The Expositions Universelles in Nineteenth Century Paris
by Pauline de Tholozany
Ph.D., Brown University 2011
There were five World Fairs in Paris during the nineteenth century: in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900. Below is a summary of the events’ achievements and architectural features.
The library has numerous primary sources on the Paris World Fairs, many of which are available online. To access the online prints and photographs, go to the search menu and type “exposition universelle.” If you are looking for a specific monument/topic, you can go to the advanced search window.
The annotated bibliography on this website has a section on “Expositions Universelles” which lists most of the books about the Paris World Fairs in the Brown collections.
The first international World Fair was organized in London in 1851. The fair displayed both artworks and industry-related items in the Crystal Palace, a temporary building especially designed for the event and built in Hyde Park, in the heart of the British capital. When the French decided to emulate the British and to organize a World Fair in Paris, it was decided that unlike what had been done in London, the Fine Arts and Industry products would be exhibited in two different buildings.
Many exhibitions of industry had previously taken place in Paris, but the events were strictly national and had never been open to other countries. As for Arts exhibits, they were for the most part organized by the state. The annual and state-controlled Salon was the main institution showcasing contemporary works; but its importance as an institution started to be challenged around the middle of the century, as many painters started to exhibit their works in private galleries and selling them through private dealers. The diffusion of Art began to be ruled more by market laws and private sellers than by the state and the Salon.
Exposition Universelle de 1855 [Top]
Political regime: Second Empire
Location: Champs Élysées
Buildings: Palais de l’Industrie, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Galerie des Machines.
Napoleon III decided to have a World Fair in Paris soon after the British international exhibition. The emperor hoped to consolidate his recent political position, and to assert France’s role in the world. The 1855 Exposition Universelle was a landmark in the history of entertainment in France. Previously, the Salons or the national exhibitions of industry had always been free and open to the public. The 1855 Exposition Universelle, on the contrary, had an entrance fee that visitors needed to pay in order to enter. This created many controversies and complaints; a journalist from L’Illustration wrote for instance that “Ces allures fiscales, en pareil lieu, sont en contradiction avec la noble hospitalité que la France avait coutume d’exercer” (L’Illustration, Paris, 1855-05-19).
The main building of the Fair was the Palais de l’Industrie, on the Champs Elysées (it was destroyed at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Grand Palais was built for the 1900 World Fair). The construction of the Palais de l’Industrie had been planned a few years before the Fair. Napoleon III commissioned it in 1852, arguing that the building would serve as an exhibit hall for future national industry exhibits. Its size was massive: it was 850 feet long and 350 feet wide. Built in stone, its structure was supported by iron beams. The size and the bulkiness of the building were often criticized at the time. The Palais housed most of the 1855 World Fair’s industry exhibit, but proved too small for the entirety of the industrial products, so it was decided that two other temporary structures would be built for the occasion: the Galerie des Machines and the Palais des Beaux-Arts.
Initially, the Galerie des Machines had been an annex to the Palais de l’Industrie, and was to house the Fine-Arts exhibits. But the organizers soon realized that the Palais de l’Industrie would not be able to house the entire industrial exhibit, and so it was decided that the annex would be renamed Galerie des Machines, and would contain the rest of the exhibition.
The Fine-Arts exhibit was originally to take place in the Louvre, but the idea had to be abandoned for practical reasons. It was then decided that a temporary structure would be built next to the Galerie, and the architect LeFuel was put in charge of the project.
Exposition universelle de 1867 [Top]
Political regime: Second Empire
Buildings : Palais du Champ-de-Mars, pavilions.
Vue générale de l’exposition universelle (Palais du Champ-de-Mars), in Trichon, Almanach illustré des merveilles de l’exposition universelle pour l’année 1868. Paris : Bureau 2, Place Saint Michel, 1868.
The second World Fair in Paris was also organized under the auspices of the emperor. This time, Napoleon III exploited the fair more efficiently as a means of communication to the public, and as an event susceptible to bring a political gain. An Imperial Pavilion was built specifically for the fair; Napoleon III himself designed a worker’s house, which he commissioned to be built for the fair. The Emperor thus hoped to show his attention and his consideration for the lower classes.
The 1867 exhibit was the first of many to take place in the Champ-de-Mars. Instead of having several buildings housing the exhibits – as had been the case in 1855 – it was decided that the main site for the event would be the Palais du Champ-de-Mars. Built by engineer Frederic LePlay with the help of the young Gustave Eiffel as a chief designer, the Palais had an oval structure, and housed both the national sections and the thematic exhibitions. Most of the exhibit (in the outer concentric circles) was dedicated to industry, while the inner circles were reserved for Art. The building at the center of the structure housed an exhibit about currency and coins.
