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Attitudes to Gothic in French architectural writings of the 1840s

  • Odile Boucher-Rivalain


The emphasis laid on the glorious artistic past of France under the restored monarchy is a notable feature of the French architectural writings of the 1840s. The most glorious period of French architecture was then identified as being the Middle Ages, climaxing in the thirteenth-century religious architecture, much disregarded in the eighteenth century as a time of barbarous feudality and despotism. The neglect into which the medieval religious monuments had fallen in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1789 when they had been confiscated from the Church appeared intolerable and the situation required urgent action, it was thought, not least in the highest political circles. F. Guizot, an influential politician and renowned historian, believed that studying the past could only benefit modern man, providing him with examples of ‘disinterestedness and moral energy which are the strength and the dignity of man in this world’, and would thus reinforce the ascent of the bourgeoisie in a country with a restored monarchy. The artistic ambition of Guizot had ranked only second to his political aims when, in 1830, he advised the King to appoint a General Inspector of Historical French Monuments. This initiative soon developed into the Commission for Historical Monuments, which was granted its definitive status in 1837, but which in effect had been in existence since 1830. Its aim was to sort out and classify the demands from local authorities for works of restoration to be undertaken on medieval buildings. It was composed of archaeologists and architects headed by an Inspector, first Ludovic Vitet, replaced in 1833 by Prosper Mérimée with E. Viollet-le-Duc as his assistant. Thus, the merits of medieval buildings, Gothic churches in particular, were brought to the forefront of public attention at a time when popular enthusiasm had been kindled by Victor Hugo’s romantic glorification of Gothic in Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), in whose preface the author had proclaimed that it was a duty to preserve ancient monuments until the times were ripe to build modern ones. Hugo’s glorification of Gothic architecture was emblematic of French Romanticism, coloured as it was by the democratic ideals that had triumphed with the 1789 Revolution. He saw the passage from the Romanesque architecture of the early Middle Ages to the Gothic architecture of the thirteenth century as reflecting the progress of society from its theocratic, Church-dominated feudal state to a more democratic state. Gothic architecture is thus seen by Hugo as the symbol of the people’s newly-acquired status and power. Speaking of Notre-Dame in Paris, which is not pure thirteenth-century Gothic, he wrote:

It is impossible to place our cathedral in the category of churches which are soaring, lofty, rich in stained-glass windows and sculpture …; bold in their attitudes; popular and bourgeois as political symbols; free, fanciful, unrestrained as works of art.



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Nota bene: All translations are mine unless otherwise stated.

1 Guizot, F., Histoire de la civilisation en France depuis la chute de l’empire romain jusqu’en 1789 (Paris, 1840, 2nd edition). Quoted by Leniaud, Jean-Michel, Viollet-le-Duc ou les délires du système (Paris, Mengès, 1994), pp. 3132 .

2 See Bercé, Françoise, ‘La création de la Commission des Monuments Historiques’ in Le Gothique Retrouvé avant Viollet-le-Duc, being the catalogue of an exhibition held in the Hôtel de Sully, Paris, October 1979-February 1980, p. 144 .

3 Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), Book III, ch. 1.

4 Quoted and translated by Germann, Georg, Gothic Revival in Europe and Britain: Sources, Influences and Ideas (London, 1972), p. 80 .

5 Coffins, Peter, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture, 1750–1950 (London, 1965), p. 100 . For an exhaustive study of this journal see Saboya, Marc, Presse et Architecture au XIXème siècle. César Daly et la Revue Générale de l’Architecture (Paris, 1991).

6 Daly, César, ‘Introduction’, Revue Générale, 1 (1840), p. 6 .

7 G. Germann, op. cit., p. 134.

8 Quoted by Pevsner, Nikolaus, Some Architectural Writers of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1972), p. 197 ; ch. 20 ‘Viollet-le-Duc’.

9 de Guilhermy, Baron, ‘Des artistes au moyen-âge et des monuments élevés à leur mémoire’, Revue Générale, 1 (1840), cols 134-37 (cols. 134-35).

10 Ibid., cols. 193–97 (col. 193).

11 Daly, C., ‘L’archéologie aux prises avec l’architecture. Réponse à une critique des Annales Archéologiques ’, Revue Générale, 6 (1845), cols 7071 (col. 70).

12 Ibid.

13 Daly, C., ‘Opinion de l’Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts sur l’architecture gothique’, Revue Générale, 6 (1845-46), cols 313-16 (col. 316).

14 Daly, C., ‘De l’architecture religieuse au XIXème siècle’, Revue Générale, 7 (1847-48), cols 205-11 (col. 206).

15 Ibid.

16 Daly, C., ‘De la liberté dans l’art: à M. Ludovic Vitet’, Revue Générale, 7 (1847–48), cols 392408 .

17 Lassus, J. B., ‘De l’art et de l’archéologie’, Annales Archéologiques, 2 (1845), pp. 6977 (p. 77).

18 Viollet-le-Duc, E., ‘De la construction des édifices religieux en France depuis le commencement du christianisme jusqu’au XIXème’, Annales Archéologiques, 4 (1846), pp. 266-85 (p. 267).

19 Viollet-le-Duc, E., ‘Réponse aux considérations de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts sur la question de savoir s’il est convenable, au XIXème siècle, de bâtir des églises en style gothique’, Annales Archéologiques, 4 (1846), pp. 333-53 (p. 352); quoted and translated by G. Germann, op. cit., p. 139.

20 P. Collins, op. cit., pp. 128-46.

21 Janniard, H., ‘Trois jours à Rouen’, Revue Générale, 5 (1844), cols 421-31 (col. 421).

22 Daly, C., ‘L’architecture de l’avenir’, Revue Générale, 8 (1849–50), cols 2629 .

23 P. Collins, op. cit., pp. 128-46.

24 R. Middleton and D. Watkin argue, on the contrary, that the 1840s in France were years marked by enthusiasm for the Gothic Revival. Correct as this may be, the figure they advance to support their argument is hardly convincing: the two hundred neo-Gothic churches built in France between 1840 and 1852 which Didron could boast of hardly compare with the number of religious edifices which Britain produced over the same period. Neoclassical and Nineteenth-Century Architecture, pp. 356-58; French translation, Architecture moderne, 1750-1870 (Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1983), p. 358.

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Attitudes to Gothic in French architectural writings of the 1840s

  • Odile Boucher-Rivalain


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