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.
The history of the construction of the Paris Opera spans almost 60 years! Following the assassination of the Duke of Berry, potential heir to the throne, on leaving the Théâtre des Arts on rue de Richelieu, the decision was made to demolish the building. A new opera house was consequently built by François Debret on rue Le Peletier using materials from the former building, based on the design by Victor Louis, much praised by his contemporaries. The building was considered temporary, however, and when it burnt down in 1841 numerous plans for a new opera house were produced. The assassination attempt on Napoleon III by Felice Orsini in 1858 outside Le Peletier acted as the trigger for the Emperor to launch a competition for the design of the “new opera house”. Opened on 19 December 1860, it gave rise to 171 plans, exhibited at the Palais de l’Industrie. Viollet-le-Duc’s was not among the 43 plans selected. It was Charles Garnier who won the competition by unanimous decision on 29 May 1861 after three selection phases. The comparison of the plans for the main façade designed by the two great architects, the role of the décor and the hustle and bustle within and outside of the building reflect the magnitude of the construction.