The Paris Heritage Strolls
The Knights and Horses Stroll
From Notre-Dame to the Grand Palais
Horses are legendary symbols of power and grace. If you counted the statues of dashing chargers and noble steeds decorating Paris's monuments, façades and fountains, you'd find at least one hundred of them. Equine figures enliven the Colonne Vendôme, the Opéra and the Cirque d’Hiver.
This stroll across the city from east to west visits a series of palaces, grandiose buildings and posh avenues. It starts at City Hall, moves to the Louvre, crosses the Tuileries, and finishes on the Champs-Élysées. The Right Bank of the Seine has been prime royal real estate for a millennium now, offering prestigious settings for stunning equestrian statues.
Traditionally sculpted to honour monarchs and military heroes, the equestrian statue is always an exercise in virtuosity. Capturing a horse's energy in stone is difficult, and casting a lifelike bronze requires outstanding technique. From Greco-Roman antiquity to the Renaissance, from the Marcus Aurelius in Rome to Donatello’s Gattamelata in Padua, the classics were taught at the academy. A spirited, majestic creature, a noble in the kingdom of animals, the horse is the throne Nature offers the human ruler (or so he would have his subjects think). Mastered by its rider, the horse clearly establishes the symbol of power.
Groups of galloping or prancing horses are another theme. The composition may be allegorical or realistic: the often vividly depicted anatomy communicates movement, tension, freedom and willpower. The catalogue of models from antiquity offers artists inexhaustible resources: from the ancient Greek "Triumphant Quadriga" Napoleon admired in Venice, to rearing horses, animal fights, the triumph of man over animal, of order over chaos, and onward until symbolism meets decorative effect, spawning the essence of the baroque.
Charlemagne and his Men of Arms
Parvis de Notre-Dame, 4th arrondissement
Louis and Charles Rochet set out in 1853 to create a Charlemagne after executing two previous equestrian statues, Don Pedro I, in Rio de Janeiro, and William the Conqueror in the city of Falaise. The plaster version of the piece was displayed at the 1867 Universal Exposition. The bronze version was featured as the Thiébaut Foundry’s masterpiece at the 1878 Universal Exposition: the piece's career, a pure product of Bonapartism and the exaltation of the emperor, outlived the Napoléon III regime. The composition is an absolute gem.
In 1879, the city council allowed the sculpture to be displayed on the esplanade of Notre-Dame; however, it wasn’t actually installed until 1882, and even then, it stood on a canvas-draped wooden chassis instead of a proper pedestal for 26 years. The city finally acquired the piece in 1895, paying the foundry the market value of the metal alone.
By adding two full-scale squires, Roland and Olivier, the Rochet brothers enhanced the traditional form of the equestrian group, multiplying the axes and the points of view in the composition. The interest in this equestrian piece resides in its quest for historic veracity with faithful reconstruction of supposed original models like Durandal (Roland’s sword) in the Museum of Madrid or the Nuremberg Crown in Vienna.
For Parisians, Étienne Marcel is a 14th-century hero who piloted Paris wisely and well. As the city’s commerce secretary, he gained some independence for the tradesmen of Paris, despite royal opposition. In 1882, a competition opened for a commemorative statue. Elected city officials wanted a tribute to the defender of municipal rights as a reminder of the capital’s contributions to the birth of new institutions.
The statue was meant to symbolize both Paris and the Republic. But plans for the statue stirred heated debate. Some city officials wanted a standing figure, a powerful orator, rather than an equestrian composition, given the royal or military undertones that such a choice might convey. Others argued that City Hall’s south garden offered a more handsome position for displaying an equestrian composition of Provost Marcel than the main façade.
The commission had been awarded to the Toulouse-born sculptor Idrac. When he died at 35, Marqueste finished it. The piece has balanced and the mixture of expressive power and natural truth associated with great Italian Renaissance models. As you take a moment to study it, you may sense the artists’ drive for rigorous archaeological reconstitution, bowing to the dictates of taste.
In 1807, architects Percier and Fontaine commissioned sculptor Pierre Cartellier to decorate the wall over the central arcade of the colonnade beneath the pediment carved by Lemot.
In the centre of the composition, Glory stands on her chariot, wings spread symmetrically. Two small geniuses hold the reins of two rearing horses trampling war trophies. The barely realistic bas-relief (the horses gallop backwards) is inspired by a theme from antiquity, often reproduced on medals, cameos, and bronze work. Delicately carved in shallow relie f, it is perfectly suited to its purpose as a decorative medallion.
In 1667, Colbert asked Gianlorenzo Bernini, the most famous sculptor and architect of the day, to carve a marble statue for the main courtyard at the chateau in Versailles. But the exaggerations of baroque style didn’t appeal to King Louis XIV. François Girardon reworked the composition to represent Martius Curtius, a hero of Roman antiquity, by adding a helmet and flames beneath the horse’s belly.
The piece was finally relegated to the gardens, behind the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses. What you see here at the Louvre is a lead replica of the composition. It was placed in the Cour Napoléon in 1988 as a graphic demonstration of Bernini’s plans for the Louvre’s façades.
