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The Renovation of Paris and the Rise of a Different Style of Painting


Author of Victorine, a novel about the iconic model of Manet’s Olympia turned painter, virtually forgotten by history, until now. Sign up to my newsletter, Artful Fiction, at: Podcast: Writing All the Things 

We are the children of the times. We must create what we see as we see it” -Manet 

There’s no place like Paris. Ah! From its white, uniform buildings to its wide boulevards, it’s unmistakable and has been aspirational for many another city, though none have quite been able to capture its gleam, its lovely bridges where Parisian lovers kiss at night and tourists linger. Of course, Paris didn’t always look like Paris. In 1853, demolition of the old, decrepit Paris began, the change spanning decades as the city was reborn. Most importantly to art lovers, these changes wrought by a well-known architect were recorded by and an influence on painters of the time.

The man responsible for both the destruction and the resurrection of the old Paris was Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Baron Haussmann, as he was called by most. The architect was tasked with widening boulevards, bringing in a better water supply, and ameliorating sanitary conditions in an overcrowded city with ailing housing centuries old. However, while some looked to the future, eager to see the resulting Paris, others bewailed the loss of the former city.

In fact, a poet of the time, Charles Baudelaire, wrote “The Swan” in response to the changes to Paris’s landscape. He, along with others, wasn’t pleased with “progress” when it meant tearing down medieval Paris. Younger Parisians took the opportunity to record the changes, the losses and the gains.

The Swan

Old Paris is gone (no human heart

changes half so fast as a city’s face) … There used to be a poultry market here, and one cold morning … I saw a swan that had broken out of its cage, webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones, white feathers dragging through uneven ruts, and obstinately pecking at the drains … Paris changes … but in sadness like mine nothing stirs—new buildings, old neighbourhoods turn to allegory,

and memories weigh more than stone.

On the art scene, the rise of Impressionism and its cousin movements such as Modernism meant painters either recorded with pleasure the drastic changes or complained with their brushes. In fact, while it seems an exaggeration, some see the rise of Impressionism as coming from the renovations.

Manet, seen by some as the father of Modernism, showed the city’s alterations in his paintings of the time: his outdoor scenes revealed the absence of older buildings, the rise of new, and the increasingly wider boulevards that would become a trademark of Paris.

His subjects were typically painted en plein air or represented those who worked the streets in one capacity or another. Notably, The Street Singer, which he painted in 1866, using his frequent model, painter Victorine Meurent, the label of that particular painting referring directly to the outdoors nature of the city. It could be argued that the doing away with old Paris encouraged him to imagine a new way of painting. As he was quoted as saying, “We are the children of the times. We must create what we see as we see it.” Indeed, he did just that.

He began painting everyday life, a new idea. He painted sidewalk cafes, those out on strolls. As Parisians moved outdoors, so did paintings. His The Rue Mosnier with Flags commemorated the Fête de la Paix (Celebration of Peace) on the 30 June 1878.

Claude Monet, similarly, painted scenes of city life early in his career. From flags being flown to the train station (his La Gare Saint-Lazare was painted in 1877, while Manet’s take on the same was painted in 1873), Monet was a definitely a Paris flaneur. He painted wintry Boulevard Des Capucines in 1873 and his celebration of Le Pont Neuf of 1871. Gustave Caillbotte is well known for his Paris Street – Rainy Weather (1877) and A Young Man at His Window (1875), which are only two of his paintings revealing his preoccupation with urban realism, another way of saying Parisians painters became obsessed with their city and its vibrant, newly outdoors, lifestyle.

A View of Paris from the Trocadero by Berthe Morisot 1871-72 reflected a distanced view of the city a middle-class woman such as she would have had, living in the “suburbs” as she did, but with the city’s buildings close by.

The makeover of Paris was as expensive as it was extensive, altering Paris forever. It went from a city of dirty, messy streets to a place where city dwellers began spending more and more time outdoors in cafes, strolling gardens and the broadened streets. Instead of only going to the outskirts of Paris to paint, artists were inspired to paint what was right outside their own windows and ultimately, they moved from complaining about the changes to embracing and immortalizing their times. That is something from which we viewers will forever benefit. 

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