29 June 2013

Monumental elephants in French public art

By November 1789 the Bastille Prison structure in Paris was largely demolished but what would take its place? On the Place de la Bastille, the very birthplace of the Revolution, Emperor Napoleon wanted a monument to the glorious past. He settled on a great elephant, a statue so monumental that visitors could climb inside through a staircase in one of its legs, and up to a tower on its back. Napoleon planned many urban regeneration projects for Paris and loved monuments to his victories. In this case, he clearly wanted to create a significant triumphal structure to demonstrate his military skills in the East.

Elephant of the Bastille, Paris
24 metres high!!
engraving in Le Magasin pittoresque, 1834.

Napoleon ordered the elephant be cast in bronze, melted down from cannons captured during his military victories. But Nap­ol­eon was impatient. Rather than waiting for this bronze to arrive, he had a full-scale model of the elephant created in plaster and placed on the site. Alas the bronze to transform the elephant into a perm­anent structure never arrived, and as Napoleon’s regime was coming to a rather pathetic end in 1814, the plaster structure was left to rot.

The creator of Moulin Rouge, Joseph Oller and his manager Charles Zidler, were canny businessmen who understood the belle epoque taste for the somewhat Low Arts. In particular Oller had noticed the com­mercial success of the very popular dances at the Élysée Montmartre and de­cided to open a rival dance hall nearby. In October 1889, the Moulin Rouge opened in the Jardin de Paris, at the foot of the Montmartre hill.

The business plan was to encourage rich Parisians to get down and get dirty in a fash­ionable district, Montmartre. The extravagant setting allowed people from all walks of life to mix comfortably. Workers, local residents, artists, the middle classes, businessmen, elegant women and lots of English men travelled to Montmartre to enjoy the entertainment together.

Moulin Rouge, Paris

A decade later, the owner purchased a huge wooden and stucco elephant from the Exhibition Universelle/World’s Fair which happened to be held in Par­is, and installed it in the gardens. The workers made a spiral stair-case entrance to it inside one of the legs and, on a stage housed in its stomach, female dancers performed sensual belly dances. Only men were allowed in and only on payment of a fee (1 franc each). The photo shows mainly women at the tables; pres­umably their husbands are crawl­ing around the inside of the elephant on excited hands and knees. Another possibility was that the men were running an opium den in the elephant’s stomach. Never mind! The outdoor living was very pleasurable, at least in summer.

The elephant was situated at the back of the building, and not vis­ible from the street. But its semi-secret location didn’t save the beast from dest­ruction. Within a decade, the entire construction had been broken up and carted away.

The Ile de Nantes was a large and very busy island in the middle of the River Loire in Western France, responsible for ship building, warehouses and dockyards. But once the shipyards closed in 1987, the island started to look like a tragic ghost town.

mechanical elephant
Island in the River Loire,

Since then, the Machines of the Isle has been created by 2 artist-inventors, resurrecting the derelict warehouses of the former shipyards. They were “visualising a travel-through-time world at the crossroads of the imaginary worlds of Jules Verne and the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci”.

Three major machine-projects were planned from the beginning, two of them now completed and operational: Great Elephant in 2007 and Marine Worlds Carrousel in 2012. The final project, the Heron Tree, will not be finished until next year. But that doesn’t matter since in this post, I want to talk about elephants. Nantes’ mechan­ical elephant is amazing and huge (12 ms high). It is made from reclaimed wood and steel, and is so strong that it can carry 50 pass­en­gers for a 45-minute walk. To impress the people watching the performance, the elephant emerges trumpeting from its hangar and sprays visitors with water from its trunk. To impress the passengers on board, it is possible discover the structure of the machinery from the inside and to feel each vibration, while enjoying the impressive view of Nantes.

I am not sure if these three elephants compare well against the Eiffel Tower and Chartres Cathedral as engineering marvels of their times, but the French must have found them very appealing. As did the tourists.


Andrew said...

Never heard of such an elephant. It is a pity the bronze one was never built. I have a mental picture of a wife shaking her fist at her husband, have you been up to the elephant again? When I have time, I shall be looking at You Tube for the mechanical elephant.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Fascinating to learn about these French elephant buildings. Up till now I have only known about Lucy, the Margate Elephant in New Jersey, which today is open to the public if you desire to climb staircases inside giant elephants. (Many photos, both old and restored can be found in an on-line search.)
--Road to Parnassus

Student of History said...

Why elephants? Such a strange beast for Europeans. Consider the Order of the Elephant in Denmark.

Hels said...


re the secretive status of the Moulin Rouge elephant for men only, it must have seemed a bit bizarre.

Wives were certainly allowed into the cabarets where can-can dancers wore no knickers whatsoever. In the semi-naked performances in music-halls, the dancers wore nothing but a huge bejewelled tiara.

Hels said...


perfect comparison! Lucy the Elephant is a six-storey construction from 1881, built to sell real estate and to attract tourism. I love the idea that guided tours take visitors into the building through the spiral staircase in the leg! The Margate elephant certainly preceded the Moulin Rouge elephant.

Lucy's height, 20 ms, was also comparable.

Hels said...


I can imagine that Napoleon thought he was "inventing" the elephant cult because it reminded him of his victories in the East.

But I was at Sopra Minerva church in Rome one year and came across a baroque statue by Bernini of an elephant on an Egyptian obelisk. And as you mentioned with Denmark, elephant art or symbolism was all over Europe.

The Clever Pup said...

Hi Hels - I was tempted to do a similar post after I saw Les Miserables. Good for you. And the Modern ellie is wonderful. He resided on my sidebar for a long time.

Hels said...


I knew about the Napoleonic and the Moulin Rouge elephants, but I had never heard of the modern beast in Nantes until recently. You should still write it up.. The more, the better, I say :)

Hels said...

Geri Walton wrote a great post called "Hans and Marguerite: The Elephants of France"

In creating a link, I wrote:
A few years ago I was fascinated by the presence of huge elephants created in France. The first one seemed to be put in place from 1813 on by Emperor Napoleon, because he wanted a monument to the glorious past. But your two elephants were brought to France earlier (1798). So if it wasn't for Napoleon, who were they for and why?

Geri wrote:

The French nation viewed the menagerie "as a symbol of the new nation and the new scientific consciousness," and the French army was known to have brought back other rare animals. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was the first director of the menagerie so maybe he requested the army bring back animals or perhaps because there was such an interest in the menagerie and the scientific information that could be gleaned, the army just naturally did.