Boullée’s Cenotaphs

Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton

In my post on the enigmatic French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu I mentioned two other Utopian revolutionary Neoclassical architects whose visions remained largely on paper, Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux. As both architects produced interesting work in their own right and help situate Lequeu in the correct historical, intellectual and aesthetic context I felt follow up posts were necessary, starting with the originator of visionary architecture, Étienne-Louis Boullée.

Born in 1728, Boullée reacted against the frivolous decadence of the Rococo by returning to Classical forms (hence Neoclassicism), removing all unnecessary ornamentation and developing an abstract geometric style. Boullée stated that regularity, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture. Another defining feature of Boullée’s projected work was it monumentalism, designed to invoke the sublime.

Boullée’s most famous work is the Cenotaph for Newton, a gargantuan monument consisting of a sphere taller than the Great Pyramid, to the idol of the Enlightenment. He also planned other Cenotaphs and tombs.

Boullée ink and wash drawings make great use of shadow, this combined with his potentially endless interior spaces reminds me of Piranesi’s influential imaginary prisons.

Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect centers on an American architect staging an exhibition in Rome on Boullée. At one point a character remarks that Boullée’s work seems like a vision of Hell and I have to agree, though Boullée remains something of a hero of the Age of Reason.

Below are images of planned projects, including the Cenotaph for Newton, and two pieces of music from The Belly of an Architect.

Étienne-Louis Boullée-Interior of a Library
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Interior of a Library
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Temple
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Temple
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Split plan showing interior and from above
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton Split plan showing interior and from above
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton-Night Effect
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph


Dreams of Desire 65 (Ingres)

The Turkish Bath-Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres 1862-1863
The French Revolution had swept away the frivolous excesses of Rococo (see Dreams of Desire 64 (Boucher’s Odalisques) and two competing tendencies dominated French during the first half of the Nineteenth Century: the wild grandiose Romanticism of Delacroix and the somber, stately Neo-Classicism best personified by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

Ingres painted a number of important erotic paintings including the Valpinçon Bather of 1808, La Grande Odalisque of 1814 and L’Odalisque à l’esclave from 1839, however his most famous painting is The Turkish Bath from 1862-1863, completed when Ingres was 83 years old.

Portraying a group of nude women in a bath at a harem, The Turkish Bath is suffused with a lush hothouse atmosphere that heightens the erotic charge of the painting. Ingres erotic works would have a major impact upon the Modernists including Picasso and Matisse while the Post Modernist German artist Gerhard Richter would base his painting Bathers upon Ingres’s masterpiece.

The Valpincon Bather-Ingres 1808
La Grand Odalisque-Ingres 1814

Odalisque with Slave-Ingres 1839

(Just a reminder to inform you that my book Motion No. 69 is available from November 30th 2017 from Amazon).



Dreams of Desire 64 (Boucher’s Odalisques)

Portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy-Francois Boucher 1752
Portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy (Blonde Odalisque)-Francois Boucher 1752

During the period when Baroque reigned supreme, overt eroticism all but disappeared from Western Art. It would take the emergence of Rococo, the florid, playful and frankly somewhat sluttish younger French sister of Baroque, to take art back into the boudoir.

Francois Boucher was one of the leading lights of Rococo and enjoyed the patronage of the prime mover of the style, Madame de Pompadour, the Official Chief Mistress of King Louis XV. As well as mythological genres scenes featuring Venus he painted two odalisques stripped of all allegorical trappings, the L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 and the L’Odalisque Blonde from 1752.

France was ongoing a vogue for the mysterious, exotic East during the Ancien Regime. Several libertine novels including Denis Diderot Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon Fils La Sopha (The Sofa) are set in fantasy Oriental lands, partly to give full reign to the imagination but also to disguise the political satire on the luxuriant and decadent Court of Louis XV. Part of the attraction, for men anyway, were the stories of odalisques; mistresses or concubines in a harem.

Boucher’s L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 was reportedly a portrait of Madame Boucher , which led Diderot, Encyclopedist and somewhat risque writer of the above-mentioned  Les bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse (The Nun) to state that Boucher was prostituting his wife.  L’Odalisque Blonde is a portrait of the courtesan Marie-Louise O’Murphy. King Louis XV was so taken with this painting that he arranged for Marie-Louise to become a petite maitresse (lesser mistress). At least one of her children was the King’s.

L’Odalisque Brune-Francois Boucher 1745