Architecture and Graphic Arts

Red: from Tyrian purple to bricks

Architecture and polychromy in the collections of the Musée d'Orsay

Rooms 17 and 21

Gabriel-Auguste AnceletPortico of the Macellum, Pompeii© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Situated between the whiteness of the Neo-Classical architecture of the second half of the 18th century and the pared-down colour palette favoured by 20th century Modernist architects, the 19th century stands out as an interlude in which architectural polychromy reached its peak. This revival of colour was informed by a wealth of archaeological studies at sites ranging from Pompeii to the Romanesque frescoes in the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin, which highlighted its significance in the past. The architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff (1792-1867) can claim credit for making polychromy a key talking point in architectural debate with his dissertation Greek Polychrome Architecture (1830) robustly refuted by the Académie. Archaeological debate aside, colour in the 19th century offered a means of refreshing the

design of space and architectural decor. In addition to providing scope for new ornamental fantasy, colour also allowed architects to break away from the classical theory of imitation and to rethink the relationship between architecture and nature. The red, which is unquestionably the most frequently primary colour in architecture, provides the unifying thread here.

The colour red is historically associated with wealth and power due to the cost of the pigments used to produce it, particularly Tyrian purple. This symbolic significance is reflected in its ubiquity in architecture from past eras rediscovered by 19th century architects. Plans and restoration work reveal the role of polychromy in classical antiquity, ancient Egypt and Assyria, as well as during the Middle Ages and in non-Western societies. This research, which was widely disseminated with the expansion of printing, reaped the benefits of the introduction in the early 19th century of a new colour reproduction process – chromolithography. This context informed significant architectural output in which historicism was given a fresh impetus with imaginative and colourful ornamentation. Polychromy found its way into interiors, but was difficult to execute on exteriors as paint was not sufficiently durable. The combination of colour and ornamentation also gave rise to criticism on a theoretical level when excessive ornamentation overshadowed architecture.

From the 1840s, the industrialisation of manufacturing processes for bricks and terracotta ornamentations encouraged the use of these materials which offered architects a simple and cost-effective way to address the issue of the durability of colour in architecture subject to wet weather conditions. Their adoption owed a great deal to prestigious Roman models and to 17th century French and Dutch architecture. Increased use was also based on the popularity of universal exhibitions which promoted industry and whose buildings provided the ultimate showcase for the aesthetic merits of these materials. They facilitated the introduction of colourful architecture based on diverse materials and a respect for architectural structure, which represented a departure from the theory of imitation and ushered in a new simplified ornamental idiom free from copying.

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A taste for Greece, or the ‘Heroic Order’

End of the nave

Louis BoitteAthens, Propylaea© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The winners of the Prix de Rome architecture were allowed to travel to Greece as of 1845. Prior to this date, students had to travel to southern Italy or Sicily (Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece) to study Antique architecture.

An ‘order’ is the assemblage of a column (vertical section) and a entablature (horizontal section); it forms the constructive principle of the Greek temple. Its Doric, Ionic and Corinthian versions have never been fully explained. But its posterity is unprecedented: from the Renaissance to the modern day, architectural theorists, architects and students have used this language to create an architectural and ornamental evidence.

Vitruvius (1st century B.C) defined the order through five criteria: arrangement, eurythmy, symmetry, propriety and economy. The human body, and its parts, served as the model. This may explain the sense of perfection it epitomises, which was heroised in the 19th century, from Neo-Classicism to the ‘Structural Classicism’ of the Perret brothers.

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