The 1867 Exposition Universelle focused a lot more on industry than the one in 1855. It was also the first World Fair to have pavilions, restaurants, and amusement parks around the main building. The oval structure of the Palais allowed having thematically organized sections in the concentric circles and national exhibits in the galleries radiating from the centre. The last concentric circle (the nearest to the centre) was dedicated to the first thematic cultural exhibit to take place in a World Fair: it was entitled “Histoire du travail” (History of Work) and was a highly successful exhibit. Many illustrations of the time represent a few of its sections.
As far as Fine Arts were concerned, the World Fair was less successful. A committee appointed for the event was in charge of selecting works of Art. But many of the now most famous French painters of the time were rejected (among them Pissaro, Cézanne, Manet, Monet and Courbet). Both Manet and Courbet opened their own private galleries next to the fair, in order to take advantage of the event and show their work to the public.
The 1855 Paris World Fair had cost a lot of money to the state and had ended with a deficit of 8 140 000 francs. The 1867 Fair was more successful in that regard since the total gain was around 3 000 000 francs (even though its costs were doubled compared to those of 1855). The number of visitors had also grown tremendously: in 1855, there had been a little more than 5 000 000 people visiting the Fair, while they were between 11 000 000 and 15 000 000 in 1867. The total surface of the World Fair site had also grown from 38 acres in 1855 to 172 acres in 1867. This is probably due to the fact that the 1867 Fair included for the first time amusement parks, pavilions, and attractions outside of the main Palais du Champ-de-Mars.
Exposition universelle de 1878 [Top]
Political regime: Third Republic
Location: Champ-de-Mars, Trocadéro.
Buildings: Palais du Champ-de-Mars, Palais du Trocadéro, pavilions.
The 1878 World Fair took place under a very different political and financial climate than its predecessors. The Franco Prussian war, the Paris commune, and the downfall of the Empire left France politically and financially vulnerable. The Third Republic seemed very unstable at the time (even though it was to last until the Second World War), and the country was going through an economic and political crisis.
The officials of the Third Republic decided to organize a third World Fair in Paris in order to assert France’s position as a cultural capital, despite the country’s recent misfortunes. Even though France could not really afford its cost, the World Fair was indeed organized, and two large scale buildings were erected for its purpose: the temporary Palais du Champ-de-Mars and the Palais du Trocadéro, which was to serve as a permanent concert and conference hall once the fair was over.
Vue générale des constructions du Champ de Mars et du Trocadéro. MM. Davioud et Bourdais, architectes du Palais du Trocadéro. M. Hardy, architecte du Palais du Champ-de-Mars. In de Vandière, Simon. L' Exposition universelle de 1878 illustrée. Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1879.
Instead of having pavilions around the main building, the organizers came back to a centralized vision of the World Fair, and had the foreign pavilions built inside the big structure of the Palais du Champ-de-Mars: the pavilions formed a “rue des nations” (as it was then called), which was a street composed of a patchwork of buildings of different national traditions. Yet there were a few scattered small buildings in the Trocadéro Park, such as the Moorish village, or the Swedish tower.
The Palais du Champ-de-Mars (designed by architect Hardy) was different from the one that had been built for the 1867 Fair: its shape was rectangular, and it was much bigger than the 1867 construction. As he had done in 1867, Gustave Eiffel participated in the design of the Palais of 1878, designing the roofs of the main gate and of the side entrances. Technologically speaking, the building was very innovative: its basement allowed for a system of ventilation and air conditioning, and the Palais also had a hidden railway system which was covered during the fair, but which made the erection and subsequent dismantlement of the building much easier and faster. Architecturally, the 1878 Palais was more original and daring than the 1867 one, since iron was used extensively and was largely apparent in the façade and galleries of the building. This was balanced by the fact that the Trocadéro palace, which was the other main construction of the Fair, was built in stone, and in a combination of styles that were viewed as more classic.
The second building erected for the 1878 fair was the Trocadéro palace. Unlike the Palais du Champ-de-Mars, the Trocadéro was not conceived to be a temporal building: the state commissioned it as a permanent concert and conference hall. The building combined several architectural styles: the circular structure of its base was inspired by that of the coliseum in Rome, the two minaret towers were built in a Moorish style, and the two galleries stemming from the center of the building were shaped after the Piazza of St Peter in Rome, in a neo-baroque style. The site was embellished by the grandiose waterfalls and sculptures that were installed in front of the building (some of these sculptures, which for the most part represented wild animals, are today standing outside of the Orsay Museum in Paris). During the Fair, the Trocadéro was used as a conference hall. It was to be used extensively again for the next Universal exhibits. Unfortunately, the Trocadéro burned down and was demolished in 1937, when the Palais de Chaillot was built on the site.
