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France Landmarks Paris

Looking Across Paris from the Eiffel Tower

1889 marked a significant anniversary for France: 100 years since the storming of the Bastille, the beginning of the French Revolution, and the establishment of the French Republic. French leaders wanted to combine the commemoration with an event that also celebrated France’s modern industrial, scientific, and cultural successes.

In November 1884, the French government announced that a world’s fair, an Exposition Universelle, would be held in Paris from May 6 – October 31, 1889. The Exposition Grounds would cover nearly a square kilometre and included the Champ de Mars (a large public green space), the Trocadéro (then the site and grounds of a palace by the same name), the quai d’Orsay (an area of land along the Seine riverfront), and part of the Seine and Invalides esplanade.

Poster for the World Exhibition in Paris, 1889. From Wikipedia.

Government ministers wanted a large, momentous attraction to stand at the entry point to the Exposition. Building a 1,000 foot (300 metre) tall tower was an idea that had been proposed before in Britain and the United States, but it had never actually been done before; a project of that scale would require a Herculean effort. That kind of undertaking was exactly the sort of feat that appealed to the people in charge of the Exposition. On May 2, 1886, the Journal officiel de la République française, a government gazette that publishes major legal or public information from the National Government of France, announced a competition that sought to study “the possibility of erecting an iron tower on the Champs-de-Mars” that would “have a square base” and measure “125 metres on each side and 300 metres high.” French architects and engineers were given two months to submit their proposals for what would be, at the time, the world’s tallest structure. One small catch: the structure was meant to be temporary, and so disassembly would be later required.

The winner of the competition might have been a foregone conclusion, as a tower project was already in the works elsewhere. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was a French civil engineer who, along with the other engineers and designers in his firm (the Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel), were very highly respected for their work building bridges, railroad stations, and other impressive iron structures (Eiffel designed the interior iron frame of the Statue of Liberty, for example). Two of Eiffel’s chief engineers, Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, came up with an idea for a very tall tower in May 1884. Koechlin made a sketch of their design, describing it as “like a large pylon with four columns of lattice work girders, separated at the base and coming together at the top, and joined to each other by more metal girders at regular intervals.” Eiffel wasn’t very keen in the beginning, but did approve further study on the project. Nouguier and Koechlin asked Stephen Sauvestre, the head of the company’s architectural department, to add some decorative features to their design. Eiffel approved of this new version, and purchased the rights to the patent that Nouguier, Koechlin, and Sauvestre had submitted. Drawings of the design were shown at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in the autumn of 1884. In November 1884, the government announced the dates for the Exposition Universelle 1889. Eiffel already had the Exposition in mind when he met with the Société des Ingénieurs Civils on March 30, 1885, and discussed his plans for the tower.

First drawing of the Eiffel Tower by Maurice Koechlin including size comparison with other landmarks such as the Notre-Dame de Paris, the Statue of Liberty, and the Vendôme Column. 1884. From Wikipedia.

Over 100 blueprints were submitted for the competition. One of the rejected submissions included plans for a giant guillotine—the same device that was used to behead people during the French Revolution. Although appropriate to the occasion being celebrated, I’m thinking it didn’t match the tone that the competition judges were looking for. Another idea included the construction of a giant water sprinkler that could be used to soak Paris during dry spells. Eiffel won the competition handily, as all the other entries were deemed impractical or lacking in detail. It didn’t hurt that the competition was seeking a design that, coincidentally, just happened to share the specific features of a tower that he and his colleagues had been working on for two years already. Why bother with having a competition at all, one might wonder, why didn’t they just hire Eiffel outright? It’s possible that because government funding was involved, there had to be a competition. The tower was going to be erected as a monument to the anniversary of the start of the French Revolution; it might have been considered poor taste if the government had awarded him the contract without at least a show of democratic process.

Gustave Eiffel. Photo by Nadar, 1888. From Wikipedia.

Eiffel signed a contract on January 8, 1887 in his own personal right, instead of as a representative of his company. He was given a grant of 1.5 million francs to put towards the cost of construction, which was far short of the estimated total sum of 8 million francs; Eiffel would have to supply the remaining 6.5 million. To recoup this cost, Eiffel would be entitled to any commercial income the tower would bring in during the Exposition and for the next 20 years; remember that the tower was meant to be a temporary structure, and it was planned that it would be disassembled at that point in time.

Construction began on January 28, 1887, which involved digging several metres below ground-level for the placement of the tower’s concrete foundations. You can find more details on the construction details of the tower on its official website. It took five months to build the foundations, and twenty-one months to assemble all of the metal pieces. The tower contains 2.5 million rivets, 7,300 tonnes of iron, and 18,038 metallic parts. 150 workers pre-assembled all of the metallic parts at the Levallois-Perret factory, and 150-300 workers then amassed them on-site. The first floor was finished on April 1, 1888; the second on August 14, 1888; and the main structural work was completed by March 31, 1889.

From Pixabay.

On March 31, Eiffel led a group of government officials and members of the press on a tour to the top of the tower. The lifts were not yet ready, so the ascent took over an hour, with Eiffel stopping to explain various features along the way (and allowing the group moments of respite to catch their breath). Most of the group remained behind on the lower levels, but a few brave (and fit) individuals accompanied him to the top of the tower, a distance of 1,710 steps! He hoisted a large tricolour flag and a 25-gun salute was fired.

Gustave Eiffel and his engineers raise the French flag atop the Eiffel Tower to celebrate the end of construction. From the Eiffel Tower’s official website.

Even though the Eiffel Tower served as the entrance gate to the grounds of the Exposition Universelle, the tower wasn’t quite ready for public visitors on the fair’s opening day of May 6, 1889. It opened nine days later on May 15, although the lifts wouldn’t be in service until May 26. This didn’t dampen visitor enthusiasm. Nearly 30,000 people still made their ascent to the uppermost reaches of the tower between May 15-26, and nearly 2 million visited the tower throughout the rest of the Exposition. It was the tallest tower in the world (and would remain so until 1931 when the Chrysler Tower was completed in New York), and offered an unprecedented view over Paris. This was over a decade before the Wright brothers made their first successful series of airplane flights in 1903, so no one had yet seen Paris at this height before. On a clear day, visitors can see up to 80 kilometers (50 miles)!

Visitors take in the view from the Eiffel Tower during the 1889 World’s Fair. From the Eiffel Tower’s official website.

Tickets cost 2 francs for the first floor, 3 francs for the second, and 5 for the very top. The first floor featured four restaurants of different styles: Russian, French, Flemish, and an Anglo-American bar. There was a patisserie on the second level. Le Figaro, a French newspaper, also had an office and a printing press on the second floor. They produced a special edition of the daily newspaper on-site every day (titled Imprimée dans la Tour Eiffel/Printed in the Eiffel Tower), and visitors could have their name added to the paper to “certify” that they had climbed the tower. There was a post office on the third level, where visitors could send letters and post cards to commemorate their visit¹. At the top of the tower, Eiffel had a scientific laboratory and a private office installed where he received guests such as Thomas Edison (who gifted him with a new invention, one of his phonographs). Throughout the tower there were boutiques selling souvenirs and refreshments, photographers’ booths, and binocular rentals (Eiffel had to make back that money he had invested, after all!).

An illustration of the Exposition grounds, below. The first drawing shows the grounds of the Champ de Mars on the left, and the grounds of the Trocadéro on the right. Note the tricolour flag flying from the top of the Eiffel Tower!

The Eiffel Tower at the Exposition Universelle. From the Eiffel Tower’s official website.

The illustration below shows the grounds of the Trocadéro in the distance on the left, and the Champ de Mars on the right.

View of Exposition Universelle, Paris, France, 1889, engraving. From The Art Archive / Musée Carnavalet Paris.

Electric street lights had just been installed in Paris, and so this was the first world’s fair to ever be open at night. Fountains glowed with coloured lights, boats along the Seine strung up lanterns, and fireworks burst through the night skies. Not to be outdone, the Eiffel Tower was lit up with 10,000 gas street lamps protected by opal glass cases. A beacon at the top of the tower flashed out three beams of red, white, and blue light. The beacon lights were considered the most powerful in the world, and could be seen 80 kilometres away. Two search lights were used to light up other buildings on the grounds (including a reconstruction of the Bastille and the Rue Saint-Antoine that surrounded it)².  I’m trying to imagine what it must have been like for Exposition attendees: the streets magically lit up at night for the first time, a tower that offered an unparalleled sky-high view, and the Bastille fortress back from the dead. I don’t think I can properly appreciate what a thrill this spectacle really would have been like for the people of the time. It sounds like an interesting setting for a story…

Illumination of the Eiffel Tower during the 1889 World Fair. Georges Garen, 1889. From Wikipedia.

The Eiffel Tower wasn’t popular with everyone. As ground broke in 1887, the “Committee of the Three Hundred” (one member for each metre of the tower’s height) was formed featuring French writers, artists, and architects. They circulated a petition that was sent to the French Minister of Works, and was published in the Paris newspaper Le Temps. They were concerned (not without cause) that the tower would be completely out of character with the rest of the city. The petition stated:

To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour de Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.

 Writer Léon Bloy called the Eiffel Tower “a tragic lamppost.” Guy de Maupassant, “a giant and disgraceful skeleton.” According to legend, de Maupassant is said to have eaten lunch at either the base of the tower or one of the tower’s restaurants “every day” because he said that it was from there that he could enjoy the best view of Paris, one that didn’t include the Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel was stung, but not deterred, by the criticism. He compared his tower project to the pyramids in Egypt, claiming:

Do you think it is for their artistic value that the pyramids have so powerfully struck the imagination of men? What are they, after all, but artificial mountains? [The aesthetic impact of the pyramids was found in] the immensity of the effort and the grandeur of the result. My tower will be the highest structure that has ever been built by men. Why should that which is admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?

Suffice it to say, that Eiffel’s words were to ring more true. His tower was a hit. He had twenty years to earn back his investment in the project through the selling of admission tickets and souvenirs, but it only took him six months. The tower remains the most-visited paid monument in the world, and has had 250 million visitors since its opening. Just under 7 million people visit it each year.

Caricature of Gustav Eiffel, published following the protest of the artists. Published in Le Temps on February 14, 1887. From Wikipedia.

As previously mentioned, the Eiffel Tower was only intended to stand for 20 years, until 1909. However, Eiffel demonstrated that the tower would be useful in the long-term for many scientific and technological activities such as meteorological and astronomical observations, wind studies, and physics experiments; serving as a strategic vantage point and an optical telegraph communications point; as well as providing a beacon for electrical lighting. On the day after the tower’s official inauguration, Eiffel had a meteorology lab installed on the third floor that was outfitted with all manner of scientific instruments such as barometers, anemometers, and lightning conductors. He had gravity instruments installed in 1903-1905. He had a wind tunnel built at the bottom of the tower. Eiffel’s contributions to the fields of meteorology and aerodynamics (which he pursued in retirement) would be just as significant as those he had made in his earlier field of engineering.

The Eiffel Tower Laboratory. From the Eiffel Tower’s official website.

Eiffel also encouraged numerous scientific experiments on the tower. On November 5, 1898, the first wireless telegraphy trials were carried out between the Eiffel Tower and the Panthéon, a distance of 4 kilometers. In 1899, waves transmitted from the Eiffel Tower crossed the English Channel for the first time. In 1903, Eiffel convinced Captain Gustave Ferrié to use the Eiffel Tower for his experiments on the military applications of wireless transmissions (Eiffel also helped finance the operation). Transmission and reception was achieved over a remarkable distance of 400 kilometers, and the Department of Military Engineering approved the installation of antennas on the tower. In 1909, the proposed end year for the tower, an underground military radiotelegraphy station was set up. The government had been persuaded of the tower’s continued usefulness in wireless transmissions; the City of Paris renewed Gustav Eiffel’s license to the tower on January 1, 1910. In 1913, telegrams were sent using electric signals to America and to trans-Atlantic ships within a distance of 6,000 kilometers. In 1914, during the Battle of Marne, the Tower’s radiotelegraphic station was able to pick up crucial information from the German army that allowed the French command to organize a successful counter-attack. The tower also picked up enemy radio telegrams, exposing famed German spy, Mata Hari. Radio transmissions were broadcast starting in 1921, and television in 1935.

Inside the wireless telegraph station of the Eiffel Tower in 1905. From Scientific American, published February 2, 1905. From Science News for Students website.

As the Germans streamed in to occupy Paris in 1940, the French cut the cables to the tower lifts. The tower was closed to the public throughout the occupation.

As Allied troops neared the city in August 1944, Hitler ordered that the tower be destroyed along with the rest of the city. General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, (thankfully!) disobeyed him. The lift cables were repaired in 1946.

That’s the history! Now let’s move onto our visit. Neil and I opted for a skip-the-line-sunset tour of the Eiffel Tower. If there’s one thing that’s worth the money in Paris, I would say it’s the skip-the-line tours. We were visiting during peak season in June and July, and many of the top attractions had line-ups that were hours-long. Plus, it was unbearably hot outside. It was worth it to us to not spend hours in line miserably waiting for our turn to go in.

And our Eiffel Tower trip was worth every penny. With an attraction like this, you worry that it’s going to be an over-hyped tourist trap. That the experience of going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower is such a cliché, that it can’t help but fall short of expectations. I can say with complete confidence that this is not the case. Our visit was a highlight of the time we spent there, and I would heartily recommend it to others.

There are three levels that are accessible to visitors. The first floor is located at a height of 187 feet (approximately 57 metres); there are 347 steps to reach this level. It has a restaurant, a buffet, and a souvenir shop. It also features a glass-bottomed floor! The second level is 377 feet (115 metres) from the ground. It has a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Jules Verne, as well as a couple of gift shops and a macaroon bar in the buffet. The third floor, located at 906 feet (276 metres) contains a champagne bar and a historical reconstruction of Gustav Eiffel’s office. The tower’s total height is 1,063 feet (324 metres).

Looking up from the ground towards the first floor.

The visit begins with catching one of five elevators that take visitors up to the second floor. Two lifts are then available to make the final ascent to the third floor. The view is probably the best on the second floor. It is set at a height where you’re able to see everything, but you’re not so high that things become indistinct (as can be the case with the third floor). I’ll show you pictures of the view from both so you can compare.

First, we’ll begin with the view, looking south-east, of the Champ de Mars from the second floor at 377 feet (115 metres). The Champ de Mars is a large public green space in Paris. It was one of the areas that housed the exhibition grounds for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. It was also, if you read my post on Notre-Dame, the setting for Robespierre’s Feast of the Cult of the Supreme Being on June 8, 1794 (20 days before Robespierre himself would meet the guillotine).

Looking a little left (in a direction that faces a little more straight east) of the Champ de Mars. You can see the shadow that the Eiffel Tower casts! You can also see the golden dome of Les Invalides (which contains Napoleon’s tomb).

A close-up of Les Invalides.

All right, zoomed back and looking a little to the right (a little more straight south) of the Champ de Mars.

Further to the right (south).

Straight down the Champ de Mars again. It’s a popular meeting spot for picnics and other activities.

In the distance is the Tour Montparnasse, an office skyscraper that was built between 1969-1973. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Montparnasse Tower has had its share of controversy. Not many people appreciated the aesthetic choices that went into their design. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Tour Montparnasse failed to win over any of its critics. It is often called the ugliest tower in Paris, and it is the reason why Paris’ financial district is located far away from its main historic centre; no one wanted any more ugly skyscrapers cluttering up the skyline! In fact, there is a city ordinance in this area of Paris that now restricts buildings to a height of 12 storeys.

Poor Tour Montparnasse. I’m told that it has a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower, and that it has the fastest elevator in Europe that shoots you up to the 56th floor in record time. If you aren’t able to get tickets to the Eiffel Tower, it might be a good alternative (and the lines are much shorter!).

All right, here is the view of the Champ de Mars from the third level of the Eiffel Tower at 906 feet (276 metres). Have I mentioned before that Paris is huge?

You can definitely see the far end of the Champ de Mars a little better, as well as the Tour Montparnasse. The buildings at the end of the park are part of a military school.


All right, let’s return to the second level for a view on the other side of the Eiffel Tower, of the Jardins du Trocadéro. This is looking northwest.

A few buildings have come and gone in this space. At the time of the Exposition Universelle in 1889, there was a Moorish and Neo-Byzantine-style building called the Palais du Trocadéro. It had been built for the 1878 Expo, and was torn down in 1935 to make way for the present Palais de Chaillot (built for the 1937 Expo). Several museums and a theatre are located in the current Palais. There is also an excellent viewing platform that is used by many people to watch the Eiffel Tower’s evening light show (covered later in the post).

The Palais du Trocadéro in Paris, built for the 1878 World’s Fair, around 1878. Unknown artist. From Wikipedia.

In the distance, you can see the skyscrapers that make up Paris’ financial district.

A closer view. 

A close-up of the sunset and the financial buildings.

The view of the Trocadéro from the third level.

In the picture below you can see the viewing platform (located between the two arms of the Palais du Chaillot) that people use to watch the Eiffel Tower’s light show at night.

Now that the two main views (from two different levels) are covered, we’ll check out some specific attractions that can be seen from the Eiffel Tower.

Here is Notre-Dame from the second-level of the Tower. It is located to the east, and slightly south.

Notre-Dame from the third level. (Various stages of zooming in).

The Arc de Triomphe from the second level, located north of the tower.

The Arc de Triomphe from the third level of the tower. You can see the crazy round-about of traffic that surrounds it from here (doesn’t look too busy right now, but it was around 9:30 pm when this photo was taken).

Here is a photo of Les Invalides taken from the third level. Les Invalides is located east (and slightly north) of the Eiffel Tower.

A couple of pictures of Les Invalides taken later in the evening, when it lights up. You can see the Panthéon in the distance, to the right (where Victor Hugo and other notable Parisians are laid to rest).

The large complex of buildings in the middle of the picture is the Louvre. The Louvre is located east of the Eiffel Tower. The building located towards the top right of the picture, with the blue roof, is the Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum. We were staying just a few blocks away from the Centre Pompidou. It is about an hour walk from our apartment to the Eiffel Tower.

The hill of Montmartre, with the Basilica Sacré Coeur located at its peak, is located north-east of the Eiffel Tower.

Nearby is the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Centre.

Here it is, lit up after sunset.

A Haussman apartment building.

Overlooking the Seine River. Looking north and east, to the right of the tower, from the second level.

The same view as the picture above, but slightly later in the evening when it is lit up (and zoomed in a little).

A little further along the bank to the right.

The Pont Alexandre III Bridge.

Zoomed out a little bit. The Grand Palais is located to the left side of the Pont Alexandre III bridge (with the glass and steel roof).

The Grand Palais.

The north bend of the river, located to the right of the tower, from the third level.

Overlooking the Seine river on the left (south-west) side of the tower. The Pont de Bir-Hakam bridge is in the foreground, with the narrow Île aux Cygnes (Isle of the Swans) located in the middle of the river.

A close-up of the Pont de Bir-Hakam bridge

If you look closely in the picture below, at the Île aux Cygnes in the middle of the river, there is a 22 foot-replica of the Statue of Liberty located at the far end of the island. She was gifted to France by America in 1889 (just in time for the Exposition!) She faces west, in the direction of her older and taller sister in New York.

The bridge and the island as viewed from the third level of the tower.

