At the start of the 19th century, before Paris was The City of Light, it was a dark, cramped and unhealthy city that rested on an obsolete medieval framework. However, the fall of the July Monarchy and rise of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire at mid-century ushered in an era of rapid transformation. Raymond Escholier wrote, “The second of December 1851 had two great victims: The Republic and Old Paris.” Emperor Napoleon III chose a strong-willed man from Bordeaux, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, to manage and implement Paris’ modernization. By the fall of the Second Empire, Paris was a city of “generous boulevards, linked by squares and anchored by monumental public buildings.” Nowhere is this more evident than Charles Garnier’s Opera House – a symbol of Second Empire France that evokes its modernity, wealth and social progress. However, Garnier’s Opera house design and its central location represent, not only Haussmannization realized but also something much more. Under the initial guise of an Imperial institution and façade, it reflects Paris’ socio-economic shift of the fading influence of the old aristocracy to the rise of the middle and upper-middle classes – a predominantly bourgeois Paris.
|Paris before Haussmann - Metropolitan Museum of Art|
The conditions of Paris in 1848 resulted in a revolution and the ousting of the monarch, Louis Philippe. However, the majority of influential Frenchmen rejected and violently suppressed the radical socialist movement that arose and looked to “neither of popular democracy nor of limited parliamentary government.” Instead, France opted towards Bonapartism and nostalgia for the “bygone days of Napoleonic glory, of a France sure of itself and ready for great initiatives.” This was reflected in the election of Louis Napoleon III as President and his eventual coup d’état with the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1852. Emperor Napoleon III, backed by popular prestige and the French army, had the power to implement his ambitious and necessary plans for the city of Paris. In 1853, the Emperor named Georges-Eugène Haussmann as Prefect of the Department of the Seine and charged him to implement the restructuring of Paris.
|Georges-Eugène Haussmann, circa 1865|
|A map based that shows (in red) the Haussmannian streetwork between 1850 and 1870|
Although [Haussmann’s] improvements did in fact serve military purposes, such were not the original cause for their being undertaken . . . Boulevards cut through working-class quarters could be said to perform counter-revolutionary functions, but what equivalent justification could be given for the wide avenues that converge on the place de l’Etoile?Howard Saalman’s critical evaluation of Haussmann’s Paris suggests that a significant factor of motivation for the transformation was the bourgeoning urban middle and rising upper-middle class. He adds, “[Napoleon and Haussmann] wanted to improve the city, not destroy it . . . the old town . . . was just as essential to the everyday life of all Parisians as were the new boulevards. After all, the upper middle class did not live by champagne and lobster alone.” Saalman argues that “the empire of Napoleon III was [the urban middle class’s] political tool, and [it] was determined to use it.” While Paris by the mid-nineteenth century had abundant housing and space for the poor and the very rich there was a lack of such space for the new bourgeoisie. Along with the new boulevards, new venues of bourgeois life and leisure became reality with the building of the grand magasins, parks, squares, cafés, theatres and the Opera. It was Charles Garnier’s Opera House that “[symbolized] fully the nature of Second Empire Parisian society” by representing “the essence of Napoleon III’s conception of elegance and luxury” and reconciling it with the rising bourgeoisie.
In 1669, King Louis XIV first established the Opera and in 1672, the Académie Royale de Musique. The Opera was an institution that was directly responsible to the king and therefore “it also represented the king, who used the Opera as a political occasion to display himself to his subjects and receive their homage.” Up until the completion of Garnier’s building in 1875, the Opera was house in eight successive structures. Many of them were ill-suited for the grandeur and spectacle that the Opera entailed, had either burned down or been destroyed, failed to express “the magnificence and the opulence of the Capitol in which it [was] erected” and or were just temporary incarnations. Journalist Ernest Chesneau wrote in 1875 that the Haussmannization of Paris necessitated the new Opera house to stand as a monument because “the enlarged, aerated, sanitized Paris, transformed with the clear foresight of social needs and at the same time with magnificence by the imperial government . . . one needed an opera house that was worthy of the grandeur, the luxury, and the arts of the new Paris.”
In 1858, Haussmann chose the boulevard des Capucines in the district of Chaussée d’Antin for building the new opera house. This choice to place it on one of the grand boulevards reaffirmed Haussmann’s view of the boulevards centrality to his plan of Paris. In association with the architect Charles Rohault de Fleury, Haussmann devised that the Opera be surrounded by a network of streets, isolating it at the end of a wide avenue, named after the emperor, which connected the opera house to the Louvre Palace. Therefore, just like the Arc de Triomphe, the new opera house became a monument that “[served] to focus an entire quarter of the modern capital of the Second Empire France.” Not only did the opera’s new location represent the centrality of the monument to Haussmann’s Paris but also the “displacement of the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie as the city’s determinant social class” – the Opera’s new audience. Théophile Gautier also noticed this shift and justified Haussmann’s choice writing that “Parisian life has moved ever closer to the boulevards from the Seine, following the ever increasing power of money over nobility and the rising popularity of the Chaussée d’Antin compared to the aristocratic districts.” While Hussmann chose the location of the new opera house, its design would be left mostly to the architect.
