The story of the Bourse de Commerce begins in the sixteenth century (the only remaining vestige of which is, today, the Medici column). The structure of the building then evolved to accommodate the different uses of
the space and the transformations of the Halles area in which it is located. Its history evolves in parallel with that of the French capital.
As the Halles evolved, so did the Bourse de Commerce.In the eighteenth century, the building was located at the heart of one of Paris’s main housing districts; architect Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières’s Halle au Blé
incorporated the Medici column. With the start of construction on Baltard’s Halles in 1852, the Medici column was listed as a national historic monument (classified as such in 1862, along with Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Sainte Chapelle). It then became the Bourse de Commerce in 1889, converted to this use by Henri Blondel, located opposite the Halles designed by Baltard on the new Rue du Louvre, the central axis of Baron Haussmann’s modern Paris. With the dramatic demolition of Baltard’s Halles, which initiated a reassessment of the value and merits of nineteenth-century architecture, the totality of the Bourse de Commerce became a landmarked historic monument in 1975. In the 1980s, a renewed attention to France’s heritage and its conservation led to the acknowledgment of the exceptional merits of Bélanger’s 1812 dome, then classified as a French Historic Monument. Despite the protections that follow from this designation, works undergone during the 1970s led to the erosion of certain historic features of the building, with the addition of a stairwell in the rotunda, the replacement of some of the original external woodwork, and the concealment of the décor.
The conversion of the Bourse de Commerce into a museum involves two main aspects: the restoration of the site to its condition of 1889 and an adaptation to its modern use. The entirety of the Bourse will be renovated, from the external and internal façades to the roof and the frescoes of the cupola, with the addition of technical features to bring electricity and air-conditioning to the building. The cast-iron structure of the cupola will
be reinstated, and the installation of a modern glass roof will facilitate the conservation of painted decors and the works on display. An exhaustive archival research project allowed us to identify the remaining elements from its
eighteenth-century state and the missing elements from the nineteenth. Thanks to the documents, Blondel’s external carpentry, the sundial, and the fountain of the Medici column will be returned to their original condition, as well as the ornaments of the dome, which had long been destroyed.
The architectural significance of the building, and the radical nature of Tadao Ando’s approach to its renovation and adaptation into a museum, required that the plans be presented to the National Commission on Historic Monuments on February 6, 2017; they were unanimously approved. The project was also presented the Commission du Vieux Paris on February 22, 2017, who endorsed the plans.
The Bourse de Commerce has changed and evolved throughout its history, always remaining faithful to its original circular shape, surmounted by a unique dome. The project of the Bourse de Commerce — Pinault Collection constitutes a new chapter in this story, adding a contemporary dimension in dialogue with its historic past.
Pierre-Antoine Gatier, architecte en chef des Monuments historiques
Stepping inside the Bourse du Commerce, visitors immediately look up to the dome, towering forty meters above their heads. There, they discover the immense painting that lines it, created in 1889, spanning a full 360 degrees. This, it reminds you, is a Bourse de Commerce: this famous panorama depicts trade in the late nineteenth century, across the five continents.
Its restoration took place from January to July 2018 under the supervision of Alix Laveau, conservator of the Direction des Musées de France. The process disclosed some secrets behind the technique of marouflage, affixing canvas to walls with adhesive, and revealed the personality of each of the five artists commissioned to create this grand panorama.
Alix Laveau describes her experience working on this exceptional project, in conversation with Guillaume Picon.
How did you feel the first time you saw the décor lining the top of the Bourse de Commerce?
I discovered the Bourse de Commerce before renovations began, when it was completely empty. I was impressed by the scale of the décor: 140 meters long by 10 meters high, or 1,400 square meters of canvas! It seemed endless. The start of the construction work didn’t lessen that emotional reaction. A scaffolding was built that allowed me to climb twenty meters high, so that I was only a few inches away from the paintings. It was overwhelming, intoxicating. But fortunately, even such an immense project returned to the human scale once I began the work itself, protected by tarps from the empty space below.
What do the frescoes depict?
They deal with the progression of modernity in France through commerce with countries throughout the world. In an article about the inauguration of the Bourse de Commerce, the newspaper Le Temps, in its issue dated November 21, 1889, calls this décor a “panorama of commerce.” 1889 was also the year of the Exposition Universelle, during which the two monuments presented by France were the Eiffel Tower and the Bourse de Commerce. France wanted to present itself in “its finest attire,” and this décor is one of the its best!
You just gave a contemporary opinion of the Bourse de Commerce at its inauguration. How was this panorama perceived at the time?
Public opinion, as recorded in the press, seemed rather divided. A few critics had so reservations, others were full of praise. For instance, historian Charles Bivort, in a work devoted to the building’s history published in 1889, wrote that, “All these paintings are in perfect harmony with the sky above and have a stunning effect. The elevation of the cupola is such that the people depicted had to be rendered at a huge size in order to be visible: their heads, in the foreground, are more than half a meter wide.”
