Hector Guimard - Biography and Legacy
French Architect and Designer
New York, New York, USA
Biography of Hector Guimard
Early Life and Education
Hector-Germain Guimard was born in Lyons in March 1867. He was the first of several major architects to be born that year, two months before Frank Lloyd Wright, four months before Henry Hornbostel, and nine before Josef Maria Olbrich. His father was an orthopedist originally from Toucy, while his mother was a seamstress from Larajasse. Guimard developed a difficult relationship with his parents: at age thirteen the family moved from Lyons to Levallois-Perret, just outside the northwestern city limits of Paris, and soon afterward Guimard apparently ran away from home, finding refuge in the home of Apollonie Grivellé, a rich landowner in the suburban 16th arrondissement of Paris.
At the age of fifteen, Guimard entered the École supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris, the national school for decorative arts. Two of his teachers there were Charles Genuys, the official chief architect for the Commission of Historic Monuments, and Eugene Train, the official municipal architect for the city of Paris. He also received instruction from the decorative artist Victor-Marie-Charles Ruprich-Robert, who introduced Guimard to the study of nature and the intimate relationship between structure and decoration.
Genuys and Ruprich-Robert were disciples of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a fervent Gothicist and Genuys' predecessor as the first chief architect of historic monuments. Viollet-le-Duc greatly admired the medieval use of vaulted construction and dreamed about using the modern material of iron to achieve similar results. Viollet-le-Duc was in charge of restoring many medieval buildings that had either been intentionally damaged or fallen into disrepair over the subsequent centuries, sometimes "over-restoring" them to a kind of idealized state that had not previously existed, for which he has received substantial criticism from many purists (the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris is probably the best example). It is undoubtedly due to this lineage from Viollet-le-duc that Guimard developed his own great love of exposed, honest, and experimental structure in his buildings.
The young Guimard proved adept artistically and excelled at the École nationale des arts décoratifs; in 1884 his designs were awarded two silver and three bronze medals. The following year, he placed in every competition he entered, winning four bronze medals, five silver, and the school's most prestigious award, the Grand Prix d'Architecture known as the Prix Jay.
Guimard then enrolled in the architecture section of the École nationale des Beaux-Arts, then the foremost architecture school in the world, through which most French architects passed and which featured a global student body, with a growing number of American and central and eastern European students by the late 1880s. There he joined the atelier of the architect Gustave Raulin, who had inherited it in 1881 from the even-more influential Emile Vaudremer, who still retained an active role in it as a teacher.
In a much more competitive architectural environment than the École des arts décoratifs, Guimard's brilliance did not shine through quite as clearly. He entered the 1892 competition for the Prix de Rome, the École des Beaux-Arts' most prestigious prize, which carried a five-year stipend to study at the French Academy in Rome, but was eliminated early on. This was not necessarily a mark of failure: one of the mottoes of the Raulin-Vaudremer atelier was to "let everyone develop according to his own tastes and aptitudes" - a quality that would be clearly borne out with Guimard's work. Nonetheless, Guimard made friends with many of his comrades, including Henri Sauvage, who like him would become one of the pioneers of Art Nouveau in France in the 1890s. He also won a small travel scholarship in 1894, which allowed him to go to England and visit many Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movement buildings, interiors, and craft workshops.
Guimard chose to begin independent practice in 1888, with a small commission for an outdoor cafe and stage on the quai d'Auteuil, on the banks of the Seine in his home neighborhood of the 16th arrondissement. The following year he was given the job of constructing Ferdinand de Boyères electrotherapy exhibit at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Guimard also helped support himself by teaching. In 1891, he became a professor of drawing for the girls' section at his alma mater, the École des arts décoratifs, being promoted twice, in 1892 and 1894. He remained a professor there until leaving in 1900, after his career had reached new heights. Despite the fact that most of his students were women, he remained a bachelor for the next fifteen years.
During the early 1890s, Guimard's career began to gather steam as the 16th arrondissement of Paris was rapidly developing into a fashionable suburban district. Guimard was asked to design several single-family houses and large apartment buildings in the neighborhood by developers and landowners who recognized its potential. As someone who grew up in that arrondissement, Guimard knew the area well and likewise understood what his clients wanted. These commissions in effect launched his career.