A panorama:

Neil and I went to the second and third levels to take pictures of the view, then we stayed for awhile to watch the sunset (after the tour was over, you were welcome to stay as long as you liked). It was around 9:30 pm at this point. Every night after sunset, the Eiffel Tower lights up for five minutes at the top of the hour until 1:00 am. We weren’t sure if the first light show would come on at 10:00 pm, as the sun was still setting and it wasn’t dark outside yet. I really wanted to be on the tower while the lights were sparkling, but didn’t want to wait until 11:00 pm. We didn’t want to get back to our apartment too late, and it had been a very long and hot day. Happily, the lights did come on at 10:00 pm while we were still there! I was thrilled.

Waiting for the magic to happen.

Still waiting. You can see the little lamps on the metal. There are 20,000 of them (5,000 per side). They have a low wattage of only 6 amps each, and they light up randomly as they are all separate from each other.

There they go!

For a video, please check out my Instagram here (last slide in the carousel).

After the light show, Neil and I took the stairs all the way down.

Here are a couple of photos taken from the first level of the tower. There was a dance floor that was starting to heat up outside of the 58 Tour Eiffel restaurant by the time we made it all the way down.

Standing on the first floor, looking across.

Here are some fun shots we took on the ground looking up at the tower.

Neil and I then walked over to the viewing platform in the Trocadéro Gardens so we could watch the light show again at 11:00 pm.

The view from the platform, waiting for the show to begin.

While we’re waiting, here’s a fun fact: the Eiffel Tower requires 60 tonnes of paint to be re-applied every 7 years. It takes 25 workers eighteen months to complete.

Here come the sparkles!


¹ The oldest illustrated post card in France was actually printed at the Eiffel Tower with a run of 300,000 copies. It is known as the “Cartes Libonis” after its illustrator and lithographer, Charles-Léon Libonis. The oldest postmark on an Eiffel Tower postcard is from August 21, 1889. The Eiffel Tower actually popularized the use of postcards in France: over 56,000 were sent in just three weeks that year. On August 29, Le Figaro announced that the visiting public could send their letters by balloon. Small balloons and cheap parachutes would be sold from all floors of the tower, and a letter could be attached to them. I’m not sure how successful this venture was meant to be, since the sender’s address was left blank, but it certainly sounds like fun!

A Libonais postcard.

Here is a postcard of the Eiffel Tower that we picked up on our trip:

²The reconstruction of the Bastille and its surrounding neighbourhood, the Rue Saint-Antoine (complete with houses and storefronts) opened a year before the Exposition itself. It was located at the end of the Champ de Mars, at the corner of Avenue de Suffren and Avenue de la Motte Picquet. The interior of the reconstruction was transformed into a village-style banquet “Hall of Festivities” instead of a gloomy prison. There were plays, songs, and dancing. A pantomime entitled “The Escape of a Prisoner of the Bastille” reenacted, in the style of a suspenseful adventure, the escape and recapture of a famous Bastille prisoner named Jean Henri Latude. Eugène Colibert was the architect behind the reconstruction. The project cost 12 million francs—compare that to the Eiffel Tower’s cost of 8 million francs! It also turned a tidy profit, making over 1 million francs between 1888-1889.

Categories
France Landmarks Paris

What To Look For When Exploring Notre-Dame Cathedral

Notre-Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris”) is one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. It is located on the eastern end of the Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the River Seine that lie at the heart of Paris (the second one being the Île Saint-Louis). There is a marker in front of Notre-Dame, known as Paris Point Zero, that indicates the exact centre of the city. Locations are measured in their distance to Paris from this point.

The marker for Paris Point Zero. It is an octagonal brass-plate with an eight-pointed star.

From Wikipedia.

There is a statue, Charlemagne and his Guards, located in the square in front of Notre-Dame. It was made for the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) 1878 by architects Louis and Charles Rochet. Charlemagne was King of the Franks (768-814), King of the Lombards (774-814) and the first Holy Roman Emperor (800-814). He united much of western and central Europe in the early Middle Ages, and was the first leader to be recognized as Emperor in western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three hundred years earlier. Charlemagne wears the crown of the Holy Roman Empire (added to the statue after 800) and holds a sceptre. Two warriors are depicted alongside him, Roland the Brave (also known as Hruodland/Hroutland in French) and Olivier the Sage.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is situated on a spot that has served as a place of worship for nearly 2,000 years; it is believed that a pagan temple existed here when the Île de la Cité was part of the Roman city of Lutetia (est. 52 C.E.). A Romanesque church, the Basilica of Saint-Étienne, was then built between the 4th-7th centuries. It was located about 40 metres to the west of the current cathedral.

Below is a view of the back/east end of the Cathedral, known as the chevet. Note the angled stone supports that surround the Lady Chapel (the circular structure) in the picture below; these are known as flying buttresses, and are discussed later in the post. They act as a counterweight to the mass of the nave and the walls of the choir. The buttresses span more than 15 metres and were the work of Jean Ravy, who was in charge of construction from 1318-1344.

In 1160, the newly-elected Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, had the Basilica of Saint-Étienne torn down. Maurice de Sully had come to power largely through the influence of Louis VII (1120-1180). Louis VII wanted to assert that Paris was the political, cultural, and economic centre of France. One of the ways he set about doing this was through the building of impressive French Gothic monuments (he also founded the University of Paris/the Sorbonne in 1150). A cornerstone was laid for the new Cathedral in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III, and then de Sully began the work of building a larger and taller cathedral—one that could impress a King.

The caption for the sign, translated, reads: In the year 1163, under the pontificate of Pope Alexandre III and the reign of King Louis VII, Maurice born in Sully on the Loire, Bishop of Paris (1160-1196), undertook the construction of this cathedral in the honour of the Virgin Mary under the title of Notre Dame of Paris.

Side view of Notre-Dame.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is often considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture. Gothic architecture is a style that originated in France and was popular in Europe from around 1000-1500 C.E. However, the use of the term “Gothic” to describe this architectural style is a misnomer and, in fact, didn’t find use until the 16th century. During the time period in which many of these buildings were constructed, the architectural style was actually known as opus francigenum (French/Frankish work).

The Saint-Étienne portal, shown below, is located on the southern arm of the transept. Construction on it began in 1257 by Jean de Chelles. The gable above the portal contains another rose window.

The Visigoths and the Ostrogoths were two branches of an East Germanic people who engaged in a long sustained period of armed conflict with the Roman Empire; eight different “Gothic Wars” took place between 249-554 C.E. This militaristic pressure on an already over-stretched Roman Empire certainly helped contribute to its fall, and the rise of Medieval Europe. When the Roman Empire collapsed, the Goths and other Germanic tribes (including the Franks) rushed in to fill the power vacuum. This didn’t endear them with any of the Renaissance writers or thinkers in the 14th-17th centuries who revered the idea of Rome and its classical art style. The “Goths” were savages and barbarians who brought about the end of a more cultured and refined civilization. They destroyed ancient Romanesque buildings and replaced them with new ones that featured their “barbarous German style.”

Never mind that this architectural style originated in France, and was referred to as French and Frankish when it was used. It is thanks to these 16th century critics that “Gothic” carries, even today, a mild tone of disparagement. It calls to mind darkness, gloominess, and lack of class or refinement. You would be forgiven for thinking that it began as a German architectural style, as even some great German writers and thinkers thought the same (such as Goethe).

In contrast to its grim reputation, Gothic architecture actually involved the development of construction techniques that allowed buildings to increase their amount of natural interior light. Rib vault ceilings and flying buttresses provided new ways of supporting the roof of a structure. Walls no longer had to bear the full load of this weight, and so they could now be used to host more and taller windows. Consequently, buildings became taller, lighter, and stronger. Stained glass and rose windows were used extensively to bring a riot of colour and light into these edifices. There was an increased use of realistic statuary on the exterior of the building, particularly in the portals overtop of the doors. These figures were used to illustrate biblical stories to churchgoers, who were largely illiterate¹.

The rib vault ceiling of Notre-Dame. This style of ceiling allowed for the use of windows higher up in the building’s walls.

Below is a picture I took at York Minster in England. I’m using it here because you can see the flying buttresses used to support the roof more prominently here than in any pictures I took at Notre-Dame. The arches support the weight of the roof by carrying the force laterally to the side, and then down to the ground.

Stained-glass windows inside Notre-Dame.

The north rose window.

Realistic statuary used on one of the three portals at the front of the cathedral relates the story of the Coronation of Mary for illiterate parishioners.

The entrance of Notre-Dame was designed to face the setting sun in the west, and the high altar was located in the east. The choir and the altar were finished first so that the church could be consecrated and used even while construction of the rest of the building continued. The choir was constructed between 1163-1177. The High Altar was consecrated in 1182.


Construction continued on the cathedral until 1250. The two towers on the western façade were the last major element of the cathedral to be undertaken. The south tower (the one on the right when you are facing the church) was built between 1220-1240, and the north tower (the one on the left) between 1235-1250. The latter tower is slightly larger. They are both 69 metres in height and, until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, were the tallest structures in Paris. The first set of flying buttresses were introduced to the cathedral in the 13th century, and were later replaced by larger and stronger ones in the 14th.

From Pixabay.

Notre-Dame has been the site of many notable occasions. My favourite historical figure Mary, Queen of Scots, was married to Francis, Dauphin of France, in Notre-Dame on April 24, 1558. A large raised platform or stage had been erected in the space at the entrance of the cathedral for the viewing pleasure of normal, everyday people. More crowded around the building, trying to peer in the windows. The spectacle did not disappoint. Mary wore a lily-white dress, a colour that she thought best suited her complexion and auburn hair. At the time, white was actually the official colour of mourning. White would not become a popular choice for bridal gowns until nearly three hundred years later, when Queen Victoria sparked the trend (and now tradition) of wearing a white dress at her wedding in 1840. Mary’s dress and veil were heavily weighted with precious jewels, and two ladies carried her train. The heralds cried out “largesse!” three times, and then threw fistfuls of gold and silver coins² to the gathered public. The crowd rioted in their excitement, crying out and crushing each other in their desperation to grab a few coins.

