The Classical Elegance of Beaux-Arts Architecture

Beaux-Arts architecture was a classically-inspired style associated with Second Empire France and Gilded Age America. It was based on the teachings of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Apr 8, 2022By Alexandra Kiely, BA Art History (with honors)
beaux arts architecture classical elegance


Beaux-Arts architecture was a classically-inspired style popular in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. It originated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then the premier art school in the western world. The style is most closely associated with the Second-Empire period in France and the Gilded Age in the United States. Bringing to mind the Parisian bourgeois and Manhattan “robber barons”, it can signal either luxury or decadence, elegance or pretension, depending on your point of view.


The Origins of Beaux-Arts Architecture: What Was the École des Beaux-Arts?

ecole des beaux arts architecture paris
Inside the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, via Flickr


The École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) is a major art and architecture school in Paris, France. Originally called the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), it was founded by the order of the French king in 1648. It became the École des Beaux-Arts in 1863 after merging with a separate architecture school earlier in the 19th century. For a long time, it was the most prestigious art school in the western world, and many aspiring students traveled from all over Europe and North America to study there. Its curriculum was based on the classical tradition, emphasizing principles of drawing and composition from the ancient Greek and Roman past. Although not as dominant as it once was, the École is still in existence today.


What Are the Characteristics of Beaux-Arts Architecture?

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The Opéra Garnier in Paris, exterior, by Charles Garnier, photo by couscouschocolat, via Flickr


As a product of this academic tradition, Beaux-Arts architecture made use of elements from classical architecture. These included columns and piers, the classical orders (especially Corinthian), arcades (rows of arches), sculpture-filled pediments and friezes, and domes. The most typical structures evoke classicism as filtered through the Renaissance and Baroque past, specifically that of French buildings such as Versailles and Fontainebleau. In general, the results are stately, impressive buildings with generous amounts of space and ornament.


Both inside and out, Beaux-Arts buildings tend to be decorated with architectural sculptures, such as relief-carved garlands, wreaths, cartouches, inscriptions, portrait busts of important figures, and more. Many public structures are surmounted by large-scale, classicizing figurative sculptures, often by well-known sculptors. Allegorical or mythological figures, sometimes driving horse-drawn chariots, were especially popular. Interiors may be adorned with similar motifs, as well as sculptures, gilding, and murals. Despite the profusion of decoration on the more elaborate structures, detail is not randomly placed; there is always a logical relationship between the architecture and its decoration.

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opera garnier interior
The Opéra Garnier in Paris, interior, by Charles Garnier, photo by Valerian Guillot, via Flickr


Beaux-Arts architecture may sound indistinguishable from every other classically-inspired style, such as French Neoclassicism or the American Federal style. Despite the obvious similarities, Beaux-Arts represents a more progressive take on the classical vocabulary. Rather than closely emulating known classical buildings, Beaux-Arts architects used their fluency in this architectural language to innovate as they saw fit. Many of them embraced then-modern materials like cast iron and large sheets of glass, using them alongside the traditional pale stone and marble. And although Beaux-Arts was inspired by French interpretations of classical precedents, its practitioners felt free to incorporate motifs from a range of other sources.


Beaux-Arts architecture is as noteworthy for its internal design principles as for its architectural vocabulary. That’s because the École taught its students the importance of composition, logic, and planning. Nothing appeared by accident. There was a harmony between the building and the needs of the people who would use it, as well as with the surrounding environs. This comes from the French tradition of “architecture parlante” (speaking architecture), meaning that a building and its occupants should be in dialogue with each other.


Most Beaux-Arts buildings are arranged around major and minor axes (lines of symmetry) meant to facilitate the smooth flow of people through them. This arrangement is also reflected in the buildings’ facades, which were designed after the floor plan to harmonize with it and to clearly define the layout of the space. Despite all their luxury, these are not frivolous buildings. They may be opulent and sometimes eclectic, but they were never irregular or haphazard. Instead, every aspect was carefully controlled and put in service of the function, marrying these two elements together seamlessly.


Beaux-Arts Buildings

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The New York Public Library by Carrère and Hastings, photo by Jeffrey Zeldman, via Flickr


This skill of Beaux-Arts architects in planning meant that they were often called upon to design large-scale civic buildings, such as libraries, museums, academic buildings, and train stations. In such edifices, regulating foot traffic was key. This may account for why the style was so popular for public buildings and why so many of them are still in use today.  For example, the floor plan of John Mervin Carrère and Thomas Hastings’s New York Public Library flows so perfectly that there is apparently no need for a map to find your way around.


Michael J. Lewis wrote in his book American Art and Architecture: “A Beaux-Arts architect was drilled in intelligent planning, and the best of them were able to handle complex architectural problems with sovereign clarity; they knew how to break a program into its component parts, to express these parts in a logical diagram, and to organize them along a firm axis.”


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A view from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, photo by Smithsonian Institution, via Flickr


In America, some graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts even tried their hands quite successfully at city design. Most notably, the committee in charge of designing the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, essentially a small city, was almost entirely Beaux-Arts architects. These included Richard Morris Hunt, George B. Post, Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Meade, Stanford White – all greats of American architecture in this period. Their so-called “White City” was a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts in both its architecture and its layout. It helped to inspire the City Beautiful movement, which popularized the idea that cities can and should be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. Beaux-Arts architects also worked on the National Mall in Washington D.C.


Beaux-Arts homes were mansions for American elites – houses on the grandest scale. The most famous examples are the surviving mansions, such as The Breakers and Marble House, in the summer resort town of Newport, Rhode Island. Fifth Avenue in New York City was once lined with Beaux-Arts mansions; six of them belonged to Vanderbilts alone. Henry Clay Frick’s mansion-turned-museum and J.P. Morgan’s eponymous library are both characteristic Beaux-Arts constructions as well. More modest family homes may have been classically-inspired, but they were rarely the work of Beaux-Arts practitioners.


