Line: Bonington in Normandy

~ Richard Parkes Bonington in Normandy ~  

L'Entrée de la Salle des Pas Perdus, Palais de Justice, Rouen



R. P. Bonington, Palais de Justice, Rouen

General Description

The picture (right) is painted on a small oak panel, 196 x 134 mm., from the collection of James Orrock Esq., which was sold at Christie's first in 1895, and later in 1926, according to the inventory number, 297 E.F., that is stenciled on the verso.

L'Entrée de la Salle des Pas Perdus is depicted from the east, in a clear mid-morning light, showing a variety of figures at the foot of stairway, who are going about their various businesses. 

The picture corresponds roughly to the left two-thirds of the lithograph (below, left), framing the entranceway to the hall, under an awning that partially shades the staircase.

The truncated spire, decorated with ornate niches, crockets, and pinnacles, rises above an octagonal tower, dominating the entire scene, set against a luminous sky and the steep verdigris roof of the hallway. It frames the dark entranceway with another high-gabled Gothic window.

Human activity makes up the main part of the lower composition, and is practically unchanged in the lithograph.  The figures however all seem rather anachronistic, as the artist seeks to recreate a lively scene that would have taken place in the 17th century. 

In the foreground (left to right), there are two tonsured monks (probably Franciscans), a magistrate (identifiable by his toque, red robe and pendant cravat), in discussion with two elegant gentlemen, both wearing broad-brimmed hats with colourful panaches, short Richard Parkes Boningtonn, Entrée de la Salle des Pas Perdus, Rouencapes, culottes, and wide-topped cavalier boots.  Behind them, a figure dressed all in black (possibly a Jew, as the Palais was originally built in the Clos aux Juifs), a pikeman on the staircase, and another magistrate approaching from the right.  Various other people are moving around the entranceway, and there seems to be another magistrate at the top of the stairs.

There are however rather significant variants between the picture and the lithograph. 

The modified perspective is the most notable, with the viewpoint much closer in the picture, and a bit farther to the right, emphasising the monumental spire and the angle of the receding row of buildings to the far left.  Consequently, the stairway has been purposely shortened, which gives the edifice a grander scale and allows the artist to focus on the lively scene at its foot. 

The time of day too is a bit different,, the light in the picture somewhat earlier, judging by the cast shadow of the spire.

More puzzling, though, high above the damaged cornice of the entranceway, is the dormer window, which is visible in the lithograph, but clearly absent in the picture.

We know that Bonington gave more attention to effect than fussy detail; what indeed did the building look like in Bonington's time?

  Bonington's representation of the architecture seems relatively faithful, though the exact state of the edifice in the early 1820s is in part conjectural, and requires some study.  

It is well known that the French Revolution took a rather exacting toll on many public structures, but it appears that the Palais de Justice was already rather damaged before then.Jesus Chassant les Marchands du Temple, Palais de Justice, Rouen, engraving, 1774

There is an earlier allegorical engraving from 1774 (right), viewed from a similar perspective, which represents Jesus driving the Merchants from the Temple*, and which uses the entranceway of the Palais de Justice to stage it. 

If we compare it to the two Bonington images, there are several features that stand out:

  -  the spire is already markedly broken (though this engraving shows a more pronounced torsade);

  -  the dormer window is not apparent, which corresponds to the picture, rather than to the lithograph;

  -  the large awning over the stairway is not yet in evidence;

  -  and the roof has an elaborate crest with finials that is lacking in both of Bonington's works.

The numerous storefronts, to the right of the stairway, are bookshops. (Rouen had been a major publishing center since the Middle Ages.) These were condemned in 1792 and subsequently torn down (see the article by Jean-Dominique Mellot, below).  One such shop still remains in Bonington's lithograph, to the far right.

According to Pierre Chirol, the crest of the roof, which was made of lead, was torn down as well during the Revolution in order to make munitions.

* The allegory refers in fact to the expulsion of the Conseil Supérieur, which had been instituted by Louis XV in 1772 to replace the Parlement de Normandie.

Jolimont, Palais de Justice, Rouen 1821

Although undated,
Théodore de Jolimont made a fine drawing (left) of the Palais de Justice for a lithograph that was published in Monuments les plus remarquables de la ville de Rouen (Paris, 1822). 

The drawing is thus practically contemporaneous with Bonington's picture, though probably
a bit later, as shown by:

  -  the restoration of the lateral spire to the right of the high gabled window nearest the entranceway, and

  -  the demolition of the last bookshop, which is still standing beneath the third window in Bonington's

In comparison to the Bonington works, its perspective is closer to that of the lithograph, and pushes the viewpoint back farther. 

It details the broken tower spire, the diagonal awning over the stairway, the damaged cornice, and, like the picture, lacks the leftmost dormer window.

The building was yet to undergo a series of transformations...

Palais de Justice, France Monumentale, 1843

Another rather detailed lithograph of the Palais de Justice in  Rouen, published in France Monumentale et Pittoresque. Recueil de Vues dessinées d'après nature,
around 1843-1844, after a drawing by Nicolas Chapuy, shows the extent of works carried out in the twenty year interim.

The old staircase and entranceway at the left  have been completely dismanteled, and a new central entranceway built in its stead.

The broken spire atop the tower persists, whereas those of the windows have both been rebuilt.

There is an interesting feaure in this lithograph that would help us to explain the verdegris-coloured roofing in the Bonington picture as most probably being patinated copper. 

We know that copper was widely in use for such applications under Napoleon I. *  If we look closely at the print, there are parallel lines running down from the crest of the roof that evidently indicate wide regularly-laid sheeting, which would support this conjecture.

* See for example the excerpt from a letter by Charles Silvester (who had patented a method of galvanization) that was published in the Journal des Mines, 1811 (http://annales.ensmp.fr/articles/1811-1/121-123.pdf), in which he states his preference for zinc as superior to copper in this capacity.

Palais de Justice, Rouen, after 1902

Subsequently, work on the Palais de Justice around 1902 (see postcard, right) restored the spire and the elaborate crest on the roof.

Most notably, however, it shifted the entranceway back to its original location, at the southeast corner of the Salle des Pas Perdus, although in a rather different lateral configuration.

In conclusion, Bonington's interest in this monument opens a series of representations through the 19th century, that gave renewed interest to Gothic monuments and their rehabilitation.


E. Caude, Le Parlement de Normandie, Paris, 1999

Pierre Chirol, Palais de Justice de Rouen (Paris, 1928)  see:

P. A. Floquet, Histoire du Parlement de Normandie, Rouen, 1840-1842

François Guillet, L'Invention de la Normandie, a series of conferences given at the Université Populaire de Caen, 2010-2011; see  http://upc.michelonfray.fr/intervenants/collectif-seminaire-normandie/archives-normandie/

Jean-Dominique Mellot, "La librarie du Palais sous l'Ancien regime: splendeur et décadence de l'exception rouennaise du livre" in Les parlements et la Vie de la Cité (XVIe - XVIIIe Siècle), under the Direction of O. Chaline et Y. Sassier, Université de Rouen, 2004

For the drawing by François-Gabriel-Théodore Basset de Jolimont, see:  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b7740739z)