La Défense de Paris, a neighborhood heritage

La Défense de Paris

If you're asked what the symbol of the La Défense district is, you'll probably think of La Grande Arche. And yet, an emblematic work of art, present for over a century, has given it its name... You may already have come across it, admired it or even photographed it. But do you really know the history of La Défense de Paris?

It all began in 1879, when a competition was organized to erect a new statue to replace the one of Napoleon 1st, removed from its pedestal in 1848. And La Défense de Paris almost didn't turn out to be the sculpture we know today! One hundred and fifteen artists, including such famous names as Gustave Doré and Auguste Rodin, took part in the competition.

Three sketches were selected from the many submissions: those by Louis-Ernest Barrias, Alexandre-Victor Lequien and Mathurin Moreau. And it was with unanimous support that Barrias, a young artist aged just 23, won the competition in the first round of voting!

Symbolic characters

Imagine... It's 4pm, 100,000 people have gathered on the La Défense traffic circle. 21 cannon shots are fired from Mont Valérien. The Marseillaise sounds, the veil falls from the statue, followed by a vibrant "Vive la République! Thus began, on August 12 1883, the story of the work that would give its name to the famous business district.

And if you look closely, this statue is the symbol of an entire era! The three figures echo the 1870 war. A tall woman leans against a cannon, brandishing a French flag bearing the arms of the Republic. She stands proudly, ready to challenge the approaching enemy. At her feet, a wounded young soldier, his eyes fierce, desperately searches for a last cartridge. On the other side of the monument, a little girl sits on a pile of stone debris, evoking the suffering of the innocent population during the fighting.

A work often out of place

Over the years, the sculpture La Défense de Paris has undergone many changes of location. Since 1883, it has been enthroned in the center of the Place de La Défense, which later became the Rond-point de La Défense, covered today by the famous parvis.

The La Défense district was redeveloped in the 1950s. The statue was moved to a vacant lot near La Grande Arche to avoid interfering with the construction work. Some twenty years later, it was repositioned in its original location, on a new plinth. A ceremony was held on September 21, 1983 to celebrate its reinstallation and centenary. Today, La Défense de Paris stands some 40 metres from its original location, not far from the Agam fountain, and on a much lower plinth to offer better visibility to the public.

To find out more about the other works in the Paris La Défense permanent collection

An exhibition to come!

To find out more about the story behind this iconic work, a free exhibition dedicated to Paris La Défense will be on show from August 7, 2023 at the Espace Info Paris La Défense.

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