Monday, August 31, 2015

The Theatre at Fontainebleau

The Imperial Theatre at Fontainebleau
Chateau as restored, May 2014.
Photo via Daily Mail.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that this is the fortieth anniversary of my summer spent as an architecture student at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts at Fontainebleau.  In addition to studying history and design, I had my first formal classes in historic preservation/adaptive use and garden design, two areas that would later figure prominently in my career.  With direct exposure to exemplary buildings, memorable landscape sites, and exquisite decorative arts, the whole Fontainebleau experience provided a formidable boost to my education.

The Courtyard of Honor, Fontainebleau.
Photo via Wikipedia.
Except for notable field trips, classes were held in a wing of the chateau that was historic but not part of the museum.  My class also benefited from other behind-the-scenes access, one of the best being able to see the preserved theatre, off-limits to the public at the time as it was considered a fire hazard.

A circa 1910 view of the Imperial Theatre, Fontainebleau.
Photo via Wikipedia.
The Imperial Theatre was designed by architect Hector Lefuel and built for Napoleon III from 1853 to 56.  It replaced the smaller Comédie Theatre and was built with a capacity for 400 within the existing shell of a wing.

The chateau during the era of Napoleon III, 1862.
The theatre is noted by the "T" towards the lower right.
Image from Private Collection.
The design was inspired by Marie Antoinette's theatre at Versailles which was admired by Empress Eugénie.  It was inaugurated in May 1857 and only saw fifteen performances during the reign of Napoleon III.
Exterior elevation drawings showing the courtyard and
garden sides of the wing, indicating the position of the theatre.
Image from
At the time of my visit in 1975, the theatre was a dusty jewel box, a time capsule cracked open to reveal a Louis XVI Revival interior that had been essentially untouched for 120 years.  There was not even electricity; with the windows shuttered, the only illumination that day came from a backstage skylight and a flashlight.

The lower level, or parterre prior to
Photo via

The unrestored first dress circle of the theatre.
Photo via
As the class gathered on the lower flat area in front of the stage, our eyes got accustomed to the dim light.  The furnishings were still in place, I noticed as I lifted the corner of a dust sheet covering the particularly long canapés that provided seating for the parterre.  The next level up was the first dress circle that included the imperial box with the second dress circle above that; these had individual fauteuils under the sheeting as did the boxes on the fourth level. 

A pre-restoration view of the Imperial Theatre,
Fontainebleau, showing one of the stage sets.
Photo via
But the most interesting artifacts were the painted stage flats, the scenery that could be raised and lowered by a wench in the attic.  It was all preserved as the theatre had not been used since the Nazi occupation.

The machinery in the attic to raise and lower
the scenery.
Photo via
The restoration was achieved through a campaign led by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Emir of Abu Dhabi.  The sheikh, the supporter behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi, runs the world's second-largest sovereign wealth fund (following that of the King of Thailand) with Forbes reporting assets of $773 billion. 

The patron of the theatre's restoration,
Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right.
Photo from Getty Images via Daily Mail.
The Imperial Theatre is accessible by guided tour only, available every afternoon except Tuesdays.  What a treat to know that this architectural treasure may now be visited by the public.

The Imperial Theatre, Fontainebleau.
Photo via Daily Mail.