|Palais Garnier - By Brandon Yan 2011|
Just as the decision on the location of the new opera was dictated by shifts in Parisian socio-economic dynamics, so to was Charles Garnier’s designs. The Opera was no longer completely endowed by the king or the emperor (though it did receive generous subsidies), it was expected to not only be self sufficient but also profitable. The “bourgeoisie . . . the elite public . . . paid for their seats and boxes, unlike the former aristocratic clientele of the Opera who occupied them for free. Charles Garnier recognized this bourgeois public in his design of the Nouvel Opera’s spaces.” If the lavish, ornate and monumental Opera house contributed to city’s spectacle – “a society on show” – a similar phenomenon occurred within the Garnier’s structure. One design feature aptly represents this concept – the Grand Escalier. Gautier considered the Grand Escalier to be a theatre in itself where “the curious will be . . . spectator and spectacle at the same time, to watch at their ease this marvel of modern civilization . . . that cascade of diamonds, pearls, feathers, flowers, while shoulders, satin, velvet, watered silk, gauze, lace, which this time will froth on the steps of white marble to the scintillation of the brightest lights, encased by an enchanting architecture.” It was a place like the grand boulevards where the fashionable society, the haute bourgeoisie and the new upper-middle classes, performed for themselves – a place where “the spectacle of Paris was acted out in miniature.”
Construction began in 1862 and was not finished until 1875. Garnier’s Opera house survived the fall of Haussmann, the Second Empire and the Paris Commune but was not without controversy. On July 25th, 1869, Garnier unveiled the groups of statues to adorn the Opera’s façade. Among them was Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s La Danse. What the public saw, shocked and outraged them both aesthetically and morally. The following day after the unveiling, a citizen threw a bottle of ink at the group, staining them. Critic, Charles d’Henriet wrote, “was it necessary for Mr. Carpeaux to present us with undressed instead of nude women . . . Did he have to spread out on view this slightly bestial flesh . . . at once flabby and swollen? . . . these are common women . . . deformed by the clothes they have taken off, who dance not for the sake of dancing but to complete the orgy already begun.” Mr. d’Henriet’s criticism, similar to the criticism that Edouard Manet’s paintings received, reflected the bourgeoisie’s moral attitudes in Paris. If the Opera House was a symbol of the Second Empire, this attack “was taken as a sign that Bonapartism was at an end.” The following year, Louis Napoleon III was removed from power and Paris endured disaster.
 Donald J. Olsen, The City as a Work of Art: London, Paris, Vienna (London: Yale University Press, 1986), 44.  Christopher Curtis Mead, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera: Architectural Empathy and the Renaissance of French Classicism (New York: The MIT Press, 1991.), 53.  David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2003), 93.  Ibid., 94.  Leonard Benevolo, “Haussmann and the plan of Paris” in History of Modern Architecture (New York: The MIT Press, 1980), 67.  Howard Saalman, Haussmann: Paris Transformed (New York: George Braziller, 1971), 12.  Ibid., 12.  Harvey, 114.  Ibid., 3.  Benevolo, 73.  Saalman, 17.  Benevolo, 67-68.  Harvey, 210.  Saalman, 14.  Victor Hugo, qtd. in Robert Herbet, Impressionism (London: Yale University Press, 1988), 307.  Harvey, 7.  Olsen, 45.  Saalman, 114.  Saalman, 47.  Penelope Woolf, “Symbols of the Second Empire: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opera House,” in The Iconography of Landscape, eds. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 214.  Saalman, 18.  Christopher Mead, “Urban Contingency and the Problem of Representation in Second Empire Paris,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians vol. 54, no.2 (1995): 141.  Qtd, in Mead, “Urban Contingency,” 138.  Ibid.  Ibid., 149.  Qtd. in Woolf, 223.  Mead, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, 78.  Ibid., 3.  Mead, “Urban Contingency,” 139.  Woolf, 216.  Mead, “Urban Contingency,” 142. Qtd. in Mead, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, 127.  Woolf, 228.  Qtd. in Mead, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, 189.  Woolf, 228.
Benevolo, Leonardo. Haussmann and the Plan of Paris. Vol. I, in History of Modern Architecture, 61-81. London: The MIT Press, 1980.
Harvey, David. Paris, Capital of Modernity. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Herbet, Robert, Impressionism. London: Yale University Press, 1988.
Mead, Christopher. Charles Garnier's Paris Opera: Architectural Empathy and the Renaissance of French Classicism. London: The MIT Press, 1991.
Mead, Christopher. "Urban Contingency and the Problem of Representation on Second Empire Paris." The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 54, no. 2 (1995): 138-174.
Olsen, Donald J. The City as a Work of Art: London, Paris, Vienna. London: Yale University Press, 1986.
Saalman, Howard. Haussmann: Paris Transformed. New York: George Braziller, 1971.
Woolf, Penelope. "Symbols of the Second Empire: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opera House." In The Iconography of Landscape, edited by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, 214-235. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.