Mary, Queen of Scots and Francis, Dauphin of France. From Wikipedia.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, some alterations were made to Notre-Dame to make it more suited to the classical style of the period. The choir was rebuilt in marble, the sanctuary was modified, and (quelle horreur!) the 12th and 13th century stained-glass windows were replaced with panes of white glass to allow more light in the building. The 13th century spire, which had been damaged and bent by centuries of wind, was removed in 1786.

Worse was to come with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The Revolution was triggered by people who (rightfully) opposed the corrupt and exploitive systems of power that were being practiced by the French monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church. Notre-Dame was a monument that had been erected to glorify these same institutions. Many of the Cathedral’s treasures were stolen or destroyed during this time. Most of the large statues that decorated the exterior of the church were demolished, including the Gallery of 28 Biblical Kings. The revolutionaries, believing they were statues of French nobility, beheaded these stone figures in dramatic fashion³. They were filled with blood lust after the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and wanted more monarchs to meet the blade—living or stone.

The Gallery of Biblical Kings are lined up below the west rose window in the picture below. These 28 statues portray the 28 generations of the kings of Judah, descendants of Jesse (the father of King David), and the human ancestors of Mary and Jesus. The original statues were installed at the start of the 13th century. They were restored in the 19th century.

From Pixabay.

A close-up of some of the Kings.

From Pixabay.

In 1977, the heads of many of these statues were discovered in a nearby excavation and they are now on display at the Musée de Cluny. The bodies are shown immediately below, and the heads in the photo following.

In 1793, Notre-Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason, France’s first established state-sponsored atheistic religion, which was meant to replace Roman Catholicism. No gods were worshiped in the Cult of Reason; the guiding principles were, instead, the perfection of mankind through the attainment of Truth and Liberty, exercised through Reason. The Goddess of Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary. “To Philosophy” was carved over the cathedral doors. A Festival of Reason was celebrated on November 10, 1793³, in churches across France that had been transformed into “Temples of Reason.” Notre-Dame hosted the largest ceremony of them all. Women dressed up as Goddess figures in white Roman-style outfits with tricolour sashes. A flame, symbolic of truth, burned on the altar.

In the image below, the Goddess of Reason is personified by a young woman wearing a Roman-style tunic and a Phrygian cap, a symbol of the French Revolution.

Fete de la Raison (Festival of Reason) at Notre-Dame. Engraving from the National Library of France, anonymous artist, circa 1793. From Wikipedia.

In March of 1794, Maximilien Robespierre denounced the Cult of Reason and the leaders who were behind it. He sent them to the guillotine and then established a new, deistic state religion that he called the Cult of the Supreme Being. Robespierre was at the height of his power during the Reign of Terror, and had near-dictatorial influence. He was no admirer of Catholicism, but he especially despised atheism. He thought that belief in a supreme being was necessary for social order. He agreed with Voltaire’s quote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The Cult of the Supreme Being, devised almost entirely by Robespierre, was authorized by the National Convention on May 7, 1794 as the civic religion of France. Notre-Dame was accordingly re-dedicated to it.

Engraving by an unknown artist, circa 1794, from the National Library of France. Translated, it reads “The People of France recognize the Supreme Being and the Immortality of the Soul.” From Wikipedia.

The primary principles of Robespierre’s new religion were belief in a supreme being and the immortality of the human soul. He believed that reason was a means to an end, and that this end was virtue. He felt that belief in god and living by a higher moral code were essential elements of a civic-minded, republican society. To inaugurate the new state religion, Robespierre announced that a day of national celebration would be held on June 8, 1794.** Every town was required to commemorate the occasion, but the event in Paris was designed to be the grandest of them all. It was held on the Champ de Mars, a large public green space that today can be found to the north-west of the Eiffel Tower.

Festival of the Cult of the Supreme Being. Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1794. From Wikipedia.

Robespierre didn’t have long to enjoy the fruits of his religious labour. He was sent to the guillotine a mere 20 days after the Festival, on June 28, 1794; the cult subsequently disappeared from public view. Notre-Dame was then used as a warehouse for storing food, and for other non-religious purposes.

In July 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement to restore Notre-Dame to the Catholic church. On April 8, 1802 he officially banned the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being. Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804. In 1810, he was married at the cathedral to his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria.

The Coronation of Napoleon. Jacques-Louis David, 1804. From Wikipedia.

Although the cathedral was in use again, the building had suffered a lot of damage after the tumultuous years it had just endured. Thankfully, Notre-Dame had a champion in the shape of French Romantic writer Victor Hugo. In 1831, his novel Notre-Dame de Paris was published (the English translation would follow in 1833 with the title The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Hugo’s French title referred to both the church and the lead female protagonist, Esmeralda (“Our Lady of Paris”). Hugo started writing the book in 1829 in an effort to highlight the value of Gothic architecture to his contemporaries; at the time, many of these buildings were being demolished or their Gothic features modified to suit current tastes. (Recall that the medieval stained-glass windows of Notre-Dame, unappreciated for their artistry, had been replaced in the 18th century with white-panes of glass–Hugo criticized this specific act in his novel). Hugo’s novel was hugely popular, and it kicked off a historical preservation movement throughout France. A lot of important national landmarks were saved as a result. Hugo would later successfully campaign for restoring another prominent example of Gothic architecture, Mont-Saint-Michel.

Victor Hugo. Portrait byÉtienne Carjat, 1876. From Wikipedia.

Notre-Dame benefited from the increased attention that Hugo’s book brought to it. In 1844, King Louis Philippe ordered that the church be restored. Two architects were hired to oversee the 25 year restoration project: Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (who also worked on Mont-Saint-Michel, Sainte-Chapelle, and the medieval city walls of Carcassonne!). Sculptors, glass-makers, and other craftsmen worked from drawings and engravings to remake the original decorations that had been lost. If no models were available, new elements were created to match the original style.

Drawing from a later edition of Victor Hugo’s novel, showing the recently restored Galerie des Chimères. Luc-Olivier Merson, 1881. From Wikipedia.

A major cleaning of the cathedral’s façade was undertaken in 1963 and restored the stone to its original off-white colour. Another major cleaning and restoration program was undertaken in 1991.

Notre-Dame circa 1890-1910, prior to the big clean-up of 1963. Unknown author. From the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. From Wikipedia.
The cathedral is looking really spiffy these days. From Pixabay.

With the history retold, let’s move onto some more pictures I took from our visit to Notre-Dame. Below are some shots taken of the interior. Check out the rib vault ceilings, and how many stained glass panels there are on the walls!

Here are some supplementary pictures of the interior of the cathedral from Pixabay. Notre-Dame has five naves and 37 chapels. The central vault, shown below, is 35 metres (115 feet) high!

From Pixabay.
From Pixabay.
From Pixabay.

The choir screen. Construction on this screen was begun in 1300 by Pierre de Chelles, continued by Jean Ravy in 1318, and completed by Jean Le Bouteiller in 1351. Some of the original sculptures, referring to the birth and life of Christ, are the oldest in the cathedral.

A crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ now resides in Notre-Dame. It was brought to Paris in 1239 by (Saint) Louis IX; he had the Sainte-Chapelle Cathedral built to display it. The holy relic has been in Notre-Dame since 1806.

The Knights of the Holy Sepulchre are entrusted with the crown’s guardianship. They present it every first Friday of the month for viewing by faithful visitors.

This is what the crown looks like when it is not in the above display case. It’s kept in a crystal and gold-covered tube. Apparently, the crown no longer has any of the original thistles, as they were all broken off and given as gifts to notable people including Mary, Queen of Scots!*** There is a gold wire wrapped around the tube that give the impression of thistles, as you can see below.

From Wikipedia.

There are three rose windows in Notre-Dame. The west rose window, located on the western façade, was the first one installed and is the smallest of the three. The window displays signs of the zodiac and of life in the Middle Ages. It was added in 1225, and is about 9.6 metres (31.5 feet) in diameter. Sadly, none of the original glass remains in this window. It was recreated during the 19th century. Chemists analyzed fragments of the original 13th century glass, determined its composition, and were then able to reconstruct how it was made. Science!

From Pixabay.

The window is located behind the organ so it can be a little tricky to get a picture of.

From Wikipedia.
From Georgetown Library Repository.

A statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus is located on the exterior side of the west rose window. They are flanked by a pair of angels.

The exterior of the west rose window. From Pixabay.

The other two rose windows were added to the cathedral after the installation of the flying buttresses. As a result, the nave walls into which they are placed were thinner and stronger than the wall on the west façade. These windows could then be larger than the first rose window.

The north rose window was created in 1250. Most of the 13th century glass is still intact in this window! It has a diameter of 12.9 meters (42 feet) and features 24 figures from the Old Testament (high priests, kings, judges, prophets) with an image of the Virgin Mary in the centre pane. It was designed by Jean de Chelles.

Here are a couple of pictures from Pixabay that are slightly more in focus than mine.

From Pixabay.
From Pixabay.

The south rose window was created in 1260, and is the largest of the three windows at 13.1 metres (43 feet) in diameter. It was gifted to Notre-Dame by Louis IX (Saint Louis) of France, the same man who also had Sainte-Chapelle built. Its images centre around stories from the New Testament. The window was damaged in 1543 by the settling of the masonry walls, and was not restored until 1725-1727. It was seriously damaged during the July Revolution of 1830. It was restored in 1861, and contains both medieval and 19th century glass. There are four circles containing 88 panes of glass representing the apostles, saints, martyrs, and angels that surround the central figure of Christ and his four evangelists.

Below the south rose window are 16 windows (of which 12 are shown in the picture below) that feature images of prophets. They are not original to the south rose window; they were added during the 19th century restoration based upon a similar window at Chartres Cathedral.

Here are some other stained-glass windows that can be found inside Notre-Dame.

