Bronze statues representing Science and Art flank the central door of the Hôtel de Ville. I’m not sure what Science is doing with her dividers and drawing board but the seriousness of her concentration is rather undermined by the fact that she is dressed only in a bed sheet, draped across her lap. Her neighbour Art and the allegorical statues of Vigilance and Prudence, up high on the clock tower, have similar problems.
There are some real scientists among the portrait sculptures that line the niches on every facade of the building. Mathematician and physicist Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783) can be found at the left hand end of the first floor of the main facade. Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), known as the father of modern chemistry, is given pride of place on the ground floor, just across the gateway from Voltaire.
Not to be found among the statues is chemist Marie-Anne Paulze-Lavoisier (1758-1836), Lavoisier’s wife and collaborator, who worked alongside him in the laboratory. Marie-Anne’s translations of scientific papers in English by Joseph Priestley, Henry Cavendish and others enabled her husband to keep abreast of developments in chemistry elsewhere in Europe. After Lavoisier’s death in 1794 – a victim of the arbitrary ‘justice’ of the Convention – it was Marie-Anne who edited his notes to publish the Memoirs of Physics and Chemistry which set out the theories of thermodynamics and chemical structure established by their work together.
To find any women among the statues of prominent Parisians you have to go down to the garden facade of the Hôtel de Ville, facing the river Seine. On a weekday, when the garden is closed to the public, only those statues at either end are visible, Manon Roland (1754-1793) at the left and Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin (1699-1777) at the right. Both women owe their recognition as figures of historical significance to the intellectual life of the salons that they hosted. While Madame Geoffrin’s salon attracted influential philosophers and art historians that hosted by Madame Roland from 1791 was a hotbed of revolutionary politics.
Historians offer different analyses of the political influence of the salonières but it seems clear that the salons of eighteenth century Paris offered a rare opportunity for women to debate ideas on an equal footing with men. Although salons such as that hosted by Manon Roland contributed to the development of revolutionary theory, many of the aristocratic idealists who supported principles of liberty and equality later became victims of revolutionary fervour. Arrested in May 1793 on a charge of supporting counter-revolutionary activity, Manon Roland was tried and executed in November of that year.
Most of the women to be seen on the Hôtel de Ville are anonymous models for allegorical characters like the City of Paris, enthroned above the clock. There are four more women among the historical personages chosen in the 1870s to illustrate the history of the city; Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696), known for her letter writing, portrait painter Élisabet Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), novelist George Sand (1804-1876) and Germaine de Staël,(1766-1817) a writer of novels and essays. No politicians, scientists, doctors or educators among them.
Times change. The nineteenth century politicians and architects who commissioned and designed the Hôtel de Ville are unlikely to have imagined a future when the mayor of Paris would be a woman. For a portrait of one of the most influential women in Paris today , here’s a link to a recent Guardian article.
And for a guide to 136 portrait statues and many else besides, here is a link to a comprehensive page on Wikipedia.