Gustave Courbet and the Fall of the Vendôme Column

Gustave Courbet and the Fall of the Vendôme Column
“The city of Paris,” the observant author Balzac said, “has a great mast, made entirely of bronze, with sculpted victories and Napoleon as its lookout.” He was right; the Vendôme Column at 44m anchors the Place Vendôme, an 18th-century architectural gem ringed by some of the 21st century’s most opulent jewelers and couturiers.   The luxury boutiques of Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Schiaparelli, and Chanel have addresses here. For over 20 years, Coco Chanel made her home at the Ritz Hotel at 15 Place Vendôme. The jewelers Boucheron, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, and Mikimoto pearls make the place a magnet for the world’s elite. It’s no coincidence that the Place Vendôme was the setting for the theft of the Black Pearl in the Netflix series Lupin, where the gentleman thief is filmed atop the Vendôme Column engineering a major jewel heist. Still from the Netflix hit ‘Lupin,’ depicting actor Omar Sy on the Vendôme Column. Press Photo: Emmanuel Guimier The oldest shop on Place Vendôme is the shirt maker Charvet. Now at number 28, the store has been on the Place Vendôme since 1877. The couture house Chéruit, once at #21 from 1906-1935, has returned to a new century.  FIAC, the international company art fair now known as Paris+ par Art Basel, uses the Place Vendôme to host monumental and unusual works of art. The square has staged Alexander Calder’s Flying Dragon, a simple origami seemingly folded from a colossal piece of metal. The installation artist Yayoi Kusama displayed her Life of the Pumpkin Recites, All about the Biggest Love for the People there in 2019.  In November 2023, the Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s aluminum Wave was part of Paris+ by Art Basel. (The art fair is now fully-immersed in preparation for the Paris edition of their program scheduled for autumn 2024.)   In the spring of 2023, the Place Vendôme featured the installation of Bernar Venet’s Parabole de l’Histoire. On either side of the Vendôme Column, large metal beams were strewn onto cobblestones. Venet’s installation is a nod to the collapse of the Vendôme Column; because although the Place Vendôme seems to embody the untouchable chic Paris of fairy tales, the square was once the focus of furious revolt.  King Louis XIV ordered that the Place Vendôme be built in the very heart of the city; the central setting would further serve to embody the range of the Sun King’s absolute power. Construction began in 1698 following the plans of the accomplished architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. It was an aesthetically pleasing octagon of 213m by 224m framing an equestrian statue. Once metaphorically called “a giant bronze exclamation point,” by President Adolphe Thiers, the present Vendôme Column was built for Napoleon, between 1806 and 1810 as a glorification of his victories. In those pre-Eiffel Tower days, the 44m Vendôme Column along with the Arc de Triomphe loomed on the Paris horizon as symbols of Napoleonic power.

Lead photo credit : Place Vendôme. Photo credit: Giorgio Galeotti / Wikimedia Commons

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.