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The career of another 19th-century Toulouse native, Antonin Mercié, got a boost when he was hired to carve this allegorical figure to replace an equestrian statue glorifying Napoleon III removed after France's disgrace at the Battle of Sedan in 1870.
You must admit the monument is a dynamic piece of neo-baroque. Preceded by Fame turning toward him, the Genius of the Arts dismounts a rearing Pegasus pawing the sky. The animal’s burst of energy is a haunting echo of the Chevaux de Marly, galloping and bucking in the air with a racing exuberance, pepping up cityscapes from the Opera Garnier to the Pont Alexandre III and the Grand Palais.
The Arc du Carrousel is a lesser arch of triumph commemorating Napoleon’s “Grande Armée”. From 1806 to 1809, it graced the entrance to the Tuileries Palace, then the emperor’s official residence. Designed by architects Percier and Fontaine, inspired by Rome’s Septimus Severus triumphal arch, this one was abundantly ornamented with bas-reliefs by Vivant Denon depicting Bonaparte's campaigns.
The Carrousel was crowned by the Ancient Greek bronze Horses of Saint Mark, which were shipped from Byzantium (later to be known as Constantinople, and later still as Istanbul) to St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, in the 13th century. There, they caught Bonaparte's fancy in 1804. They were returned to Venice after Waterloo (1815). Bosio was commissioned to carve a new triumphant chariot driven by Peace flanked by winged Victories. He carried it out with classical rigor, faithful in every way to the ancient model. The statue Louis XIV on Place des Victoires depicting the king in imperial Roman attire, astride a rearing horse is also Bosio's work.
In 1872, Frémiet received a commission to create a life-sized equestrian Joan of Arc to stand on Place des Pyramides, near the very site where the young heroine was wounded in 1429.
The statue was sharply criticized immediately upon its unveiling in 1874. The public was disconcerted by the artist’s realism: a with a frail damsel dressed in men’s armour rides off to war on a frumpy farm horse. Words like "clumsy" and "gauche" were flung. Frémiet, who had been trained in exact portraiture of both human and animal anatomy, sought to obey historical truth, contrary as it was to artistic conventions.
In 1719, the equestrian compositions of Mercury and of Fame, symbols of war and peace carved by Coysevox in 1702 for the drinking trough in Marly, were transferred to the Tuileries Gardens. By 1746, Guillaume Coustou was awarded the commission for two large-scale groups to grace the fountain in their stead. These equines were moved to Paris as ornaments for the entrance to the Champs-Élysées by the Revolutionary Government of 1794.
Taking the ancient example of the rearing horse, Coustou eschewed any mythological or allegorical connotation, favouring instead the ordinary human act of grooms restraining their horses. The tension, thrust and energy in the figures and the epic spirit conjured up by the composition are testaments to the appeal of the baroque in the Paris of the mid-1700s.
The original groups, now on display in the Louvre, were replaced by copies in 1984.
Portraits of contemporary warriors on horseback paradoxically reappeared in the 1930s, just when horses had become obsolete on the battlefields of Europe. Two 1934 statues to foreign kings (this one of Albert I of Belgium and the double tribute to Alexander I of Yugoslavia and Peter I of Serbia on Place de Colombie in Paris) were inspired by World War I recollections. The king of Belgium joined the allied troops when he refused to allow the German army to march through his country. When he died in an accident in 1934, the French were greatly saddened and wished to honour him. A subscription for an equestrian portrait was launched and the commission was given to sculptor Armand Martial.
This memorial to Simón Bolivar was a gift to the city of Paris from the sister republics of Latin America for the 1930 centennial memorial to the Libertador. In fact, it is the fourth cast of Emmanuel Frémiet’s equestrian statue, ordered in 1900 for the city of Bogota, Colombia. Copies of it also stand in Baranquilla, Colombia and the other in La Paz, Bolivia.
Astride their steeds, statesmen, conquerors and defenders of freedom dot Cours la Reine, with Albert Ist on the eastern side and General La Fayette on the western one. Does Paris glorify them, or do they exalt Paris?
Harmonie triomphant de la Discorde (Harmony Triumphing over Discord)
Grand Palais, corner of Cours la Reine, 8th arrondissement
L’Immortalité devançant le Temps (Immortality Forestalling Time)
Grand Palais, corner of Champs-Élysées, 8th arrondissement
Created in the excitement and festivities for the 1900 Universal Exposition, the Grand Palais quadrigae, by sculptor Georges Récipon, represent the high tide of the neo-baroque wave that swept French sculpture. The horses are so lively, they seem to be about to leap off the façade.
The audacity in these compositions contrasts sharply with the broad, flat façade below. These snorting, stamping chargers suggest the ideal of triumphant progress, the theme of the Exposition. Technical and artistic feats of their time, the quadrigae are in repoussé copper, mounted on a metal armature anchored in the masonry, and decorated with ceramic pieces (the spokes of the chariot wheels and the winged lions to the rear).
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Parvis de Notre-Dame
|The Chevaux de Marly
Place de la Concorde
Place des Pyramides
Cours la Reine