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Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830

 

During the Industrial Revolution, many children and adolescents worked in the suburbs of Paris. When out of work, they evolved in bands. Ragged and hungry, they roamed in the streets of the capital. The titis or gamins of Paris laughed at everything, didn’t hesitate to steal, and were adepts at vulgarity.

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The Parisian titi is embodied in the guise of Gavroche, a street child full of banter, mischief, and resourcefulness in Les Miserables. Victor Hugo moreover fondly calls him “this little great soul” when he collapses under bullets, during the barricades of 1830.   The child brandishing pistols in Eugène Delacroix’s painting  Liberty Leading the People (1830) is often cited as the main source of inspiration for Victor Hugo’s Gavroche.

 

Today, this heroic figure has been reduced to a kitschy character to charm tourists. Titi’s postcards can be purchased in every souvenir shop. Like all the Parisian fauna, the titi/gamin has been immortalized on film and in songs. Here is the most popular one along with other versions of the tacky art:

 

 

 

 

Related posts for People of Paris:

La Grisette  

Where the Revolutionaries Lived

 

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Giuseppe de Nittis: The Salon of Princess Mathilde, 1883

 

One of the largest differences between the Brits and the French was their attitude toward women. The British gentleman suffered women where he could not avoid them and avoided them where he could by seeking refuge in men-only clubs. The Frenchman, on the contrary, did not feel bright unless there were women around. He did seek them out during his leisure time and he was keen to converse in their company. The French were never afraid of clever women and they allowed them to rule as the salonnières.

 

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A 17th-century literary salon.

 

The tradition of the Parisian Salon was an old one. It began in the seventeenth century and was largely abandoned during the WW1. The salonnières, who hosted these gatherings in their homes, held power. Political plots were hatched, new literary trends were started, scientific discoveries were publicized, and new artistic talents were launched under their influence.

Could you, yourself, become a salonnière?

Who knows? Maybe you already have every asset to revive this ancient tradition. Let’s see what it takes:

You must be a woman. Salons were always run by women. It did not matter whether they were respectable or not. A princess could compete with a courtesan for the same guests.

You must be rich. Your house must offer an agreeable background for the sophisticated exchange of ideas. A well-run Salon may provide a Wednesday dinner for some thirty seated guests and a Saturday reception for about one hundred. Quality wine was a must. Good food was expected as well.

You must have a complacent husband or no husband at all. Very rarely, a husband would hang around and co-host the events. The ideal husband would content himself with a visit to his mistress and allow his wife to rule the crowd.

You must have a great man. Salons were built around a great man who served as a magnet to attract other desirables. He could be a philosopher, a politician, a music composer, or a famous author. Often, the great man was the salonnière’s lover and her goal was to make him even greater.

You must be attentive to new trends and courageous enough to start one. Depending on the type of your salon, you must be aware of what goes on in politics, culture, or science. You must read the latest novel, meet the latest polar explorer, or recognize the right time to introduce new talent.

You must be a social expert. It is important to be well-informed about your guests and careful not to invite two bitter enemies. Knowing the latest gossip is always helpful in that matter and having your spies in competing salons is a clever way to stay on top of things.

You must be a woman of authority. Your salon, your rules. If the conversation does not go the right way, you stop it politely, but without any room for appeal. It is your choice whether you allow an uncontrolled flow or, on the contrary, whether you choose a subject of conversation and insist that the guests stick within the limits.

You must be ready to make it a full-time job. Seeing new trends coming, finding the right guests, sending out invitations, supervising the staff, choosing wines and menus, listening to all relevant gossip, and all the plotting and scheming that goes into it, will take your entire waking time.

 

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Meet the Bouquinists

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You can’t miss them, the bouquinists.  Along the Seine, nine hundred of their bottle-green boxes with 400,000 second-hand books figure as one of the symbols of Paris. They hark back to the medieval times when manuscript sellers chose the riverbank near the university to trade their goods.

Booksellers frequently had problems with authorities if the contents of the books displeased the powerful. Should the city police be on the lookout for a forbidden material, the owner of a small folding stand was at an advantage, especially if he offered non-censored pamphlets and scandalous gazettes.

In 1859, after many tribulations with the law, the bouquinists finally obtained the authorization to exercise their profession. The Town Hall set up concessions, allowing the salesmen to install the boxes in fixed places. Only second-hand books, antique art prints, and old magazines can be sold in these stands, although–if you take a closer look– you’ll see plenty of kitschy recent pictures of Paris. The average foreign tourist prefers that to antique French books.

