The Metropolitan, a major stake

The Metropolitan, a major stake

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  • Villette-Halles Centrales Underground Railway Project


  • Construction of the Metropolitan

    LOIR Luigi (1845 - 1916)

Villette-Halles Centrales Underground Railway Project

© RMN-Grand Palais (area of ​​Compiègne) / Daniel Arnaudet

Construction of the Metropolitan

© La Piscine Museum (Roubaix), Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Arnaud Loubry

Publication date: February 2020

Historical context

The civilization of the railway

Between 1861 and 1900, the representation of the metropolitan of Paris shifted from engraving reproducing plans for an uncertain future to oil painting capturing the work that was finally launched. What only seemed like a crazy project when the engraver Émile Bourdelin made his drawing became reality when the painter Luigi Loïr set up his easel in rue de Rivoli. He would have been a friend of Gustave Doré, is known for Paris as the crow flies : this aerial view of the city in the process of changing its face indicates its interest in the works launched by Baron Haussmann. His signature can also be found in several technical publications of the time: he seems fascinated by the innovations of the first industrial revolution (steam engine and railroad) as well as of the second (electric and gasoline engine). London's daring (belt line in 1863) and especially the model of the New York skytrain (1867) set the tone: a modern city cannot do without such a practical mode of transport. Luigi Loïr (1845-1916), a landscape painter born in Austria in the inner circle of the French royal family in exile, still has time to fix on the canvas the panorama of the disemboweled Parisian major axis.

Image Analysis

The Belly of Paris

The classic drawing of Villette-Halles Centrales Underground Railway Project is put at the service of a rigorous visual demonstration. The composition cut in two in the direction of the height shows two faces of Paris. At the top, we find ourselves in the perspective of the current Boulevard de Strasbourg ending at the Gare de l'Est, inaugurated in 1849, recognizable by the large hall designed by the architect François-Alexandre Duquesney (1790-1849). If the Saint-Laurent church on the right testifies to the rich heritage of the city, the wide Magenta boulevard which leaves on the left, pierced in 1852, already displays the Haussmannian profile of the “rue-mur”. Bourdelin populates the surface with pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, signs of a past called to fade. Underground, it represents the future: a veritable railway line that is still very much like the train and hardly foreshadows the metro. The steam locomotive, the station master and the platforms are characteristic features of Parisian stations. On the other hand, a technical reflection is taking shape with the two auxiliary tunnels, the assignment of which is not clear. This step towards expert gaze has not been completed since the basement is not treated graphically, as if its structure had no effect on this type of development.

It must be said that several sections of the metro lines built at the beginning of the XXe century. have been at shallow depth. This is perfectly illustrated by Loïr's canvas, which is part of a series of works dating from 1899 to 1900. Construction of the metro It also adopts a clear perspective, that of the old royal road connecting the castles of Vincennes from east to west, from Place Royale (now Place des Vosges) to the Louvre and Saint-Cloud. The look towards the east of the capital embraces both this past, signaled by the silhouette of the Tour Saint-Jacques, and the commercial heart of the city with its lighted cafes, its many passers-by, some of whom are also curious to contemplate the city. covered trench at the corner of rue Jeanne d'Arc. The artist uses a fairly uniform palette and multiplies the vertical and horizontal lines: the repeated geometry must reflect the new stylistic unity of the capital, dominated by the blonde hue of the stone of Saint-Maximin (Oise). Like Bourdelin, Loïr offers a discourse between the surface and the underground, however he shows here workers at work, and not passengers. Using the simplest techniques of mining (wood shoring) in the heart of Paris, the diggers project the city into the new century. Their identical costumes add to the quietly changing atmosphere of the center of the capital.


Advent of mobility

The transformations of Paris between the 1850s and the turn of the century, inspired by the London example, aimed to ventilate and cleanse the capital; we also want to give it fluidity and transform the social landscape. In the name of these objectives, we stop at nothing. The Saint-Laurent church loses its 17th century facadee century between 1863 and 1867 and takes on the present Gothic Revival appearance; it has been redesigned to respect the alignment of the facades which is the capital’s new hallmark. In 1900, Parisians were used to these gigantic construction sites: the widening of the rue de Rivoli to the detriment of the working-class neighborhoods that border it - admirably described by Balzac in The cousin Bette - was even conducted at night, turning the operation into a spectacle. The photography that emerged at the same time made it possible to fix on film the Paris that was disappearing and the one that was born instead. It was the same in 1900: the pictures of the scene at the northeast corner of the Tuileries abound. The images describing the changes in the capital are a genre in their own right, which is favored by amateurs as much as the representation of the main monuments.

If car traffic is still embryonic - this will be the great challenge of the XXe and XXIe century - metropolitan rail mobility has become an issue of international prestige. Bourdelin planned a line between the Halles centrale and La Villette, that is to say between the two centers regulating the supply of Parisians: the construction of the Halles began in 1852, that of the slaughterhouses associated with the cattle market in 1859. Although its design shows passengers, there are also freight cars, a sign that the service to the Parisian economy is still relevant. In 1900, we were only targeting passenger traffic: it was a question of allowing visitors to the Exhibition and spectators of the Games to move between the Bois de Vincennes which welcomed them and the Trocadéro where the pavilions of the nations and French provinces. The immediate success required the line operators to offer no longer three, but eight wagons, and to increase the rate of departures. Compactness, regularity, speed, local service bring this new mode of transport into the daily culture of Parisians.

  • Metro
  • Paris
  • Rivoli Street
  • construction
  • Universal exhibitions
  • Olympic Games
  • Haussmannization
  • Neo-gothic
  • Halls
  • Balzac (Honoré de)
  • industrial Revolution


Roger-Henri Guerrand, L'Aventure du métropolitain, Paris, La Découverte, 1999.

Dominique Larroque, Michel Margairaz and Pierre Zembri, Paris and its transport 19th and 20th centuries: two centuries of decisions for the city and its region, Éditions Recherches, 2002.

Noë Willer, Luigi Loir (1845-1916), painter of the Belle Époque in advertising: catalog raisonné, Noë Willer edition, 2004.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The Metropolitan, a major stake"


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  • Neo-Gothic: Artistic movement that appeared at the end of the 17th century and which runs throughout the 19th century, inspired by Middle Ages art, and particularly Gothic art

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