After showing you the inside of the cathedral, I’ll now take a closer look at the sculptures that decorate the three portals on the exterior of the western façade. Interestingly, all of the sculptures on Notre-Dame were originally painted and gilded. They must have been really colourful!**** Keep that in mind as we study them.

The three portals, left to right, are the Portal of the Holy Virgin, the Portal of the Last Judgment, and the Portal of Saint Anne. You’ll notice that they are not quite symmetrical and the middle one is the largest. Formerly, the statues in these portals were colourfully painted and stood out against a golden background.

From Wikipedia.

A little more up-close.

The sculpted relief that appears in a portal above a door is actually called a tympanum. (I learn something new every day!). The first portal on the left shows the coronation of the Virgin Mary and her ascension to Heaven.

From Pixabay.

I like the angel just peeking in, as if from a trap door, to put the crown on Mary’s head.

One of the statues below depicts the martyr, Saint Denis, holding his head. He is the patron saint of France and Paris. He was bishop of Paris in the 3rd century. He and two companions were arrested and beheaded for their faith on the tallest hill in Paris, now called Montmartre (which comes from the Latin Mons Martyrum, meaning “Martyr’s Mountain”). According to legend, Denis picked up his head and carried it as he walked a few miles away from the hill, preaching a sermon the entire way. The spot where he actually died was marked by a small shrine that later became Saint Denis Basilica, where the Kings of France chose to be buried.

The images on the central portal depict scenes from the Last Judgement, as described in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. The lower lintel shows the dead rising from their graves. In the lintel above them, Archangel Michael weighs their souls. Sinners are led to Hell on the right, and those judged to be good Christians are taken to heaven on the left. Jesus is seated on a throne overtop of them, showing his wounds. An audience of angels, patriarchs, saints, and apostles flank the top of the portal.

From Pixabay.

The devil sticking his tongue out cracks me up.

From Pixabay.

I didn’t know this at the time but, apparently, the middle portal contains some sculptures that illustrate medieval science and philosophy. Carved figures hold plaques that contain symbols of transformation taken from alchemy. A woman on a throne holds a sceptre in one hand and two books in the other hand; one of these books is open, signifying public knowledge, the other is closed, symbolizing esoteric (specialized) knowledge. A ladder with seven steps symbolizes the seven steps alchemists followed in their quest to transform ordinary metals into gold. If you’re ever in Paris and remember, take a look and see if you can spot them! I didn’t know to look for them at the time, and so don’t have any pictures of them. I wasn’t able to pick anything out in the pictures that I did take or in those that I could find on Pixabay.

From Pixabay.

The tympanum/portal on the right shows the lives of saints who were important to Parisians, especially Mary’s mother, Saint Anne.

From Pixabay.
From Pixabay.

I liked the statue of the (uncrowned) man standing on the back of one who is crowned! I wonder what the story is behind that!

Visitors to Notre-Dame can ascend the stairs in the north tower, 387 in total, to gain an excellent view of downtown Paris. A highlight of the climb includes a visit to the Chimera Gallery. Chimera are the ornamental sculptures that depict a range of  fantastical and monstrous creatures on the exterior of Gothic churches and cathedrals. The chimera served as a visual message to illiterate parishioners of the danger and evil that awaited them if they failed to follow the Church’s teachings. However, chimera have also been considered to be guardians of the church, protecting the church and its inhabitants by warding off evil.

The chimera were created by sculptor Joseph Pyanet for the 19th century restoration.

The elephant doesn’t seem too menacing.

The Strix, or Stryge, was a creature that resembled an owl or a bat, and was said to eat human flesh. The so-called “Spitting Gargoyle” (shown below) is actually a Stryge.

The guys in green in the background are Apostles; I’ll discuss them further down in the post.

Keeping a watchful eye over the city.

The chimera are different from the gargoyles, which in addition to decoration serve a functional purpose as drain spouts. Gargoyles project rainwater as far outwards as possible in order to protect the stone walls, the flying buttresses, the windows, and the mortar used to bind the stone together. The gargoyles have been a part of Notre-Dame longer than the chimera, as they were added around 1240.

Gargoyle comes from the French word gargouille, which translates as “throat” or “gullet.” The English word gargle, which you do in your throat, is similar.

Chimera and gargoyles are both known as grotesques.

As you can see in the pictures above and the one below, the area around the Chimera Gallery is enclosed by metal netting. I had a small camera lens so I was able to squeeze it in between the wires to get some decent pictures of the statues. This is something to keep in mind if you’re going to Notre-Dame, as a big lens might have a harder time getting a clear shot.

When Notre-Dame underwent its major restoration in the 19th century, a new spire was made to replace the one that had been removed in 1786. This one is made of oak and covered with lead. It weighs 750 tonnes!

From Pixabay.

At the base of the spire, at each four points of the compass, there is a grouping of three apostles (making 12 in total).

The fourth statue at the front of each set of three Apostles is an animal meant to symbolize one of the four evangelists (a steer for Saint Luke, a lion for Saint Mark, an eagle for Saint John, and an angel for Saint Matthew). I think the one in the picture below is an eagle.

One of these statues, Saint Thomas (the patron saint of architects), was given the features of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. All the other statues are facing out at Paris; his is the only one that is looking back at the spire of the cathedral.

A statue of Saint Thomas with the features of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. From Wikipedia.
Photo of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Photographed by Nadar (1820-1910). From Wikipedia.

Here are some more pictures of the spire and the roof, looking south-east over the Seine river. The two bridges in the distance cross the Seine to the Île Saint-Louis (which I just realized is named after Saint Louis IX, the guy who had Sainte-Chapelle built and gifted the south rose stained-glass window to Notre-Dame).

You can see some of the flying buttresses in the picture below.

Here are some other pictures taken on the roof.

Notre-Dame has 10 bells: 8 in the north tower, and 2 in the south. The largest of these bells, Emmanuel (named by Louis XIV!), is located in the south tower. It is an original bell from 1681, and weighs 13 tonnes. Today, Emmanuel is only rung on special occasions. On the night of August 24, 1944, the tolling of Emmanuel announced to the rest of the city that the Liberation of Paris was underway as French and Allied troops and members of the French Resistance advanced through the Île de Cité. The cathedral suffered some minor damage from bullets. On August 26, 1944 a special mass was held at Notre-Dame to celebrate the end of German occupation; Charles de Gaulle and General Phillipe Leclerc were in attendance.

Emmanuel. From Wikipedia.

This bell was in the north tower.

Now, for some pictures of the view from the top of Notre-Dame. The picture below faces west and a little to the left (south) of Notre-Dame, in the direction of the Eiffel Tower.

Looking west and a little further south.

Zooming in on the Eiffel Tower, with the gold dome of Les Invalides (which contains Napoleon’s tomb).

Zoomed back out from the Eiffel Tower and looking south west, still. I liked this picture because of the tour boat at the bottom.

Looking straight west, across the rest of the Île de Cité.

Straight west again, but zooming in on the church spire and upper half of Sainte-Chapelle. The Palais de Justice is located to the right.

Looking a little to the right (north-west) of Notre-Dame now. This has a great view of some 19th century Haussmann apartment buildings. You can see in the distance, at the top right of the picture, Sacré-Couer Basilica located at the top of the hill in Montmartre.

Looking a little more to the right (still north-west) of Notre-Dame. Sacré-Couer is now in the top middle of the photo.

Zooming in on Sacré-Couer.

I’ve walked to a new spot on the viewing platform, and am now looking north-east.

I think this picture is looking straight south from Notre-Dame to the Panthéon, a building in the Latin Quarter of Paris that used to be a church dedicated to St. Genevieve but is now a secular mausoleum for notable Parisians (including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo).

Neil and I visited Sainte-Chapelle and Notre-Dame on the same day, as part of a skip-the-line walking tour. Sainte-Chapelle has the beauty, but Notre-Dame has the history. I definitely recommend doing a skip-the-line tour for Notre-Dame. There are two separate line-ups: one to walk through the interior of the church (not usually as long, and moves pretty fast) and a second line-up to ascend the 387 steps of the north tower for access to the Chimera Gallery and the viewing platform (moves slowly and the wait can be hours long in peak season, due to the limited space on the stairwell and platform).

Below is a flower found in one of the gardens that surround the cathedral.

Remember to wear sleeves whenever you go to visit a church, especially Notre-Dame! Bare sacrilegious shoulders are turned away, even when it is 37 degrees celsius outside. Also, beware of scammers around Notre-Dame. It’s a tourist hot spot, and people are ready to take advantage of any moments of confusion or quiet observation you might be having.

Flowers in the garden at Notre-Dame.

Thanks for reading!


¹Gothic architecture experienced a revival in England in the mid-18th century that then spread throughout the rest of Europe in the 19th, and continued into the 20th. It was a popular choice for buildings that serve a religious (churches), academic (universities) or civic (town halls) purpose.

²Coins included “henrys, ducats, crowns, pistolets, half crowns, testons, and douzins.” You can read more about the elaborate wedding festivities here. My favourite detail comes from the reception, where two-person “ships” entertained the guests. These ships were covered in gold cloth, red velvet, and had silver linen sails. If I could time-travel to a place for a limited period of time lasting only an hour or two, this reception is what I would most want to see.

³In the new revolutionary calendar that the French had adopted, the date was 20 Brumaire, Year II.

**According to the revolutionary calendar, this date was 20 Prairial Year II.

*** Mary, Queen of Scots, took her thistle back to Scotland with her after Francis died. After her execution, she bequeathed it to her servant Thomas Percy. He passed it down to his daughter, Elizabeth Woodruff. She then gifted it to a Jesuit priest, who gave it to the Jesuit’s Stonyhurst College, where it can be found today. It is housed in a reliquary with a string of Mary’s pearls around it. It is placed in the college chapel during Holy Week.

From Wikipedia.

