Charles Garnier & the Palais Garnier

A competition to create one of Paris' most iconic opera houses with obstacles including war, a ravaging fire, and a designer's dream to fulfill the extravagant wishes of the rich while doing so in an extremely short period of time. This is Charles Garnier's life and his ultimate masterpiece — The Palais Garnier.

Paris in the 1800s was a time of grand historical figures, disputes of religion, the call of revolution, and, of course, extravagant architecture. As many Parisians believed during this time, “there is no hesitation to be had between the arts. One must be God, or else an architect.” These exact words were spoken by one of the most famous Parisian architects in the 19th century, Charles Garnier.

Garnier was born into a working-class family that lived in one of Paris’ most exciting neighborhoods, Rue Mouffetard. He was always fascinated by architecture, even as a young child, and remained a student of the works of Greek and Ancient Roman architects from his teenage years and beyond.

He won the title of multiple prestigious honors during his earlier years, including a fellowship in Rome at the Villa Medici, but it was not until the coveted Opéra competition that Garnier would come to be known as the Charles Garnier.

Garnier was a very competitive man. The first design he submitted for the Palais ranked last out of the five finalists. After receiving this news, he proposed a companionship with Léon Ginain to create a combined design but was rebuffed by Ginain. In response to this, he worked day and night to create a new outline that would immediately enamor the judges, all by himself. And just a few months after his first initial submission, he did.

Construction on the Palais began almost immediately after Garnier’s design was picked. The team of architects and draftsmen that created the Palais included only ten men, including Garnier, himself. He was always considered a kind, giving man, but was always recognized as a hard worker, as well. He suffered bouts of depression throughout his life but always managed to help his workers through their more difficult times during the construction of the Palais. Garnier was also an acclaimed playwright and songwriter who love to dabble in the world of writing (when he wasn’t busy with creating one of Paris’ most famous sites, of course).

During a time when oil paintings were the only way of capturing a portrait, Garnier had a distinct look about him that made him extremely recognizable. So famous was his look, with messy, curled hair, a distinctively large nose, and a fashionable mustache that he was often spotted by people on the streets of Paris. The fact that he was also considered the most famous architect in France at this time also helped promote his credibility as an architect to an unknown level.

Construction on the Palais faced major setbacks. Events including the Franco-Prussian war, the fall of the Second French Empire, and the Paris Commune didn't help the builders' mission to complete the Palais in a timely manner. Other disasters in other parts of Paris also created major issues for Garnier.

After Salle le Peletier, the temporary home of the Paris Opéra, was destroyed by a ravaging fire in 1873, Garnier was then commissioned to create the new home of the Opéra house, which would be located inside the Palais Garnier. Faced with many technical setbacks and a numerous amount of difficulties in creating a glamorous, yet sensibly safe Opéra house for the people of Paris, Garnier went straight to work to design such an incredible feature, focusing on one area of the Palais in particular - the ceiling of the grand staircase.

Garnier turned to Isidore Pils to create the main attraction of his Opéra house. A grand ceiling with the scenes of mythological figures such as Apollo and Orpheus painted onto it became quite the challenge for Pils, who fell ill during the creation of his masterpiece. Pils’ two younger students took over the job and worked until the day before the Palais’ grand opening.

As night fell upon the Opéra house, Garnier, Pils, and the rest of the painters and architects came together to admire their tremendous feat of work. On the evening of January 5, 1875, people from all over France crowded around the Palais Garnier to get even just a glimpse of the new Opéra House. During the intermission of the first performance officially held at the new Opéra House, Garnier stood center stage, receiving a booming sound of applause and cheers from those in attendance. Completely taken aback with emotion, Garnier had finally received the recognition he had always deserved, standing in the center of the greatest achievement in his life, as an architecture, and a proud Parisian.



8 Rue Scribe, 75009 Paris, France ~ Tickets for a tour of the interior of the Palais Garnier cost €17 for individuals, €12.50 for students under the age of 26, and €9.50 for children under the age of 10.