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Monday, July 13, 2020

Art and the Creation of Modern Day Paris

The city of Paris as we know it today is the product of an immense urban renewal project begun under the direction of Emperor Napoleon III in 1853. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a French administrator, was appointed Prefect of the Seine giving him carte blanche to demolish the existing Parisian landscape which had been a maze of narrow streets and buildings since the middles ages. Haussmann spent the equivalent of $1.5 billion to tear down impoverished neighborhoods, install a modern-day sewer system, create parks, build bridges, construct aqueducts, and craft the unmistakable architectural aesthetic we associate with the City of Light.

In addition to the ubiquitous five-story apartment buildings with 45-degree pitched roofs that dominate the city, Haussmann also devised long, grand boulevards in an effort to improve the movement of traffic and contain would-be rioters. These boulevards evolved into popular destinations for outdoor strolls and sidewalk cafes. This new “see and be seen” form of urban spectacle served as ongoing inspiration for contemporary artists. Several works in the Worcester Art Museum’s collection reflect the late 19th-century fascination with metropolitan living.

The Rue des Champs-Élysées was a popular destination even before Haussmann began to redesign and widen the boulevard in 1854. Then, as today, bourgeois affectations were an easy target of ridicule. Depictions of high society sauntering along the Champs-Élysées were a fixture of commercial art and fine art. In this caricature (Fig. 1), satirist Honoré Daumier presents a society couple scowling at one of Haussmann’s many construction workers whose labor disrupts their pleasant stroll.

Fig. 1. Honoré Daumier, French, 1808-1879, A pleasant stroll on the Champs-Élysées
(Une promenade d'agrement aux Champs-Elysees) Actualities #189
, 1855, lithograph,
Museum Purchase, 1953.14

The destruction of medieval Paris was controversial. Haussmann’s ambitions were costly and razing overcrowded and dilapidated buildings disproportionately displaced the poorest Parisians. Moreover, even those who appreciated Haussmann’s initiatives began to grow weary of the never-ending construction throughout the city, not unlike the ongoing debates and construction around Worcester’s Kelley Square. In 1870, at the beginning of the third phase of his urban renewal project, Napoleon relieved Haussmann of his post in an attempt to appease government opposition. The Emperor died eight months later.

It was less than a year after Haussmann was sacked that Paris entered the Belle Époque, or Beautiful Era. The Belle Époque is a period of French peace and prosperity spanning from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the onset of World War I in 1914. During this moment of amity, Paris saw a continued expansion of public infrastructure with an emphasis on commerce and public transportation. Turn-of-the-century culture flourished, spurring innovative art and design movements like impressionism, art nouveau, fauvism, and cubism. Belle Époque artists often used the contemporary Parisian cityscape as a way to comment on modernity.

A draughtsman and bibliophile, Pierre Vidal illustrated manuscripts for a variety of significant French writers like Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. The color lithograph (Fig. 2) served as the dust jacket design for the book Life on the Boulevards, which Vidal co-authored with writer Octave Lebesgue (better known by his pseudonym Georges Montorgueil).

Fig. 2. Pierre Vidal, French, 1849-1929, Book Jacket for Life on the Boulevards,
published 1896, color lithograph, Sarah C. Carver Fund, 1981.291

The cover features a throng of people, dominated by women wearing large hats and tightly corseted dresses with puffed mutton sleeves. Interestingly, the women are the most prominent figures, facing the reader and rendered in color. Men are the primary subjects of the back cover, walking away in the shadow of state-of-the-art electric streetlamps, another example of Paris’s modern-day infrastructure.

Public transportation exploded across Paris in the mid-19th century. One of the first forms of public transport was the horse-drawn omnibus, a low-tech version of a double decker bus. Later omnibuses were propelled by steam locomotion in the form of tramways. In July 1900, Paris debuted its Metro or Metropolitan subway. It opened with just one line across the right bank. By 1913 there were eight lines across the city.

Among a celebrated group of color aquatints Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt made in 1891, On the Omnibus presents a cosmopolitan mother alongside her child and nanny. Though the title refers to the more antiquated omnibus, it is more likely that Cassatt’s subjects are seated on a tramway.

In a preparatory drawing for the print, Cassatt included a male figure in a top hat who was excised from the finished work. (Fig. 3) Her decision to remove him is significant in that the final work emphasizes that the women are unaccompanied by a chaperone; however, tramways were usually jampacked. (Fig. 4a) In order to focus attention on the women in her print, Cassatt sacrificed the physical density one found on Parisian public transport. (Fig. 4b)

Fig. 3. Mary Cassatt, American, active France, 1844-1926,
Preparatory drawing for 
On the Omnibus [recto], c. 1891,
black chalk and graphite on wove paper, Rosenwald Collection,
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1948.11.51.a

Fig. 4a. Mary Cassatt, American, active France, 1844-1926, On the Omnibus (The Tramway), 1891, aquatint, softground etching,
and drypoint, Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs Collection, 1926.204

Fig. 4b. Mary Cassatt, American, active France, 1844-1926, On the Omnibus (The Tramway),
(detail), 1891, aquatint, softground etching, and drypoint, Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs Collection, 1926.204

French film and cultural historian Roland-François Lack meticulously mapped where Cassatt staged her tramway print. Based on his research, the women were crossing the Pont de Grenelle which was built in 1874 and accommodated trams. The bridge seen behind Cassatt’s figures is the Pont de Pont du Jour, built in 1865. (Fig. 5)  To the right of the bridge, Cassatt offers a nod to Parisian industrialization with the small detail of smoke billowing out of the smokestack on the horizon.

Fig. 5. The bridge seen behind Cassatt’s figures is the Pont de Grenelle, built in 1865.

Cassatt’s print was made the same year Haussmann died. Though he never lived to see it, his vision for a new Paris was fittingly completed in 1927 with the inauguration of Boulevard Haussmann.
(Fig. 6)

Fig. 6. A view of Pont de Pont du Jour .

—By Nancy Kathryn Burns, Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
    July 14, 2020

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