to ascend the tower. Long trestle tables had been laid out for their meal, 70 meters up in the sky. High above their heads, the press could see and hear workmen riveting together the half-finished second platform. In recent weeks, the Eiffel Tower had become the tallest structure in Paris, rising above the towers of Notre Dame, at 66 meters, the Pantheon, at 79 meters, and the dome of Les Invalides, heretofore the city’s highest monument at 105 meters.
From the first platform, the journalists gazed upon a city very different from the Paris where the Bastille had been stormed ninety-nine years earlier. From 1853 to 1870, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann had dramatically remade the French capital, creating a modern monumental urban centre arranged around new thoroughfares, squares, boulevards, theatres, and railroad stations. Haussmann’s bold vision included clearing space around public monuments, establishing elegant small public gardens, and opening up and landscaping the large parks, with all the greenery and colour serving to freshen and redefine the city. As part of its makeover, Paris had been subdivided into twenty arrondissements, each with its own town hall, schools, improved sanitation, and central food market. The boulevards were widened and planted with trees, equipped with wide asphalt pedestrian sidewalks, and lined with monumental buildings. The new life generated by the Haussmannian city could be seen everywhere, all along the open streets and boulevards. The city’s population had by now doubled, to more than two million. The journalists there that day savoured being among the very first to see Paris from such a height.
By mid-July, Eiffel’s men had completed the second platform, at a height of 118 meters. On July 14, Bastille Day, to celebrate his steady progress, Eiffel set off a fantastic fireworks display from the new apex. All around and above the tower, the night sky burst into exploding lights of many brilliant hues and shapes, all cascading down from the heavens.
The Vicomte de Vogüé, a regular observer in his daily constitutional along the Seine, marvelled at it all: “After the second platform, the slender column rose rapidly into space. Yet, you could not really see the construction work. The autumn fogs often hid the aerial work-place; though in the twilight of late-winter afternoons, you could see the red fires of the forges up in the sky and hear the hammers hitting the iron fittings. This was what was so striking — you almost never saw the workers on the tower; the tower appeared to grow all by itself, as if by the spell of a genie. The great works of ancient times, like the pyramids for example, are linked in our minds with the idea of great multitudes, weighing down on the levers and struggling with huge ropes; this modern pyramid was being raised up by the power of calculations requiring a very few number of hands, for today the necessary force for construction rests in a thought.”
As the tower achieved its final shape, its early critics were grudgingly coming around and conceding its comeliness. “As soon as it was possible to judge the monument as a whole, hostile opinion began to relent,” wrote the Vicomte de Vogüé, whose constitutionals along the Seine had literally led him to new heights: he had received special permission from Eiffel to wander about the tower’s upper reaches while it was still being built. “There was in this iron mountain the elements of a new beauty, elements difficult to define, because no grammar of art had as yet supplied the formula, but evident to the most biased art critics. People admired its combination of lightness with power, the daring centring of the great arches, and the erect curves of the principal rafters, which… leap towards the clouds in a single bound. What [people] admired above all was the visible logic of this structure… logic translated into something visible… an abstract and algebraic beauty… Lastly, the spectators were won over by what inevitably conquers everyone: a tenacious will, embodied in the success of a difficult undertaking. Only the top was still criticized, was adjudged unfinished, a weak and complicated crown that did not hold with the very simple lines. Something was missing at the top.”
Others particularly liked the top of the tower, whose summit ended in a rounded campanile. When visitors alighted at the very top from the elevator, they would step into a covered gallery. Fitted all round with glazed sashes that could be opened or shut as required, this penultimate gallery would be sixteen meters long on each side, and accommodate eight hundred visitors. Above this public gallery, Eiffel planned a series of rooms reserved for scientific purposes, and what would be the envy of many in coming months: an elegant personal apartment.
While the aesthetes had been finding fault with the tower, the makers of bibelots were cashing in. Happily exploiting the world’s fascination with this unique structure, they manufactured endless likenesses of it. There were images executed in “pen, pencil, and brush, in photo and lithography, in oil and pastel, on paper, canvas, on wood and ivory, on china, steel, and zinc,” not to mention Eiffel Towers replicated “on handkerchiefs and caps; it was eaten in chocolate and marchpane; formed into cigar cases and hand bells, inkstands and candlesticks; it dangled from the gentlemen’s watch chains and was fastened in the ladies ears; it stood in hundreds of forms in the shop-windows, and made all idle hands busy in the workshops.”
The Eiffel Tower mania knew no bounds. Everything was à la tour Eiffel, from toilet tables and clocks to snuff-boxes, umbrella handles, scarf pins, and sleeve buttons. They were made to suit all prices and all tastes; they were sold on the street corners under magnifying glass for two sous, and they were built in the provinces fifteen meters high, and containing little private dining-rooms just as it stood at the foot of Iéna bridge, and everywhere on the globe the portrait of the giant was to be seen.
Little bears took their Lego Eiffel Tower to visit the big Eiffel Tower 🙂
Gustave Eiffel was understandably rhapsodic over the nearing completion of the tower and its embrace by the masses. He basked in the rising chorus of admiration and excitement, the contrition of many of his early detractors, and the hosannas of praise. The Revue Illustrée, which had featured him on its cover, had lauded this giant of engineering for combining “the practicality and methodical sang-froid of the English engineer, the audacity of the American engineer, and the theoretical science and taste of the French engineer.” Even The Times of London offered a mea culpa: “The form suggested the ugliest parts of a suspension bridge, and it was predicted that the deformity would be increased with the increase of size. The result has not been what was predicted. Even some of those who protested most loudly against the proposal now admit that the effect of the structure is not what they anticipated. They acknowledge that it has a light and graceful appearance, in spite of its gigantic size, and that it is an imposing monument, not unworthy of Paris.”
On Sunday, March 31, 1889, the tower’s overall structure was completed. The pinnacle achieved a final height of 300 meters. With the addition of the flagpole, the tower reached 1,000 feet. After five difficult years, starting from the moment Eiffel first admired the initial idea for a Tour en fer de trois cents mètres, it had been a relentless push to get construction under way and completed on time. Gustave Eiffel and his men had, as promised, finished in twenty-two months, in time for the fair.
The day after the tower was finished, on the brisk, windy afternoon of Monday, April 1, 1889, Gustave Eiffel triumphantly welcomed to the Champ de Mars select members of the Paris press, along with his champion, fair commissioner Édouard Lockroy; French prime minister Pierre Tirard, a civil engineer by training and an early critic; the Paris Municipal Council; various high officials; and curious wives and children. The occasion was the formal first ascension of the tower, followed by a champagne fête for Eiffel’s men. At 1:30 p.m., 150 guests and all of Eiffel’s 199 workers had gathered at the north pillar stairs, while not far off, fair construction workers toiled away, racing to complete the vast, elaborate exposition buildings, gardens, and fountains.
Eiffel once again would lead the walk up the tower’s iron staircase, for even the simplest of the tower’s elevators, the Roux railway-like cars to the first floor, were not yet ready. It was still not at all clear if any of the elevators would be ready in time for the opening of the exposition.
As Eiffel waited to lead his guests, a politician who suffered from acute vertigo used a scarf to blindfold himself, and then clutched his colleague’s arm as they started upward. The group was lively and excited. The sun came in and out of the clouds racing across the sky, and at times the March wind gusted violently, whirling dust from below. Eiffel stopped not infrequently to explain this or that feature and to let the sightseers look down at the fair or up the Seine. When the party of one hundred arrived at the first platform, Eiffel indicated where the four eateries would be—an Anglo-American bar, a Flemish brasserie, and then a Russian and a French restaurant, each with five or six hundred seats. Most of the ladies in their spring silk dresses and the top-hatted gentlemen chose to go no farther.
