After his greatest victory, at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, Napoleon promised his men, “You shall go home beneath triumphal arches.” The first stone of what was to become the world’s most famous and largest triumphal arch was laid the following year. However, disruptions to architect Jean Chalgrin’s plans, and the demise of Napoleonic power, delayed the completion of this monumental building until 1836. Standing 164 ft (50 m) high, the arch is now the customary starting point for victory celebrations and parades.
The west facade of the arch is adorned with colossal reliefs. The Resistance of the French in 1814 is depicted on the right. Here, a soldier defends his family and is encouraged by the embodiment of the future. The Peace of 1815, on the left, shows a man, protected by Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, returning his sword to its scabbard. These reliefs are by the sculptor Antoine Etex. Above them are two bas-reliefs. The left frame depicts the Capture of Alexandria (1798), as General Kleber urges his troops forward. The right frame shows the Passage of the Bridge of Areola (1796), with Napoleon advancing against the Austrians. The south facade details the Battle of Jemmapes (1792).
THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ
Napoleon commissioned the arch in 1806 to honor his soldiers, who had achieved a masterful victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Heavily outnumbered, Napoleon led the Allies to believe that his army was weak and successfully lured them into a vulnerable position. Fierce battle ensued, forcing the Allies to retreat across frozen Lake Satschan in Austria. It is believed that Napoleon’s army fired on the ice in an attempt to drown the fleeing enemy. The armies of Russia and Austria, members of the Third Coalition alliance against France in the Napoleonic Wars, were destroyed.
The power, might and learning of Western Europe was represented in the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries by architecture inspired by that of ancient Greece and Rome. The traditional principles of the Classical style were extended and adapted as the culture of the ancient world was increasingly revealed, documented and disseminated. This new Classicism was seen as an ideal match for the ambitions of the powerful European states, whether autocratic or witnessing the birth pangs of democracy, and also of the young United States of America. The Neo-Classical style is defined by elaborate details and a refined sense of proportion: hallmarks of ancient Classical architecture that could be adapted for every conceivable purpose.
Departure of the Volunteers in 1792
Francois Rude’s work, shows French citizens leaving to defend the nation. This patriotic relief is commonly known as “La Marseillaise”.
General Marceau’s Funeral
Marceau defeated the Austrians in 1795, only to be killed when fighting them the following year.
Place Charles de Gaulle
Twelve avenues radiate from the triumphal arch at the center of this busy road junction. Some bear the names of important French military leaders. Baron Haussman, in charge of urban planning under Napoleon III, created the star-shaped configuration.
Running around the arch is a frieze executed by Rude, Brun, Jacquet, Laitie, Caillouette, and Seurre the Elder. The east facade shows the departure of the French armies for new campaigns. The west side shows their victorious return.
Battle of Aboukir
A bas-relief by Seurre the Elder depicts a scene of Napoleon’s victory over the Turkish army in 1799.
Triumph of Napoleon
J.P. Cortot’s high-relief celebrates the Treaty of Vienna peace agreement of 1810. Victory, History, and Fame surround Napoleon.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
A symbolic “eternal flame” burns over the grave of this French victim of World War I.
Just below the top of the arch is a row of 30 shields, each of which carries the name of a victorious Napoleonic battle.
The top of the arch, reached via an elevator or by climbing the 284 steps, affords one of the best views in Paris.
Battle of Austerlitz
Another battle victory is depicted on frieze on a frieze on the north side of the arch. Napoleon’s army is seen breaking up the ice on Lake Satschan – a tactic that led to the drowning of thousands of enemy troops.
The names of 558 French generals of the Imperial Army are engraved on the inner face of the arch
NAPOLEON’S NUPTIAL PARADE
Napoleon divorced Josephine in 1809 because she was unable to bear him children. A diplomatic marriage was arranged in 1810 with Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor. Napoleon wanted to pass through the Arc on the way to the wedding at the Louvre, but work had barely begun. So Chalgrin built a full scale model on the site for the couple to pass beneath.
THE BATTLE OF VERDUN
On the day this World War I battle started in 1916, the sword carried by the figure representing France broke off from Departure of the Volunteers in 1792. The relief was covered up so that the public would not interpret it as a sign of misfortune.
1806: Napoleon commissions Jean Chalgrin to build the triumphal arch.
1815: With Napoleon’s downfall, the construction of the arch ceases.
1836: The arch is finally completed: 15 years after Napoleon’s death.
1885: The body of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo is laid in state beneath the arch.
1920: An unknown World W&r I soldier is buried at the center of the arch.