A recurrent critique had to do with the lack of coherence in the overall composition. For example, in Soleil, on September 24, 1889: “The paintings that span the first area of the cupola are disparate: no unity, no harmony. This isn’t to say that they are in the wrong place: the cupola certainly needed a décor. What I’m saying is that it shouldn’t have been this one.”
Who is the author of the “panorama of commerce”?
The panorama is the work of not one but five artists—which explains the lack of coherence mentioned in some newspaper articles. Four of them deal with commerce in a given part of the world: Évariste-Vital Luminais was assigned America; Désiré-François Laugée, Russia and the North; Georges-Victor Clairin, Asia and Africa; and finally Hippolyte Lucas, Europe. In between those scenes, Alexis Mazerolle, who supervised the project, added allegories of the continents and regions depicted by the individual artists, in each of the four cardinal directions: Europe is represented by the arts and architecture; Africa by a lion and the hunt; Asia and the Orient by a hookah and elephants; and the North by a polar bear. This large, detailed composition invites viewers to travel across the world.
Today those painters are little known, or not at all. How were they considered by the art world toward the end of the nineteenth century?
Paris changed and became a modern city under Napoleon III. New infrastructure and monuments were built, many of which were decorated. Artistic production soared. Twentieth-century critics have generally been scornful of the decorative paintings created during the nineteenth century, even when those are of a high caliber. And yet, visitors today are amazed when they discover the décor painted by Isidore Pils for the monumental staircase of the Opéra Garnier—clearly this type of painting is still awe-inspiring!
The artists who worked on the dome of the Bourse de Commerce were known at the time, even renowned. Georges Clairin trained at the atelier of François Édouard Picot. His portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, in a spontaneous style, was widely applauded when it was first shown in the 1876 Salon; it is now on display at the Petit Palais. Clairin was part of a group of “Orientalist” painters—he traveled to Egypt with the composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Through his connections to many powerful people, he was chosen to participate in the decoration of several public monuments, such as the staircase and foyer of the Opéra Garnier, along with Isidore Pils, and the ceilings of the Hôtel de Ville and the Sorbonne. After Mazerolle passed away in May 1889, Clairin supervised the completion of the work on the Bourse de Commerce.
Alexis Joseph Mazerolle, the backbone of the team, was also the most academic. He created decors for many important theaters, including the Opéra in Paris. He had an international clientele, which took him to Naples and New York.
Like Clairin, Désiré Laugée studied under François Édouard Picot; he was also a poet, and counted Victor Hugo among his friends. He was interested in depicting the countryside, which aligned him with naturalism. Like his colleagues working on the dome, Laugée created some important decors: at the Palais du Luxembourg, the Chapelle Saint-Denis of the Église de la Trinité, the Église Saint-Clotilde, and the Hôtel Continental—which was built by Henri Blondel, the architect of the Bourse de Commerce.
Évariste-Vital Luminais is considered a history painter, and as such, an academic artist. His depictions of the Gauls and of the medieval ages are part of a new iconography of the country’s history, disseminated in the textbooks of the Third Republic.
And finally, Hyppolite Lucas. A student of Luminais, he was the youngest member of the group. He painted large decors for the Casino of Monte Carlo, the convention center and oceanographic museum of Monaco, and the ceilings of the Préfecture du Rhône.
How did Mazerolle, Luminais, and the others proceed with the work?
Archival material pertaining to the organization of the work site and the relationships among the artists is limited. Some sketches by Lucas and Luminais are preserved in the collections of the Petit Palais and the Musée d’Orsay. According to these preliminary efforts, it seems that the artists used a grid to scale up their drawings. Their works were produced in the studio, then finished on site.
The artists created their paintings on several lengths of linen or hemp canvas. These were then pasted together, recut, and incised when they were affixed to the walls by the artists, most likely with the assistance of a specialized team. The canvases were summarily joined together on site, and certain parts were altered by their creators, each following their individual inclinations.
Has the panorama been restored before now?
A first time in 1995, and a second time, following a fire, from 2010 to 2013, but only in certain areas.
What conditions were the canvases in before you intervened?
They had gotten dirty over time, developing a dull, off-white film layer that altered the colors of the décor. Mold, altering the chromatic range of the paintings, affected the relationships between the shaded areas and those in the light, like a photo negative. The paint layer, on the entirety of the canvas, had become very fragile; the binder in the paint had lost its adhering power. Unfortunately, this deterioration had led to the creation of open ones, with significant losses of paint on the surface layer of the canvas. These small gaps showed up as very visible stains. On the other hand, places in which the canvas had become unglued were rare. Previous touch-ups and more large-scale restorations, including the one done in 1995, had completely degraded. The paint used at the time had been transformed by the intense ultraviolet lighting and the temperatures of the air-conditioned Bourse over the past twenty years.
Finally, an important anomaly is still very difficult to correct. It consists of the “ghosts” of the metal frame of the cupola. They were very visible before the 1995 restoration, even beneath a layer of black soot; they were still very visible when the current restoration began. These stains are produced by dust, attracted by the magnetic pull of the metal structure. Unfortunately, once you climb up the scaffolding and are looking at the paintings up close, these ghosts become almost invisible. One of the more challenging tasks we undertook was to create a map of these ghosts, through photographs, so that we would be able to locate and tackle them.