Year after year, the number of the stands keeps increasing: 156 in 1892, 200 in 1900 at the Universal Exhibition, and 240 in 1991, the year in which the second-hand booksellers were listed as the UNESCO Heritage. Today, three kilometers of bouquinist stands can be seen along the Right Bank from Pont Marie to Quai du Louvre and on the Left Bank from the Quai de la Tournelle to the Quai Voltaire.

 

 

 

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The French Art of Peeing without Getting Wet Feet

 

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Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809 – 1891)

 

In 1845, the French social reformer Victor Considerant wrote: “Paris is an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate. Paris is a terrible place where plants shrivel and perish, and where, of seven small infants, four die during the course of the year.”

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Paris before Haussman

Indeed, urban reform was long overdue in Paris. Neglected by the kings, who preferred Versailles, the city was overcrowded and dirty. In the narrow crooked streets, diseases spread quickly as did social unrest. Napoleon I made a few attempts at beautifying and sanitizing the capital but, being too busy with disseminating misery across the European continent, he never really got down to it on a large scale. After the Waterloo defeat, plans for a better capital were shelved and it took his nephew, Napoleon III, to begin the greatest urban project ever achieved. Napoleon III might not have been the greatest warrior–the French still prefer his (in)glorious uncle–but he was a mover and shaker of the practical sort. Paris still benefits from his industry while Napoleon I’s conquests are long gone.

Having spent part of his exile in London (see The English Courtesan who Made a French Emperor published here) he brought to France the idea of English urbanism. He found a man with a similar vision and with boundless energy in Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine. Together, in seventeen years, they made Paris what it is today.

 

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Piercing a new boulevard during the Haussmannian transformation

 

Announcing his motto Paris embellished, Paris enlarged, Paris cleaned up, Haussmann didn’t take prisoners in his war against the old. All that was ugly, dirty and disease-ridden became history. He pierced wide avenues and established rules for standardized buildings. He created a square by district and projected dozens of parks, gardens, and woods. He built new churches, bridges, theaters, and railway stations. He enlarged the city, which then went from 12 to 20 arrondissements. Underground, Paris got a sophisticated water and sewage system that – to this day – is one of the tourist’s sights of the city.

 

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Paris after Haussmann (Place de l’Etoile)

 

The titanic work has always been controversial in view of the methods used to achieve this incredible result. To modify Paris in this way, Haussmann did not hesitate to destroy nearly 18,000 houses that hampered his vision of straight and wide boulevards. He excluded the working classes for whom the new dwellings were unaffordable. Haussmann was finally deposed in 1870, a few months before the fall of Napoleon III and the Second Empire.

 

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Notre Dame in 1852

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Notre Dame after Haussmann’s intervention

 

Thanks to Napoleon III’s vision and Haussmann’s ruthlessness, Paris is the city we know today. Such a colossal project cannot be achieved without a totalitarian approach and would be impossible to realize in a democracy with its many rules and laws.

 

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The Avenue de l’Opéra, one of the new boulevards created by Napoleon III and Haussmann. The new buildings on the boulevards were required to be all of the same height and same basic façade design, and all faced with pale-ochre stone, giving the city a unified look.

 

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Let me justify an excursion to New York in this Victorian Paris blog. The movie, you are about to see, is neither Victorian nor French but it is history as you have never seen. So let’s make this exception to the blog content by showing images of slightly post-Edwardian America in a lively and unusually realistic version. They are worth your attention.
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In 1911, a team of Swedish filmmakers visited New York to bring back to the Old World images of daily life in America. Like all footages of the time, the speed and the visual quality allowed a lot of room for improvement. When we watch the early movies, we see black and white ghosts rather than people. Not with this film-restoration. It brings us a perfect image, with color and sound. Have a look at this realistic slice of history and watch it with awe.

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Related posts:

Americans in Paris and the Kissing Protocol

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In the old days, the month of February brought the unavoidable Lent: a period of penance, dietary restrictions, and prayers.  For those not familiar with religious traditions, Lent is a mobile Christian observance lasting for forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday before Easter.

Austerity is not something human beings crave. Since forty days of gloom proved to be too much to ask, the religious authorities allowed a pause to let out the pent-up human foibles after twenty days of duration.

 

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The origin of Mid-Lent (Mi-Carême) is lost in the mists of time. According to several historians, the celebration was born in the Middle Ages. The essence of the feast was a mini carnival that embraced the spirit of joy, laughter, and derision to contrast with the period of austerity, severity, and penance of Lent. A parade of elaborate floats characterized this celebration.

 

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In France, the Mi-Carême was also the feast of laundresses, described in the post From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris, of charcoal dealers, and water carriers.

 

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The float of the Queen of Queens. Elected from among the laundry queens of every city district, a simple washerwoman enjoys her one-day fame

 

Celebrated on a large scale in Paris, the Mi-Carême disappeared from this city during the WWII years. It made a comeback under the name of Carnival of Women in 2009 and gives rise to a parade again every year.

