Napoleon I’s conquest of Europe, and particularly Italy, strengthened his admiration for the Classical world, both in terms of Rome’s imperial system of government and the art and architecture of the age. Following his 1805 victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, he promised his men that they would “return home through arches of triumph” like Roman soldiers passing beneath the Arch of Titus.
Indeed, Napoleon had plans to remake all of Paris in the image of the capitals of the ancient world. On May 11, 1806, the military monument at the center of this project was entrusted to the architect Jean Chalgrin, though all the prominent names of the day like Charles Percier and Pierre-Francois-Leonard Fontaine provided input on its design.
French architects had been looking to the Greco-Roman era, as well as the Renaissance and Late Baroque periods, since the middle of the 18th century for ways in which to rebel against the naturalistic ornamentation of the Rococo style and to say something new and in line with Enlightenment principles. This was first expressed in the Louis XVI style, exemplified by Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s Petit Trianon at Versailles, and after the French Revolution in the Directoire style. Honed by Percier and Fontaine, this second phase of neoclassical architecture is typified by minimal carving, planar expanses of highly grained veneers, and applied decorative painting.
Having established his own interpretation of these ideals, Chalgrin had the first stone laid on the Place de l’Étoile on August 15, 1806, to coincide with the emperor’s 37th birthday. Four years later, on April 2, 1810, Napoleon and his second wife, Marie-Louise, entered Paris through a full-size model of his design, made of wood and covered with painted cloth, as part of their wedding procession.
After Chalgrin died in the January of the following year, his former pupil, Louis-Robert Goust, took over, but the project was called off after Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814. It wasn’t restarted for 12 years, until King Louis-Philippe I tasked Guillaume-Abel Blouet with its completion, a task he achieved at a cost of 9.3 million Francs on July 29, 1836.
During these final three years of construction, the arch’s four sculptural reliefs were added. Their relatively flat and isolated nature in relation to the rest of the structure is indicative of the Directoire style, which was keen to limit the effects of light and shade, as is the framing of the battle scenes above.
While Napoleon never got to see the finished Arc de Triomphe—he died in exile on May 5, 1821—his body did pass beneath it on December 15, 1840, en route to its final resting place at Les Invalides.