Beaux-Arts in France

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The Bibliothèque Sainte-Genviève in Paris by Henri Labrouste, photo by The Connexion, via Flickr


For a brief period during the middle decades of the 19th century, Beaux-Arts was France’s national mode of architecture. Henri Labrouste (1801-1875) is credited with branching away from earlier, more conservative classicism and inaugurating the new style with his Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (St. Genevieve Library). The Bibliothèque has an imposing facade lined with arched windows and swag-shaped ornaments but is better known for its massive reading room with double barrel vaults supported with cast irons columns and transverse arches. Even more famous, however, is Charles Garnier’s opulent Opera House, sometimes called the Opéra Garnier. The Opéra and its iconic dome are perhaps the best-known symbols of the Second Empire, the reign of Napoleon III between 1852 and 1870.


Beaux-Arts architecture in France is often associated with this regime; it is sometimes called the Second Empire Style. Other French monuments in this style are the Musée d’Orsay, formerly a train station, an expansion of the Louvre, the École des Beaux-Arts building itself, the Petit Palais, and the Grand Palais. The latter two buildings were originally erected for the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris. Shortly after the Exposition, Beaux-Arts in France was superseded by Art Nouveau.


Beaux-Arts in the United States

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The Boston Public Library by McKim, Meade, and White, photo by Mobilus in Mobili, via Flickr


It’s easy to understand why the Beaux-Arts style of architecture caught on in France. Why it is so closely associated with the United States, by contrast, requires more explanation. A simple web search for “Beaux-Arts architecture” will turn up more American buildings than French ones. Several factors contributed to Beaux-Arts becoming so ubiquitous in America.


For one thing, the period known as the Gilded Age (roughly the end of the American Civil War through the beginning of World War One), was a time in which newly-moneyed American titans of industry looked to set themselves up as equals to the established European upper classes. They did so by purchasing then-fashionable European academic painting and sculpture and luxurious European decorative arts, as well as commissioning out-sized homes to display their collections. They also donated vast sums of money to establish cultural institutions, like libraries and  museums, that required suitably grand and dignified buildings to house them. The Beaux-Arts style, with its connotations of both Renaissance elite luxury and classical civic life, was the perfect fit for all those needs. American architects, beginning with Richard Morris Hunt in the 1840s, were increasingly studying at the École and bringing the style back with them.


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The Breakers, in Newport, Rhode Island, rear façade, by Richard Morris Hunt, photo by the author


Additionally, the United States already had a tradition of classically-inspired architecture – one that goes all the way back to the colonial past but is most potent in the government buildings of Washington D.C. The Beaux-Arts style, therefore, fit perfectly into the nation’s existing architectural landscape. Beaux-Arts architecture is primarily associated with New York City, where it exists in the highest concentration, but can be found across the country, especially in major cities. The style had less of an impact outside of the U.S. and France, but scattered examples can be found around the world.


The Legacy of Beaux-Arts Architecture

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Musée d’Orsay (a former train station) in Paris, photo by Shadowgate via Flickr


Blending into Art Deco, stripped-down aspects of Beaux-Arts architecture continued to be used in the United States until World War Two. After that, the rise of Modernism put an end to Beaux-Arts’s popularity. It’s easy to understand why the simplicity-loving Modernists disliked everything to do with the academic, decorative Beaux-Arts. The architecture of the Bauhaus, for example, seemingly represented everything Beaux-Arts was not. Modern architecture wanted to rid itself of history and forge ahead, while Beaux-Arts instead looked back to the long-revered aesthetic of the classical past.


As always happens when an architectural style falls out of favor, some Beaux-Arts buildings were torn down and replaced with Modernist ones. Most notably, McKim, Meade, and White’s original Pennsylvania Station in New York City was lost in 1963. Period photographs reveal a spacious interior based on ancient Roman bath complexes; it looks much more like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s lobby than it does the Penn Station of today. The demolition of Penn Station was controversial in its time and continues to be so now. On a more positive note, that loss sparked the beginnings of the preservation movement in New York City through organizations like the Landmarks Preservation Commission.


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Grand Central Station in New York City by McKim, Meade, and White, photo by Christopher John SSF, via Flickr


However, a surprising number of Beaux-Arts structures have survived, no doubt partially thanks to their good planning and construction. Many continued to serve their original functions today, both in the United States and in France. Examples include the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Opéra Garnier, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grand Central Station, the New York Public Library, and the Boston Public Library, to name just a few of many. Others, such as the Orsay train station that was converted into the Musée d’Orsay in the 1980s, have been adapted to new purposes.


Although many Fifth Avenue mansions were torn down because of their old-fashioned style and ruinous maintenance costs, you’ll still spot Beaux-Arts buildings on every block in certain areas of Manhattan today. These former palatial homes have survived as shops, apartment or office buildings, embassies, cultural institutions, schools, and more. And as the cycle goes, people are starting to appreciate Beaux-Arts architecture again. Fittingly, the École des Beaux-Arts, the school that started it all, restored its own Beaux-Arts building a few years ago, in part thanks to the famous fashion designer Ralph Lauren.

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By Alexandra KielyBA Art History (with honors)Alexandra is an art historian and writer from New Jersey. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Drew University, where she received the Stanley Prescott Hooper Memorial Prize in Art History. She wrote her honors thesis on the life and work of early-20th century art theorist Roger Fry. Her primary interests are American art, particularly 19th-century painting, and medieval European art and architecture. She runs her own website, A Scholarly Skater, is a regular contributor to DailyArt Magazine, and has written two online courses. Alexandra enjoys reading, ballroom dancing, and figure skating.