During a two-day stop-over in Paris recently, we, by chance, visited three gorgeous places that turn out to be connected in an interesting way. They all explain a bit about money, society, art and power in late nineteenth-century Paris – at least for some. These three destinations give us glimpses into the top layers of this French golden age. 

We visited the Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce, the Garnier Opéra, and the Musée Jacquemart-André.

The Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce

Two things inspired our visit to the Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce: The recent addition of a concrete cylinder by noted Japanese Architect Tadao Ando, and the vast mural around the glazed rotunda dome.

The bourse — or commodities exchange — dates from 1889, although the history of the site goes back at least to the 13th century when French King Louis IX built a mansion here. Over the years, functions changed, buildings burned down and new ones were erected — including a palace for Catherine de Medici, and later a less regal grain exchange. Much of what we see today, including the great glazed dome, dates from the Universal Exhibition of 1889. This Universal Exhibition gave us the Eiffel Tower. It was the fourth of eight great world’s fairs hosted in Paris between 1878 and 1904. These expositions, held in different years in cities in Europe and America, were huge celebrations — and boasts — about countries’ technological, commercial and colonial accomplishments.

François Pinault is a French billionaire whose collection is housed in the Bourse, as well as in three palazzi in Venice. In 2016, Pinault inaugurated the conversion of the Bourse building into a contemporary art museum. He commissioned Tadao Ando to masterplan the museum. Ando designed a spare monumental concrete cylinder within the existing rotunda. It creates a serene environment within which to position contemporary art pieces. On the day of our visit, a vast curved display panel animated the rotunda, along with reverberating atmospheric music. (You can read all about it here.) 

But what we want to focus on is the 1889 mural above our heads.

You see four cardinal quadrants, and five global regions: America; Russia and the North; Asia, Africa and Europe.

This cycle of tableaux extols France’s commercial and cultural success around the world — with stereotypical depictions of naked American and African savages, and costumed Japanese and Chinese people. By the last half of the nineteenth century, the French had “become the world’s leading supplier of luxury and demi-luxe commodities…. This included silk textiles which made up a fifth of all French exports in the middle of the century. This French empire of taste pursued profit, power and prestige. ‘Articles de mode,’ fashionable clothes, perfumes explain why, contrary to received historical wisdom, per capita incomes in France grew as fast as in Britain between 1814 and 1914, or perhaps even faster.” (source

The Bourse, like the Eiffel Tower and the rest of the Universal Exhibition of 1889, crowed about French wealth and mastery in the world. Today, we see imperialism, colonial capitalism, ethnism and racism. All in a quite beautiful grand mural. Overlooking up-to-the-minute contemporary art. Nonetheless, it is a portal into the world of Parisian wealth in 1889. Which is relevant for our next two stops.

The Opéra Garnier

Despite having visited Paris many times, we had never taken a tour of the famous opera house.

Once again with tour-group ear buds inserted, we followed a lively smart guide around the theater.

Construction of the opera house took 14 years, from 1861 to 1875. Napoleon III had commissioned the new opera house because, in 1858, some Italian nationalists tried to kill him. The brief for the design competition stressed security for the Emperor whenever he attended the opera. Jean-Louis Charles Garnier won the competition, in no small part because of his effective solution to the security problem: upon arrival at the opera, the Emperor’s carriage quickly moves into the theater, away from the public streets. Unfortunately for Napoleon III, he died — of illness in exile in Britain, not by assassination — less than two years before the opera house was completed.

There’s an immense amount of paintings, sculptures, decorative mounding, materials, metal work throughout the public spaces of the opera house. To the eye, it is extraordinarily beautiful and sumptuous. The elite of Paris were telling themselves just how elite they were. One of our guide’s main points was to realize that season-pass holders did not come to the opera for the opera performances. No, they came to be seen, and to see their peers, rivals, superiors and inferiors. They came to the opera two or three times a week. No need to actually sit in the main hall; many came only for the show-off intermission.

A key way to advance in society, if you were not yet part of the opera gang, was to be offered seats from an established subscriber so you could be seen with the right people. Imagine how dynamic and stressful a night out at the opera would have been of the ambitious. It’s for this reason that the public spaces of the theater are so vast, open, and full of stairs and balconies from which to see and be seen. 

The guide pointed to the grand paintings, most of which are allegories about music and the arts. But Garnier and one of the principal painters, Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, managed to sneak their own faces into the paintings in various corners. 

We asked if it had been difficult to find enough artisans for all this work. The guide said that the architect was very aware of what resources were available. But, more importantly in this case, Garnier was a master negotiator. He bargained down the cost of Carrara marble to lower than French comparables. Apparently much of the success of the construction of the opera was due to his negotiating ability. (Imagine if the architects needed to negotiate the prices of materials and works for buildings today!)

The main hall of the theater holds about 2000 seats, in loges and in the orchestra.

The Emperor’s box was up one level, immediately to the left of the stage. Again, the goal wasn’t to watch the performance, it was to be seen – especially near the emperor. The closer your loge was to the emperor’s, the higher in society you were. Too bad the Emperor died just before the inauguration of the theater. He never got to experience the splendor of what he had commissioned. (But France became a Republic, so that’s something.)

