Pierre Bompard’s frescoes at the Collège de France
Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.
The Cosmos: an allegory of physics and chemistry combined with the four elements (1938)
The bill providing for a French funding device known as the “1% artistique” (“1% for art”), which requires that 1% of the construction budget of new public buildings be earmarked for one or several works of art, was tabled in 1936 under the impetus of then Minister of Education Jean Zay (1904-1944). In this framework, the Collège de France commissioned Pierre Bompard (1890-1962), who had been the official painter of the French Navy since 1936, to paint two monumental frescoes. These two paintings were delivered at the time of the completion of the construction work on the new chemistry buildings, (for more information, see our article on the history of these buildings). Flanked by the names of the most eminent representatives of physics and chemistry at the institution since its inception, the frescoes are allegories of progress and of science triumphing over nature.
Earth and fire
This fresco is divided into two sections by a volcano spewing smoke. As an optical phenomenon, the rainbow parallels the aurora borealis in the other fresco, while establishing the link between celestial and terrestrial elements. Agriculture and industry are united here to symbolize the abundance of human production.
The earth element is represented by domesticated nature. These are initially living beings and plants – French gardens, grain crops, and vines extending across a portion of the panel –, and later mineral nature and nature as transformed by culture: architecture assembles the elements into monumental buildings, among which we recognize a Gothic cathedral, the Parthenon, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Arc de triomphe in Orange.
Fire is allegorically controlled through the production of electricity, which is naturally present in the lightning seen in the upper right-hand corner. The hydroelectric dam, high-voltage power lines, and oil extraction via a derrick supply workshops, plants, and steelmaking factories with energy.
In the centre, a steam engine crosses a viaduct, linking the agricultural world to the industrial world. We note the central and overhanging position of a small village, a symbol of ties to the land.
Air and water
This fresco is centred around a waterspout symbolizing natural forces in their wild state, forces which only mankind is capable of mastering. It is horizontally intersected by the aurora borealis, an optical phenomenon long considered a mystery until the first scientific explanations for it were provided in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Navigation on the open sea is presented during different technological eras: in the centre-left is a sixteenth-century caravel, and to its right, the Soleil Royal, the flagship of the French Royal Navy from 1669 to 1692. The progress accelerates: the paddle steamer represents the beginnings of motorized navigation, whereas the Normandie, the largest ocean liner in the world when it was launched in 1935, flanked by a military submarine, represents the cutting edge of technology of the time.
In the same logic of progress, the air is symbolized by the ornately decorated of the Montgolfier brothers and Jean-François Pilâtre de Roziers, followed by the aeroplane prototype of Louis Blériot (or Bréguet), a Farman (a biplane recognizable by the tri-coloured insignia on its wings), and a balloon from the First World War. Silhouettes of modern monoplanes accompany an airship in the top right corner.
Pierre Poisson’s bronze lamp (1896-1953)
Commissioned at the same time as Pierre Bompard’s frescoes, this lamp is composed of two caryatids (statues of women supporting a cornice) bearing the light of science. While Christianity represented the snake as an evil animal, the sculptor revives the symbol of the snake, this time in a positive light as an ally of knowledge.
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