 

Related post:

From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris

 

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titles

 

 

Bistrot! Bistrot!

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Today, we’ll talk about a 19th-century Parisian institution of social importance: the bistrot. Not to be confused with a café—which is a frequent occurrence today—the bistrot/bistro was a waiter-less establishment where you ordered your refreshment from the “patron” who ran the place from behind a zinc-covered counter. The birth of Parisian bistros, as the legend would have it, goes back to the defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo (1814). As a consequence, Paris was overrun by various victorious armies, including the always-thirsting Russian Cossacks. They wanted a drink and they wanted it fast: Bistro! Bistro! The legend is embraced by all, except for the etymologists who still discuss the origin of the world as it does not appear in literature before 1884.

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While they take various forms today, Parisian bistros were small unpretentious joints run by so-called “bougnats” – the immigrants from Auvergne who left their poor lands during the Industrial Revolution to settle in Paris. These establishments were recognized for their very popular atmosphere. Designed for the poorer classes, bistros offered a drink and a quick bite. It was in the bistro that the neighborhood problems were discussed. It was a place for the morning coffee and croissant, for an apéritif before lunch and, again, for one before dinner; the bistro was also a haven for working-class lovers to meet during inclement weather and a recreation room for the local prostitute.

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Related posts:

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Drink and Prostitution: The Belle Epoque Hooters

The Guide to Gay Paree (1869) – Part 4: Restaurants and Cafés

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The Santa Claus, as we know him today, is an American import created by immigrants of European origin. He crossed the ocean to conquer the Old World where Catholicism fought with Protestantism for Christmas symbols. The Father Christmas in these 19th century pictures is either a catholic bishop called Saint Nicholas or the fairy-tale figure of Père Noël, a mythical old man, probably of Scandinavian origins. These confusing, and sometimes fusing, figures have in common an abundant white beard. The Père Noël of old came in many colors, mostly in green and blue, before the red and white color combination became the standard look. In this Edwardian image, the blue Santa is already a minority:

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Vive Saint Nicolas or Joyeux Noël : Both translate as Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to Victorian Paris readers and see you next year!

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The Réveillon: Christmas the French Way

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“He who broke the glass will pay!” This painting depict an ambulant lemonade seller in conflict with a customer. The art of Jean Geoffroy is a humorous witness to the ups and downs of the late 19th century childhood.

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Henri-Jules-Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924) became the painter of children because during his studies he shared a room with two teachers. When they opened a private school, he found his inspiration there. It was a good choice. The paintings pleased and Geoffroy’s career blossomed under the simple pseudonym of Géo. In 1882, he received his first major commission from the Ministry of National Education and, in 1887, he was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit.  

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Related posts:

James Tissot and the Women in Paris

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings

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A target to hordes of tourists, the Moulin Rouge is one of the most emblematic monuments of Paris. Before becoming a mythical place, the cabaret was a den of debauchery – a symbol of the Belle Époque madness.

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The establishment opens in October 1889 with the owners labelling it a temple of music and dance. It’s founders, Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler (already patrons of the Olympia), know well what appeals to the Parisian public and do not skimp on the means. They invest in extravagant decoration, a gigantic dance floor, and fantastic shows inspired by the circus world. Everything is ready to entice the All Paris to come and have fun in this small Montmartre corner. There is even a huge elephant, recovered from the Universal Exhibition of 1889.

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The famous elephant of Moulin Rouge was used as an opium den

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If the cabaret is at this point the temple of entertainment, it is also thanks to the success of the French cancan. This famous dance with raised petticoats will delight the Parisians and turn the Moulin Rouge into a sanctuary for festivities and debauchery. Foreign travelers flock in for an unforgettable experience, and the fame of the French cancan spreads worldwide.

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This 1894 drawing suggests that shady deals were concluded at the entrance to the Moulin Rouge

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The Moulin Rouge is celebrated in many works of art, particularly in those of the painter Toulouse-Lautrec, who was a fixture there. His most famous poster (below) pictures two of the early Moulin Rouge stars: La Goulue and her dance partner Valentin-the-Boneless (in silhouette). The sad stories of la Goulue and of the dancer Mad Jane, are well-worth reading in Louise and Jeanne: The Antipodes of Moulin Rouge, an earlier post here.

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Today, the Moulin Rouge has lost nothing of its grandeur except for the moral casualness of its beginnings. It remains a magical place of the cabaret world.

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Related posts:

Louise and Jeanne: The Antipodes of Moulin Rouge

Mark Twain and the Cancan

The Opera of Paris: We Procure Our Ballerinas to Wealthy Men

 

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