Louis-Émile Durandelle: The New Paris Opera

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By Alex Novak
The Stone Sculptor
The Stone Sculptor

Louis-Émile Durandelle was born on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1839 in Verdun, France.

Durandelle was in partnership with Hyacinthe Cesare Delmaet in Paris. In 1862 Delmaet died. Delmaet's wife, Clemence Jacob (Delmaet), later married Durandelle and likely continued to work in the partnership while retaining the name Delmaet. The firm specialized in construction photographs.

Throughout the 1860s the firm photographed views of houses and buildings in Paris; the rebuilding of the Hôtel-Dieu in 1868; the Commune in 1870-1871; views of Mont-Saint-Michel, the Bibliothèque Nationale and Sacré Coeur in the 1870s; and the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1887-1889. Most importantly, Durandelle photographed the elements and construction of the New Paris Opera from 1866-1875, interrupted only by the Franco-Prussian War.

Le Nouvel Opera de Paris, Sculpture Ornementale
Le Nouvel Opera de Paris, Sculpture Ornementale

Durandelle's four photography portfolios (plus separate text and engraving portfolios) are considered to be the definitive work on the Opera at Paris, 'the most exuberant building of its time' (Dictionary of Art, XII, p. 156).

A relative unknown, Charles Garnier won the competition to build the Opera in 1861 as an expression of the wealth and power of Napoleon III's Second Empire. Construction commenced immediately, employing over 90 painters and sculptors for its lavish decorative program alone, and it was completed--under the Third Republic--in 1875.

The celebrated French architectural photographer Durandelle recorded its construction in 'photographs which are a milestone in the use of the medium for extended architectural documentation. They count among the most splendid examples of 19th-century architectural photography.' (C. Phillips, The Construction of the Paris Opéra, exhibition at ICP, New York, 2001).

Durandelle stopped photographing the same year that his wife passed away in 1890. He later died on March 12, 1917 in Bois-Colombes, France.

Durandelle's work is held by many museums and in many private collections.