The artists who protested the Eiffel Tower
Monday 24 June 2019
Modified the 24/06/19
On February 14th, 1887, construction of the Eiffel Tower was started. A month earlier, Gustave Eiffel signed an agreement with the State and with the City of Paris granting him the rights for 20 years to the site of the Tower and a subsidy covering one quarter of the price of its construction. Then, the "Protests by artists against the tower of Mr. Eiffel" appeared on the front page of Le Temps, an eminent publication at the time. The 40 or so signatories include some of the most prominent artists of the time, such as the composer Charles Gounod, the writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas’ son, the poets François Coppée, Leconte de Lisle and Sully Prudhomme, the artists William Bouguereau and Ernest Meissonier, and even Charles Garnier, the architect of the Opera. We, defenders of “the beauty of Paris that was until now intact” are protesting “in the name of the underestimated taste of the French, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the erection in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which popular ill feeling, so often an arbiter of good sense and justice, has already christened the Tower of Babel. Will the city of Paris continue to associate itself with the baroque and mercantile fancies of a builder of machines thereby making itself irreparably ugly and bringing dishonor to itself? Because the Eiffel Tower that even the commercial Americans didn’t want, will without a doubt dishonor Paris.” And the protesters conclude by mocking this “tower of ridiculous vertiginous height, dominating Paris just like "a gigantic black factory chimney,” spreading across the whole city “like a dark ink stain, the odious shadow of this odious column of bolted metal.”
The writers mobilized
There were other equally virulent reactions the previous year. For example, the magazine Modern Construction during the publication of the results of the competition for the World Expo criticized the feasibility of the Tower and most especially its lifts. The writers also continued to hurl insults, like Léon Bloy (“this truly tragic street lamp”), Paul Verlaine (“this belfry skeleton”), Francois Coppée again (“this mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed”), Maupassant encore (“this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton”), Joris-Karl Huysmans (“this hideous column with railings, this infundibuliform chicken wire, glory to the wire and the slab, arrow of Notre-Dame of bric-a-brac”). Champ de Mars residents also filed a lawsuit against Eiffel.
Gustave Eiffel’s response
Gustave Eiffel had a measured response to the artists protests stressing the intrinsic beauty that the Tower possessed, in his opinion: "Are we to believe that because one is an engineer one is not preoccupied with the beauty in one’s constructions, or that one does not seek to create elegance as well as solidity as well as durability? Is it not true that the very conditions which give strength also conform to the hidden rules of harmony?" Eiffel readily compared his tower to the pyramids of Egypt, which are "after all only artificial mounds of dirt,” to assert the quite ordinary yet exceptional nature of its construction, "a symbol of strength and overcoming adversity.”
Heartily supported by the authorities, Eiffel was able to continue construction on the Tower. The controversy died out on its own in the presence of the completed masterpiece and in light of its enormous popular success. This symbol of technical progress and industry denounced by the artists of its time was later revealed as the paradoxical symbol of Paris, the bearer of a new aesthetic.
Bertrand Lemoine is an architect, engineer and historian. He was a research director at the CNRS and general manager of the Atelier International du Grand Paris. He is an internationally recognized specialist in the history and current events of architecture, construction, the city and heritage in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in Paris, Greater Paris and the Eiffel Tower. He is the author of forty-three books and several hundred articles on these subjects. He is currently a consultant on architectural, urban, digital and energy issues.