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Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène

    Full Name: Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène

    Other Names:

    • Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 27 January 1814

    Date Died: 17 September 1879

    Place Born: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Place Died: Lausanne, Vaud, Switzerland

    Home Country/ies: France

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre), art theory, French (culture or style), French Gothic, Gothic (Medieval), nineteenth century (dates CE), restoration (process), and sculpture (visual works)


    Architectural historian/restorer; major theorist of the Gothic in 19th-century France; responsible for the “over-restoration” of many Gothic churches in France. Viollet-le-Duc’s father was Sous-Contrôleur des Services for the Tuileries, a civil servant position, book collector and arts enthusiast. His mother (d. 1832) conducted Friday salons from the family’s home where writers such as Stendahl and Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)–later commissioner of historic monuments, attended. His bachelor uncle, the painter/scholar E. J. Delécluze, lived upstairs and was put in charge of Viollet-le-Duc’s education. He attended Fontenay, a school known for its anti-clerical republicanism. He participated in the 1830 revolution. Intent on an architectural career and politically liberal, Viollet-le-Duc decided against study at the conservative École des Beaux-Arts in favor of direct experience in the architect’s office of Jean-Jacques-Marie Huvé (1783-1852), and Achille-François-René Leclère (1785-1853). Between 1831 and 1836 he visited the regions of Provence, Normandy, the châteaux of the Loire, as well as the Pyrenees and Languedoc. He married his wife, Elisabeth, in 1834 and secured a professorship of Composition and Ornament at a small independent school, the École de Dessin in Paris. In 1836 he traveled to Italy where he toured Rome, Sicily, Naples and Venice. He returned to Paris in 1837 and studying at the École. Viollet-le-Duc was appointed auditor to the Conseil des Bâtiments Civils in 1838, under his former teacher, Leclère. The Council controlled all buildings belonging to the State, both their construction and renovation. In 1840 Mérimée, as Inspecteur Général des Monuments Historiques, the commission responsible for assigning restoration projects, nominated Viollet-le-Duc for the restoration of the church of the Madeleine, Vézelay. Viollet-le-Duc replaced the later 13th-century pointed vaults with 12th-century semicircular groin vaults in order to give a sense of unity to the nave, but changing the character of the building. He continued to work on other restorations of churches, many of which had been damaged in the French Revolution and needed sculptural replacement to return them to their didactic ambiance. In Sainte-Chapelle and in 1844 Notre-Dame de Paris, a commission with his colleague, Jean-Baptiste Lassus, Viollet-le-Duc substituted new sculpture for the old, often moving the old to museums. Notre-Dame marked the first of Viollet-le-Duc extemist interventions in churches, altering building to fit his romantic vision the middle ages. Notre-Dame’s famous gargoyles (grotesques), for example, are wholely his inventions. Even in his careful reconstructions, such as recutting sculptural molding (Rheims), 19th-century qualities of these works are apparent. The “restoration” of these buildings solidified Viollet-le-Duc’s stature. He began to publish his theories of the Gothic in Annales archéologiques in 1845. In 1846 he worked on Saint-Denis abbey, Avignon between 1860-68, the cathedrals of Amiens (1849-1875), and Rheims (1861-1873) the churches at Poissy (1852-1865) and Sens. In 1854 he published his influential Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture. A second important work appeared four years later. His Entretiens sur l’architecture and Dictionnaire du mobilier of 1858 contained discussion on goldsmiths’ work, musical instruments, jewellery and armor in addition to furniture. His own sketches accompanied the text. Although generally hailed in his own time for these restorations, Viollet-le-Duc had his detractors, including the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Viollet-le-Duc assisted on many commissions of the July Monarchy government (1830-1848), and the 1852 imperial court of Napoleon III, introduced by Mérimée. He maintained a personal architectural practice designing houses, churches and chateaux. Student revolts to his teaching of art history and esthetics at the École des Beaux-Arts resulted in his replacement by Hippolyte Taine in 1864. After his death, his likeness was placed as one of the twelve apostles on the bronze roof sculptures at Notre-Dame. John Newenham Summerson called Viollet-le-Duc one of two “supremely eminent theorists in the history of European architecture” along with Leon Battista Alerti. Compared to his contemporaries, Viollet-le-Duc stridently opposed the eclecticism so many historians imagined as Gothic style. In practice, his efforts may appear less than his theory, however. His restoration of the cathedral at Clermont-Ferrand, for example, used the design of rose-window, south transept, of Chartres Cathedral for Clermont-Ferrand’s west window, nave aisles configuration of Amiens Cathedral, and Last Judgment tympanum from St. Urbain, Troyes. Yet he was an outspoken critic of eclecticism, particularly in later years when his interests turned to building new village churches. He devoted a great amount of time to plans for rental housing, the gardener’s house for the Maison Sabatier and his own villa La Vedette at Lausanne (destroyed). As an architectural historian, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française made a substantial contribution to contemporary knowledge of medieval buildings.

    Selected Bibliography

    Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. 10 vols. Paris: Bance, 1854-1868; Entretiens sur l’architecture . 2 vols., 2 albums. Paris: Q. Morel, 1863-72, English, Discourses on Architecture. Boston: Milford House, 1973.


    (Bercé). As a restorer and theorist, Viollet-le-Duc championed the use of new materials both for contemporary architecture and for his restorations. Frequently, he “bettered” the monuments by using stronger stone or replacing wooden roofs with metal ones. In his Entretiens he suggested iron for the framework in order to allow areas of transparency as in Gothic architecture, and designs of various hypothetical iron structures were included. Viollet-le-Duc’s Gothic restoration was a rationalist approach to architectural history. He argued that medieval architecture appeared the way it did becuase of structural issues and contemporary medieval techniques of construction. He viewed the early formulation of a common evolutionary cycle in the development of aesthetic forms (Bazin). In the twentieth century, Achille Carlier launched a particularly virulent critique of Viollet-le-Duc’s work. [writing on Viollet-le-Duc is legion, works constulted here include:] Gout, Paul. Viollet-Le-Duc, sa vie, son Åuvre, sa doctrine. Paris: E. Champion, 1914; Summerson, John. “Viollet-le-Duc and the Rational Point of View.” Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture. New York: Norton, 1963, pp. 135-158; Middleton, Robin. Viollet-le-Duc and the Rational Gothic Tradition. [unpublished dissertation,. Cambridge University, 1958]; Middleton, Robin.”‘Viollet-le-Duc’s Academic Ventures and the Entretiens sur l’architecture.” in, Börsch-Supan, Eva. ed. Gottfried Semper und die Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts. Basle: Birkhäuser, 1976; Kultermann, Udo. Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte: Der Weg einer Wissenschaft. 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1981, p. 189; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, pp. 136-137, 181-184; Bercé, Françoise. “Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel.” Dictionary of Art 32 : 594-599; Murphy, Kevin D. Memory and Modernity: Viollet-le-Duc at Vézelay. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.


    "Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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