Napoleonic era 1806

Napoléon visiting the Louvre staircase with the architects Percier and Fontaine
© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN - Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Martine Beck-Coppola

The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, a tribute to the Grande Armée commissioned by Napoleon I, was built between 1806 and 1809 by Pierre Fontaine and his associate Charles Percier. They created a monument inspired by the arches of the emperors Septimius Severus and Constantine in Rome, but smaller in size. It stands out with its rich polychromy, due to the variety of materials that were employed.


The two architects, who left their mark on the architectural history of the Louvre and the Tuileries, were forced to work with their rival, Dominique-Vivant Denon, the director of the Louvre, then “Musée Napoléon”. The first disagreement was over the very location of the arch: should it be aligned to the Louvre or to the main entrance to the Tuileries Palace? It was the latter, Fontaine's plan, that won out in the end.

A review day during the Empire
© RMN - Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux

Denon, who exerted his influence on all things artistic, was in charge of the sculpted decoration: he wrote the program and distributed the work between the sculptors. Among other things, this included a series of bas-reliefs depicting the German campaign of 1805 as well as statues of soldiers from the main corps of Napoleon's army. The arch was surmounted by a bronze quadriga from Saint Mark's Basilica, taken from Venice during the revolutionary wars. It was originally supposed to feature a lead statue of Napoleon I; however, it was removed just after having been installed as the Emperor was not satisfied with it.

Dominique Vivant-Denon working in the Salle de Diane of the Louvre
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / T. Le Mage

With the fall of the Empire in 1815, the arch was gradually stripped of its decoration. The Horses of Saint Mark were returned, and the reliefs were taken down. The destruction of the entire arch was also considered. However, Louis XVIII wished to convert the great Parisian imperial monuments to instead serve the glory of the Bourbon dynasty; in 1823 he commissioned new bas-reliefs on the arch depicting the Spanish countryside. The Comte de Forbin, director of the royal museums, oversaw the construction and entrusted the sculptor Bosio with the creation of a new quadriga. A copy of the old one, and accompanied by the original 1808 Victories by François-Frédéric Lemot, it also features the “allegory of Restoration”, holding a scepter decorated with the image of Louis XVIII.

The July Revolution of 1830 brutally interrupted work on the arch and led to another revision of the decoration: the original bas-reliefs which had been kept in the Louvre were put back on the arch. With the fall of the Second Empire and the burning of the Tuileries palace on the night of the May 23, 1871, the arch definitively lost its original role as triumphal gate.


From the Bourbon Restoration
to the Paris Commune

The Arc du Carrousel stripped of its decoration during the Bourbon Restoration
© Bibliothèque nationale de France
Panorama of Paris. Tuileries Palace fire, 24 May 1871
© Musée Carnavalet/Roger-Viollet

Fall of the empire 1815

About a dozen years after the fire of 1871, the ruins of the Tuileries palace were destroyed. The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel became a common subject for painters and photographers of the Belle Époque. However, its deteriorating condition became increasingly worrying, despite repairs by the architect Edmond Guillaume, who also converted the site into a garden in 1889, on the occasion of the centenary of the Revolution and the Exposition Universelle. It was not until August 1930 that new conservation work was carried out by the architect Albert Ferran, with minimal financial resources at the dawn of the Second World War. As such, it was not possible to complete the conservation project; the sculptures in particular, which were in very poor condition, were not replaced with copies as had been envisaged.

Tuileries Palace after the fire of May 1871
© BHVP/Roger-Viollet

A new page in the history of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel opened with the “Grand Louvre” project. The arch, which seemed a little lost in front of the Louvre without the Tuileries palace, found a new home with the recreation of the Carrousel garden on the occasion of the underground work for the Grand Louvre.

Following the competition won by Jacques and Peter Wirtz in 1990, it became part of a new landscape project of which it was the focal point. Trimmed hedges sprawl out from it in the form of rays from a setting sun. Thus the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel became part of a new equilibrium, linking the palace and its gardens, while remaining the first milestone in the historical axis of Paris from the Louvre to the Grande Arche de la Défense.

It faced destruction when the Empire collapsed, survived the Tuileries fire, and endured two world wars.

That the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel has survived so long is a miracle: in two hundred years of history, it faced destruction when the Empire collapsed, survived the Tuileries fire, and endured two world wars. This turbulent history has made it difficult to carry out the conservation work which is now so urgently needed to protect its precious materials and exquisite sculptures.

Tuileries Palace ruins
© RMN - Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle
“Grand Louvre” project works (1984-1985)