What constraints did you have to keep in mind as you worked?
There were two important considerations: the allocated budget, and the time-frame within which to complete the work. It was a considerable challenge: given the information we had at hand, and the exceptional scale of the panorama, we typically would have needed more time and more important resources. Plus, there was the additional problem of lead pollution from the paint used in the late nineteenth century; and because the scaffolding was very narrow, it was impossible to take a step back and have a more global view of the composition. The restoration of the panorama was just one aspect of the larger restoration of the entire building by Bouygues. The noise of the machines, the dust of the construction work, the cold, the heat, etc.—all these factors made our work more difficult.
What organizational system did you set in place?
We divided the work into three phases: a cleaning, followed by an esthetic intervention, then a final harmonization of the whole. To undertake these works, I asked a firm to conduct a preliminary study of the site, then recruited a team of twenty-four restorers. To make speedy and consistent progress, I divided them into six work groups of four people each; each group had a team leader with whom I was always in touch. The entire team consisted of people with whom I’d worked before. We share the same philosophy of restoration and follow the same code of ethics. Each group worked on a specific area I’d assigned them, following strict deadlines—and meeting every one of them. It was important for me to keep in mind the big picture, so that I wouldn’t get lost in the details of the décor but make sure our work, and the final result, was consistent. The firm Studiolo created a map based on the observations made by the team of restorers, myself included, from up on the scaffolding. Details pertaining to the “ideal” condition of the panorama, to the previous restoration, and to this current one, were meticulously recorded. This technical document allowed us to proceed quickly and effectively.
What were some of the new discoveries you made during the work?
The careful observations that I mentioned allowed us to understand more precisely the steps in the creation of this gigantic décor. The first, relatively finished compositions were painted in the studio on industrially produced, pre-prepared canvases, with white underpainting. At that stage, the skies had not yet been painted in completely and remained rather fluid, except for the sky above the Great North scene. The upper portions of the cupola were the first to be lined with canvases depicting the sky, affixed to the walls with white lead. These canvases typically measure five by four meters. The first piece is attached to the center of the walls; the next pieces go alongside it, overlapping slightly. The cuts are done by hand, more or less smoothly. The pieces depicting human figures went up next. Their height varies from four to five meters. They were cut out, following the outlines of the figures; then adjusted, layered, and recut as needed. Numerous cuts were made to readjust the pieces of canvas and make sure they had adhered fully. Which is why we suspect experts in this technique, called “marouflage,” were involved. Mazerolle’s canvases were also made in the studio, on a single canvas. They were very precisely cut out, following the outline of every detail of the composition, such as toes and leaves. These canvases are square, six meters to a side, each square functioning as a joint between the two continents to either side. Smaller adjustments were made to fill in the gaps.
The entire composition was then reworked on site, once the marouflage was completed, by the artists who had a final opportunity to integrate the canvases all together or to complete the parts of the canvas left unfinished.
Three months after completion of the restoration, how do you feel about the Panorama du Commerce?
This restoration, a crucial component of Tadao Ando’s project for the Pinault Collection, makes it possible to see these paintings as they have never been possible before. From the walkway created at the top of Ando’s central cylinder, visitors will be closer to the Panorama than their nineteenth-century forerunners had been. This new vision was unprecedented for many of us. The Panorama du Commerce counts itself among the many works in François Pinault’s collection: our goal for this restoration was exactly that.
To close, an amusing movie reference: in Marco Ferreri’s Don’t Touch the White Woman! (1974), the character played by Philippe Noiret looks up at the dome of the Bourse de Commerce and says: “Beautiful fresco, isn’t it? It’s our Sistine Chapel!” I couldn’t think of a better compliment.
Guillaume Picon, historian
Alix Laveau, conservator of the Direction des Musées de France
The team of the Bourse de Commerce - Pinault Collection will be advised by a committee of experts with a two-pronged goal: studying the history of the Bourse de Commerce complex throughout the ages, and examining in depth every means of renovating the landmarked elements of the building.
Part of this committee will supervise the installation of pressurized-air systems in the basement of the Bourse de Commerce, a remnant of an ancient power station installed by the Compagnie Victor Popp in the late nineteenth-century, which for several decades provided public electricity to the area.
general conservator of national heritage, regional conservator of national heritage
general conservator of national heritage
chief architect of historic monuments, general inspector of national heritage
general conservator and inspector of national heritage
Regional panel on historic monuments:
research engineer, expert in painting
research engineer, expert in the use of metals
research engineer, expert in the use of stone
director of research at the école Pratique des Hautes études (EPHE), historic and philological sciences section
head of collections at the Musée des Arts et Métiers
conservator of sculpture and architecture at the Musée National de la Renaissance, Château d’écouen
general conservator of heritage, director of the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris
general director of heritage at the Ministère de la Culture
Experts advisors to the architects:
architect-engineer at Unanime
Benoît Stehelin, Bernard Vaudeville, Jean-François Nicolas