In 2013, the American architectural historian Neil Levine donated, through the American Friends du musée d'Orsay (AFMO), his collection of drawings relating to 19th century French architecture. Formed between 1969 and the late 1970s, at a time when this architecture was reviled, the collection is a testament to his pioneering approach.
A specialist on Henri Labrouste, the architect of the Sainte-Geneviève Library (1851) and the reading room of the Imperial Library (1868), Neil Levine put together a collection based around two themes that reflected his interests as a historian: the innovations made by the architects of the Romantic period, of which Labrouste was one of the most famous representatives, and the architectural teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which Labrouste helped to develop.
This collection, on display in its entirety, is here accompanied by drawings from the rest of the Musée d'Orsay collections, formed subsequently in a similar spirit.
Neil Levine was one of the first to demonstrate that Henri Labrouste was more than just a pioneer in iron frame architecture. At the time when the scandal caused by Victor Hugo's Hernani (1830) was crystallising the opposition of the Romantics to the Classical literary tradition, Labrouste was the leader of a generation that shook up the Neo-classical ideals championed by the French Academy, taking an innovative approach to the historical models and the symbolic aspect of architecture.
In the Neil Levine Collection, Pre-Romantic works - from Jean Laurent Le Geay, who taught Etienne Louis Boullée, to Gustav Friedrich Hetsch, a pupil of Charles Percier - show the importance of the legacy of the Enlightenment in this evolution, while studies produced in Italy by the architects of Henri Labrouste's generation reveal the new references that they found there.
The watercolours of Jacques Ignace Hittorff, Jean-Baptiste Lassus, Félix Duban and his pupil Charles Questel, illustrate magnificently the new concept of architecture, sensitive and polychromatic, that came out of this.
In 1975, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) devoted an exhibition to drawings by former architectural students of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Neil Levine was closely involved with this exhibition, and his collection reveals his keen interest in this institution. In addition to the designs for competitions, the mainstay of architects' training at that time, collections of studies by the architect Edouard Villain during his stay at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1846-1854) are evidence of the methodical research undertaken by the students to combine, according to the notion of eclecticism, the best of the solutions tried and tested by their elders.
The drawings of architect Henri Mayeux, a teacher of decorative composition at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, show how the teaching offered at the end of the 19th century was given new life after the traditional relationship between ornament and structure was challenged by Henri Labrouste with the Sainte-Geneviève Library. The studies produced by architect Gabriel di Martino while studying in New York, illustrate how the pedagogical precepts of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were adapted in the United States.
Parisian buildings took on specific characteristics in the second half of the 19th century as a result of strict regulations restricting the height, floor space and ornamentation. Balconies, which allowed inhabitants to enjoy the “outdoors” from their apartment, had both a decorative and functional purpose, as well as a social significance. Indeed, from the end of the July Monarchy, balconies were installed on the “étage noble”, the first floor, where the reception rooms were situated, or on the last floor where the natural light and air could be enjoyed.
During the Second Empire, balconies began to be installed on all floors, thus losing their social function. They existed in various types: long balconies, small balconies, railed balconies, and as of the 1890s, bow windows - a sort of enclosed balcony. The equalising of the different floors of the building had thus been achieved, resulting in the disappearance of the social mix. In ornamental ironwork, the wrought iron of the 18th century gave way to moulded cast iron, which offered combinations of repeating patterns.