The Grandeur of Pierre Prévost's "Panorama of Paris"

The Grandeur of Pierre Prévost's "Panorama of Paris"

Sotheby's upcoming sale, Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures 1300-1900, features Pierre Prévost's spectacular Parisian panorama.
Sotheby's upcoming sale, Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures 1300-1900, features Pierre Prévost's spectacular Parisian panorama.

T his exceptional and unprecedented view of the city of Paris is painted in gouache and watercolour on a series of assembled sheets of paper. Painted from the Pavillion de Flore it is an important example of one of the most popular attractions in vogue during the 19th century: the panorama.

Invented by Robert Barker (1739-1806) at the end of the 18th century, the panorama consisted of a large painting (generally around thirty meters long) unfolded 360 degrees around the inside wall of a rotunda, giving the spectators at the centre the feeling they were standing inside the represented landscape. The panorama’s principle of illusion relies upon the visitors’ central viewpoint as they are thus completely immersed in their environment, generally that of a foreign city or of an exotic landscape, portrayed in faithful topographic imitation. The rules of optics and perspective were perfectly mastered and applied with precision, defining the space and giving the display a disturbingly realistic impression, which did much for the panorama’s great success.

Painted on huge canvases which were both particularly fragile or cumbersome, most of these panoramas were unfortunately destroyed, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and few remain visible today (the Mesdag Panorama is the most famous example to survive – named after the painter who made it – at the Hague). This magnificent Vue de Paris prise du Pavillon de Flore (View of Paris from the Pavillion de Flore) is thus an extremely rare and precious demonstration of this practice.

Robert Barker (1739-1806) was the creator of the first panorama in 1787 which depicted a view of Edinburgh and was shown in his house in London. Following this moderately successful first attempt, Barker pursued his efforts and created a panorama of London in 1793. He opened a more suitable building on Leicester Square where he finally encountered success, later encouraging other artists who continued to develop this new form of entertainment, first in Great Britain and then abroad.

The times were conducive to this kind of enterprise. The development of tourism, and the curiosity of the inhabitants of London, Paris or Berlin were a driving force for new attractions which greatly benefited the panorama. It rapidly became one of the century’s major sources of entertainment across all of Europe. Its promoters exhibited these fragile and imposing works before sending them off to the great capital cities of Europe. The frequent handling of these delicate pieces exposed them to deterioration which explains why so few remain today. It was only with the advent of cinema that the panorama lost its importance, before disappearing completely at the beginning of the 20th century.

In France, the first panoramas saw the light of day at the very end of the 18th century. In April 1799, the American Robert Fulton (1765-1815) obtained a licence of exploitation which meant he was able to import the concept to France. From the summer of 1799, the French capital presented Vue de Paris depuis les Tuileries (View of Paris from the Tuileries Gardens) painted under the direction of the French painter Pierre Prévost, assisted by Constant Bourgeois, Denis Fontaine and Jean Mouchet.

Pierre Prévost (1764-1823) was a landscape designer trained in the studio of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. He would become one of the most important French representatives of the genre, along with the colonel Jean-Charles Langlois (1789-1870), until his death in 1823, completing many panoramas of various cities such as Amsterdam, Lyons, London, Athens and Jerusalem as well as military scenes.

The work on offer is very certainly by him, painted in all likelihood between 1810 and 1812.
In 1814 a panorama depicting a new view of Paris taken from the Pavillion de Flore was indeed presented in the rotund apartment of Mrs Barton, located in the Prater gardens in Vienna. Pierre Prévost was its author in all likelihood. He travelled to Vienna in 1809 to prepare a panorama of the Austrian city that he then exhibited in 1812 in Paris. He very probably met Mrs Barton there and came up with the idea of presenting this new view of the French capital (on the genesis of this project, see Bernard Comment’s very comprehensive text in the catalogue Un panorama de Paris et ses environs – Tableaux-Dessins 1680-1840, gallery J. Kugel, Paris, 1996, p.52-60).

The present work clearly constitutes a particularly accomplished preparatory study for the elaboration of the panorama on a definitive scale. Another preparatory work for this Vue de Paris exhibited in Vienna also exists. It is of larger size (h.640; L.8170 mm ; private collection, see the catalogue of the Kugel gallery from 1996 cited above) and drawn into gridded squares for its transferral onto a large scale canvas. This study is not entirely finished but probably constitutes an intermediary stage between our version and the final version of the panorama.

The link between this work and the view presented in Mrs Barton’s apartment in Vienna is confirmed by the view point indicator of Vienna, an engraving of which was distributed to visitors so that they could recognise the city’s different sites and monuments. German and Russian versions also exist, either the panorama later left Vienna and travelled to Saint-Petersburg, as Bernard Comment explains (op. cit. p.55), or the brochure was also designed for the many Russian troops stationed in Vienna at the time.

If a few minor differences can be perceived in the details (in particular the figures that populate the view), the comparison between the prospectus and our work allows for no doubt. The similar viewpoint, the same relationship between distances, and especially the exactly corresponding buildings (apart from the Tuileries, which has disappeared from the present panorama, probably cut out during a previous manipulation) clearly indicate without any doubt a link between our work and the large scale Prater panorama of Vienna.

The date also corresponds if we look closely at the monuments, the aspect of the Louvre and the surrounding districts. The Carrousel Arc de Triomphe is depicted, but without the figure of Napoleon as charioteer, sculpted by Lemot, which was taken down on request of the Emperor in 1812. Moreover, the opening of the rue de Rivoli is not yet finished, and there are still buildings alongside the gardens which were soon to be destroyed.

It is also interesting to note Prévost’s deliberate choice not to include in the Louvre and Carrousel courtyards the district that still existed at the time and was not totally destroyed until the Second Empire. As the journalist Heinrich Klauren mentioned in his Kurze Bemerkungen auf langen Berufswegen (Dinkelsbühl, 1916; quoted and translated by B. Comment, op. cit. p.55) after his visit of the Panorama shown in Prater: “The small inaccuracy which consists of presenting the Place du Carrousel as if it were already finished, and in its later position, has the effect of such eloquent truth in this magnificent painting, that we are as if transported into the middle of Paris.”. He added a little further on “The illusion is so captivating that the spectator finds it difficult to remember that he is seeing all this whilst he is in the Prater in Vienna.” All the genius of the panorama is resumed here.

Judiciously choosing the Pavillion de Flore as observation post, Prévost painted the city’s buildings in minute detail: The Louvre palace, the Grande Galerie which gave an axial perspective, the river quays with the recent bridge of Arts and Notre Dame in the background, the college of Four Nations and all of the left bank up to the Tuileries gardens, with the Arc de Triomphe on the horizon (still flanked by the barriers funded by Ledoux), whose construction began in 1806, and which around the 1810s was not as high as depicted in this work. It is important to remember that in 1810, Napoleon built a fictive framework arch to celebrate his wedding with Marie-Louise, which again means the work can be dated precisely. None of the monuments visible from the Pavillion de Floe are missing, even the Windmills of Montmartre that can be glimpsed in the background.

Even more than for the spectators of the time, who entered a hitherto unfamiliar geographic place, this work, this rare and precious object not only allows us to enter a space that is transformed today, but also provides an immersion in a forgotten age, increasing the pleasure of this trip into the past.

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