France’s first World Expo

Following the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’, the first World Expo held in 1851 in London, French Emperor Napoleon III decreed on 8 March 1853 to hold a World Expo in Paris.

As in London, industrial and agricultural products were presented, but the Emperor wanted to ensure that the French edition surpassed the British one in terms of size, participating countries, and the fields covered. Expo 1855 therefore put a focus not only on agriculture and industry, but also on fine art, showcasing numerous French artists and the wealth of French creativity. Due to the Crimean War and the delayed construction of certain buildings, the organisation of the Expo had to be pushed back, with the opening ceremony taking place on 15 May 1855, and the closing ceremony on 15 November 1855.

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An imperial organisation

The organisation of the Exposition Universelle was placed under the direction and supervision of an Imperial Commission under the presidency of Prince Louis Napoleon, the Emperor’s cousin. The selection of products and artworks admitted was decided upon by official committees (departmental committees for France and foreign committees for other countries), which made propositions to the Imperial Commission. Members of the Commission included economist Frédéric Le Play, diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, financier Émile Pereire, author Prosper Mérimée and artists Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix.

Participants from around the world

Twenty-eight countries were represented in the Expo: alongside the United Kingdom, all the European empires and kingdoms were present with the exception of Russia. The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Persia, China, the United States of America and Mexico also participated.

A palace dedicated to industry

Expo 1855 honoured industry and fine arts in dedicated palaces, located between the Champs-Élysées, Cours de la Reine, and Avenue Montaigne.

The Palais de l’Industrie (Palace of Industry) designed by Jean-Marie-Victor Viel, spanned 252 metres across with a breadth of 108 metres, and featured an immense glass ceiling supported by wrought iron beams and held up by cast iron columns. Realising that the venue would not be large enough to host the 24,000 exhibitors, the Imperial Commission built several annexes where larger machines could be installed. Within the central nave of the palace, the most prestigious crafts were showcased, including jewellery, glasswork, the crystal work of Saint-Louis and Baccarat, the works of gold and bronzesmiths, Sèvres and Limoges porcelain, the creations of the silk makers of Lyon, and even church furnishings. All trades were on display, from metallurgy and clockmaking, to printing and shoemaking, with Saint-Gobain even presenting the world’s largest mirror. Numerous scientific and medical innovations also made an appearance, including Foucault’s pendulum and the planned transatlantic telegraph cable that would soon link Europe and North America.

A wealth of innovations

Visitors were able to discover a number of inventions such as the first ever lawnmower, Moore’s washing machine, the first non-industrial sewing machine by Singer, the first speaking doll, one of the first oil-powered vehicles and Samuel Colt’s revolver. Crowds flocked to grab a coffee from Edouard Loysel de Santais’ hydrostatic percolator, which was capable of producing 50,000 cups of coffee per day (2,000 per hour). A multitude of innovations were on display, from a new type of baby bottle to the wet collodion process allowing the faster development of photographs, and even Joseph Lambot’s ferrocement boat. The centre of the Palais de l’Industrie, where the glass ceiling was the highest, featured the largest objects such as fountains, pipe organs, and statues. Heavy machinery such as locomotives, engines, ventilators and hammermills were situated in a dedicated annex.

An artistic extravaganza

An art exhibition with paintings, engravings, sculptures, and architecture was organised within the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts), a temporary structure on Avenue Montaigne designed by Hector Lefuel. The exhibition included a full retrospective of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as 35 paintings by Eugène Delacroix, works by François Rude, and sculptures by Bartholidi and Barye, among others. The French Realism movement was represented by works by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, Charles-François Daubigny and Gustave Courbet, with the latter creating his own space that he entitled the “Pavilion of Realism” where 40 works were displayed including the “Artist’s Studio”.

Greatness and innovation rewarded

On 15 November 1855, the Expo awards ceremony took place in the nave of the Palais de l’Industrie, in the presence of Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie. Nearly 11,000 medals were awarded, including 112 great medals of honour, including one for Adolphe Sax, the Belgian inventor of the Saxophone. Ingres was awarded the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, and Delacroix became a Commander of the Legion of Honour. The ceremony was also the occasion to pay tribute to François Rude, who had died a few days earlier. A magnificent concert conducted by Hector Berlioz closed the ceremony, featuring pieces by Mozart, Glück, Rossini, Meyerbeer and Beethoven. The concert marked the first ever use of an electric metronome.

In six months, the World Expo received more than five million visitors. The event marked the start of a rivalry between London and Paris in the organisation of Expos in the second half of the 19th century: London organised the next Expo in 1862 while the French capital went on to organise four more in 1867, 1878, 1889, and Expo 1900, for which the Palais de l’Industrie was demolished to make way for the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais.