baron haussmann --12/23/24

Today's selection -- from Thinking About Art: A Thematic Guide to Art History by Penny Hunstman. The truly unprecedented and radical changes to the cityscape of Paris under Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, and the art that accompanied it:

 “Emperor Napoleon III ruled France from 1852 to 1870, during which time he brought about an unprecedented renovation of Paris. The project was led by the Seine prefect Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, who conceived the wide boulevards, public parks and city facilities to create the Paris we know today. The period of upheaval caused by the modernisation and transformation of the city would become known as 'Haussmannisation'.

“The housing Haussmann replaced had mostly been overcrowded and insanitary, carrying the constant threat of disease. Haussmann's grand improvement project was welcomed by some of the area's inhabitants, but the demolition of the old Paris also dismantled the social cohesion that had existed among its poverty-stricken inhabitants. Consequently, Haussmann has been remembered in the conflicting roles of both hero and destroyer. Works of art of the period provide evidence for both roles in equal measure.

“Reportedly, Haussmann had endured a sickly childhood, much of which was blamed upon the polluted Parisian air. Correlations have been drawn between his zeal to eliminate the old Paris and rebuild the new with his personal interest in clean air and water. Whatever the motivation, the new sewer system he initiated in the 1850s was clearly a positive contribution to the health and safety of its citizens.

Bal du moulin de la Galette

“The polarised experiences of Parisians during this period may be demonstrated if we juxtapose two contemporaneous nineteenth-century scenes: Bal du Moulin de la Galette a Montmartre by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841- 1919) and L' Absinthe by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876, shows a typically fun-filled late nineteenth-century scene in Montmartre. It captures the spirit of this highly sociable outdoor recreation space and well-known haunt of Parisian good-timers. However, beyond the brightly lit dabs of Renoir's brush there lurks evidence of a darker side to Parisian life: a crowd of excluded onlookers, emitting a sense of loneliness. Sexual favours and the drinking of absinthe (a very strong green alcohol) may be the sub-text in Renoir's painting, but the latter and all its societal ills are the explicit focus of Degas' baldly named L'Absinthe. According to a contemporary observer, H.P. Hugh, The sickly odour of absinthe lies heavily in the air. The absinthe hour of the Boulevards begins vaguely at half-past five ... but the deadly opal drink lasts longer than anything else (quoted in Adams, 'The Drink that Fuelled a Nation's Art').

The reaction to paintings such as Degas' was twofold: on the one hand, avant- garde artists, together with sympathetic critics such as the French poet Charles Baudelaire ( 1821-1867), felt invigorated by the new subject matter; but on the other hand, the more conservative artistic and critical establishment needed some time to catch up with the social change, to which it was increasingly bearing witness. Read the extract from The Westminster Gazette, 1893, for an insight into the painting's reception. Degas' absinthe drinkers may be seen as victims of the destruction of their homes and former neighbourhoods as Haussrnann's workers built the new boulevards and apartments. Their looming sense of alienation is also to be found in works such as Manet's Absinthe Drinker, 1858-1859 and his A Bar at the Folies Bergeres, 1882.

“Some writers have claimed that Napoleon III encouraged the building of long, wide and straight boulevards to deter insurgents from building barricades—  indeed, even the installation of street lights might be seen as aiding the ruler's surveillance of his citizens. The streets of Paris had a history of revolution, which included the July Revolution ( the so-called 'Three Glorious Days') of 1830, the June Rebellion of 1832 and the February Revolution of 1848. It may be that France's new ruler felt that this history of revolution had to be stopped in the streets.

“The painting Paris Street; Rainy Day, painted in 1877 by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), offers an almost photographic representation of Haussmann's newly built Paris. Various wide boulevards radiate from a central intersection, providing a panoramic view of new streets on an epic scale.

“Perhaps Caillebotte's is a truthful description of the historical nature of the scene, or perhaps it celebrates the monumental achievements of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. The scene is populated by the haute bourgeoisie, and the approaching couple, far right, are certainly well-dressed members of its rank. Formally, it may depart from the Impressionist style but the painting certainly captures the transient feel of a modern, urban scene in a wealthy Parisian street. As the rain falls down, the main couple draw uncomfortably closer to us with each step."



Penny Hunstman


Thinking About Art: A Thematic Guide to Art History




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