The fire at the Palais-Royal opera house

The fire at the Palais-Royal opera house

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  • The fire of the Opera at the Palais-Royal: view of the Opera in flames

    ROBERT Hubert (1733 - 1808)

  • The burning of the Opera at the Palais-Royal in 1781

    ROBERT Hubert (1733 - 1808)

The fire of the Opera at the Palais-Royal: view of the Opera in flames

© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BnF image

The burning of the Opera at the Palais-Royal in 1781

© RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Philippe Fuzeau

Publication date: December 2016

University of Evry-Val d'Essonne

Historical context

The chronicler of the capital

Through several paintings, Hubert Robert immortalizes the fire at the Palais-Royal opera house on June 8, 1781. A direct witness to the disaster, the artist produces an artistic restitution that deserves to be compared to other paintings than we owe him, as Fire scene (1771 and 1785), or even The ruins of the Hôtel-Dieu in 1772.

The disaster comes at 8:30 p.m., after a performance byOrpheus and Eurydice, Gluck's opera performed in the same hall since 1774, probably as a result of the setting fire. The establishment was built following the fire of the first opera house on April 6, 1763. Hosting performances by the Royal Academy of Music, it was located on the east side of the Palais-Royal, on the site of the current rue de Valois.

Outlines in situ, a few hours apart, these two vertical representations are complementary. Finally, a third interpretation, produced in length (84.5 × 114 cm), is kept at the Carnavalet museum in Paris. On the latter, the disaster is seen from the gardens of the Palais-Royal, where a crowd gathers to contemplate the gigantic plume of black smoke.

Image Analysis

The sad sights of the city

Despite their complementarity, the two paintings surprise with the contrasts they offer. The night view, during the fire, is a dark scene, where the spectacle is observed from a distance. Conversely, the daytime view, at the end of the disaster, marks the return of light, while the viewer is brought closer to the drama that is unfolding. Once again, these canvases show that Hubert Robert was deeply marked by his trip to Italy: excelling in the representation of urban ruins, the painter directs the viewer's gaze to certain parts of the paintings thanks to games of color and light.

The nocturnal sketch was carried out live, on the evening of June 8, 1781. Approved and received in 1766 as an architectural painter within the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Hubert Robert has owned the former accommodation there since 1778. sculptor Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, in the Grande Galerie du Louvre. Probably alerted to the ongoing disaster, the artist captures the event from a wing of the palace. As in the final version of the work, the sinister is observed through a large arcade comprising figures perched on the parapet of a window or a ladder. This framing, which allows the viewer's gaze to be focused, is regularly used by the artist, as in his interpretation of the fire of Imperial Rome, where the hearth is seen through the arch of a stone bridge. Although the drama is treated from a distance, the point of view is striking, however, and the destructive power of the fire portrayed, setting the skies of the capital ablaze like a volcanic eruption.

The second painting shows that the painter now finds himself closest to the disaster, in line with the old stage of the opera. The roof and the various floors are collapsed. The bare walls give the remains the appearance of a ruined church, inside which curious figures witness the sad spectacle. This atmosphere of desolation and horror is reinforced by scenes taken from life: several groups of firefighters contain the blaze using water hoses, while in the foreground, placed in the light facing the observer, two stretcher bearers carry a body, followed by a woman and a girl in tears. It is likely to be one of eleven casualties among staff at the facility. Hubert Robert endeavors to transcribe a lived moment, whose striking realism has aroused some criticism.


The many dangers of the city

Hubert Robert has a real passion for urban space. This one returns regularly in his work, since the representations of Rome, subject of study par excellence, to the sights of Paris, an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration since his return to France in 1765. By painting the daily convulsions of History, the artist serves the historian thanks to his realistic views of disappeared buildings constituting real archaeological sources. Alexis Merle du Bourg observes that "the city reaches, in this emulator of Piranesi, the status of a true character who can, if necessary, switch into the paroxysmal sphere of the sublime". This reference to the aesthetic of the sublime corresponds to the philosophical and artistic reflection of the moment. In line with the work of Edmund Burke, the treatment of the fire in the opera participates in the representation of tragic events which does not obscure the beauty of the monuments, nor the melancholy and emotion they can provide. .

With the burning of the opera house, there is no need for the artist to force fate by imagining a ruined scene. The sad reality of urban daily life offering a prime subject, Hubert Robert's paintings insist on the dangers of the modern city, where crowding and promiscuity are the source of many tragedies: fires, collapses, pollution ... In response to the dissemination of hygienic ideas, the municipal policy takes advantage of these to open up space, as two other paintings by Hubert Robert show: the Demolition of the houses on the Notre-Dame bridge (1786) and the Demolition of the houses on the Pont au Change (1788). In the case of the opera house, if the fire is quickly brought under control, preventing its spread to surrounding buildings, the site is abandoned because it is considered too dangerous. A few weeks later, a new room was opened in a less urbanized space, near the Porte Saint-Martin.

From the start, the fate of the two vertical paintings is intimately linked, one being the counterpart of the other. Exhibited at the Salon of 1781 under item 94, they received a less than enthusiastic reception, while the reputation of Hubert Robert was well established. The Secret Memories indicate that the two paintings were acquired by the banker Jean Girardot de Marigny, a great art collector and protector of Joseph Vernet, for the sum of 100 louis each. In XXe century, they are separated by successive sales. The daytime view goes through many peregrinations and circulates in Germany during the Second World War, to integrate in 1950 the collections of the Louvre museum as part of the recoveries of works of art. As for the night view, it resurfaced in 2010 at a public sale. The two sketches in reduced format are, for their part, kept in the library-museum of the Opera, in Paris.

  • Paris
  • Paris Opera
  • Palais-Royal
  • Louvre
  • fire
  • Burke (Edmund)
  • monuments


CAYEUX Jean de, with the coll. by BOULOT Catherine, Hubert Robert, Paris, Fayard, coll. "History of Art", 1989.

CHAGNIOT Jean, New history of Paris. VIII: Paris in the 18th century, Paris, Association for the publication of a history of Paris, 1988.

COLLECTIVE, Hubert Robert: painter poet of the Enlightenment, Art file, no 237, 2016.

FAROULT Guillaume (dir.), Hubert Robert (1733-1808): a visionary painter, cat. exp. (Paris, 2016; Washington, 2016), Paris, Somogy / Musée du Louvre, 2016.

LAVEDAN Pierre, New history of urban planning in Paris. XV: History of town planning in Paris, Paris, Association for the publication of a history of Paris, 1993.

GREENHOUSE Solveig, The Paris Opera (1749-1790): cultural policy during the Enlightenment, Paris, CNRS Éditions, coll. “Music Sciences: Studies Series”, 2011.

To cite this article

Stéphane BLOND, "The fire at the Palais-Royal opera house"

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