But forty of the more intrepid followed Eiffel up the circular staircase to the second platform, more than a third of the way to the top. From this vantage point, these lifelong Parisians were delighted by the new panorama of their beloved city. The Seine had become a silver ribbon undulating through a miniature landscape. Most of them had never seen Paris from such a height. It was an exhilarating but somehow chastening sight. After their exertions and, for many, incipient vertigo, half of the group declined to ascend any higher.
Only Gustave Eiffel and two dozen others, including his son-in-law, Salles, Lockroy, Gaston Tissandier, the aerialist editor of La Nature, a few officials, and all the journalists, persevered for the final half-hour climb to the top observation deck. From this lofty new perch, Le Figaro’s reporter discovered that the human landscape and enterprise were reduced to disquieting inconsequence: “Mounts Valérien, Montmartre, Sannois, all look like little grey blobs; the forest of Saint-Germain fades into the blue mists, the Seine becomes a tranquil rivulet, traversed by Lilliputian barges, and Paris appears like a tiny stage set with its straight roads, squares rooftops, and orderly facades. The tiny black dots are the crowds. Everything everywhere looks devoid of life, except for the green of the Bois; there is no visible movement in this immensity; no noise to show the life of the people who are ‘below.’ One would say that a sudden slumber has, in broad daylight, rendered the city inert and silent.”
Gustave Eiffel now also announced the installation of a plaque on the tower with the names of 199 of his workmen to honour their hard and faithful labour. While there had been the strikes, he as well as anyone appreciated the sheer physical effort, the terrible cold, the relentless pace, and the necessary precision and care involved in assembling this 7,300-ton structure. The tower had, regrettably, taken two lives: a worker who died in a fall while not on shift, and another hurt in an accident who then died of gangrene.
The elevators for the tower turned out to be a very complex and intricate problem for the time. As no one had ever erected a tower of 300 meters, no one had any experience with building elevators to reach such heights. If the crowds could not ascend safely and swiftly up the Eiffel Tower, what sort of attraction would it be?
The fair commission supervising the tower’s construction together with Eiffel had early on jointly retained an engineer named Backmann to design the tower’s elevators. “The curvature of the Tower’s legs imposed a problem unique in elevator design, and it caused great annoyance to Eiffel, the Fair’s Commission, and all others concerned,” wrote technology historian Robert M. Vogel. “The problem of reaching the first platform was not serious. The legs were wide enough and their curvature so slight in this lower portion as to permit them to contain a straight run of track… Two elevators to operate only that far were contracted for with no difficulty — one to be placed in the east leg and one in the west.”
The truly perplexing issue was how to safely and swiftly transport passengers the 115 meters up from the ground to the second platform (the north leg) and also from the first platform to the second (the south leg). These two elevators would have to negotiate the tower’s most pronounced curvature, an unprecedented challenge in an era when elevators ran not on electric motors, but by hydraulic or water pressure. Then, to reach the top of the tower, passengers on the second platform would have to take yet another elevator and ascend in two stages, making a quick transfer halfway up.
Monsieur Backmann chose to address himself only to designing the elevator for the ascent from the second platform to the very top, leaving the commission to seek bids elsewhere for the four elevators leading to the first and then second floors. The commission had ruled that any elevator installed in the Eiffel Tower would have to be absolutely safe, reasonably swift, and of French manufacture. The first-floor contract, a simple enough matter, was awarded to Roux, Combaluzier et Lepape, who would install a clunky articulated chain-link device that would move the cars up and down with a notable but stolid clatter.
But when the commission solicited bids for the second-floor elevators, only the Paris branch of the American Otis Brothers and Company responded. The company prided itself on its global preeminence, as Charles Otis told shareholders not long afterward: “[We] have shipped our products to almost every civilized country of the globe. We have opened a large acquaintance and trade with Australia… Our London connection is promising well… notwithstanding the well known prejudice of the English people against American products… Our business along the Pacific Slope has also been satisfactory. We have during the past year shipped elevators to China and South America.”
But Otis, however global its reach, was not a French firm, and so the commission briskly rejected its interest as an impertinence, and issued another call for bids. Again no French firms came forward. By then, the summer of 1887, Eiffel was six months into his labours, and some firm would soon have to begin elevator work on what was the most difficult section of the tower. The commission reluctantly waived its own rules for French suppliers only and in July awarded the $22,500 contract to Otis.
W. Frank Hall, the Otis representative in Paris, gloried in the challenge: “Yes, this is the first elevator of its kind. Our people for thirty-eight years have been doing this work, and have constructed thousands of elevators vertically, and many on an incline, but never one to strike a radius of 49 meters for a distance of over 15 meters. It has required a great amount of preparatory study.” It soon emerged that the Otis Company had been studying the matter ever since Eiffel won Lockroy’s contest. “Quite so,” said Hall, “we knew that, although the French authorities were very reluctant to give away this piece of work, they would be bound to come to us, and so we were preparing for them.” After all, Otis Brothers had just installed the elevator in what had been the world’s tallest structure up until then, the Washington Monument. Little did the ebullient Hall of Otis or Eiffel dream of the dire troubles and conflicts ahead.
The Otis Company proposed a design of double-decked elevators that, because of the unusual incline, would operate on regular rail sections. The motive power was to be the usual hydraulic cylinder sunk in the ground and moved by water pressure. Steam engines would pump Seine river water up to a large reservoir on the second platform. When that reservoir’s water began to flow back to the ground, it would power the cylinders, activating a block and tackle that would enable the counterweighted elevators to go up and down, as controlled by the elevator operator. When Hall had first presented the Otis plans, Eiffel and the commission felt uncomfortable with the fact that the elevators would be pulled by cables from the top, rather than pushed from the bottom, as was the European system. The method simply seemed less safe, when safety was paramount.
The fair commissioners and all Paris still remembered with a shudder the Baroness de Schack’s dreadful death a decade earlier, when the ascending elevator in the Grand Hôtel malfunctioned, plummeting like a stone from the top floor to the basement. Eiffel accordingly demanded “a device that permitted the car to be lowered by hand, even after failure of all the hoisting cables,” and when Hall balked at this feature, Eiffel then insisted that the Otis Company’s chief engineer, Thomas E. Brown, Jr., come over from the United States to confer with him.
Safety, speed, and quality were characteristics on which Otis Brothers and Company of New York prided itself, but above all, safety. If an Otis elevator’s hoisting cables broke or stretched out, powerful leaf springs were released, causing the brake shoes to grip the rails, thus bringing the falling car to a gradual halt. All who followed the history of elevators could cite the famous moment in 1854 when firm founder Elisha G. Otis dramatically demonstrated “the perfect safety of his elevator by cutting the hoisting rope of a suspended platform on which he himself stood.” As the platform came to a gentle stop, Mr. Otis declared to his astonished audience, “All safe, gentlemen!” But almost four decades of established Otis safety were not sufficiently reassuring for Eiffel and the commission.
After months of protracted meetings, the Otis officials informed Eiffel that if he and the commission insisted on dictating the design of the elevators, they would withdraw from the contract. The French finally backed down.
In the meantime, Eiffel had decided once again to modify slightly the tower’s legs, which of course meant further alterations to the elevator designs. About this same time, Eiffel and the commission, examining their man Backmann’s second effort to design an elevator serving the top, realized he was no connoisseur of elevators. In mid 1888, they rejected his plans, which included the worrisome novelty of an electric motor, and fired him.
With just one year until the fair and Backmann dismissed, Eiffel had to find another provider for the elevator to the top. The problem, in this age before electric motors were the norm, was the sheer footage to be ascended: 160 meters. Eiffel turned to an old classmate, Léon Édoux, an elevator inventor and magnate who had installed a very successful 70 meter elevator in the Trocadéro Palace across the Seine. Édoux came up with “an ingenious modification… The run was divided into two equal sections, each of 80 meters, and two cars were used.” When one was going up to the interim platform where you changed for the final ride to the top, the other was coming down, and so no other weights were needed than the cars themselves. “When these two elevators were in operation, water was admitted to the two cylinders [that provided power] from a tank on the third platform. The resultant hydraulic head was sufficient to force out the rams and raise the upper car.”