Currently, a vast painting by Marc Chagall covers the dome above the main hall — not quite in the style of the rest of Garnier’s design.

In the 1960’s, the influential Minister of Culture, André Malraux, wanted to freshen up the image of the opera, to attract a new generation of music lovers. He approached Marc Chagall who agreed to give this work of art. The design unabashedly celebrates notable Parisian monuments as well as some of the most popular enduring operas – and their composers – of the European tradition. Malraux and Chagall, like Garnier and Baudry before them, slipped in their own faces amid Mozart, Verdi, Hayden and the rest. 

Someone on our tour asked about the Phantom of the Opera. The guide harrumphed a bit; he said, oh, that’s just a novel. And then he outlined the plot anyway. He clarified that there’s no underground river beneath the stage. There is, however, what they call The Lake. Excavations needed for the immense stage structure pushed down into the water table. Garnier (and his unsung team) designed upside-down vaults to resist the pressure of the water beneath and around the pit, to collect and manage the ground water, including as a reserve for fire-fighting. It’s not really a subterranean lake, but it retains that association. 

Then the inquirer pointed to the large central chandelier above our heads. The guide said that, no, it has never crashed down onto the seats. However, once a year, it is lowered for maintenance access. The other lights high on the ceiling, ringing the Chagall mural, can be changed from service paths behind the ceiling. Imagine arms reaching out through holes in the design, unscrewing and screwing in light bulbs. 

Upon opening day for the opera in 1889, the administration somehow forgot to invite the architect. (Isn’t that how it always is?!) Garnier managed to get in anyway. When he reached the landing of the central stair of the main public hall, the crowd broke out in applause. The theater and its architect were an enormous success. From this moment, everyone referred to the theater as the Opéra Garnier, after the architect. Can you think of any other major – or minor! – building known by its architect’s name?

OK, we’ve imagined the glittering — and stressful — life of high Parisian society. Now, how about a more intimate glimpse of a society couple.

The Musée Jacquemart-André

Today’s museum was the home to the wealthy married couple Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart. 

Before Edouard and Nélie met, Edouard had commissioned a new house (mansion!) in a new fashionable neighborhood.

Edouard came from a family of Protestant bankers from South-East France. The urban interventions of Baron Haussmann included the grand boulevards that we recognize today, which reformed Paris’s neighborhoods, including this one. Edouard inaugurated his mansion in 1876 (the year after the debut of the Garnier Opéra) to great acclaim. Visitors particularly praised the double spiral staircase and the sumptuousness of the materials.

‘It is impossible to find a more admirable venue. Every fashionable and elegant celebrity was present (…) They all sparkled without exception. (…) In fact, everything was there to turn M. André’s ball into a sensational party, whose magnificence marked its era. The walls of the two entrance rooms, the cloakroom, and the hall were covered with a fragrant screen of violets and camellias. The gold decorations in the double ballroom glittered and sparkled in the light of a thousand candles.’ (Extract from an article in L’illustration published to mark the mansion’s inauguration in 1876.) (source)

In 1872, Edouard commissioned a young well-regarded artist to paint his portrait. This was Nélie Jacquemart. It was rare for a woman painter to be as successful as Nélie was; many times, her works were accepted in the prestigious Paris Salons. Nélie had grown up in a modest milieu. But her artistic talent attracted attention and patronage, and facilitated her access to Paris society. Painter-client relationship evolved to something more, in no small part fueled by their shared love of art.

They were married from 1881 to 1894, until Edouard’s death. Once married, they traveled frequently to Italy and the Middle East. They had a passion for – and obviously the means for – acquiring Italian art. French and Dutch art as well. Above the main stair of the house, they had installed a large relocated fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Another Tiepolo fresco fills the ceiling of what is now the museum café (where we enjoyed pretty lunch). Frescoes are pigment fused into plaster. To relocate them, you need to remove the slabs of fragile plaster as well. No easy task.

Edouard proposed the the large central room on the second floor be Nélie’s painting studio. He had the north facade adjusted to accommodate a great tall window to bring in good light. It seems, though, that Nélie used the space less and less as a studio, and more as a kind of museum and archive. 

Their personal apartments were much more modest than all these grand halls. The house was more a high-society venue than a warm and cozy home. They never had children. 

Nélie continued to travel and collect art after Edouard’s death. She died in 1912. Concurring with Edouard’s wishes, she left their houses and art to the Institut de France.

From colonial wealth to Imperial high society, these three places give us glimpses into the top membrane of 1889 Paris. On another visit, we’ll explore the other 99%!

Lunch in the very pretty café at the Musée Jacquemart-André:

Ever since our first trip to France, we have a running joke about French breakfasts. Sure, fresh croissant, jam, and coffee or tea is charming, especially when you’re sitting in a picturesque Parisian café. But every day?! Sometimes, you just want good ol’ bacon, toast and eggs.

We’d long ago given up on finding an American breakfast in Paris. Much to our surprise, however, we happened upon a diner-restaurant in the neighborhood of our hotel — in the 5th arrondissement. It’s appropriately called Breakfast in America. And that’s exactly what it delivers, but in Paris. We won’t show you what we ordered and ate because that’s just too embarrassing. But here’s the atmosphere.

Bon appétit indeed.

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