It was also during the mid-1890s that Guimard met and befriended several colleagues who would collaborate with him on a number of projects over the mature part of his career. One of the first was Louis Muller, a ceramicist who produced the lettering designed by Guimard for the house at 142, avenue de Versailles, in Paris. Guimard also met Alexandre Bigot, another prominent ceramicist who developed an extensive network of contacts with architects who would soon be working in the new style appropriately called Art Nouveau, including Jules Lavirotte, with whom Bigot would collaborate on a large apartment house in Paris' 7th arrondissement.
In 1894, Guimard met the Belgian architect Paul Hankar, who had recently completed his own townhouse, one of the first examples of Art Nouveau, in Brussels. The following year, Guimard traveled to Brussels and met Victor Horta, with whom he would develop a close correspondence and for whom he expressed great admiration. Guimard was greatly moved when he visited Horta's Hotel Tassel, completed two years earlier and often considered the first Art Nouveau building. Like Guimard, Horta was looking to nature as inspiration for a modern architecture, and he told Guimard that he preferred, when looking at a plant, to cut off the flower and concentrate on the stem, the essential structure.
The Development of Art Nouveau
Guimard's artistic contacts also brought him into the circles of several bourgeois and upper-class patrons, including Anne-Elisabeth Fournier, a wealthy widow who also lived in the 16th arrondissement. Fournier and the architect hit it off, and by the end of 1894 she had given Guimard the commission to build a new speculative apartment house on the rue de la Fontaine, soon to be called the Castel Beranger. When Guimard returned from Belgium and the Netherlands after his inspirational meeting with Horta in the summer of 1895, he persuaded Fournier to let him design the building using Art Nouveau. Fournier gave Guimard essentially carte blanche for the job, and he did not disappoint. Guimard himself moved into one of the apartments, relocating his studio there as well. One of his neighbors in the building and friends was the painter Paul Signac. Guimard would later publicize his own practice on a series of postcards that not only showed his completed buildings but also an image of him working in the studio, which reveals the seamless style of Art Nouveau that he had clearly mastered with ease in a very short time.
Because Guimard was not a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts, he did not benefit from the connections and alumni network that a diploma from the institution offered. Instead he relied upon a relatively small circle group of artistically adventurous, loyal clients who provided him the opportunity to cultivate his art. For example, for the Nozal family, Guimard not only built a house in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, but also artists' studios, a country house in Normandy, and the new steel and ceramics factories just north of Paris.
Guimard seemed to relish this relative isolation, however, because it made him more distinctive and individualistic. In 1903, he released a series of postcards advertising his work, almost all of which bore in red script the moniker "Architecte d'art," suggesting that he was truly an imaginative designer, not simply a constructor like other architects. He also inextricably tied himself to Art Nouveau as a style, as the postcard in the series of him working in his atelier attests by the phrase "Le Style Guimard," and in some circles indeed Art Nouveau literally became known by that name.
The years between 1895 and 1905 were the most productive for Guimard. It was during this period that his best-known works were constructed. Guimard designed and built schools, funerary monuments, apartment houses, town houses, vacation homes and country villas, a concert hall, train stations, ceramics factories, artist studios, and exposition pavilions. During this decade Art Nouveau reached the apogee of its popularity in Paris and then began to recede.
In 1909, Guimard married the American painter Adeline Oppenheim, who had trained in France during much of the previous decade; his wedding present to her was a new house Hector designed on the Avenue Mozart in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. The house still stands today, though the interiors do not retain the full range of Guimard's designs, most notably the original furniture, which the Guimards took with them when they moved to New York in 1938. Mme. Guimard later donated the dining room suite and interior wall paneling to the city of Paris in the late 1940s. It is on display today at the Petit Palais.
Social Activism: The Ligue des Droits de l'Homme and Etat-Pax
Guimard had a deep social consciousness. He joined the new Ligue des Droits de l'Homme (League of the Rights of Man), an organization that fought against injustice, soon after it was founded in 1898, and like its members Emile Gallé and Victor Prouvé of Nancy, he became a supporter of Alfred Dreyfus and the campaign to overturn the disgraced captain's wrongful conviction. The Ligue also fought for workers on the construction of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, whose employers were cheating them out of the wages mandated to them by the state.
Like many of his fellow members of the Ligue, Guimard recognized the catastrophic consequences of the arms race that was developing out of the complex system of alliances and nationalist sentiments in Europe. After World War I broke out, Guimard published a couple of pamphlets arguing for the wholesale disarmament of nations and the establishment of an international body in Europe that would prevent armed conflict (essentially a forerunner to the League of Nations), along with an international tribunal. He joined a committee formed in 1917 called Etat-Pax (Peace State), headed by Adolphe Carnot (the brother of Sadi Carnot, an assassinated President of France) that advocated for the formation of precisely these organizations.