At the Eiffel Tower, meanwhile, matters were not proceeding smoothly with Otis. As the months ticked by in the second half of 1888, every structural adjustment in the interior of the tower’s legs required the Otis Company to make its own elevator design accommodations. Moreover, all the extra work had forced Otis to revise the price of the two elevators upward to $30,000, a 30 percent surcharge. Even the new higher price did not reflect the true cost of the complicated elevators. The Otis Company now expected to lose $20,000 on the contract. Finally, Otis informed Eiffel that because of the constant changes the firm could no longer guarantee full operation of the two elevators by the contract deadline of January 1, 1889. However, Otis did assure Eiffel that all would be running smoothly by May 1 when the fair opened.
That wasn’t to be. Since the lifts had not been completed when the Exposition opened, the first visitors had to walk up to the second floor platform. Workers had worked through the night the day before the exhibition opened to complete the necessary construction needed to safely allow patrons to set foot upon the structure. When speaking of the dedicated workers, M. Salles, the son-in-law of Eiffel made the statement that “no soldier on the battle field deserved better mention than these humble toilers, who, will never go down in history.” No one other than construction personnel were allowed higher than the second floor platform.
It was a month later, in June, when Gustave Eiffel had the immense satisfaction of finally watching the public debark from the completed elevators. The event was front-page news in the Paris Herald, whose man reported on his own journey: “From the second floor runs a large car, holding sixty people… [The elevator] is simply a square box, with the upper part of two sides glazed… In two minutes and a half, the car arrives at a platform, which may be called floor number two and a half… Here the guard calls out ‘All change here,’ and the passengers walk across a narrow bridge into a similar elevator which takes them as high as they are allowed to go. ‘Mind the step as you go out, ladies,’ says the thoughtful guard. Everybody, of course, looks at the step, and between a rather dangerously wide crack in the boards, sees the grounds of the Exhibition gardens, two hundred and seventy-five metres below… The sensation upon going up can scarcely be described as pleasant, especially as from time to time the elevator gives strange little jerks.”
The reporter from Pulitzer’s New York World patriotically lauded the Otis lifts and their “great triumph of American skill” before describing how “975 feet above the world people become pigmies… At this height the Arc de Triomphe has become a little toy and the churches are like those in the Dutch boxes of villages. It was all map-like and indefinite; the people were crawling ants; all that looked large had disappeared, excepting a balloon, which was our contemporary.”
Other visitors had to contend with their newly discovered fear of heights, such as an Englishman from Manchester who said: “Though the hand rail is high enough, still there are thoughts of going over which are anything but pleasant. However, perseverance is repaid when one steps out on the top platform… there is no comparison between 1,000 feet of mountain and 1,000 feet of Eiffel. The absence of any ground falling away from one’s feet, or of any surrounding mountains, gives us a sense of isolation and unnaturalness new to any but a balloonist or steeplejack. It takes a few moments before one can muster nerve to walk on the edge of the platform and look over. You must have a strong head to do that… [I]t takes some time before one can realize that the winding rivulet is the silver Seine… The only distinguishable moving objects are small clouds of white smoke traveling slowly along—the railways… Above all, an almighty silence, which is most oppressive.”
The tower’s sheer enormity and complexity, its many levels, the constantly moving elevators, the excited crowds, the delicious smells wafting from the crowded restaurants, the many little souvenir and snack stalls, the busy editing and publishing of Le Figaro, all combined to create an atmosphere of exhilaration. Eiffel was gratified to see how people wished to experience his tower, to be part of something so new, so gargantuan, so modern, which he viewed as an affirmation of technology, of progress.
Republican France had invited every nation of the world to its fête. The great European powers responded with hostility, for while the republican government might insist its fair was celebrating liberty, science, and technology, Europe’s monarchs viewed it as a celebration of the downfall and beheading of kings and queens. Lord Salisbury, speaking for Great Britain, protested the very idea of the French celebration. The Russian czar bluntly denounced the French revolution “as an abomination”. Germany dismissed universal exhibitions as “ ‘out of date. Their inconveniences are not balanced by their advantages.’ Austria used as a pretext the Parisian manifestations in favour of Hungary. Italy said: ‘The expense is greater than we could bear.’ ” Spain had declined, as had Belgium, Holland, Sweden, and Romania. Turkey, like Italy, had pleaded poverty. Only the Central and South American nations had enthusiastically RSVP’d, as had Japan. The French republicans dismissed the royal whiners, confident that the fair would showcase France’s role “as educator, benefactor, and distributor of light and bread”.
So it was very gratifying to the French when Queen Victoria’s son and heir, Arthur Edward, Prince of Wales, his wife, Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, and their five adult children came to Paris “privately” to tour the World’s Fair officially snubbed by his own government. All Paris knew that Queen Victoria had recalled her ambassador to France, Lord Lytton, just to make sure he did not attend this Gallic centennial celebration of monarchical downfall. The prince and his family were at the top of the tower barely ten minutes, just long enough to admire the view and sign Gustave Eiffel’s new Livre d’Or, a handsome, oversize green leather bound book with watered-silk end pages. The royal signatures featured impressive flourishes and occupied the entire first page. Theirs would be but the first of many illustrious autographs and messages to come, mementos of this summer when the Eiffel Tower was new. Later Eiffel would say proudly, “We gave the monarchies the spectacle of democracy happy by virtue of its own effort.”
Other signatures in the Livre d’Or are from Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty; Vicomte de Vogüé and his Russian wife, Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous woman in Paris and the greatest actress of her time; former queen Isabella II of Spain, whose misrule had caused her to be exiled in 1868; the Duke of Edinburgh, an admiral in the British navy; the Russian czar-to-be Nicholas II; Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt; Prince Kitiyahara, heir apparent to the throne of Siam, and his younger brothers, Pravita Chira and Rabi; King George of Greece and his queen; Dinah Salifou, Muslim king of Senegal; and Count Münster, the German ambassador, whose government and private enterprises had been ostentatiously boycotting the fair. Nasir al-Din, the Shah of Persia, made to the first platform only by walking up. The Shah balked at riding the Eiffel Tower elevators.
Another signature in the Livre d’Or was that Thomas Edison who made a surprised visit to Paris for the exposition. Edison’s powerful incandescent lights played over the surface of the tower and through the waters of the fountains at the tower’s base. Visitors from every nation crowded together on the Champs de Mars and the Trocadero hill to catch a glimpse of this new form of spectacle. W.B. Franklin wrote with open admiration of these events:
It is a well-known fact that the French excel all other people in the art of ornamental illumination. Every detail connected with the illumination of the Exposition buildings, fountains, and grounds was elaborately worked out, so that it may easily be imagined what a source of interest and pleasure these nightly illuminations were to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, who waited long hours and bore every inconvenience of weather to see them. On many occasions the crowd was enormous, but it was always good-natured, and the simultaneous expressions of surprise, admiration, and delight that came from thousands of voices when the fountains were suddenly lighted up was an amusing and impressive feature of the scene.
By midsummer most of the writers and artists who had denounced the tower in Le Temps had expressed their mea culpas, with the notable exception of Guy de Maupassant. But even he found that he had no choice but to visit the tower if he wished to socialize. The most chic Parisians and the city’s intellectuals all flocked to the tower restaurants. “Friends no longer dine at home or accept a dinner invitation at your home,” he complained. “When invited, they accept only on condition that it is for a banquet on the Eiffel Tower — they think it gayer that way. As if obeying a general order, they invite you there every day of the week for either lunch or dinner.”
In his travel memoir, La Vie Errante, Maupassant claimed, “I left Paris and even France, because the Eiffel Tower just annoyed me too much. Not only did you see it from everywhere; you found it everywhere made out of every known material, displayed in all the shop windows, an unavoidable and horrible nightmare.” De Maupassant wondered what posterity would think of his generation “if, in some future riot, we do not unbolt this tall, skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant and disgraceful skeleton with a base that seems made to support a formidable monument of Cyclops and which aborts into the thin, ridiculous profile of a factory chimney.”