**** All of the ancient Greek and Roman statues that we are used to seeing in tones of ivory, beige, and white were also all brightly painted in their time.

I came across the picture below on Pixabay. It’s from the Notre-Dame church in the town of Attigny, France. The little cat chimera is so cute, I wanted to include it just for fun.

Categories
France Landmarks Paris

Sainte-Chapelle: A Jewelry Box for Medieval Paris

Sainte-Chapelle was one of our highlights of visiting Paris. It is a gorgeous medieval church that was built in a speedy few years, with construction beginning in 1238 and ending shortly before the church was consecrated on April 26, 1248. (For comparison’s sake, Notre-Dame took 200 years). The Gothic chapel was commissioned by Louis IX (1214-1290) who purchased a valuable collection of Passion relics including Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and the Image of Edessa (a square-shaped piece of cloth upon which Jesus’ face had been miraculously imprinted). In 1246, fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance were added to the collection. Having these items in his position gave Louis IX a lot of prestige, and marked him as the head of western Christianity. Sainte-Chapelle was built to provide a suitable place to proudly display these Holy items. Even today, the church is described as Paris’ grandest “jewelry box.”

Sainte-Chapelle is located on the Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the River Seine that lie at the heart of Paris (the second one being the Île Saint-Louis). The western end of the Île de la Cité has held a palace (the Palais de la Cité) since the middle of the 5th century, and the eastern end has been dedicated to religion since at least the ninth century (it’s where Notre-Dame can be found). Sainte-Chapelle was built within the grounds of the Palais de la Cité, which was the main residence of the French Kings between the 6th and 14th centuries. The site of the former palace now consists mainly of buildings that make up the 19th century Palais de Justice. Remaining palace structures include the Conciergerie (which acted as a prison during the French Revolution and held more than 2,700 people destined for the guillotine, including Marie Antoinette), four towers located along the Seine river, and Sainte-Chapelle.

You can see the four towers in the photo below.

Below is a picture of the exterior of Sainte-Chapelle today. It’s tough to get a good photo of the whole building, as its lower level is enclosed by other structures.

The Palais de Justice is located right beside Sainte-Chapelle (to the right in the photo below).

Below is the entry into Sainte-Chapelle (there was some restoration work going on, hence the netting).

Below is the balcony on the second floor (the Upper Chapel).

Close-up of the sculpted relief that appears on the balcony.

Below is a drawing of Sainte-Chapelle (on the upper right) that shows where it was located as part of the Palais de la Cité.

Drawing of the Palais de la Cité following the construction of Sainte-Chapelle, by Viollet-le-Duc. From Wikipedia.

Below is an image of the Palais de la Cité as it appeared in 1412-1416, as illustrated in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Sainte-Chapelle can be seen on the right, the royal residence in the middle, the Great Hall to the left.

Detail from the month of June, Haymaking, in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry . An illuminated manuscript, Netherlandish. A devotional book of hours. Circa 1400. From Wikipedia.

Below is a great picture of Sainte-Chapelle from 1715 (before the construction of buildings that obscure its lower level today).

Louis XIV arrives at the Palais de la Cite to preside over a session of the Parlement de Paris (1715). Pierre-Denis Martin (1673-1742). From Wikipedia.

There are two chapels on two different floors that can be visited at Sainte-Chapelle. The Upper Royal Chapel on the second floor is the star attraction, as it features one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections anywhere in the world. The upper chapel was built for the King, while the lower chapel was built for the common people. Although the Holy Relics are no longer housed within Sainte-Chapelle¹, the stained-glass windows impress all on their own. There are 15 windows, each of them 15 metres high, that depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments, recounting the history of the world until the arrival of the relics in Paris. Nearly two-thirds of the windows are authentic to the 13th-century, which is itself a miracle considering Paris’ turbulent history (the French Revolution and the Nazi occupation during World War II come readily to mind). A large rose window was added to the Upper Chapel in 1490.

I’ll start with pictures from the Upper Royal Chapel.

It is tragic for me that my camera was not up to the task of being able to take pictures that truly represent how incredibly breathtakingly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle is. There were a million things for my tiny little (scratched) lens to try and focus on. I’ll do my best with the photos I have, below, to show what our visit was like. Further down in the post I’ll add some shots from Pixabay. But they still fall short. It truly is a place you have to see for yourself, hopefully on a day with some sunlight. The church has the ability to knock a modern viewer off their feet; it must have been an absolutely unreal experience for visitors in the 13th century.

What you can’t see in the photo below is how rich the colours of the ceiling are, because the camera is trying to catch the light from the stained-glass. If you keep scrolling below, though, you’ll see some pictures where the camera gets to focus solely on the ceiling details.


The 12 stone figures that adorn the room represent the 12 Apostles. They each carry a disc with a consecration cross; these crosses were traditionally marked on the pillars of a church at its consecration.

I love the hand-drawn details on this painted column, below.

Here are some details from the balcony on the second floor.

Looking from the balcony back into the chapel.

Here are some pictures from the Lower Chapel. It is stunning in its own right, with those incredible ceilings. This chapel served as a parish church for all of the palace inhabitants. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

I love the vibrant blue and rich gold details.

A statue of Louis IX. He is the only canonized King of France (proclaimed in 1297), known as Saint Louis. Lots of cities, churches, and even French royal descendants were named after him (he was already the 9th of his name, but I’m sure the canonization helped influence its continued popularity).

Several of the columns are decorated with Castilian castles in homage to Blanche of Castille, the mother of Saint Louis.

Here are a few photos from Pixabay.

Sainte-Chapelle became a historical monument in 1862. I would insist that you include it on your list of Paris must-sees. We did it as part of a tour that also included Notre-Dame. If you had to choose between the two, I would recommend Sainte-Chapelle. It outranks Notre-Dame based on its sheer beauty. Although it can be a busy attraction, it is nowhere near as crazy as its more famous Île de Cité counterpart.


¹The Holy Relics were dispersed during the French Revolution, and the reliquaries were melted down (including the Great Casket that had cost Louis IX twice the amount it took to build Sainte-Chapelle). The Crown of Thrones can be seen at nearby Notre-Dame.

Categories
France Landmarks Paris

The Loire Valley

The Loire river valley is known as “the Garden of France” due to its fruity wine, beautiful châteaux, historic towns, orchards, asparagus fields, artichoke crops, and more. When one envisions the romance of fairy-tale France, the Loire region will meet every superlative expectation. Notable towns include Amboise, Angers, Blois, Chinon, Montsoreau, Nantes, Orléans, Saumur, and Tours.

Château de Sully-Sur-Loire. From Pixabay.

Neil and I took a day-trip to three châteaux located southwest of Paris, and I’ll cover each of them in their own post. I would go back to the Loire in a heartbeat. The châteaux and the towns contain everything I love: a fascinating and rich history, stunning architecture, beautiful gardens, and sweet wine.

Château de Chenonceau. From Pixabay.

I would like to pause for a moment to make a note on the use of castle/palace/château. In English, a castle is generally considered to be a type of fortified residence built in the Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries) in Europe or the Middle East by nobility. A castle was a feudal stronghold, and so function (thick, tall stone walls to fend off invading armies or unruly peasants) usually trumped appearance. A palace is a grand residence, usually for a head of state or church, designed for aesthetic rather than defensive purposes. Palaces were built typically during the Renaissance period (14th-17th century, although they continued being built as late as the 19th and 20th centuries) when siege warfare was no longer as popular a method of gaining or defending power¹. A palace impresses first and foremost with a display of wealth, a castle with physical might. Of course, this is a gross overgeneralization and there is a lot of overlap between the two terms. In English, a château brings to mind a specific style of building, usually Swiss-inspired, typically found on a white-capped mountain where people strap boards to the bottom of their feet and throw themselves down hills for fun. In French, a château could be a medieval fortress, a Renaissance palace, or a 19th century manor house. Château is generally used when a grand house is located out in the country, like the many examples found in the Loire valley, whereas palais would refer to a grand house located in a city. The Château de Versailles was so-called because it was originally located in the countryside, outside of Paris. However, today the building is firmly urban and doesn’t bear any resemblance to a castle, so in English it is usually referred to as the Palace of Versailles. There were a thousand châteaux spread throughout the Loire, all with their own style and architectural features, ranging in date from the early medieval to the late Renaissance periods.

Château de Sully. From Pixabay.

The Loire region has been inhabited since the Middle Palaeolithic period (300,000-30,000 years ago). The Celtic Gauls arrived in the valley between 1500-500 B.C.E. The Loire river became an important trading route between the Celts and the Greeks. The Romans conquered the Gauls in 52 B.C.E. and began developing a settlement, Aurelianis, that is today known as Orléans. They also built the city of Caesarodunum, now Tours, in 1 C.E. Loire comes from the Latin word liger, which itself is a transcription of the Gaullic/Celtic word liga, meaning “silt, sediment, clay/silt/sand deposit.”

Loire river. From Pixabay.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, three Germanic tribes –the Franks, the Allemanni, and the Visigoths–moved in and fought amongst themselves. In 408 an Iranian tribe, the Alans (a nomadic pastoral people), crossed the Loire and settled near Orléans. Things got really exciting in the 9th century when the Vikings invaded the west coast of France and crossed the Loire river in their longships. In 853, they attacked and destroyed Tours. They raided Angers in 854 and 872.

From Pixabay.

The Loire river effectively sections France between north and south, and land holdings strategically developed to reflect that geo-political divide. During the Hundred Years’ War (English House of Plantagenet² versus French House of Valois, 1337-1453), the Loire marked the border between the French and the English. The Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc, convinced Charles VII to drive the English out of the country in 1429. Breaking through and lifting the Siege of Orléans was the first major French military victory following a crushing defeat in 1415 (the Battle of Agincourt), and was the first campaign with Joan as a member of the army. It was a turning point in the war, which eventually led to French victory and English defeat. (Neither country seems to have forgotten this rivalry, which really churned up French and English nationalistic sentiment).

Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orléans. Jules Eugène, 1886-90. From Wikipedia.

The Italian Renaissance came to the Loire Valley during the reign of François/Francis I from 1515-1547. Francis served as a patron to Leonardo da Vinci, and brought the Italian artist and inventor to Amboise in 1516. Italian art and culture were absorbed by the populace, and the construction of many châteaux in the Loire region were heavily influenced by Italian architecture.

Château de Chambord. From Pixabay.

When the French kings began building their large châteaux in the Loire valley, the nobility followed suit. In order to retain whatever scrap of feudal potency you had, you had to stay close to the King and the seat of power. You couldn’t afford to be “out of sight, out of mind.” And you had to keep up with the Duboises and all the fancy châteaux they were building. You fought to get the best landscape designer, to build the most elaborate staircase, to have the most ornate series of gables, the most impressive variety of flowers. The Loire Valley became known as the “Valley of the Kings.”

Château de Blois. From Pixabay.

The importance of the Loire Valley began to decline in the 17th century. During the French Revolution (1789) and afterwards, many of the châteaux were destroyed and converted into prisons or schools. Around 300 remain, and some of the most notable ones open to visitors include the Château d’Amboise, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, Château de Chambord, Château de Chenonceau, Château de Chinon, Château de Montsoreau, Château d’Ussé, the Château de Villandry, and so many others.

In 2000, UNESCO added the central part of the Loire Valley to its list of World Heritage Sites.


¹Castles stand up rather well to swords, poleaxes, and horses. But technological improvements in weaponry (gunpowder, cannons, airplanes, bombs) made fortress walls redundant. This is an oversimplification, of course.

²The English House of Plantagenet was French in origin (Norman, and Angevin–a province in the lower region of the Loire river). The English monarchs held titles and lands in France, and were thus vassals to the King of France. The property and rights held by the English monarchs were a source of contention between them and the French monarchs, who tried to check and strip their power and holdings whenever they could. In 1328, Charles IV died without any sons or brothers to inherit. His closest male relative was his nephew, Edward III of England. His mother, Isabella of France, was Charles’ sister. Isabella claimed the throne of France for her son. Unfortunately, in 1316, a law had been passed in France that denied women succession to the French throne, so the French didn’t think Isabella had the right to claim it. The French wanted a Frenchman to be King, not a foreign English prince, and so a male cousin, Philip, Count of Valois, became Philip VI of France (the first King of the House of Valois). However, disagreements between Philip VI and Edward III (Philip seized Edward’s land, Edward decided to press his claim) led to all-out war.

Featured image for this post is from Wikipedia, not my own work.

Categories
France Museums Paris

Musée Marmottan Monet

The Musée Marmottan Monet has the largest collection of Oscar-Claude Monet’s works in the world. The collection includes 94 paintings, 29 drawings, 8 notebooks of drawings, his painting palettes, personal correspondence, photographs, and a collection of paintings he kept that were created by his friends.

Water Lilies. Claude Monet, 1915.

The building housing the museum was originally a hunting lodge. It was acquired in 1882 by Jules Marmottan, who renovated it so that is was larger and better suited to displaying his personal collection of First Empire art, furniture, and paintings. (The First French Empire was the Napoleonic era, from 1804-1815). On his death in 1932, he bequeathed his art and the building to the Academy of Fine Arts. Thus, the Musée Marmottan was born.

Water Lilies. Claude Monet, 1915.

In 1957, Victorine Donop de Monchy donated a collection of paintings that she had inherited from her father, Dr. Georges de Bellio. Her father had been a doctor, patron, and friend of Monet, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Victorine Donop de Monchy. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1892.

Michel Monet, Claude Monet’s second and only surviving son, donated the property of Giverny and his collection of his father’s paintings and personal effects to the Academy of Beaux-Arts in 1966. A special room was built in the basement of the Musée to display these pieces; it was inspired by the design of the Musée de l’Orangerie.

Japanese Bridge. Claude Monet, 1918.

In 1985, Nelly Duhem, adopted daughter of French Impressionist painter Henri Duhem, donated his large collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist pieces (including several Monets) to the museum.

Yellow Irises. Claude Monet.

These three donations make up the backbone of the museum’s collection, with further prestigious works added since then. Sadly (for me), when we visited, you were not allowed to take photos at the museum.  However, you can undergo a virtual visit from the museum’s website, and see some photos of the exhibited works there as well (that is where I’ve gotten the pictures used in this post).

View over the Tuileries Gardens. Claude Monet, 1876.

A highlight of the collection includes the seminal painting that led to the name of the Impressionism movement. On October 27, 1985, five masked gunmen with pistols forced their way into the Musée Marmottan Monet during the day and stole nine paintings from the collection, including this one. Happily, a tip led to the recovery of all the paintings five years later.

Impression, Sunrise. Claude Monet, 1872.
Water Lilies. Claude Monet, 1915.

The Musée Marmottan Monet also contains the world’s largest collection of works by female Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot.

At the Ball. Berthe Morisot, 1875.

The Musée de Marmottan Monet is another gem of a gallery to check out while you are in Paris!

Categories
France Museums Paris

The Musée d’Orsay

A highlight of any trip to Paris would include a visit to the Musée d’Orsay, which houses the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art work. The museum includes paintings, sculptures, photography, and furniture dating from 1848-1914. The collection includes pieces by Oscar-Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Georges-Pierre Seurat,  Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Willem van Gogh.

Self-Portrait. Vincent van Gogh, 1889.

The building that houses the museum was originally a railway station, the Gare d’Orsay. The station was originally built in the Beaux-Arts style¹ for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). The station was located close to the main exhibition sites, and would serve as the terminus station for visitors traveling into Paris from south-west France. The station also included a 370-room hotel. Construction began in the spring of 1898, and was completed in time for the opening of the fair on April 12, 1900².

Old postcard featuring the Gare d’Orsay, posted from the Netherlands in 1909. The station served the Orléans to Paris railway, which is why it’s referred to as the Gare d’Orléans here. From Wikipedia.
An old postcard dating from 1920.

The Gare d’Orsay was the first station designed for use by electric trains; no steam and smoke meant that the station could be enclosed by a glass roof. The station also featured new technological features such as ramps and lifts for luggage, and passenger elevators.

1900 postcard of the interior of the station. Note the glass roof and the electric train cars. From Wikipedia.
A close-up of an electric train car. Their distinctive shape led to them being called “boîte à sel”(salt cellar*). From the website of the Musée d’Orsay.

However, rapid developments in railway technology soon rendered the Gare d’Orsay obsolete. By 1939, longer electric trains were required for mainline routes and the platforms at the Gare d’Orsay were too short for them. The station was closed to long distance traffic, although service on some suburban routes remain in the lower levels of the station, even to this day. During the Second World War, the station found use as a dispatch point for parcels that were sent to prisoners of war. After the war, the station functioned as a reception centre for repatriated prisoners of war and deportees. In 1958, General Charles de Gaulle used the ballroom of the station’s hotel to announce in a press conference that he was returning to politics. The station also served as a shooting location for a couple of movies in the 1960s (including one by Orson Welles). In 1973, the hotel closed.

Interior of the Gare d’Orsay, 1974-80. From the Musée d’Orsay website.

There were many ideas proposed about what to do with the abandoned Gare d’Orsay, and most of them involved demolition. A new architectural style, modernism, was de rigueur, and a plan to flatten the Beaux-Arts building and replace it with a truly horrific looking international hotel was advanced³. Thankfully, the Ministry of Public Works, Transport, and Housing refused the plans for the new hotel shortly after demolition approval had been granted. They stated that the new design was unsuitable because of its “size and height.” Maybe this is a rare instance of a time traveler managing to go back in time to right what would have become a devastating wrong; regardless, the Beaux-Arts building was added to a Supplementary Inventory of Historic Monuments in 1973.

What nearly could have been… the project design for the hotel that would have replaced the Gare d’Orsay. Design by Guillaume Gillet and Rene Coulon, 1961. From the Musée d’Orsay website.

In 1977, a decision was made to transform the Gare d’Orsay into a museum.  It was officially listed in 1978 on the main list of Historic Monuments, and that same year a competition was organized to redesign the building into a museum. The Musée d’Orsay was opened to the public on December 9, 1986.

Saved! Scroll up and compare what exists today with what could have been, above. The Musée d’Orsay, 2014. From Wikipedia.
From Pixabay.

In the pictures above, you can see there are two clock faces overlooking the Seine. Those clock faces double as windows, as seen in the picture below. You can find one of the clock faces in the café (of course!).

From Pixabay.

The interior of the museum is faithful to the design of the station. The beautiful glass ceiling, latticework, and station clock remain.

A close-up of the clock.

Another angle, with better lighting.

From Pixabay.

This shot shows part of the ceiling latticework, in addition to the incredible sculpture. And Neil!

Hérklès kills the birds of Stymphale Lake. Antoine Bourdelle, Alexis and Eugène Rudier, 1909.

Some other shots of the interior. It is a gorgeous building. The history and the incredible architecture definitely add to the experience.

From Pixabay.
From Pixabay.
From Pixabay.
From Pixabay.

Let’s move into the artwork! We’ll begin with Van Gogh. I know I already posted this painting above, but I liked this other angle of it as well.

Self-Portrait. Vincent van Gogh, 1889.

I really like it when a photograph can capture the texture of the paint, as in the image below.

Mademoiselle Gachet in her garden at Auvers-sur-Oise. Vincent van Gogh, 1890.
Roses and anemones. Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

I did take a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers but, alas, it ended up not being in focus. I hope this painting will suffice instead!

Fritillaires in a copper vase. Vincent van Gogh, 1887.

A close-up.

