Biography of Charles Garnier

Designer of the Paris Opera House (1825-1898)

Black and white photo of Jean Louis Charles Garnier, designer of the Paris Opera
Jean Louis Charles Garnier, Designer of the Paris Opera, Palais Garnier. Photo by Bettmann / Bettmann / Getty Images (cropped)

Inspired by Roman pageantry, architect Charles Garnier (born November 6, 1825 in Paris, France) wanted his buildings to have drama and spectacle. His design for the magnificent Paris Opéra on the Place de l'Opéra in Paris combined the classicism of Renaissance architecture with ornate Beaux Arts ideas.

Jean Louis Charles Garnier was born into a working class family. He was expected to become a wheelwright like his father. However Garnier wasn't healthy and his mother didn't want him to work in a forge. So, the boy took mathematics courses at the École Gratuite de Dessin. His mother hoped he would get good, steady work as a surveyor, but Charles Garnier achieved much greater success.

In 1842 Garnier began studies with Louis-Hippolyte Lebas at the École Royale des Beaux-Arts de Paris. In 1848 he won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome and was off to Italy to study at the Academy in Rome. Garnier spent five years in Rome, traveling throughout Greece and Turkey, and being inspired by Roman pageantry.  Still in his 20s, Garnier aspired to design buildings that had the drama of a pageant.

The highlight Charles Garnier's career was his commission to design the Opéra in Paris. Built between 1857 and 1874,  the Paris Opera quickly became Garnier's masterpiece. With its magnificent hall and grand staircase, the design combines opulence for its patrons with remarkable acoustics for the performers. The palatial Opera House has become known as Palais Garnier.  Garnier's opulent style reflected the fashion that became popular during Napoleon III's Second Empire.

Garnier's other architecture includes the Casino at Monte Carlo in Monaco, another opulent complex for the wealthy elite, and the Italian villas Bischoffsheim and Garnier in Bordighera. Several other buildings in Paris, including the Panorama Marigny theatre and Hotel du Cercle de la Librairie, cannot compare with his grand masterpieces. The architect died in Paris on August 3, 1898.

Why is Garnier Important?

Many people might say that Garnier's importance is his creation of a house for The Phantom of the Opera. Professor Talbot Hamlin suggests otherwise, pointing out that "despite the oversumptuous detail" of the Opéra in Paris, the architectural style was imitated for decades because "there is a magnificent clarity in the general appearance, both outside and in."

Hamlin notes that Garnier conceived the Opéra in Paris in three parts—the stage, the auditorium, and the vestibules. "Each of these three units was then developed with the greatest richness possible, but always in such a way as to accent its relationship to the other two."

It is this "logic as the supreme quality" that was being taught at École des Beaux-Arts and perfectly executed by Garnier. A building's "logic," the "basic relationships in buildings," was "founded on common sense, directness, emphasis of the most important elements, and expression of purpose."

"This insistence on open and logical planning and on the clarity of basic expression was vitally necessary to the solution of new architectural problems," writes Professor Hamlin. "Architecture became a matter of disciplined study of plan relationships."

Learn More:

  • Charles Garnier's Paris Opera: Architectural Empathy and the Renaissance of French Classicism by Christopher Mead, MIT Press, 1991
  • Charles Garnier's Opéra: Architecture and Exterior Decor by Gérard Fontaine, 2000
  • Charles Garnier's Opera: Architecture and Interior Decor by Gérard Fontaine, 2004
  • Paris Opera House: Scale Architectural Paper Model by Jean-William Hanoteau, 1987

Source: Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 599-600

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Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Charles Garnier." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 27). Biography of Charles Garnier. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Charles Garnier." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2021).