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Beaux-Arts Architecture

Beaux-Arts Architecture Collage
Started: 1830s
Ended: 1940s
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There is no choice between the arts. You have to be God or architect.
Charles Garnier

Summary of Beaux-Arts Architecture

An imposing and often decadent style, Beaux Arts buildings combined many of the main features of classical architecture, particularly columns and symmetry, with eclectic and decorative elements drawn from other historical styles. Beaux-Arts Architecture was intended to be a French national style, but the approach also found prominence in the United States, and a handful of other locations throughout the world. It was most commonly used for public and civic buildings such as museums, art galleries, libraries, and university campuses.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Overview of Beaux-Arts Architecture

Beaux-Arts Architecture Photo

French Baroque architecture (sometimes called French Classicism) combined the scale and drama of Italian Baroque with Greek and Roman theories of harmony to create monumental buildings that demonstrated power and majesty. It developed under the patronage of King Louis XIV (1643-1715) whose reign marked a period of cultural and economic prosperity for France. The Palace of Versailles (1661-1770), designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Charles Le Brun, is the most famous example of the style and the building and its grounds did much to promote ideas of national identity through architecture as well as the importance of uniting design and decoration to create a complete whole (a concept later given the name Gesamtkunstwerk). These ideas informed the development of Beaux-Arts Architecture, in that it promoted the importance of unified decorative schemes and was initially viewed as a uniquely French national style.

Important Art and Artists of Beaux-Arts Architecture

Félix Duban: École des Beaux-Arts (1832-70)

École des Beaux-Arts (1832-70)

Artist: Félix Duban

Facing an interior courtyard, the École des Beaux-Arts building employs horizontal and vertical symmetry to create a sense of elegant balance. The raised first story of rusticated stone features a central arched doorway with arched windows on either side. Copies of noted art works, including the Apollo Belvedere, and the Dying Gaul, are placed between each of the windows, and in the horizontal band between the first and second stories, the names of noted artists, including Michelangelo and Leonardo, are inscribed. Ionic columns with a Baroque-style capital frame the second floor's arched windows, while the third floor's rectangular windows are framed by square classical columns, and small panels containing cartouches. These details create a sense of variation and hierarchy, while the windows, placed with vertical symmetry, create upward movement.

The early work on the building (1819-32) was completed by François Debret, Duban's teacher. The two became working colleagues and, then, brothers-in-law when Debret married Duban's sister. Taking over the project in 1832, Duban pioneered the Beaux-Arts style with his innovative inclusion of decorative motifs within a classical form, based upon the proportionality and rational symmetry of Roman architecture. His use of decorative columns, arched windows, garlands, cartouches, and inscriptions became defining elements of Beaux-Arts architecture. He continued to work on the project for most of his life, designing the rest of the campus to frame the central building, shown here.

Henri Labrouste: Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838-50)

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838-50)

Artist: Henri Labrouste

This monumental two-story building, built out of limestone, employs symmetrical columns and arches to convey a classical effect and these are combined with elements of a Renaissance palazzo. The building, occupying a wide but shallow site, is located on a hill directly across from the noted Neoclassical Panthéon (1758-90), and the garland band at the top of the first level of the library echoes a similar band on the Panthéon, mirroring and reflecting its surroundings. Inscriptions of the names of over 800 scholars on the façade help to communicate the building's purpose.

Visitors enter on the lower level through a central vestibule, which is decorated with murals of gardens and busts of French scholars, symbolizing the start of the search for knowledge. The reading room takes up the entire second level and unusually, the primary decorative elements of the building were placed here, rather than on the facade. The building was particularly innovative due to its internal cast iron framework, a new architectural material, and Labrouste's design pioneered the Beaux-Arts use of the latest technologies. In the reading room, this frame is celebrated, rather than concealed, with sixteen columns supporting a dramatic barrel-vaulted ceiling. This, in addition to the large windows, create an impression of light and space. Both Labrouste's use of new materials and the openness of the reading room also had a significant influence, not only on the Beaux Arts movement, but on the later development of modern architecture.

Philip Henry Delamotte: Crystal Palace (1851)

Crystal Palace (1851)

Artist: Philip Henry Delamotte

In the 1800s British architecture focused on romanticized styles such as Tudor Revival and Gothic. As a result, examples of Beaux Arts buildings were rare. A dramatic and noted example, however, was Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (1851), designed for the Great Exhibition in London of the same year. Built initially in Hyde Park, it was later relocated to an area of South London called Penge Common, where it remained from 1854 until its accidental destruction by fire in 1936, an event that was described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as, "the end of an age".

Based on the model of a greenhouse, Paxton used prefabricated glass and iron, built off site and then set on concrete footings, to design the massive but light-filled exhibition space. The design of the building drew upon Beaux-Arts monumentality and symmetry but at the same time was remarkably innovative in employing industrial materials and processes, particularly the use of a new sheet glass method which made the structure possible. When created, it was the greatest area of glass ever seen in a building and it was hugely novel in that it did not require interior lighting. It's influence on the modern era is noted by historian Dora P. Crouch who wrote, "it seemed a new kind of space had been created - an indeterminate space that would become characteristic of the next century".

Useful Resources on Beaux-Arts Architecture

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson

"Beaux-Arts Architecture Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 09 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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