But de Maupassant and his sour opinions were by now very much in the minority. Most days, even during bad weather, eleven thousand or twelve thousand people swarmed about the tower. Eiffel hoped that he and his shareholders would see almost two million persons pay admission, thus recouping the entire cost of the tower by the end of the fair. The Eiffel Tower was proving to be not only a technological milestone, a potent political symbol, and a great popular and artistic success but also a financial triumph.
The Eiffel Tower’s fame and allure have only grown with the passing decades. In 1889 more than two million people came to ascend the tower. That figure would not be matched again until 1965. Today seven million visitors annually wait in long lines for the pleasure of communing with the landmark. Mega-skyscrapers long ago overshadowed the Eiffel Tower’s status as the world’s tallest structure. Yet no other man-made artefact has ever rivalled the tower’s potent mixture of spare elegance, amazing enormity and complexity when experienced firsthand. The gargantuan wrought-iron skeleton provokes awe as it lays bare the details of Eiffel’s practical engineering genius.
The Eiffel Tower, with its sheer aerial playfulness and charm, literally comes to life as crowds clamber up and down its stairs and elevators, and dine and eat and flirt aloft on its platforms high in the sky. And, of course, when visitors feel that frisson of unease as they gaze far below to the panorama of Paris. The Eiffel Tower still speaks uniquely to the human fascination with science and technology and to the human desire for pleasure and joie de vivre. In 1889, Jules Simon, the republican politician and philosopher, declared, “We are all citizens of the Eiffel Tower,” a sentiment as true today as it was then.
Since Eiffel contributed the majority of the tower’s construction costs, he was permitted to have the structure stand for 20 years in order to recoup his investment before it passed into the hands of the Parisian government, which planned to disassemble it for scrap metal. Seeking a way to prove the structure’s strategic utility in a bid to save it, Eiffel erected an antenna atop the tower and financed experiments with wireless telegraphy that began in 1898. The value of the tower in sending and receiving wireless messages, particularly for the French military, caused the city to renew Eiffel’s concession when it expired in 1909. Today, more than 100 antennae on the tower beam radio and television broadcasts around the world.
An hour by train from Paris, and a 5 minute walk from the train station in Nogent-sur-Seine, is the new Musée Camille Claudel.
The museum was founded in 1902 with donations from Paul Dubois (1829–1905) and Alfred Boucher (1850–1934), two accomplished sculptors who lived and worked in Nogent-sur-Seine. In 2013, the municipality decided to relocate and rename the museum from Musée Dubois-Boucher to Musée Camille Claudel in honour of Claudel, and to focus the new display around 43 pieces by the artist, many of which were acquired in 2008 from Reine-Marie Paris, the artist’s great-niece and biographer.
This is the largest public collection of works by Claudel; it is shown here alongside more than 150 works by other 19th century sculptors, a combination of the municipal museum’s existing holdings, and pieces on long-term loan from 15 other French institutions. The Claudel family lived in Nogent-sur-Seine, a small town south-east of Paris, for only three years during Camille’s adolescence. In a sense, the Musée Camille Claudel is unlike other museums set in ‘birthplace’ towns, where the landscape, people and economy relate to an artist’s early work: the Musée Matisse in the weaving town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, for example, or the Musée Courbet in Ornans, in the farming and riverfishing Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region.
The Musée Camille Claudel is designed by Adelfo Scaranello, who has inserted simple, light-filled rooms into the brick shell of the former home of the Claudel family, and designed an extension. The upper floor boasts a panoramic view of the attractive small town, its wealth derived from processing cereals and making sophisticated fire-fighting equipment as well as from the nuclear power plant, the towers of which are visible in the distance. The original collection contains enormous plasters, some rather bland, that have subjects related to historical, allegorical and classical themes – such as Gabriel Jules Thomas’s Man Fighting a Serpent (1893) and Paul Dubois’s Equestrian Statue of Joan of Arc (1889). Claudel’s more intense work is well-placed in five modest-scaled galleries, in which the emphasis is on the evolution of her skills and voice, and on her variations of a single model in terracotta, bronze, marble, and onyx. These displays of her work are wisely not encumbered by too much biographical information, since this would defeat the purpose of understanding the artist’s legacy in its own terms.
Born in 1864, Claudel began modelling as a young girl and, at her father’s request, she was given occasional tutorials by Boucher. When she moved to Paris, along with her mother and siblings, Claudel attended art classes at the Académie Colarossi, a studio run by an Italian sculptor. This private way of studying art was the only way open to women, since they were denied access to the École des Beaux-Arts, the ultimate goal being the Prix de Rome. Claudel rented a studio for herself at 117 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, which she shared with three English women artists: Amy Singer, Emily Fawcett and Jessie Lipscomb. On occasion, Boucher would visit the young women to offer his advice. He continued to visit her until he went to Rome in 1882, at which point he asked Rodin to take his place.
Claudel met Rodin, probably in 1883, when he was working in a studio at 182, rue de l’Université. Camille soon left her studio to become an habitué of Rodin’s. Camille the habitué soon became Camille the student, the mode, the collaborator, the composer, the companion, the lover, the mistress and the muse of Rodin. After a visit to the Salon in early 1883, the painter Léon Lhermitte wrote to Rodin: ‘It was with great pleasure that I saw Mlle Claudel’s figure of a man. It reflects the greatest credit on your teaching.’
Claudel’s relationship with Rodin developed quickly and they embarked on an intense affair that lasted for more than 10 years. The complex story of how the pair overlapped in this period – both personally and professionally – and the years after, is sympathetically told in Claudel & Rodin: Fateful Encounter, the well-researched catalogue to the touring exhibition organised by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the Musée Rodin in 2005–06. As sculptors, their lives were conditioned by the need to show new work in the annual Salon, to finance an expensive vocation by attracting potential buyers and good critical notices, and to endure the frustrations of protracted negotiations and cancelled or rejected commissions with fortitude and self-belief. From the research presented in this, and other publications, we can be certain that Rodin was beside himself with love. Camille was wilful, possessive and jealous, demanding that he sign a bizarre contract in October 1886; the conditions included a promise to renounce other women, including favourite models and prospective students, to bring her along on his travels, and to marry her in 1887. In return she agreed to receive him in her studio four times a month.
From the outset, Claudel absorbed the method Rodin advocated, to ‘model solely by profiles’ and to pay close attention to the individual model as they moved freely. Adèle Abbruzzesi, one of Rodin’s favourite models, posed in a squatting position, head turned, hand on breast, for his radical work Crouching Woman (c. 1881–82) – which is displayed in the museum next to Claudel’s work of the same name from around 1884–85. Octave Mirbeau referred to Rodin’s cast as ‘the frog’; Claudel’s work, however, is more realistic and believable. The young figure is fuller, and the breasts drop with gravity as she shields her bowed head with her arm. It is just as much a sculptural breakthrough as Rodin’s Crouching Woman.
The photograph taken in April 1887 by the fiancé of a fellow pupil (above) shows Claudel working on the large standing sculpture, Sakountala, and it suggests something of her competitive spirit. The two-person group loosely describes the final scene in the story by a Sanskrit poet, in which Prince Douchanta decides not to marry the maiden Sakountala, and his ensuing regret and return. The male figure kneels to embrace the female and ask forgiveness; Claudel’s first title was L’Abandon (The Abandonment). The contact between the couple seems sweaty and tense, and more human compared to Rodin’s lyrical couples in Eternal Idol and Fugit Amor, dating to the same period.