After 1909 the number of Guimard's commissions dropped precipitously. This was due for certain to several factors, chief among them the decline in Art Nouveau's popularity - it had long fought charges that it was a foreign import from Belgium or Germany, despite the fact that at the dawn of the century it had been suggested as the basis for a French "national style." Guimard's own difficult personality - which likely was one reason why he never developed a loyal following - must have also contributed to his dwindling clientele. In all likelihood, Guimard also probably did not feel obligated to continue to seek out a steady stream of commissions since his wife was independently wealthy.
During World War I, when building activity came virtually to a standstill, Guimard left Paris, living in Candes Saint-Martin and Pau in the west and far southwest of the country, respectively, far from the fighting. The interwar period became known for the emergence of the style known now as Art Deco, which took its name from the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, where it predominated. Guimard was awarded the right to design the church for the French Village at the fair, which shows a stiff, angular form that is only an echo of his work from the turn of the century. He built his last realized work in 1930. Guimard retained a strong bond with a small circle of friends, giving the eulogy at Henri Sauvage's funeral when the latter passed in 1932.
The Legacy of Hector Guimard
Guimard's wife Adeline was of Jewish descent, and with the growing Nazi menace in the late 1930s and the German antipathy towards modern art as showcased in the Degenerate Art Exhibition that opened in Munich in 1937, the two felt unsafe and immigrated to New York in 1938; Hector died there four years later.
In the aftermath of World War II, Adeline, who outlived Hector by 23 years, returned to France to settle her late husband's affairs. She attempted to convince French officials to establish a museum dedicated to Guimard's legacy. Rebuffed, however, she donated the remaining original furniture in her possession to several Parisian and Lyonnais museums, then placed much of Guimard's extant drawings, correspondence, and other archival materials with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the New York Public Library, where they now reside.
Guimard's decision to tie himself to one particular style served him well briefly, but by the close of World War II he was largely forgotten. The 1950s and '60s proved a catastrophic period for Art Nouveau and particularly Guimard's own work. A few of his most elaborate Parisian subway entrances, for example, had been destroyed long before the Second World War, but their removal accelerated in a climate of increasing modernization of the Métro and changing tastes in favor of the International Style. The most notable of these demolitions in the postwar period was that of the elaborate "Chinese pavilion" Bastille station, one of the centerpieces of the network, in 1962. Guimard's buildings use a highly personal style that suited the tastes of his initial clients; as they changed hands, many of their new owners sought to transform them as they saw fit, often beyond recognition, and in some cases bulldozing or dismantling them. Other private houses by Guimard in the always-highly-fashionable 16th arrondissement were demolished to make way for speculative modern apartment buildings. Few took notice in 1967 when the centennial of Guimard's birth came and went.
At the same time, however, Art Nouveau and especially Guimard slowly began to experience a revival, beginning in the scholarly literature in the 1950s. Several museum exhibitions in Europe and North America during the 1970s began to rehabilitate the reputation of Guimard and many of his fellow Art Nouveau designers. The beginnings of the preservation movement now actively sought to prevent the further destruction or alteration of Guimard's works. In 1992, the 125th anniversary of his birth, the Musée d'Orsay devoted a large show solely to Guimard and some of the first monographs devoted solely to the architect appeared that decade. The year 2000 saw a flood of publications commemorating 100 years since 1900 and that year's world's fair in Paris, and, by extension, Art Nouveau.
Many of Guimard's buildings, including the 88 remaining Art Nouveau Paris Métro entrances designed by him, have now been classified as French historic monuments (in 1913 there were supposedly 167 entrances in place). In the spirit of cultural exchange, over the last half of the 20th century the Régie autonome des transports parisiens (RATP), which runs the Métro, has given several replicas of Guimard's original Métro entrances to various cities around the world, such as Lisbon, Moscow, and Chicago. The most notable of these entrances are those in Montréal, given in 1967, and in Mexico City, gifted in 1968, when each of those cities' subway systems opened (the RATP assisted with the construction of the network in Mexico). In return, each time the RATP has received works of art by major artists from the country receiving the Guimard replica. Additionally, several Guimard Métro entrances can be found in major museums with strong collections of decorative arts, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. A street in the 19th arrondissement of Paris has been named the rue Hector-Guimard since 1984. Online, a society known as Le Cercle Guimard, made up mostly of Art Nouveau enthusiasts in France, actively promotes his legacy.