Charles Percier at the Château de Fontainebleau

Charles Percier, often known through his work as part of the duo Percier and Fontaine, is an architect of immense importance to French architectural history and to the Napoleonic period in particular. An exhibition at the Château de Fontainebleau affords a look at his work.

The exhibition presents around 150 works, drawings and furniture, in the setting of the Grands Appartements of the Château de Fontainebleau, a palace that inspired Percier and on which he worked.

Portrait of Charles Percier by Robert Lefèvre

The visit begins with a few pieces that evoke Percier’s training in a drawing school and then at the École des Beaux-Arts, in the atelier of Antoine-François Peyre. It is essential to understand the thorough grounding that Percier gained in a specific and very strong Parisian culture of drawing as a craft and how this would serve as the basis for his life’s work. The exhibition shows this very clearly.

Some of the most exciting pieces of the exhibition come from Percier’s time in Italy after winning the Grand Prix de l’Académie Royale de l’Architecture, the prize that would later be known as the Prix de Rome, in 1786.

With Pierre Fontaine, a close friend who had won the prize the previous year, Percier spent his time measuring and drawing the most exquisite villas of Latium in great detail and with loving sensitivity. The exhibition shows several plates of this work, which would be published as “Choix des plus célèbres maisons de plaisance de Rome et des environs”.

Section of Ville Sacchetti

One can see the architectural reading of the villas by the two very talented young architects by the rigorously drawn plans and elevations. But one also sees the sensitivity to siting and to landscape, the understanding of massing and on the articulation of volumes of this extraordinary appendage to Percier and Fontaine’s education in the Paris studios.

This work is only one side of Percier’s graphic production during his stay in Italy. Another of the most worthwhile pieces in the Fontainebleau exhibition is a multimedia installation showing a selection of Percier’s sketches from Italy conserved at the Institut de France.

The drawings are splendid. Rather than exposing technical mastery, as his more formal work did, these are a living record of Percier’s architectural explorations in the field. The lines are spare and effective, the compositions reflect an assured practice of architectural space. The drawings gain a deep further dimension with Percier’s ink wash technique, that gives depth and three-dimensional life to these informal compositions. One senses, above all, a love for drawing as an act of architectural observation.

The exhibition proceeds to the built work of Percier and Fontaine. The scenography of Imperial events by the pair is unfortunately hardly evoked, despite being an important part of their work. There is a bit on the Palais du Louvre and the Palais des Tuileries, including the Arc du Caroussel, but hardly enough considering their lengthy association with the two Parisian palaces, and also sparse material on their work on other Imperial residences, such as Saint-Cloud, Compiègne and Malmaison. The lack of material on the most ambitious undertaking of the era, the Palais du Roi de Rome, attests to the limited ambition of the exhibition with regard to architecture.

Percier and Fontaine’s major urban project, the rue de Rivoli is evoked through a remarkable anonymous drawing showing, in very large scale, their project in elevation and in plan superimposed on the preexisting urban fabric. This splendid representation allows the viewer to perfectly understand how the religious properties abutting the Jardin des Tuileries were restructured and how the rue de Rivoli represented an audacious real estate development with major urban impact. In elevation, we of course see the pattern of arcades, not hard to link back to the two men’s Italian cultural references.

There is significantly more material regarding decoration and furniture, including a number of drawings of detailing and many examples of furniture, some of which were restored for the exhibition. Panels throughout the palace point out Percier’s interventions in situ, adding significantly to the interest of the exhibition being located at Fontainebleau.

One major disappointment is the lack of material on Percier’s teaching after he stepped back from active design work. Percier headed of one of the most prominent ateliers at the École des Beaux Arts and trained some of the most important architects of the next generation, but little in the exhibition allows one to understand his impact in this regard.

The spottiness in terms of content is compensated by the mere fact of having an exhibition dedicated to the work of Percier, which will hopefully lead to more complete treatment, particularly on the architectural side, in the future<

More problematic is the didactic weakness of the exhibition. The audience is constituted for the most part of people who happen to be visiting the palace, as it is incorporated within the palace visit as opposed to being in a special space. It is a true pity to put such a richness of works in front of such an audience without more interpretive structure, as the bulk of the significance will  be lost on them. A much more thorough explanation and contextualization of the work would have been warranted.

Also, the trek from Paris is a true ordeal that justifiably dissuades Parisians from making a visit. The importance of Percier as a historical figure to Paris would warrante presentation of this exhibition in a less remote location.

Charles Percier: Architecture and Design in an Age of Revolutions is curated by Jean-Philippe Garric, professor of history of architecture at the University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne and organized by Bard Graduate Center Gallery, the Réunion des musées nationaux—Grand Palais, and the château de Fontainebleau. It is on view at the Château de Fontainebleau through June 19th, 2017.