The 1878 Paris World Fair differed from the previous ones in so far as most of the exhibitors in the industry section were now big firms and companies, instead of smaller family businesses and sellers. It was also the first time in a French World Fair that congresses and conferences were held at the same time as the fair (most of them took place in the Trocadéro). The 1878 Fair made as much money as the 1867 one, but the cost of organization and construction represented the double of those of 1867. Even though the Fair attracted more visitors in 1878 than in 1867, the 1878 World Fair closed with a big deficit, which was mainly due to the costs of building the Trocadéro and the Palais du Champ-de-Mars.
Exposition universelle de 1889 [Top]
Political regime: Third Republic
Location: Champ-de-Mars, Trocadéro, Esplanade des Invalides
Buildings : Eiffel Tower, Palais du Champ-de-Mars, Palais du Trocadéro, site of the Esplanade des invalides (colonial exhibition), pavilions.
The 1889 World Fair was the second one to take place under a republican regime in France. It was symbolically important, since the year 1889 marked the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, and the Fair was announced as a celebration of the event. This frightened several European countries from participating openly in the fair: many of them were still under monarchical regimes and therefore feared upheavals and social unrest. The event did not attract as many foreign countries as the organizers hoped, yet it was in the end highly successful. The scale of the 1889 World Fair was to be much bigger than the previous ones. And it remained particularly famous in the history of the capital for its main architectural realization: the Eiffel Tower.
The Fair had this time two sites: on the one hand, the Trocadéro and the Champ-de-Mars were housing the Fine Arts and industrial exhibits, as in 1878. On the other hand, east of the main site, the Esplanade des Invalides was housing a colonial exhibit, as well as several state-sponsored pavilions. There was, for instance, a hygiene “palace”, a public welfare pavilion, as well as a building dedicated to social economy. The state was therefore much more visible than in the previous fair. The Invalides site also had a very successful panorama called “Le panorama de tout-Paris”, which represented the capital’s social life.
Many buildings sprang up on the Champ de Mars, starting with the Eiffel Tower. A competition for the tower was launched by the state in 1884, which Gustave Eiffel won in 1886 over more than a hundred other candidates. Yet, the Tower was far from being unanimously praised. It was even very harshly criticized: the artists and writers of Paris protested against its erection in an official letter sent to the director of the Fair, calling it “unnecessary and monstrous.”
On the shores of the Seine River, at the feet of the tower, an exhibit on the history of human dwelling was held in which the architect Charles Garnier (famous for the Opéra Garnier, commissioned by Napoleon III) participated extensively. The main halls of the fair were next to the Eiffel Tower on the Champ-de-Mars. The Palais des Beaux-arts and Palais des Arts Libéraux were both designed by the architect Joseph Bouvard. They stood right next to the Eiffel Tower. The two other main buildings were the Palais des expositions diverses (designed by Formigé) and the biggest building of all of them, the Galerie des machines (designed by Dutert).
The Palais des arts libéraux contained exhibits on medicine, geography, teaching and pedagogy, music instruments, and photography, among many other things. The Palais des Beaux-arts housed many Naturalist paintings, but the impressionists remained largely ignored by the organization committee. Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Burne-Jones and Millais were also exhibited there. Behind these two buildings stood the Palais des expositions diverses, which housed exhibits of furniture, bronze casts, crystals, mosaics, clothes and jewelry.
The Palais des Machines was the last building on the Champ-de-Mars (it faced the École militaire, which still stands today). The building was technologically innovative: its size was very impressive, all the more since it had been built with as few roof supports as possible. This was made possible thanks to new progress in structural engineering. The Palais was made of steel and glass panels, and was about 375 feet long. One could visit the industry exhibit on the ground floor, but one could also see it from above by taking the moving platforms that were going back and forth from one end of the hall to another. These platforms (“ponts roulants”) also helped to build and dismantle the structure of the building before and after the Fair.
The 1889 Paris World Fair was financially profitable to the state. Its scale was also much bigger than the preceding Fair: the surface occupied by the event was much larger than the previous fairs, and the number of exhibitors had also risen substantially. The number of visitors doubled compared to 1878, and the costs of 1889 were about the same as in 1878. The state made a profit of 8 000 000 francs, and acquired substantial real-estate in the process: the Eiffel Tower and the Palais des Machines both effectively belonged to the state, and the latter was to be used again for the 1900 World Fair.
