French Language Blog

Lyon’s Most Famous Fountain by the Statue of Liberty Sculptor Posted by on Mar 9, 2013 in Culture, Vocabulary

The most famous fountain in the city of Lyon was made by a Frenchman whose name is not likely to tell you much:

Auguste Bartholdi, originally from the Alsace region.

Doesn’t really ring a bell, non?

His other work, however, is one of the best known monuments in the world.

Ever heard of New York‘s Statue of Liberty, par exemple?

Well, the story behind the Bartholdi Fountain in Lyon is not less “mouvementée” (a French way to say “action-packed”, or just “eventful” if you prefer) than that of the Statue of Liberty “illuminant le monde” (“Enlightening the World.”)

But make that on a much more “compact” scale, so to speak.

Initially, the fountain, which has an “older sister” still standing in Washington D.C., was meant to be constructed in another French city, much to the west of Lyon.

In 1857, when he was barely 23 years old, Bartholdi struck a deal with the city of Bordeaux to build a fountain in its well-known Place des Quinconces, one of the largest city squares in all of Europe.  

A rather bonne affaire for a debuting artist.

However, for various tedious reasons better not to mention here, the project n’a pas vu le jour (did not see the light.)

More than thirty years later, Bartholdi finally brought his work to completion.

He exhibited it during the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. And what a franc succès it was.

By then, the reputation of Bartholdi was not to be made anymore. Only three years earlier, he had finished the Statue of Liberty.

The Mayor of Lyon, a fine opportunist, to put it nicely, immediately seized upon the occasion to ask the French sculptor to install the fountain in his city.

Though a bit disappointed at first by the modest price the city of Lyon was willing to disburse for his œuvre, Bartholdi ended up accepting the less than generous offer.

He personally selected la Place des Terreaux, right between l’hôtel de ville (the City Hall) and the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, to be the site of his fontaine.

The choice of the location was probably not purely random.

The adjacent Lyon Museum houses works of Charles Le Brun, namely the Sun King’s favorite artist, and maybe more significantly to Bartholdi, the teacher of Jean-Baptiste Tuby.

Indeed, Lyon’s Bartholdi Fountain found its direct inspiration in Tuby’s Basin d’apollon in Versailles.

But instead of the Greek Sun-god which Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil, enjoyed comparing himself to so modestly, Bartholdi chose to feature a woman.

The lady topping the fountain is said to represent the Garonne river, which crosses the city of Bordeaux, leading quatre chevaux (four horses) who stand for the river’s four main affluents.

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