One interpretation of Claudel’s masterpiece L’Âge mûr (The Age of Maturity), begun in 1893, is that it represents a male figure being drawn away by a personification of old age, while simultaneously being held back by a figure of youth. But, when linked to a group of angry drawings by Camille, one of which caricatures Rose Beuret, Rodin’s long-term companion, as a witch with a broom, and another showing her glued by her backside to Rodin, the three-figure sculpture, so disturbing and unforgettable, clearly seems autobiographical. Beuret is wrapped in Rodin’s embrace, and Claudel is on her knees, begging him to choose her. The bronze version includes a sweeping backdrop that goes from undergrowth to canopy, fashioned with deep recesses; it was described by the artist’s brother, Paul Claudel, as related to ‘the Wagnerian melopoeia’ – an example of how he projected his own poetic sensibility on to her work while overlooking its message of desperation. The young female figure is known as The Implorer; Claudel’s variation of the older woman, Clotho (1893), loops skeins of stringy hair around her emaciated body in an image that invites parallels with Donatello’s wooden Mary Magdalene (c. 1455).
Claudel felt that there was much to be learned in Rodin’s studio. And by all accounts, she worked long and hard and not just on beginner’s exercises, but on works of great quality. What became intolerable to Claudel was the fact that Rodin continued to exploit her, or. as she said in a letter to her brother in 1907, “uses me in all sorts of ways”. The conflict between her and Rose Beuret continued, but more telling, perhaps, was the anger or frustration she felt over the fact that her vision of art as expression of something silent in nature did not coincide with Rodin’s vision. By 1888, the relationship between Claudel and Rodin had already deteriorated; leading to their final separation in 1893.
During these same years, Claudel met the young composer Claude Debussy and she realised that she was not alone in her preoccupation with the mysterious and the unspoken. With Debussy, Camille acquired a taste for sonatas in solitude, in utter quiet. Consequently, Camille Claudel began to distance herself from Rodin; she began to see her art more and more as antithetical to the art of Rodin. She saw her art as an art of the unspoken, of inner solitude, of intimacy, of the ideal of beauty and truth that differed from the art of Rodin. No words can express more clearly the essence of Claudel’s art at this time and, by implication, point to its difference with Rodin’s art, than the words of Debussy himself:
In the works sculpted by Camille Claudel there is a fixed kind of beauty that her gestures already sketched.. This kind of beauty realised by a woman… has plastic eloquence of an extraordinary power blended with a deep accent of intimacy, as an echo of secret or familiar emotions sprung from a strong interior where they can sing at mid-voice.
In the late 1890s Claudel changed artistic direction in her experiments with groups of small-scale figures placed within sculptural environments, which were inspired by watching people on the street or in a train carriage. The Gossips (1893–1905) depicts an animated huddle of four nude yet perfectly coiffured women, while the introspective Deep Thought (c. 1898), sees an ordinary woman wearing a long dress kneel before a fireplace, her arms raised to the mantelpiece. Combining bronze and marble, one version features logs in the hearth, the other leaves the setting empty. Addressing mental frailty from a female perspective, as so many of her works do, marks Claudel’s art as unusually courageous. This candour, and the quality of her art, have rightly earned her dedicated fans, just as Frida Kahlo’s paintings have by communicating her physical pain and similar loneliness.
Claudel’s creativity came to an end when she was 41, following years of growing paranoia. Persée et la Gorgone (Perseus and the Gorgon) (1902), commissioned by Countess Arthur de Maigret and carved by François Pompon, is a large marble endowed by Claudel with frightening neoclassical overtones; one assumes that the raised trophy head of Medusa is a self-portrait. By this point in her career, Claudel was convinced that she was being persecuted, especially by Rodin; in her letters she complains of his ‘malevolent hand working behind the scenes to divest me of all my friendships’. Rodin, like her parents and supporters – among them Mathias Morhardt and Eugène Blot – sent Claudel regular stipends to help ward off impoverishment and continually tried to arrange sales and opportunities for her to show her work. Rodin wanted a room devoted to Claudel’s work in the future Musée Rodin, and one eventually opened in 1952.
The last portrait Claudel made was of her younger brother Paul, a writer and diplomat. Paul Claudel à 37 ans (1905) captures his unwavering look; by this point he was a public figure who disapproved of his sister’s affair.
Camille’s father died on March 2, 1913. As soon as this last support was gone, the Claudel family quickly moved to have Camille committed. On March 10 Camille was forcibly interned in an asylum near Paris. Her diagnosis was paranoid psychosis. Some of her supporters voiced objections, but these came to naught. When the war began Camille was transferred to the Montdevergues asylum in the south of France, where she remained until she died in 1943.
In 1929, Camille’s old friend and colleague, Jessie Lipscomb, who had returned to England and married, found out where Camille was hospitalized. She and her husband then visited her in Montdevergues. Jessie insisted after their reunion that Camille had shown no signs of madness. Jessie’s, husband, William Elborne, took two photographs. One shows Camille alone, seated with her arms folded. The other shows Camille and Jessie seated together.
With her arms folded around herself, Camille does not seem to see Jessie’s hand softly reaching out to her. The long years of isolation have taken their toll; Camille looks empty and withdrawn.
Social isolation is probably the worst approach to treating paranoia. The asylum in Montdevergues did not provide adequate or any treatment. So Camille Claudel lived in a veritable hell.
Camille’s rejection by her family reflected the way mental disorders were considered at the time – mad relatives were hidden away from society and ignored. Camille’s mother was so scandalized by her daughter’s behaviour and so constrained by her rigid religion that she never once visited her in hospital. Louise also could not bring herself to have anything to do with her wayward sister. Paul, despite their closeness as children and despite his enthusiasm for her art, had little to do with Camille after she was admitted to Montdevergues. He visited her only a few times, and refused all of her requests to be released or transferred closer to the family.
In a photograph taken in 1951, the elderly Paul Claudel holds onto a bust Camille made of him when he was young. The photograph is imbued with regret. Yet it is not clear whether it is for himself or his sister.
My guess is that his regret is for himself.
One of the most insightful impressions of Camille is a plaster cast by Rodin, aptly entitled The Farewell, created the year before their final separation. Both the hands and the face are exquisitely moulded. The sculpture is ambiguous. Are the hands reaching up to stop the tears, to shut out the world, or to gather something in?
Only a handful of sculptures are sufficiently famous to achieve the dubious honour of reproduction on T-shirts and fridge magnets. Michelangelo’s David probably leads this pack but close behind must be Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Much parodied – the pose seems to invite mocking emulation – the work features in the exhibition in Paris’ Grand Palais which marks the 100th anniversary of the sculptor’s death.
Rodin was the pre-eminent sculptor of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era, and The Thinker and The Kiss are among the most instantly recognizable sculptures in the world.
Yet Rodin did not win recognition easily: he was already 36 when his life-size figure The Age of Bronze was accepted by the Paris Salon. Even then accusations were made that it had not been sculpted but cast from a living figure. The charge was a foretaste of the hostile criticism that was to greet most of his work, and which at first caused him much distress.
Auguste Rodin was born in 1840, the second child and only son of Jean-Baptiste Rodin and Marie Cheffer, first-generation Parisians of modest means. Nothing in his family background or situation suggested that he might become an artist. At age thirteen, however, Rodin decided to enrol in the Ecole Spèciale de Dessin et de Mathématique, a school with the mission to educate the designers and the artisans of the French nation. In the course of his studies, young Rodin articulated larger goals for himself, specifically to become a sculptor. He entered the competition for admission to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts three times, but each time met with failure.