Exposition universelle de 1900 [Top]
Political regime: Third Republic
Location: Champ-de-Mars, Trocadéro, Esplanade des Invalides,
Buildings: Eiffel Tower, Palais du Champ-de-Mars, Palais du Trocadéro, Grand Palais, Petit Palais, pavilions.
The 1900 Exposition Universelle was the fifth one to take place in Paris. The organization process started as early as 1892, and the fair ended up being on a much bigger scale than any of the previous ones. Concomitantly to the fair, the city also hosted the second Olympic games of the modern era, which were the first to take place outside of Greece. Although the scale of the competition was much smaller than it would be today, the Olympic Games gave the Fair an even larger dimension. New buildings were erected (the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais in particular), previous sites were expanded (the Esplanade des Invalides site was prolonged up to the Grand and Petit Palais, on the other side of the Seine River), and the Eiffel Tower was painted in yellow for the occasion. There were many new attractions: from the “trottoirs roulants” (which were moving walkways taking visitors from one point to another) to the Grande Roue, the monumental entrance door, and the electricity palace, visitors could not only visit the numerous art and industry exhibits, but also experience a variety of attractions which involved modern techniques and technologies. Despite this array of events, exhibits, and entertainment facilities, the 1900 Exposition Universelle was not a financial success. Fewer people attended it than the organizers had planned, all the more since the price of the entrance ticket was quite high, and one had to pay again to enter many of the fair’s attractions.
The “porte monumentale” (monumental gate) was located on the Place de la Concorde, at the Eastern entrance of the Fair. At the top of the gate stood a statue called “la Parisienne” (designed by the sculptor Moreau-Vauthier) that raised quite a bit of criticism at the time, some protesting against what they saw as her vulgarity. Conceived by the architect and designer René Binet, the gate was nicknamed “la Salamandre” because of its resemblance to the stoves from the brand of the same name – the design of the stoves in question had similar curves and twists.
The Grand and the Petit Palais were built according to a more traditional and classic design, especially the latter, which presented a more classic stone façade with ionic columns and a large porch. Although the two buildings were designed by different architects, their styles and facades were similar. Built on both sides of the Alexandre III Bridge, the two buildings were conceived for the 1900 World Fair but unlike most pavilions, they were not temporary structures. Charles Giraut designed the Petit Palais entirely, and supervised several other architects with the conception of the Grand Palais. The Grand Palais was more innovative and stylistically original than the Petit Palais, since it combines a classical stone facade with art nouveau iron structures and glass panels. Many technical difficulties arose with this building, since its foundations had to be reinforced and the dome turned out to be difficult to preserve. During the 1900 World Fair, both buildings hosted Art Exhibits.
One of the other main attractions of the Fair was the Palais de l’électricité, which was a building entirely lit and decorated with electrical bulbs. The inside of the Palais had a mirror system that made the visit truly impressive, multiplying the sources of light in a dazzling manner. Visitors could also attend water and light shows at night.
Even though the 1900 Exposition Universelle was the biggest and most grandiose Paris World Fair organized so far, the event did not bring any financial benefits. Paris was not to host any other World Fair until 1937, and by then much of the optimism and enthusiasm about technological progress and the ideal of a universal community had faded away.
L’Exposition de Paris, publiée avec la collaboration d’écrivains spéciaux, Vol. 1. Paris : Librairie illustrée, 1889.
L’Illustration, Paris, 1854-11-11.
L’Illustration, Paris, 1855-05-19.
Huard, Charles-Lucien. Livre d'or de l'Exposition, Vol. 1. Paris: L. Boulanger, 1889.
Trichon, Almanach illustré des merveilles de l’exposition universelle pour l’année 1868. Paris : Bureau 2, Place Saint Michel, 1868.
de Vandière, Simon. L' Exposition universelle de 1878 illustrée. Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1879.
A longer and more complete bibliography can be found in the Resources section of this website, under Bibliography > History > Expositions Universelles.
Alwood, John. The Great Exhibitions. London: Alta Vista, 1977.
Brigitte Schroeder-Gudehus and Anne Rasmussen. Les fastes du progrès, le guide des Expositions universelles 1851-1992. Paris : Flammarion, 1992.
Ory, Pascal. Les expositions universelles de Paris : panorama raisonné, avec des aperçus nouveaux et des illustrations par les meilleurs auteurs. Paris : Editions Ramsay, 1982.