Jean Louis Charles Garnier

Jean Louis Charles Garnier (1825-1898) was a French architect of the exuberant neobaroque style, an outgrowth of the effervescent but stricter classicism of Napoleon III's Second Empire style that began in the early 1850s.

Charles Garnier was born on Nov. 6, 1825, in Paris. He attended the École de Dessin, the atelier of Louis Hippolyte Lebas, and the École des Beaux-Arts in 1841, and he also worked for Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. Garnier spent 5 years in Italy after winning the Grand Prix de Rome in 1848.

Garnier entered the competition for the Académie Nationale de Musique, better known as the Opéra, in Paris in 1861. He won fifth prize in the first stage of a two-phase competition and later that year won the commission. The Opéra was built from 1862 to 1867; the interiors were not completed until 1874. Sited on an irregular diamond adjacent to the Grand Boulevard, the structure was inspired, according to Garnier, by Michelangelo and Jacopo Sansovino. The Opéra provided a setting for Parisian society. The foyer, grand staircase, and auditorium are spacious, open, and rich in decoration. Empress Eugénie had favored the project by Viollet-le-Duc and did not admire Garnier's sumptuousness, even though it suited the period. When asked by the Empress whether the Opéra was in the style of Louis XIV, XV, or XVI, Garnier tactfully replied, "It is of Napoleon III."

The same plastic richness of effect was used by Garnier in his Casino in Monte Carlo (1878; extended 1881), even though the finish is in stucco. Its magnificent site facing the bay is again a stage setting, this time for the wealthy gamblers' game of roulette. The game rooms, salons, and waiting rooms are sumptuous.

After the Casino, Garnier's style mellowed considerably in a host of works ranging from churches, libraries, hotels, and houses to tombs, including the tombs of his musical contemporaries Bizet (1880) and Offenbach (1883) in Paris. Garnier died on Aug. 3, 1898.

Garnier did not fit into the emerging movements of functionalism or expressive structure, even though the structural innovations of the Opéra were of predominant significance. Structure for its own sake, as in the Eiffel Tower, he considered hideous. His plan for the Opéra, he freely admitted in his book Le Nouvel Opéra de Paris (1875-1881), was based upon no theory: "I leave success or failure to chance alone." The sweeping dynamic movement of Garnier's neobaroque can be found in the more linear forms of Art Nouveau.


Further Reading on Jean Louis Charles Garnier

There is no biography of Garnier in French or English. General histories do not discuss him extensively, but Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1958; 2d ed. 1963), describes his work in relation to the period.