Rodin escaped the rigid Neoclassical training that still dominated its curriculum in the mid 1850s, but forfeited the early success that École graduates were ordinarily assured. Having failed to enter the elite track, a solitary Rodin plied two paths, one to pay his bills, the other to bring him to the attention of the great world of art in Paris. Neither worked well. Although he was engaged in the studio of Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), one of the most visible and productive sculptors in Paris during the Second Empire, Rodin remained quite poor; and though he produced a work in 1863-1864, The Man with the Broken Nose, that he considered an excellent work of sculpture, surely worthy of entry to the Salon, twice it was refused. During this period of ill-starred beginnings, when Rodin was in his twenties, he also assumed family responsibilities. In 1864 he began living with Rose Beuret, who became his lifelong companion. In the same year she gave birth to their only son, Auguste Beuret. It was a period marked by struggle, discontent, and poverty, only brought to an end by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
The war created a situation in which sculptors could hardly hope to find work in Paris. Fortunately for Rodin, Carrier-Belleuse had a major commission in Brussels, where the city was building a new Bourse. Rodin’s Brussels residency began in March 1871. Although his employ with Carrier-Belleuse soon ended, he found a Belgian partner, Joseph Van Rasbourgh (1831-1902), with whom he was able to continue working at the Bourse. The work with Van Rasbourgh developed into a real partnership, with Rodin as the primary administrator responsible for the day-to-day operations of a studio from which some fine public commissions were brought to completion between 1872 and 1874.
Rodin’s most notable single figure of his Brussels period, however, was the one he undertook on his own in 1875. His desire to understand the male body combined with his ambition to create an outstanding work that would establish his reputation led Rodin to embark on a month-long trip to Italy between February and March 1876. There he would study the figures of antiquity, of Donatello, and especially those of Michelangelo. The following winter Rodin exhibited this figure in plaster in the rooms of the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire in Brussels, calling it Le Vainçu (The Vanquished One). It became his ticket back to Paris, where it was accepted for the Salon of 1877 under the title The Age of Bronze. It is Rodin’s first recognized masterpiece.
The Age of Bronze was a controversial figure, mostly because it looked so close to life that critics raised the question if it might not be a cast from life. One man who admired it unreservedly, however, was Edmund Turquet, a liberal politician serving in the Chambre des Députés, who, in 1879 became Undersecretary of State for fine arts. Turquet was ambitious and hoped to be the commissioner for many public works of art. One of his most unusual ideas was to commission a bronze door for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs – unusual because no such museum existed, although there was much talk about creating one. Turquet offered his strange commission to Rodin. The museum was never built and the door was never cast in Rodin’s lifetime, but The Gates of Hell – as we now call it – was Rodin most important work. It was the canvas across which would pass the totality of his imagination; it was the surface from which he would draw the creations of an entire career.
The decade of the 1880s, when Rodin was in his forties, was the most intense and productive of his entire life. It was the time when he modelled the majority of the figures for his “doors”, as he called them. The title, The Gates of Hell, was one that began to appear in the writing of several critics around 1886-1889.
The Gates of Hell feature hundreds of figures modelled in low- to high-relief and even nearly in-the-round. The imagery in Rodin’s Gates was inspired by Dante’s Inferno. With Dante as his inspiration, Rodin created a mash pit of tormented souls; it presented not only the underworld but also the suffering of humankind in general.
The composition of The Gates was inspired by the long tradition of compartmentalized church doors, specifically the doors to the Baptistery in Florence. These, called The Gates of Paradise, were designed between 1425 and 1452 by the Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. In his Gates of Hell, however, Rodin abandoned the stacked-box-like, linear narration seen in Ghiberti’s traditionally-composed doors and instead created a free-form environment in which tormented souls float and weave in a surging arrangement.
When the commission for The Gates was cancelled (the government built a train station — the Gare d’Orsay, now the Musée d’Orsay — on the site instead of the decorative arts museum), Rodin began to exhibit the figures that populated The Gates as independent sculptures, sometimes reduced and/or enlarged in size. These pieces, separated from the original Gates, took on new meaning. Among the most well-known of these independent pieces are The Thinker, The Kiss and The Three Shades. This practice of re-using pieces from one project in another and of producing casts in various sizes, was part of Rodin’s studio practice from 1880 onward.
Resting on the tympanum (the horizontal panel above the double doors), The Thinker is the focal point of The Gates and subsequently has become perhaps the most well-known sculpture of all time. The athletic-looking figure is a man in sombre meditation yet also one whose muscles strain with effort – possibly to signify a powerful internal struggle. Rodin initially referred to the figure as Dante, but it has evolved into a more symbolic representation of creativity, intellect, and perhaps above all, the act of thinking.
The Kiss is one of Rodin’s most widely admired works. Originally conceived as part of The Gates of Hell, it did not appear as such in the final version. The lovers in The Kiss are Paolo and Francesca, who Dante placed in the Second Circle of Hell in his Inferno. Their story was a popular subject of painting and sculpture during the 19th century: While reading the tale of Camelot’s Lancelot and Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca exchange glances and realize their mutual lust. Just like Camelot’s lovers, Paolo and Francesca succumb to desire and passionately embrace. Immediately discovered, the couple is slain by Francesca’s husband, who was also Paolo’s brother.
Rodin captured the moment when the doomed pair realized their passion. His sculpture defied tradition by showing them unclothed instead of in Florentine dress. First exhibited in 1887, initially this hungry depiction of erotic love shocked viewers, primarily because of Francesca’s shameless awareness of her sexuality. Within a year, however, the sculpture was accepted and admired by the French. Indeed, the piece was in great demand in all of its four sizes, and as there was no tradition then of limiting the number of casts that could be made, between 1898 and 1918 one foundry alone produced 319 casts. The government of France even commissioned a marble version for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 (now in the Musée Rodin).
Standing at the very top of The Gates of Hell, The Three Shades (a shade is a ghost or phantom) gesture downward, with heads lowered and arms extended, appearing despondent and weary. Rodin’s contemporaries believed The Three Shades spoke Dante’s warning, inscribed above the gate to Hell in the Inferno: “Abandon every hope, ye who enters here.”
After an 1875 visit to Michelangelo’s work in Italy, Rodin began a piece of sculpture that was greatly influenced by Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rodin altered the pose of Michelangelo’s reclining figure, making his own Adam upright with his hand gesturing downward instead of outward. Eventually Rodin’s Shade emerged as a variation of his Adam. Here are three identical casts of the same figure, each positioned at a slightly different angle. In using three figures together, Rodin knew they would each lose their identity as Adam and would instead become Shades – shadows of the living dead. Perhaps to symbolize their powerlessness, Rodin also deprived the shades of their right hands and represented their left hands as simply modeled fists. (The enlarged version of The Three Shades, however, does have the right hands intact and the left hands modeled in greater detail.)
The figures for the doors were far from being the extent of Rodin’s activity in the eighties. He created a series of brilliant realistic portraits which he showed in the Salons of the 1880s. It was in connection with these portraits that critics began to describe him as a great artist, perhaps even the best young sculptor in modern France. The eighties was also the decade of The Burghers of Calais, probably Rodin’s most satisfactory and successful public monument.
The Burghers of Calais, commemorating an episode during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, is probably the best and the most successful of Rodin’s public monuments. Rodin followed the recounting of Jean Froissart, a 14th century French chronicler, who wrote of the war. According to Froissart, King Edward III made a deal with the citizens of Calais: if they wished to save their lives and their beloved city, then not only must they surrender the keys to the city, but six prominent members of the city council must volunteer to give up their lives. The leader of the group was Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who Rodin depicted with a bowed head and bearded face towards the middle of the gathering. To Saint-Pierre’s left, with his mouth closed in a tight line and carrying a giant set of keys, is Jean d’Aire. The remaining men are identified as Andrieu d’Andres, Jean de Fiennes, and Pierre and Jacques de Wissant.
Unbeknownst to the six burghers, at the time of their departure, their lives would eventually be spared. However, here Rodin made the decision to capture these men not when they were finally released, but in the moment that they gathered to leave the city to go to their deaths. Instead of depicting the elation of victory, the threat of death is very real. Furthermore, Rodin stretched his composition into a circle causing no one man to be the focal point which allows the sculpture to be viewed in-the-round from multiple perspectives with no clear leader.
