The Wallace Fountains in Paris were named after the English philanthropist and art collector Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), who donated them to the city of Paris starting in 1872. Their purpose was to dispense safe drinking water, after the city’s public water system had been damaged during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 and the uprising of the Paris Commune.
The fountain in my lead photo is on Boulevard Edgar Quinet in the Montparnasse district (14th arrondissement) near the corner of Rue de la Gaîté. The café in the background is the Café Liberté, where I had breakfast several times while staying at a nearby hotel that didn’t have its own breakfast room.
According to the Society of the Wallace Fountains, a non-profit association founded in 2018, Sir Richard Wallace “is best known in the United Kingdom for his extraordinary art collection donated to the British people and available for public viewing at his former residence in London. In Paris, he is remembered for aiding the poor and for his generous commitment to the common good as symbolized by the iconic drinking fountains that carry his name.”
Like many other streets and squares in Paris, the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th arrondissement still has an ornate dark green Wallace Fountain from the 1870s. The building on the far left in this photo, 42 rue Bonaparte (with the café Le Bonaparte on the ground floor), is where the author Jean-Paul Sartre lived from 1947 to 1962, in a fourth-floor apartment with a view of the church.
The fountain at Saint-Germain-des-Près is an example of a “large model” Wallace Fountain, which is the model that was originally sketched and commissioned by Sir Richard Wallace in 1872. Each of these fountains has a cast-iron roof supported by four caryatids, statues of young women representing the four virtues of kindness, simplicity, charity and sobriety.
The four caryatids on each fountain are of course the same height, so the roof will be straight, but each of the caryatids looks a bit different from the others. The knees are bent differently, and there are differences in how their tunics are tucked into their blouses. Some people claim to know which caryatid stands for which virtue, but I haven’t quite got that figured out yet. (Maybe next year.)
The Boulevard de Magenta (named after a battle in Italy that the French army won in 1859) was upgraded and rearranged from 2002 to 2006. Sidewalks were widened, trees planted, bicycle lanes installed, space for motor vehicles reduced. The one thing they left unchanged was this Wallace Fountain from the year 1872, now with a Vélib’ cyclist and a bus in the background.
On the side of the fountain, we can read “Ch. Lebourg Sc 1872”. This refers to Charles-Auguste Lebourg (1829-1906), the French sculptor who designed and sculpted the fountains for Sir Richard Wallace.
Another typical example of a “large model” Wallace Fountain is this one on the top of a small hill called Butte-au-Cailles in the 13th arrondissement.
Each of the free-standing cast-iron Wallace Fountains is nearly 2.75 meters tall (about nine feet, for the non-metrically minded) and weighs over 590 kilograms (more than 1,300 pounds).
In most of the fountains, a small but steady stream of clean water flows from the center of the roof and drops into a basin, which was purposely placed high enough to prevent stray dogs from drinking from it. Horses are also unwelcome, so the four caryatids stand close enough together to prevent horses sticking from their heads in. (Paris had a huge horse population in the 19th and early 20th centuries, almost as bad as the car- and motorcycle-scourge today.)
When Sir Richard Wallace commissioned the fountains, he provided a rough sketch of how they should look (leaving the artistic details to the sculptor), and included a list of criteria and requirements. He specified (as listed here) that the fountains must be “tall enough to be seen from a distance, but not so tall as to destroy the harmony of the surrounding landscape.” Their form must be “both practical to use and pleasing to the eye.” Their materials must be “resistant to the elements, easy to shape and simple to maintain.” And he wanted them to be “affordable enough to allow the installation of dozens.”
The first order that Wallace placed, in 1872, was for forty free-standing, large-model fountains and ten wall-mounted fountains. Later he commissioned (and paid for) an additional ten fountains in 1876 and ten more in 1879. These — and many more to come — were all made from the original molds created by the sculptor Charles-Auguste Lebourg. The casting and assembly of the fountains was done at an iron foundry in Val d’Osne, some 200 km east of Paris.
The location of each fountain was determined by the Paris waterworks department, which was also responsible for the installation and plumbing and for making sure that the water was safe to drink.
In the years since 1872, some of the fountains have been moved and many more added, as the city grew. The fountains are repaired or restored as needed, and are re-painted every few years. They can also be replaced, if necessary, because the original molds still exist and are in the possession of GHM Sommevoire, a competing company that bought the Val d’Osne foundry in 1931.
Although he had homes in both Paris and London, Sir Richard Wallace stayed in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, spending part of his recently-inherited fortune to support field hospitals and provide food and clothing for the poor. He was especially shocked to see that alcoholism was spreading, even among children, because they had no access to safe drinking water but ample access to wine and other alcoholic beverages.
At the Grands Moulins campus of Diderot University (now part of the Université de Paris), I was surprised to find a Wallace Fountain painted yellow, instead of the usual dark green. Apparently several more of the fountains have recently been re-painted in various bright colors, mainly in the 13th arrondissement. (I’ll go looking for them on some future visit, after the coronavirus pandemic has run its course.)
Place Louis Armstrong is a triangular space where rue Jeanne d’Arc crosses the Boulevard de l’Hôpital, at one corner of the large hospital complex called la Pitié-Salpêtrière.
The Place Laurent-Terzieff-et-Pascale-de-Boysson is a small triangular space where three streets come together, rue Vavin, rue Bréa and rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. This space did not have a name until 2015, when it was given its seven-word name in honor of the actor Laurent Terzieff (1935-2010) and his partner, the actress Pascale de Boysson (1922-2002). The two of them performed for many years, together or separately, at various Paris theatres, but especially at the Lucernaire, which is just around the corner at 53 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs.
Strangely enough, there is a genuine full-scale Wallace Fountain inside the Lucernaire, on the ground floor between the box office, the restaurant and the bookshop. The red stairs in the background lead up to the three small theatres on the first, second and third floors.
This was of course not one of the original locations for a Wallace Fountain, because the Lucernaire wasn’t even founded until 1968 and didn’t move to this location until 1977. (The building which now houses the Lucernaire was previously a factory for making blowtorches.) In any case, the original Wallace Fountains were all outdoors, not inside buildings.
Another unexpected place for a Wallace Fountain is in the Museum of the Sewers, in the exit area by the gift shop. Of course, there is no water in this particular fountain, because eating and drinking is not allowed in the sewers for health reasons.
This photo shows a genuine Wallace Fountain, complete with caryatids, that I unexpectedly came across in the middle of Zürich, Switzerland, in 2010. It has explanatory plaques in several languages; the one in English reads:
“Fountain from Paris, 1870, to initiate the 1982 World Convention of Water Experts in Zurich. The four nymphs personify simplicity, purity, sobriety and charity. They symbolize international co-operation in providing people everywhere with pure and salubrious water.”
There is at least one mistake in this explanation, since the first Wallace Fountains were installed in Paris in 1872, not 1870. Also, the markings on this fountain show that it was cast by GHM, not Val d’Osne, so it must have been made sometime after 1931.
Although the Wallace Fountains were designed especially for Paris and have been a quintessential part of the Paris scene since 1872, they are not patented in any way. This means that cities, organizations or even wealthy individuals anywhere in the world can acquire a full-scale cast-iron Wallace Fountain, made from the original molds, simply by ordering one from the GHM catalogue. (The price is not listed, but if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.)
Here’s another Wallace Fountain that I found nearly 700 km from Paris in front of the tourist office in Toulon, in southern France on the Mediterranean coast.
My photos in this post are from 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014,
2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021. I revised the text in 2021.
See also: The Paris Water Pavilion.