Musée d'Orsay: A Review of the Universal Exhibitions from 1851 to 1900

A Review of the Universal Exhibitions from 1851 to 1900

Promoting Industrial Products

Joseph PaxtonProject for the 1889 Universal Exhibition, Palace of the Champs de Mars© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Universal Exhibitions, which became "international" from 1928 onwards, were initially events for industry to showcase its products, and to extol the glory of Progress.

The 1851 London Great Exhibition was the first of these. Its star attraction was the structure that housed the exhibition - the Crystal Palace. Designed by Joseph Paxton, it had an enormous central nave constructed in iron and glass that the architect later reproduced in a project for the 1867 Paris Exhibition.

Owen Jones
 Projet d'un palais de cristal dans le parc de Saint-Cloud, vue intérieure [Project for a Crystal Palace in the Park of Saint Cloud, interior view]
 Watercolour, highlights in coloured pencil
 H. 45.5; W. 120 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of la Société des Amis du musée d'Orsay, 1991
Owen JonesProject for a Crystal Palace in the Park of Saint Cloud, interior view© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
Owen Jones, who had been involved in the construction of the Crystal Palace, also produced a similar design in 1860-61 for a permanent exhibition centre for industry, at Saint-Cloud.

Universal Exhibitions in France

Max Berthelin
 Exposition universelle de 1855. Palais de l'Industrie, coupe transversale [Universal Exhibition 1855. Palace of Industry, cross-section]
 Black ink and watercolour
 H. 31.1; W. 67.3 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Max BerthelinUniversal Exhibition 1855. Palace of Industry, cross-section© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
From 1855 onwards, France held a series of Universal Exhibitions every 11 years (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900). This interval was essential for such large-scale events. The 1855 Universal Exhibition brought together industry and fine art for the first time.

Metal was the predominant material in the pavilions constructed for these events, as demonstrated in Max Berthelin's study for the Palace of Industry that was finally built by Viel and Barrault along the Champs-Elysées.

Making a political point

Alfred Vaudoyer1878 Universal Exhibition: facade of the Pavilion of Central and South American Countries© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The message conveyed by these exhibitions was first and foremost political. The glory of a nation was expressed by erecting a building that reflected its traditions and culture, with a display of items produced on the spot.
The entire project was usually organised and funded by the participating country, but sometimes the exhibition organisers had to represent certain geographical areas. This was the case in the 1878 Exhibition for the Street of Nations, for the pavilions of Central and South America in particular, designed by the French (Parisian) architect Léon Vaudoyer.

Commemorating an event

Gustave EiffelProject for the 1889 Exhibition© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The most frequent reason for organising a Universal Exhibition was to commemorate a special event: the 1893 exhibition in Chicago celebrated Christopher Columbus' arrival in America; the 1915 exhibition in San Francisco was for the opening of the Panama Canal. In France, the centenary of the French Revolution provided the opportunity for the 1889 Exhibition, symbolised forever with the construction of a 300 metre high tower designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Eugène Hénard and Edmond Paulin1900 World Fair, Palais de l'Electricité, water tower and Palais de la Mécanique et des Industries chimiques.© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The triumph of electricity in 1900 was the opportunity to make the exhibition pavilions even more magnificent: once night fell, they became truly magical. Designed by Edmond Paulin and Eugène Hénard to be both functional and decorative, the Palace of Electricity on its own encapsulated the symbolic dimension of these Exhibitions.

What remains of them?

Louis Pille (1868-1899)
 Exposition universelle de 1900, projet pour le Grand Palais [Universal Exhibition of 1900, Project for the Grand Palais]
 Pencil, lead pencil, watercolour
 H. 37.5; W. 105 cm
Louis Pille Universal Exhibition of 1900, Project for the Grand Palais© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Although most buildings were ephemeral, some, with an eye to ensuring the financial stability of the Exhibitions, were retained for posterity. In Paris, the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais (by Thomas Deglane and Charles Girault respectively) are now exhibition halls. There are many other examples abroad like the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London (the 1862 Exhibition).

Auguste PateyUniversal Exhibition in Lyon© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais
To reward exhibitors, medals and prizes were awarded that the winners then happily displayed in their shops or company offices.

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