1900 Exposition Universelle

The Exposition of 1900 showcased the culmination of a century of global innovation and publicly displayed a unified Paris despite the turmoil of its recent past.

The Universelle Exposition of 1900 was the largest and the last of five Expositions held in Paris in the 19th century. This exhibition significantly marked the turn of the century, showcasing the world’s, and especially France’s, greatest achievements from the century before and foreshadowing the innovation to come. Although Germany originally desired to host this exposition, its government was unable to plan far enough in advance, so Paris seized the opportunity to host the largest Exposition in European history to date. (Mattie 102) Paris was weary from the political and social turmoil of the 19th century and leading up to the event planners feared ever-changing circumstances would affect the event. (Brown 150) But the Exposition successfully took place, despite uncertainties, along with events in 1900 exemplary of Parisian unity. Paris held the Olympics in 1900, which visitors to the Exposition could be easily transported to by metro. Additionally, the Banquet des Maries, took place in 1900 which was a banquet dinner to which the President invited over 20,000 mayors, further displaying France’s unity despite its past. (Allwood 106)

Planning for the exhibition began in Paris in 1892, and in 1893 an engineer named Alfred Picard was named the head of the Governing Commission, which gave him authority over the majority of the planning. Forty-four of the fifty-three countries invited to the exhibition accepted their invitation, including the German Empire. Picard attempted to organized over 80,000 French and foreign exhibits by placing them into 18 groups by their subject matter. Outside of the classified groups were historical exhibits showcasing the best works from previous expositions and the official foreign pavilions from nations, which were lined along the Seine. (Brown 150) The sheer number of exhibits in the Exposition ensured that in order to fit all of them into the city its physical organization would be extremely complex and would require the construction of new buildings to house them. Temporary and permanent structures were built, some of which still stand in Paris today commemorating the Exposition and acting as evidence of their impact on the city. French organizers of the exhibitions allotted each country space to build a pavilion without instructing them of the style of their structure should actually be producing “a splendid fantasia of national architectural styles, finishes, and effects along the right bank of the Seine.” (Allwood 101)

The Palais de l’Industrie from the 1855 fair was torn down and replaced with construction of the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. (Mattie 102) Existing structures from previous expositions were decorated with coats of plaster to create ornate designs, including the addition of new paint and lights on the Eiffel tower. (Mattie 103) While there was not an established style for all architecture in the Exposition of 1900, most of the architectural designs were by those trained in the Beaux-Arts. (Mattie 103) Also, a lot of the architecture designs for the Exposition was in the Art Nouveau style, some event claiming the Exposition to be the ultimate triumph of the Art Nouveau. The Art Nouveau was not a typical in nature as an artistic movement. It originated from the “applied arts,” such as architecture and interior design, rather than from the traditional fine arts. It is believed to have been a reaction to naturalism, a movement promoting the utility of artwork and its connectedness to its environment. This style was utilized to design the interiors of the Grand and Petite Palais. (Allwood 99) Another structure built in order to accommodate the Exposition was the triple-arch structure which acted as an entrance gate to the exhibitions. Designed by Rene Binet, it got mixed reviews, just as the Eiffel Tower first was not at first received well by all people. Some thought it was ugly and others thought it was a symbol of prostitution. It appears on many representations of the Exposition. (Wilson 50)

Other structures built to accommodate the Exposition were for the purpose of transportation. The first lines of the Paris metro were laid to provide transportations for those visiting the Expositions. (Mattise 103) In addition to the actual Metro construction, the Metro signs, still standing in Paris today were designed by Hector Guimard in the style of the Art Nouveau. (Allwood 98) Additional transportation and for visitors was provided by a moving sidewalk, or the “Trottior Roulant” which ran at three different speeds encompassing the Exposition. (Allwood 104)

Some of the greatest works in the Exposition were awarded with medals. A German art dealer, Siegfried Bing received a gold medal for his pavilion that “outshone all others” showcasing Georges de Feure fabrics and Émile Gallé glasswork. (Wilson 51) Another one of the most popular attractions at the Expositions was the palace of lights. The Palais de l’Electricité “was perhaps the most ornate building in the world’s fair history” (Brown 154) It housed steam-driven dynamos which provided power to light the exhibition: “At night the whole facade is illuminated with the changing lights of its 5,000 multicolored incandescent lamps, its eight monumental lamps of coloured glass, the lanterns of its sparkling pinnacles and its phosphorescent ramps.” (Allwood 101) Another one of the most popular technological advancements showcased in this exhibition were the “audio-visual extravaganzas.” Many foreign exhibits showcased motion pictutes and the Exposition itself was actually documented using this technology. (Allwood 103) This technology provided an immersive and experiential quality to the exhibits. For example, one form of visual extravaganza was the Maréorama, built so that viewers felt like they were experiencing a steamship voyage by winding a painted background on a roller past the audience “giving the impression of a voyage across the Mediterranean from Marseilles to Algiers in a storm.” (Allwood 104)

Reactions to the Exposition and perceptions of its success vary greatly. While some praise its grandeur, other criticized the confusion of its layout and organization (Brown 155). Expectations for this Exposition were high, and the number of visitors to the exhibits fell short of what the organizers expected, 60 million visitors were expected to come but 50 million came. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including the high price of viewing all the attractions in addition to travel cost to Paris and political tension with Great Britain. (Brown 150) Some Parisians were discouraged by the amount of money lost in the Exposition and many were convinced it would be the city’s last. (Allwood 97) But regardless of the monetary success of the Exposition, and the architectural and technological attempts to accommodate the exhibitions changed the landscape and the transportation in Paris forever. The structures built in the 1900 Exposition stand as eternal expositions in Paris, housing even today exhibits that showcase most innovative art and technology in the world.

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