By the end of the decade, when the sculptor joined Claude Monet (1840-1926) in a large exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, Rodin was clearly a major presence in the world of modern art, a man from whom much could be expected. In the coming decade he would spend much of his time on two of the most coveted commissions a French sculptor could hope to achieve: the Monument to Victor Hugo for the Panthéon and the Monument to Balzac for the Société des Gens de Lettres. They went badly, however. Neither work was accepted as originally commissioned.
In 1891, Rodin was commissioned by the Societé des Gens de Lettres (Society of Men of Letters) to create a monument to Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), one of France’s most influential and beloved writers. For the next seven years Rodin struggled to find a way to portray Balzac that would be accurate physically and would also symbolize the writer’s creative genius. Balzac had been dead for forty years, so Rodin also faced the challenge of creating a likeness of a man he had never seen. He consulted photographs, a medium in its infancy in Balzac’s time, and did other research. For instance, he ordered a suit from Balzac’s tailor in the writer’s measurements in order to visualize his considerable size and girth.
During Rodin’s struggle to devise a compelling likeness of Balzac, he completed at least fifty studies; some convey Balzac’s actual appearance and others are more subjective and abstract.
In 1898 Rodin presented the final model for the Balzac monument to the Society of Men of Letters. The nine-foot plaster, modern in its abstraction, was met with outrage, disbelief, and ridicule, and as a result the Society rejected it. Deeply hurt by the criticism, Rodin refused to allow the sculpture to be cast in bronze during his lifetime.
After Victor Hugo’s death in 1885, it was decided to erect a monument in his honour in the Panthéon as a pendant to Injalbert’s statue of Mirabeau. Rodin was awarded the commission in 1889. The sculptor chose to depict Victor Hugo in exile, seated amongst the rocks of Guernsey, his arm outstretched as if to calm the waves. It was an image both of the poet lost in contemplation and of the champion of the Republican cause. This first project, “which lacked clarity and whose silhouette was muddled”, was unanimously rejected. In 1891, the Ministry of Fine Arts found another site for it. It would eventually be erected in the gardens of Palais-Royal. From 1890 onwards, Rodin therefore worked simultaneously on two projects: the first, representing a seated Victor Hugo; the second, for the Panthéon, showing the poet standing. It was also a nude portrait of Victor Hugo, with none of the artifice or idealization usually seen in statues of great men. The body Rodin modelled attested to the writer’s advancing years, which did not fail to shock his contemporaries. The plaster of Seated Victor Hugo was shown at the Salon in Paris in 1897, alongside two of the inspirational muses, The Tragic Muse and Meditation or The Inner Voice, which had already accompanied the poet in the early sketches, but which were excluded from the final marble version.
Claude Gellée, known as Claude Lorrain, was perhaps the most important 17th century French-born painter. He was a landscape painter when painting landscapes was not considered to be of great importance. Accordingly, he disguised his landscapes by inserting figures, and he gave his finished paintings historical or narrative titles – thus providing his work with the “moral weight” required at the time. Two hundred years after Claude’s death, his native city of Nancy invited Rodin to participate in a competition for a monument to the painter. For inspiration Rodin went to what he perceived to be Claude’s greatest interest, the landscape of light.
The figure was meant to be set high atop a pedestal that was unconventionally enlivened at its base by the figure of Apollo, the sun god, driving his chariot across the sky each day, creating the passage from dawn to sunset. Accordingly the figure of Claude is caught in mid-step, rotating his body to glimpse the rising sun, the source of his delight in nature. A viewer standing below would see Claude twisting and turning, his face in awe at the sight. In this illusion of movement, the painter’s serpentine figure itself would capture light and thus emulate the intentions of the painter.
Rodin had other preoccupations in the 20th century as well, especially collecting and writing. He acquired an impressive collection of ancient sculpture, also purchasing medieval, Indian and Far Eastern work in a way that was adventurous. He enjoyed making his views on these works known both through his own writing and through interviews. Rodin came to be seen as the culmination of all that was great in Western sculpture, or as Camille Mauclair put it: “his reference points are Puget, Goujon, the sculptors of the Middle Ages, of Greece, and the rules for decoration established on the Lion Gate of Mycenae as well as the Serapeum of Memphis.” His reputation and influence extended beyond Europe – to the Far East and to North and South America, and it is safe to say no artist was more famous than Rodin at the beginning of the 20th century.
By the time Rodin’s will was executed, the movements of Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, as well as the new “truth to materials” movement in sculpture, had been established. The attention of the art world moved on and Rodin’s work went into eclipse until after the end of World War II. Then, slowly, in the 1950s and 1960s, with artists and their audience giving a fresh look at fragmentation, assemblage, the figure, and the expressive gesture, Rodin’s sculpture came back into fashion. By the end of the twentieth century, with new Rodin museums in Japan, Korea, and Mexico City, and Rodin shows opening in great profusion, he became once again, perhaps, the most exhibited and collected sculptor in world.
It’s ten years since we visited Musée Rodin. We’ll have to go again. It’s been renovated! And there are newly restored, previously unseen sculptures by Rodin on display.
Musée Rodin reopened on November 12, 2015 following a three-year, €16 million renovation, on what would have been Auguste Rodin’s 175th birthday.
The 18th century Parisian mansion which Rodin used as his studio was already in a bad state of disrepair when the artist bequeathed the building – along with his entire estate – to the French state after his death in 1917.
I give the State all my works in marble, bronze and stone, together with my drawings and the collection of antiquities that I had such pleasure in assembling […] And I ask the state to keep all these collections in the Hôtel Biron, which will become the Musée Rodin, preserving the right to reside there for the rest of my life.
Built in 1732, the mansion housed a wealthy wig maker and financial speculator, then waves of aristocrats until 1820 when it was turned into a Catholic boarding school before the French state took possession. After it was put up for sale in 1905, the building was ultimately rented out to artists and became a refuge for tenants like Rodin; his lover, Camille Claudel; Henri Matisse; and the dancer Isadora Duncan, among others.
Rodin began renting studio space there in 1908 and worked there until the end of his life. Before he died in 1917, he negotiated the agreement with the French state, which still owned the building, to turn it into a museum.
In August 1919, 10 years after Auguste Rodin had this document drafted by his lawyer – and just two years after his death – the Hôtel Biron opened its doors as the Musée Rodin. Few changes needed to be made, as it was already a museum of sorts. In the last years of his life the sculptor had used the elegant 18th century property as a showroom and sculpture garden, as well as a studio; it was the public face of an essentially private man who retired every evening to the Villa des Brillants in suburban Meudon, home to his casting studios, his collection of antiquities, and his reclusive lifelong companion Rose Beuret.
By the time it closed in 2012 for its first ever refurbishment, the 700,000 annual visitors had damaged the museum such that it was on the verge of destruction.
The severely damaged original parquet flooring – parts of which had been patched up with plywood – was copied, replaced, and reinforced. Half of the doors and window frames were beyond repair and had to be completely reconstructed. The lighting fixtures were swapped for a state-of-the-art system that reacts automatically to natural light levels and can be programmed individually. The new layout and different lighting on some displays allows visitors to get very close to the sculptures.
Over 100 antiquities and several plasters have been transferred from Meudon to the Hôtel Biron. In other ways the three-year refurbishment has been so sensitive that its former tenant would have no trouble recognising the place. True, he might be surprised to see the rotundas redecorated with the original 18th century ornamental woodcarvings stripped out and sold by his predecessors as tenants, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to pay for the chapel that now houses temporary exhibitions. He would almost certainly welcome the repainting of the whitewashed walls in a range of mid-toned greys pitched to set off white marble, plaster and bronze to equal effect, and be impressed by the colour temperature-controlled LED lighting system that tops up natural light falling through the windows. And he would appreciate the lift and cleverly concealed toilets, though perhaps not the modernist look of the new oak sculpture stands introduced to unify the displays.
