Hector Guimard: Metropolitain


Hector Guimard, Metropolitain, 1900-13, cast iron. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

Each city has its own distinctive sign or symbol for its public transportation system, but often its people don’t question the origin of such a familiar landmark. Having been to Paris, I always felt a superseding appreciation for the famous Métropolitain archway in comparison to the ones I see around the D.C. area.  After realizing that a copy of this particular sculpture is in Washington’s National Gallery Sculpture Garden, I became curious about the well-known Parisian symbol and wanted to learn about how this beautiful, mass-produced entryway came to be in the city of lights.

Hector Guimard, a French architect, is well-known for being part of the French Art Nouveau movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1896, he entered a competition to win the best design for the Paris Metro stations. While he did not win, he did end up getting a job due to the railway company’s president taking an interest in the Art Nouveau Style. He was eventually commissioned to create the entranceways to the Metro stations in a manner that would be appealing to Parisians and also to ignite interest in the new transportation system. This modernization was a direct result of Baron Haussmann’s plans to create architecture and infrastructure changes in the 1860s, known as Haussmannization. Guimard sought a way to appeal to all passengers by embracing the old and new parts of the city in his architecture.

The appeal of the entrance is in the organic plant form contrasted against the inorganic cast iron of the structure. The cast iron makes us feel the rough exterior of an urban environment, but the ornate and intricate forms of the plants soften the harshness of a modernized city. The station entrances were produced from 1900 to 1913, and ultimately 141 were placed throughout Paris. The three main variations include a basic, open, entrance with railings and a sign flanked by the stalks, or lamps; an enclosed entrance with covered steps, an iron frame, and a butterfly glass roof with decorated enameled lava panels and translucent wired glass; and an entrance with complete pavilions, waiting rooms, arches, and roofs with tiered pyramids. The first type seen in the photo from the National Gallery of Art is the most simple and common with about 90 surviving entrances in Paris today. The Gallery’s Parisian Metro entrance needed to be restored and repainted several times as the layers of paint lifted from the cast iron. So, in order to preserve the layers, the gallery applied corrosion inhibitors and more durable paints that would maintain the aged bronze appearance Guimard intended to create in the early 1900’s.

Hector Guimard’s vision for Paris’ public transportation system included an appreciation for the Art Nouveau movement will live on as city dwellers enter and exit the metro every day. While it takes a second glance to stop and appreciate the considerable sentiment Guimard imbued in the famous entranceway, it does not take more than a passing through the train station to realize that there is a timeless element to the structures that are dispersed throughout the city. The older and historical side of Paris lives on with the new, modernized Paris, and for that we have Guimard’s thoughtful and unique perspective and artistry to thank. 


Charles Marville

Guest Blogger:  Amanda and Emily

After hearing about the Charles Marville exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, we were excited to go view the black and white French photography. While the collection features works from throughout Marville’s career, the curator focused on his documentation of the Haussmannization of Paris- the implementation of Baron Haussmann’s architectural and infrastructural plans to modernize the city-  from the 1850s into the early 1870s. But by walking through the rooms of photos, we found that Marville did much more than simply document the city’s modern transformation. While Haussmannization improved the city’s transportation, layout, and sanitation, it displaced much of the “Old Paris,” leaving poor city dwellers without homes and with overall feelings of disappointment and frustration. Through his work, Marville seems to pay homage to the older parts of the city while embracing the new version of Paris that we know today.

One of the hallmarks of Marville’s artistry is his innovative use of light. He beautifully renders this effect in his photograph, Sky Study, in which he makes the bright sky and delicate overhanging clouds his subject, providing the viewer with a reference point in the spire atop a domed building in the background. Within this work, where he captures the nuances of natural light, he conveys the message that while Paris may be a changing city, its people still live under the same sun and marvel at the same clouds. Although Parisian officials ordered the construction of a “new Paris,”  they could not demolish the city’s distinctive history and trademark spirit.

Sky Study can be viewed at –  http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/265131

While he communicates such sentiments in many of his works, Marville equally explores the cultural mores of the transforming city. As a representation of the social stratification, he photographed a series of lampposts placed on street corners throughout Paris. The lampposts were one of the later products of Haussmannization, intended to light the city for purposes of safety and comfort. What is interesting about the series is that at first glance, each lamp looks alike, but upon a closer look, each one has its own unique characteristics. We found out that the more ornate lampposts were placed in upscale neighborhoods and areas, while the plainer ones resided in the poorer neighborhoods. So, Marville’s documentation of the lampposts is actually symbolic of a microcosm of the widening gap between the social classes of Paris.

 Hotel de la Marine (lamppost) can be viewed at –http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/press/exh/3209/annonucement.html

It is ironic that most people today have the same attitude towards the current Paris that Marville had towards the one displaced during the 1850s. But while his nostalgia is for the city of his youth, the one in which his memories were rooted, ours is for the city that grew out of its destruction. Inevitably, all cities transform at a faster clip than that to which their people can comfortably adjust. Therefore, the Parisian citizens’ resilience in spite of the never-ending, merciless evolution of the city speaks to humans’ ability to adapt and flourish with the faith that out of the chaos of today will emerge a more promising tomorrow.