Hitherto unpublished, executed in gouache and watercolour on several joined sheets of a total length of almost 5 meters, this exceptional view of the city of Paris, taken from the Pavillon de Flore, is an outstanding testimony to what was one of the most widespread popular entertainments of the nineteenth century: the panorama.
Invented by Robert Barker (1739-1806) at the end of the eighteenth century, the panorama consisted of a gigantic painting (generally around thirty meters long) displayed completely in the round on the interior wall of a rotunda, giving viewers standing at the centre of the rotunda the impression of being in the midst of the landscape depicted (fig. 1). The principle of the panorama’s illusion rests on the central viewpoint of the visitors, who are thus completely immersed in their environment, generally a view of a foreign city or an exotic landscape represented with the greatest topographical fidelity. The rules of optics and perspective, perfectly mastered and precisely applied, define the space and confer upon the whole work a disconcerting sense of reality that was at the root of the panorama’s immense success.
Painted on immense canvases and therefore especially fragile and cumbersome, most of these panoramas have unfortunately been destroyed, either deliberately or by accident, and very few still exist today (the most famous survivor is the Mesdag Panorama in The Hague, named for the painter who created it). This magnificent View of Paris from the Pavillon de Flore therefore offers a rare and extremely precious account.
Robert Barker (1739-1806) created the first panorama in 1787, which depicted a view of Edinburgh and which he exhibited in his own home in London. Following this first, not entirely successful, attempt, Barker continued his efforts through the creation, in 1793, of a panorama of London. Having displayed it this time in a more suitable building in Leicester Square, he finally achieved success, attracting other artists who continued to develop this new form of entertainment, first in Great Britain and then on the Continent.
The age was ripe for the success of such an enterprise. Travel was developing and becoming more democratic, and the curiosity of the inhabitants of London, Paris and Berlin became the driving force behind the development of new diversions of which the panorama was a great beneficiary, swiftly becoming one of the century’s major forms of entertainment all across Europe. Its promoters exhibited and toured these impressive but fragile works, which required delicate handling, around the great capitals, exposing them to rapid degradation, which explains why so few remain today. Only with the advent of cinema did the panorama lose its standing, before disappearing completely at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In France, the first panoramas saw the light of day at the very end of the eighteenth century. In April 1799, the American Robert Fulton (1765-1815) obtained a patent allowing him to import the concept into France. From the summer of 1799, a View of Paris from the Tuileries, executed under the direction of the French painter Pierre Prévost with the assistance of Constant Bourgeois, Denis Fontaine and Jean Mouchet, could be admired in the French capital.
A landscapist trained in the studio of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Pierre Prévost (1764-1823) was, along with the colonel Jean-Charles Langlois (1789-1870), the most important French exponent of this genre until his death in 1823, creating numerous panoramas of various cities such as Amsterdam, Lyon, London, Athens and Jerusalem as well as military scenes. The work presented here, doubtless executed between 1810 and 1812, can be firmly attributed to him.
In 1814 a panorama representing a new view of Paris from the Pavillon de Flore was exhibited in Vienna in the rotunda belonging to Mme Barton, situated in the Prater gardens. In all likelihood, Pierre Prévost designed it. Having come to Vienna in 1809 in order to prepare a panorama of the Austrian city which he exhibited in Paris in 1812, he likely met Mme Barton and conceived the idea of presenting this new view of the French capital (on the genesis of this project, see the very comprehensive entry by Bernard Comment in the catalogue Un panorama de Paris et ses environs – Tableaux-Dessins 1680-1840, Galerie J. Kugel, Paris, 1996, pp. 52-60).
The present work is clearly one of the preparatory studies, especially highly finished, for the execution of the full-size panorama. Another preparatory work exists for this View of Paris exhibited in Vienna. Larger in scale (640 mm high x 8170 mm wide; private collection, see the catalogue from Galerie J. Kugel of 1996 cited above) and squared for transfer to the canvas, it is not as completely finished but no doubt constitutes the intermediary stage between our version and the final panorama.
The link between this work and the view presented at Mme Barton’s rotunda in Vienna is confirmed by the viewpoint indicator for the Vienna panorama, printed and distributed to visitors to allow them to get their bearings and to recognise the different monuments and sites of the city. Both German and Russian versions of this indicator exist, either because the panorama later left Vienna for Saint Petersburg, or else, as Bernard Comment explains (op. cit. p. 55), because the brochure was also intended for the many Russian troops then stationed in Vienna.
Although several minor variants remain in the details (in particular the figures who populate the view), the comparison between the prospectus and our work leaves no room for doubt. The similar viewpoint, the same distance ratio, and above all the exact correspondence of the buildings (with the exception of the Tuileries Palace, which has disappeared from the present panorama, probably cut during an earlier manipulation) allow us to establish an unambiguous link between our work and the full-scale panorama of the Vienna Prater.
As for the date, it also matches if we examine the monuments in place as well as the appearance of the Louvre and its surrounding area. The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel is indeed depicted, but without the figure of Napoleon as a charioteer, sculpted by Lemot, which installed by the Emperor’s decree in 1812. Elsewhere, the cutting through of the rue de Rivoli has not yet been completed, and the buildings bordering the gardens, which would soon be demolished, are still visible.
Also worth noting is Prévost’s deliberate decision not to depict, in the courts of the Louvre and the Carrousel, the neighbourhood that still existed there at the time and which would only be entirely swept away under the Second Empire. As the commentator Heinrich Klauren remarked following his visit to the Panorama exhibited at the Prater, in his Kurze Bemerkungen auf langen Berufswegen (Dinkelsbühl, 1816; cited and translated by B. Comment, op. cit., p. 55): ‘The slight inaccuracy which consists in presenting the place du Carrousel as if it were already finished, and in the disposition it will have thereafter, has in this magnificent painting an effect of verisimilitude so eloquent that one believes oneself transported to the middle of Paris’. All of the genius of the panorama is summarised here…
Judiciously choosing the Pavillon de Flore as his observation post, Prévost minutely detailed all the buildings of the city: the palace of the Louvre, the Grande Galerie which serves as an axial perspective, the quays with the recently erected Pont des Arts and Notre-Dame in the background, the Collège des Quatre Nations and the whole of the Left Bank, right up to the end of the Tuileries Gardens, with the Arc de Triomphe at the very bottom on the horizon line (still flanked by Ledoux’s two tax barriers), whose construction began in 1806 and which, around the 1810s, was not quite as finished as it appears in this work; however, in 1810 Napoleon had had a wooden mock-up of the arch erected to celebrate his marriage to Marie-Louise, which allows us to date this work with greater precision. None of the monuments visible from the Pavillon de Flore is missing, even the Montmartre windmills, which can be picked out in the distance.
Even more so than for the spectators of the time, who were only entering a geographic location unknown to them, this work, a rare and precious object, not only gives us entry into a space metamorphosed today, but also allows us an immersion in a bygone time, doubling the pleasures of our voyage…