The mark the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin, the Musée Rodin and the cultural umbrella organization Réunion des Musées Nationaux have combined to mount a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris that opened March 22. It includes more than 200 of Rodin’s works, as well as sculptures and drawings by later artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Georg Baselitz, Antony Gormley, Antoine Bourdelle, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti and Joseph Beuys, giving a wider context for his legacy.
Little bears are listening to the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir live recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. In the words of The Globe and Mail, “Every so often, you come across a performance that renders you powerless to resist, that sweeps you away with it, that reminds you of why you fell in love with music in the first place”.
And they are very happy that they don’t have to take France off their travel destination list 🙂 There are so many more walks they have to take!
There are the walks through Napoléon and Josephine’s Paris…
Napoléon Bonaparte: Even when I am gone, I shall remain in people’s minds the star of their rights, my name will be the war cry of their efforts, the motto of their hopes.
Although many people have been shaped by Paris in one way or another, Napoléon Bonaparte is one of a few who can claim to have actually shaped the city itself — quite literally. He had a megalomaniacal obsession with commemorating his numerous military victories with landmarks, which led to the construction of several of the city’s most well-known monuments. It is thanks to him that we have the Arc de Triomphe, the Madeleine, the column at the Place Vendôme and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.
Then there is the Paris of the French Impressionist painters….
No style of painting conjures up the charm and grace of 19th century Paris more than Impressionism. We can instantly call to mind those colourful views of stylish Parisians relaxing in smoke-filled cafés and cabarets or strolling along the city’s bustling quais, bridges and boulevards. Yet, for all the scenes of the Tuileries gardens, the Bois de Boulogne, and suburban boating parties along the Seine, the Impressionists represented the actual streets of Paris relatively rarely – mainly during the late 1860s through the 1870s and, perhaps most surprisingly, within a fairly limited area of the city. Among hundreds of Impressionists canvases, there are only a small number that depict recognisable Parisian landmarks by Manet, Monet and Renoir, and only one – a view of the Place de la Concorde – by Degas. With few exceptions, these artists set up their easels in just two areas – along the banks of the Seine near the Louvre or in the area around Fare Saint-Lazare in the 8th arrondissement – all but ignoring the entire half of the city on the Left Bank. There are no views of Notre Dame or Arc de Triomphe, and when monuments do appear, they tend to be seen from a distance, symbols of the nation’s history rather than precise records of particular places in the city.
Claude Monet: I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.
With Monet’s Impressionist paintings now a ubiquitous symbol of French artwork, it’s almost impossible to grasp how radical his style appeared to the all-powerful art establishment of his time. Monet faced many years of scorn and derision and was repeatedly rejected from the major annual salon, but he remained true to his artistic beliefs and emerged triumphant in the end.
It wasn’t just the Impressionists that challenged the all-powerful art establishment. When Matisse’s Woman with a Hat was first exhibited at the annual Paris Salon in 1905, people were so outraged by the painting that they clawed at it with their fingernails. Matisse and his fellow painters were dubbed the “Fauves” (wild beasts), and Matisse was, for better or worse, crowned as their ringleader. The public didn’t know it yet, but his painting had just created a seismic shift within the art world. One of the masters of Modernism had just made his first mark.
Henri Matisse: An artist is an explorer.
Paris is also loaded with literary sights and stories. Over the centuries numerous brilliant writers, French and foreign, have used the City of Light as their setting. In the 1920s the city sparkled as a centre of avant-garde; and post WWII, the literati hung out in St-Germain des Près.
Ernest Hemingway: If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest,” wrote Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, in which he chronicles his life in Paris in detail. In fact, he himself writes in such glowing terms about his time there that one feels utterly transported to that time and place when reading his account. Hemingway arrived in Paris in late 1921 at the age of twenty-two with his wife Hadley. He embraced the city with the same intensity that he did everything else in his life, and soon became the embodiment of 1920s expatriate Paris. The polar opposite of conservative, Prohibition-era America, post–World War I Paris proved an intoxicating elixir for Hemingway, liberating the young writer intellectually and embedding him in an eclectic and stimulating community of expat writers and artists. Early on, he came upon the English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Company, where he met the owner, Sylvia Beach. He later said, “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” In no time at all, Beach had taken him under her wing, loaning him money and expanding his intellectual horizons by loading him up with Dostoevsky, Turgenev and D. H. Lawrence. It was at this bookstore that Hemingway first encountered Ezra Pound. He also met Gertrude Stein early on, and soon found himself strolling across the Luxembourg Gardens in the afternoons to visit her. Later, he was meeting up with pals F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce in the cafés of Montparnasse for what often turned into multiple rounds of drinks.
We have Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame to thank for the fact that the legendary cathedral is still with us today. Hugo’s novel about Quasimodo and Esmeralda inspired renewed interest in the landmark, which led to its being restored. (In fact, this renovation sparked a new appreciation for Gothic architecture across the country and led to the preservation of many of France’s Gothic buildings.)
Victor Hugo: An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.
Victor Hugo was more than just a writer. He was a poet, a politician, a novelist, a pioneer of the Romantic style, and a self-appointed ambassador for the poor and disenfranchised. He leapt to fame at an early age — earning a royal salary for his poetry by the age of twenty — and throughout his life, he used that power to bring attention to the misfortunes of others. Born in the town of Besançon in 1802, Victor Hugo began writing as a child and was still just a teenager when he received his first accolades from the prestigious Académie Française for two poems he had submitted. By the age of thirty, with the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he’d become one of the country’s most admired writers. Not one to rest on his laurels, he continued to write prolifically, and also ventured into politics. Initially a monarchist, he switched sides, eventually becoming a vocal promoter of human rights and the poor. In fact, when Napoléon III took over the government in a coup d’état, Hugo, having vilified the new leader, went into self-imposed exile for the following twenty years, living in Belgium and the Channel Islands for most of that time. In 1862, while Hugo was still in exile, he published Les Misérables. Hugo’s sprawling novel is an emotional powerhouse, exposing the sordid underbelly of Paris and the struggles of its inhabitants in haunting detail. The city of Paris itself is a central and defining character in his magnum opus. On the day it came out, bookstores were mobbed, and thousands of copies sold out in a single day. His books gave voice to a population that rarely had any, and he became the embodiment of hope for millions. Indelibly shaped by the city he inhabited, Hugo in turn made a significant mark on Paris.
Then there is fashionable Paris! Practically single-handedly, Coco Chanel revolutionized women’s fashion — no small feat for an orphan raised in the French countryside. It is thanks largely to her unwavering confidence and intuitive understanding of the changing times that women are no longer trussed in corsets, hemmed in by petticoats, and pinned down by gargantuan hats. Chanel’s rags-to-riches story is the stuff of fantasy (literally in some cases, as Chanel often reinvented details about her past). Abandoned by her father at age twelve following her mother’s death, a young Gabrielle Chanel (her real name) spent several years in a convent, where she learned to sew. With a combination of personal savvy and hard-headed brio, she became the mistress of a high-society horse breeder, who exposed her to the lifestyle of the upper classes. She finally arrived in Paris in 1909, funded by another suitor, Arthur Capel, who encouraged her — on a lark — to pursue a foray into the hat business. At the time, women were wearing elaborate concoctions that limited their range of movement and required the assistance of maids — both to help affix the hats properly with hat pins, and then to remove them. In her typically clear-eyed way, Chanel concluded that this trend was utterly ridiculous and took it upon herself to set things straight! She bought some straw boaters from the Galeries Lafayette, and embellished each with a ribbon or flower. Done! They were liberating, elegant and revolutionary. Chanel’s business grew when a French actress named Gabrielle Dorziat wore one of Chanel’s hats in a play and it caught the attention of the fashionable women in Paris. This led to Dorziat wearing several of Chanel’s hats in a French fashion magazine, Les Modes, in 1912. Suddenly, the ladies of Paris all wanted a Chanel hat.
Today we have more famous French fashion designers than you can throw a cherry at 🙂
However, they all suffer from the same oversight. No outfits in bear size!