Saturday, July 12, 2008

Square Paul Painlevé

This small square is located between the Musée National du Moyen-Age and the main entrance to the Sorbonne on the Rue des Écoles in the 5th arrondissement. It is typical of small squares located all over Paris that serve as neighborhood parks, with paths and benches scattered among coveted green space.


Born in Paris, Paul Painlevé (1863-1933) was a celebrated mathematician who taught at the Sorbonne, École Polytechnique and the College de France. He was elected a member of the Académie des Sciences in 1900. He worked with Einstein on the theory of relativity, but much of his work in the field of physics (as related to black holes) was not understood and appreciated until some thirty years after his death. Painlevé’s broad interest in engineering topics fostered an enthusiasm for the emerging field of aviation; in 1908, he became Wilbur Wright's first airplane passenger in France and in 1909 created the first university course in aeronautics. In later years he abandoned the field of science for politics. He served twice as prime-minister of France: in 1917 (succeeded by Georges Clemenceau) and in 1925, after which he served as Minister of War (through 1929).

A bronze statue of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the great Renaissance thinker and essayist, sits directly across the street from the main entrance to the Sorbonne on Rue des Écoles, adjacent to Square Paul Painlevé. Montaigne is credited with elevating the essay to a literary form. The seated pose is unusual in that both his arms and legs are crossed. Montaigne, born into a wealthy family in southwest France, influenced Shakespeare, Emerson, Nietzsche and Descartes. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, Que sais-je? (What do I know?).

A quotation carved onto the plinth reads: “I never rebel so much against France as to regard Paris with an unfriendly eye; she has had my heart since childhood. I love her tenderly, even her warts and blemishes. I am French only by this great city – the glory of France, one of the noblest ornaments of the world."

Notice the shiny tip of Montaigne's foot. Tradition holds that those who rub his toe will have good fortune, and the tip of his shoe gets a good fondling.

All previous photos by John Norstad; used by permission.

Subsequent photos from the public Flickr pages of WallyG (Hoboken, NJ).


A 1909 monument to Octave Gréard is placed within Square Paul Painlevé. Gréard's bust sits atop a bas-relief depicting a woman holding a book opposite a seated child whose eyes are lifted to the teacher. Gréard (1828-1904) was a university professor with a distinguished career in education. He was largely responsible for establishing schools for girls and played a significant role in reforming the baccalaureate. In 1875, Gréard was elected a member of the French Academy of Moral and Political Science, and in 1886 was inducted into the French Academy. A college bearing his name is located in the 8th arrondissement.


Also within Square Paul Painlevé stands La Louve Romaine (The Roman Wolf), a replica of a statue presented by the city of Rome in 1962 on the occasion of the establishment of Rome and Paris as sister capitals. Romulus and Remus suckle away at their task.


A friend and colleague of Rodin, Jules Desbois (1851-1935) was one of the great sculptors of his time. His works celebrate the human body, combining the sensuality of modeling with a graphic representation of movement, as evidenced in this statue of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes installed within Square Paul Painlevé.

Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) was the foremost French mural painter of the second half of the 19th century. He decorated many public buildings in Paris (chief among them the Panthéon, Sorbonne, and Hôtel de Ville) and abroad (notably the Boston Public Library). His paintings were done on canvas and then applied to the walls (a technique called marouflage), but their subdued colors imitated the effect of fresco. He had only modest success early in his career, but went on to achieve an enormous reputation. He was universally respected even by artists of very different outlooks. Among his admirers were Gaugin, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Square Paul Painlevé
Métro: Cluny La Sorbonne

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