Charles Garnier's Opera

Charles Garnier's Opera

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  • Staircase of the Opera in Paris.

    NAVLET Victor (1819 - 1886)

  • Napoleon III and the Empress visit the works of the Opera.

    GILIS Ed.

To close

Title: Staircase of the Opera in Paris.

Author : NAVLET Victor (1819 - 1886)

Creation date : 1880

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 131 - Width 196

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Picture reference: 92DE978 / MV 7382

Staircase of the Opera in Paris.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

To close

Title: Napoleon III and the Empress visit the works of the Opera.

Author : GILIS Ed. (-)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 54 - Width 65

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: National Museum of the Château de Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Picture reference: 95CE6098 / IMP 420

Napoleon III and the Empress visit the works of the Opera.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: September 2014

Historical context

The construction of the new Paris Opera

Decided in 1858 to remedy the dilapidation and inconvenience of the hall in rue Le Pelletier, the construction of the new Paris Opera House was the heart of a masterful demonstration of town planning according to the Second Empire. Under the aegis of Baron Haussmann (Prefect of the Seine from 1853 to 1870), the building was built to meet the luxurious pleasures demanded by the whole of Paris and the imperial court.

At the same time, it was to be one of the "beacons" which the baron dotted the capital to punctuate the new traffic routes. The surrounding district was then completely remodeled, causing several 18th century mansions to disappear.e century.

Image Analysis

The actors of a luxurious construction site

The visit of Napoleon III and Eugenie to the site testifies to the importance which the Emperor had in the eyes of the new Opera, which was, after the Grand Louvre, the major monument of his reign and the most expensive.

Charles Garnier (1825-1898) had not yet built anything when in 1860, he won the Opera competition, in front of the architect of the City of Paris (Rohault de Fleury) and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, supported by the Empress. Disillusioned by his studies and his travels, he put all his ardor as a young romantic artist as well as his academic talents at the service of this project to which he devoted himself completely.

In the very rich architectural program invented by Garnier, the grand staircase occupies a considerable place. Taking the model of that of the theater of Bordeaux, it develops in Paris a monumental and unexpected cage. Its originality lies in its dual function of space for movement and place of strolling. The three flights provide access to the stalls but above all to the reception areas (lounges and large foyer). All around the steps, punctuated by large arches, the galleries open widely onto the central void of the staircase, offering balconies made to follow the evolution of the spectators on the steps.

The decor, very mineral, uses a wide variety of hard stones, all from French quarries, a veritable mineralogical museum of the French Empire. This polychromy is enhanced by the abundant electric lighting provided by cast iron candelabras, reminiscent of those on the outside. Very quickly electrified, the Opera combined traditional works of art with the comfort of modernity.


An original work for an elitist society

To carry out the work he led, Charles Garnier called on the greatest official painters and sculptors of the time, as well as the best workmen in France. With the same talent and enthusiasm that he brought to the compilation of references and materials, he took a precise and critical look at them.

The Empress’s hesitation is reminiscent of the public's bewilderment in the face of so much luxury displayed both inside and outside the building. Never has a performance building taken on this importance in the city, with the tradition of architecture giving way to lyrical art. The audacity of the style of certain parts even shocked; Garnier put all his ardor in defending the group of Dance, by his friend Carpeaux, considered indecent.

Moreover, time and a lack of money did not allow the installation of the modern machinery which had been initially planned, and the technical equipment of the Opera did not present any revolution. While the stage was one of the largest, it did not have excessive depth, and the hall was smaller than many European theaters. With the proliferation of contemporary lyrical and choreographic creation, the Paris room only offered a traditional welcome.

The mediocrity of the early productions allowed an affluent society enamored of entertainment and performances to grant the building immediate success. It was then crowned with the success of an architect, but also of an architectural and urban ensemble which could only develop within the precise and subtle framework set by the emperor and Haussmann.

  • architecture
  • electricity
  • Haussmann (Georges Eugène)
  • Empress Eugenie (Montijo de)
  • music
  • Napoleon III
  • opera
  • Paris Opera
  • Second Empire
  • Napoleon III style


Charles NUITTER, The New Opera [Garnier] 1875, Paris, C. Tchou for the Library of the Untraceable, coll. “Opera and Lyric Art”, 1999.

François LOYER (dir.), Around the Opera: birth of the modern city, Paris, Delegation for action of the City of Paris, coll. “Paris and its heritage”, 1995.

Gérard FONTAINE, Charles Garnier's Opera. Architecture and exterior decor, Paris, Heritage Publishing, 2000.

To cite this article

Nicolas COURTIN, "The Opera of Charles Garnier"

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