Fritillaires in a copper vase. Vincent van Gogh, 1887.
Van Gogh’s Room in Arles. Vincent van Gogh, 1889.
The church of Auvers-sur-Oise, seen from the bedside. Vincent van Gogh, 1890.
Thatched Cottages at Cordeville at Auvers-sur-Oise. Vincent van Gogh, 1890.
Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

I really liked the frame this painting was in, so decided to include it in the image below.

Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

Auguste Rodin began work on the sculpture below, but then decided to leave it with just the head shaped from the marble. He called it Thought Emerging from Matter.

Thought. Auguste Rodin, 1896.

This bust of Beethoven was impressive, especially from the side!

Ludwig Van Beethoven. Émile-Antoine Bourdelle, 1903. The inscription reads: “I am Bacchus who presses out the delicious nectar for men.”

That hair resembles a lion’s mane!

Breton Women with Umbrellas. Émile Bernard, 1892.

All right, time to check out some Pointilism! Pointilism is a technique of painting that uses small, distinct spots of colour to create an image. It was an offshoot of Impressionism, developed by Paul Signac and Georges Seurat (who painted the picture above, but I don’t think that specific work uses pointilism). The technique relies on the ability of the eye and the mind of the viewer to blend the colour spots into a fuller range of tones.

Here are a couple of examples by Maximilien Luce.

The Seine at Herblay. Maximilien Luce, 1890.

Let’s take a closer look at the painting, to really examine the use of distinct spots of colour.

The Quai Saint-Michel and Notre Dame. Maximilien Luce, 1901.

Here are some paintings by Paul Signac, who helped develop Pointilism.

The River Bank, Petit-Andely. Paul Signac, 1886.

A close-up of the man sitting on the dock.

Women at the Well. Paul Signac, 1892.

I really like this painting, below. I also think Anne Shirley would be a big fan of those puffed sleeves.

Woman with the Umbrella. Paul Signac, 1893.
The Castle of the Popes. Paul Signac, 1900.

A few paintings by Henri-Edmond Cross.

The Evening Air. Henri-Edmond Cross, 1893.

The Fruit of the Nymphs. Henri-Edmond Cross, 1906.

I really like the texture of the paint in this work. Below is a close-up of one of they nymphs.

Cypresses at Cagnes. Henri-Edmond Cross, 1908.
The Man at the Helm. Théo VanRysselberghe, 1892.

Ready for some more Monet?

The Water Lily Pond, Green Harmony. Claude Monet, 1899.

Here’s a close-up of the lilies underneath the bridge.

I really like Monet’s haystacks/grainstacks/wheatstacks series as well.

Grainstacks, end of summer. Claude Monet, 1891.
Wheatstacks, sunset, snow effect. Claude Monet, 1890-91.
Tulip Fields in Holland. Claude Monet, 1886.

I really like his “Woman with a Parasol” series as well.

Woman with a Parasol, facing left. Claude Monet, 1886.
Woman with a Parasol, facing right. Claude Monet, 1886.
The Rue Montorgueil, in Paris, celebration of June 30, 1878. Claude Monet, 1878.
A corner of the apartment. Claude Monet, 1875.
Poppy Field at Argenteuil. Claude Monet, 1873.
Lilacs, Grey Weather. Claude Monet, 1872-73.
Water Lilies. Claude Monet, 1916-19.

I like how, in the image below, you can see the brushstrokes at the edge of the canvas.

Blue Water Lilies. Claude Monet, 1916-19.

A close up of the lilies.

Monet painted this as a response to Édouard Manet’s painting of the same title, Luncheon on the Grass (shown below). Monet struggled financially early in his career, and his unfinished Luncheon on the Grass was given to his landlord around 1866 as security for his rent payments. The landlord rolled it up and put it in a cellar. When Monet finally had the money to purchase the painting back twenty years later, the neglected painting had contracted a serious case of mould. Monet tried to rescue it by cutting it into three sections of different sizes. One of the panels disappeared, presumably because in the end Monet didn’t think it was worth saving. You can read more about this painting and Claude Monet in this post.

Lunch on the Grass. Claude Monet, 1885-86.

Another angle of the painting, to show how tall the left panel is.

Lunch on the Grass. Claude Monet, 1885-86.

What flowers were to Monet, ballerinas were for Edgar Degas. More than half of his works feature dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism but he rejected the term, preferring to think of himself as a realist.

Blue Dancers. Edgar Degas, 1890.
Ballet Rehearsal. Edgar Degas, 1874.

Degas created a lot of sculpture during his lifetime, but most of them were unseen by the public until after his death. The only sculpture that he showed while still alive was of the sculpture below, shown in 1881.

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years/Great Dressed Dancer. Edgar Degas, 1921-31.

The sculpture is nearly life-size and has real human hair. It provoked a strong negative reaction from critics, who said that while the realism of the figure was extraordinary, the dancer herself was ugly. Others appreciated how the piece defied what one traditionally expects of a sculpture: smooth, white, classically beautiful.

In 2013, I read Cathy Marie Buchanan’s book The Painted Girls, which was inspired by the real-life model for this sculpture. It was a really good book, I ranked it #6 of the top 10 books I read in 2013, and so it was really interesting to see the actual sculpture in person!

A female artist! Mary Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker, but lived most of her adult life in France. She befriended Edgar Degas, and her work was exhibited with the Impressionists. She is considered one of three main female figures of Impressionism, along with Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond. I wish I had thought to seek out more works by female artists while we were at the Musée d’Orsay. Next time!

Young Woman Sewing in the Garden. Mary Cassatt, 1880-82.

Camille Pissarro is considered one of the fathers of Impressionism, and inspired the Post-Impressionists as well (Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin). He was a close friend of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. He is the only artist to have exhibited at all eight Impressionist exhibitions from 1874-1886. Pierre-Auguste Renoir said that Pissarro was revolutionary in his artistic portrayals of “the common man”, as he insisted on painting individuals in natural settings “without artifice or grandeur.” Here are a few of his paintings.

Woman in a sunny spring field, in Éragny. Camille Pissarro, 1887.
The Church and Farm of Éragny. Camille Pissarro, 1895.
The Church of Sainte-Marie at Knokke. Camille Pissarro, 1894.

A close-up. I really like the texture in this painting!

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was also a leading figure in the development of Impressionism. Here are some of his paintings.

I really adore this one of a little girl with a cat. The look on that cat’s face just melts my heart!

Julie Manet/The Child with the Cat. Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1887.

I also really like these two paintings! They are painted life-size. The woman who modelled for the painting on the left, Aline Charigot, later became Renoir’s wife.

Dance in the City. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883.
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. Pierre-August Renoir, 1876. (From Wikipedia, sadly the picture I took was out of focus).

Renoir and Monet had a close friendship.

Claude Monet. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875.

Édouard Manet is considered a transitional figure between the artistic styles of Realism and Impressionism. Two of his paintings, The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, were watershed paintings that spurred on the painters who would develop Impressionism, and are thought to mark the start of modern art. He served as a major influence for many future painters.

The Paris Salon rejected The Luncheon on the Grass for exhibit in 1863, but it found a home at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected), a parallel exhibition to the official Salon. Victorine Meurent, an accomplished French painter who also exhibited some of her work at the Paris Salon, was the model for the woman on the left. She also modelled for Olympia.

The Luncheon on the Grass/The Bath. Édouard Manet, 1862-63.

An author I follow on Twitter is currently working on a biography of Victorine Meurent, and had shortly announced the project before we went to France. I was excited to see these paintings in the Musée d’Orsay as a result. Hopefully the  book will come out in the next year or two!

Olympia.Édouard Manet, 1863. From Wikipedia.
Carnations and clematis in a crystal vase. Édouard Manet, 1882.

I liked this picture because of the roses.

Roses under the trees. Gustav Klimt, 1905.

Here are a few beautiful paintings of the night sky, which was a special exhibit on at the time.

Hornsgatan, at night. Eugene Jansson, 1902.
Dawn over Riddarfjarden. Eugene Jansson, 1899.
Starry Night. Wenzel Hablik, 1909.

The Musée d’Orsay made for a great half-day visit. A lot of guide books have said that the advantage of the Musée d’Orsay is that, unlike the Louvre, the art can be seen and appreciated all in one visit. All of the works are exceptional, and the building is air-conditioned (a super helpful tip if you’re visiting Paris during a heat wave, like we were!).


Rabbit holes!

¹ The Beaux-Arts style was neoclassical with Gothic and Renaissance influences, and involved the use of modern materials such as iron and glass.

²1900 was a momentous year for a World Fair; the Republic of France stated that the exhibit would celebrate the achievements of the past century while welcoming the arrival of a new one. The 1900 Fair ran from April 14 – November 12 and featured diesel engines, escalators, talking films, Russian nesting dolls, and its overarching style was—my favourite!—Art Nouveau.

1900 Exposition Universelle poster

* I didn’t know what a salt cellar was, nor why the trains supposedly looked like them enough to earn that nickname. I found this 1900s-era salt cellar below, and I can kind of see the connection now.

³a: Paris’ central fresh food market, Les Halles, was demolished in 1971 and replaced by the Forum des Halles, a modern shopping mall. The market’s history dated back to the 11th century and its destruction was highly controversial. The outcry following the demolition probably cooled interest in doing the same to the Gare d’Orsay.

Les Halles, 1870. From Wikipedia.
Les Halles, 1900. From Wikipedia.
Destruction of Les Halles, Paris. 1971. From Wikipedia.

³b: Like Les Halles, the Gare Montparnasse, which was originally opened in 1840 as the Gare de l’Ouest, was torn down in 1969 and replaced with the modern-looking Tour Montparnasse in 1969. The Tour Montparnasse was enough reason for Paris city planners to decide against any future construction of skyscrapers in the area. A tour guide told us that the best view of Paris can be found while you’re in Tour Montparnasse; this is because it’s the only place in the city from which you can’t see the tower itself.

Gare Montparnasse.
The Tour Montparnasse. From Pixabay.