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Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. As seen here, men can lose their pants when they are led by a woman with a relaxed sartorial attitude.

 

It’s the Fourteenth of July today, the anniversary of the French Revolution and, traditionally, the day of flag-waving, of a military parade on the Champs Elysées, and of public celebration. Somewhere between the celebratory speeches and the all-night partying, La Marseillaise will be played and sung with hearty enthusiasm or at least with a respectful attitude.

It is safe to say that there never was a song with more power to arouse the enthusiasm of the masses. Napoleon did not like to hear it after he proclaimed himself the Emperor, and the rabble-rousing song was outright forbidden under the monarchs who followed him on the French throne.  Despite that, it was publicly sung in 1830, in 1848, and in 1871 as revolution followed revolution.

 

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The 1848 revolution painted by Alphonse de Lamartine

 

La Marseillaise was officially resuscitated by Napoleon III when he needed to motivate his troops during the Franco-Prussian War. The song alone could not save France from a thrashing by the Germans, but it was adopted as the national anthem soon after the fall of The Second Empire.  It is, by any measure, a bloodthirsty set of lyrics, but there had been in France a thin line between refinement and brutality as we have seen in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune.

 

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Public executions during the Paris Commune in 1871

 

However, there is something not quite right about the lyrics.  Let’s see if you agree (see also the video below):

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny
Raises its bloody banner
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons and women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conjured kings want?
For whom are these vile chains,
These long-prepared irons?
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage!
What fury must it arouse!
It is us they dare plan
To return to the old slavery!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
What! Foreign cohorts
Would make the law in our homes!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would strike down our proud warriors!
Great God! By chained hands
Our brows would yield under the yoke
Vile despots would have themselves
The masters of our destinies!
To arms, citizens…

Have you read carefully? Strange, indeed. The Children of the Fatherland are supposed to march against foreign cohorts who would make law in the French homes if such a terrible thing would have been allowed. Is that a call to revolution?

Of course not. To begin with, La Marseillaise did not originate in Marseille. It was born in Strasbourg as a war song for the Rhine Army and the author, Rouget de Lisle, was a Royalist.

 

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Original score of the War Song for the Army of the Rhine (1792)

 

We in are April 25, 1792, and Rouget de Lisle is dining at the table of his friend Baron Dietrich. France has declared war against Austria and the talk is about patriotism. Dietrich is outraged that the French army does not yet have a hymn worthy of her name. Something is needed to rouse the troops, a song with a mustache, n’est ce-pas? All heads turn to Rouget de Lisle, who is known for his literary and musical abilities. Lightened with wine, Rouget agrees to write the song.

On his way home, he regrets the rash promise. What does he know about war songs? He is into nature and romance stuff. As he walks the streets of Strasbourg he does notice placard posters on the walls.

“To arms, citizens!” they shout.  “The banner of war is displayed! To arms! We must fight, defeat, or die. If we persist in being free, all the powers of Europe will see their sinful plots fail. Let them tremble, these crowned despots! The splendor of Liberty belongs to all men. You will prove worthy children of Liberty! Run to Victory! Defeat the armies of the despots!”

Rouget de Lisle sees this as a formidable source of inspiration for the song he is about to compose. He does not hesitate to seize whole sentences of the poster. To diversify his sources, he also opens a collection of poems by Boileau and shamelessly copies some verses from the illustrious poet. As for the opening phrase of his song, “Let’s go, children of the fatherland,” he does not go far to look for it either as he belongs to the battalion nicknamed “Les Enfants de la Patrie”.

One would think that Rouget de Lisle at least composed the music. Wrong again. A friend of his, who was also present at the famous dinner at Dietrich’s, a certain Ignace Pleyel, set the words to music. Not that he should be celebrated for his contribution because he stole the score of La Marche d’Ahasuerus, a piece composed by Lucien Grisons, some years previously. Thus, by the deed of triple plagiarism, was born the French anthem.

 

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Auguste Pinelli: Rouget de Lisle Composing the Marseillaise, 1878

 

The success of the song was immediate. Without delay, the lyrics and score were printed and distributed to the soldiers. A few copies of this print run were scattered all over France and landed by chance in Marseille. The song immediately pleased the Marseille’s revolutionaries who were preparing to march on Paris. And here was an enormous band of rugged Southerners singing at the top of their voices the hymn of Rouget de Lisle in the streets of Paris, even though this one was destined to be sung on the Austrian battlefields.

Ironically—and history is loaded with this type of irony—Rouget de Lisle barely escaped the guillotine because of his blue blood. He was released from prison after Robespierre’s execution which marked the end of the Terror. It is also of note that, with the exception of Russia, other European countries achieved Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in a much calmer manner and without shedding the blood of their aristocrats.

You can hear an excellent rendition of La Marseillaise here:

 

Related post:

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A blook? I bet your reaction was “Huh?” as was mine when I first heard that word. That happened two weeks ago and, yesterday, the mailman brought me a fairly heavy parcel which contained my blook. Since yesterday was also my birthday—a very round one—I could have hardly received a better gift.

 

You, too, can have a blook, assuming that you have a blog (who doesn’t?) and a valid credit card. Made of time and energy, a blog is a body without substance, which is in danger of disappearing should the technology that keeps it together break down. I had that thought several times in the past, telling myself that I should print the posts or at least save them, but I failed to find the time. Never mind now. The blook is here to save us from possible cyber-annihilation.

 

So what do you do to get a printed book out of your blog and how long does it take? Assuming, again, that your blog needs no serious editing, and that you need no help with the cover design, the whole process of uploading and pdf-churning takes about ten minutes. The result is a high-quality printed version of your blog plus a free epub edition to read on your phone or tablet while awaiting the delivery of the real thing.

 

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You can choose a program-generated cover design or make your own

 

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Careful with the captions: if you add them as an afterthought, they will format into narrow columns. I had to part with several posts rather than to start over

 

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I would wish for a better use of space here but considering that no human hand handled the page, it looks acceptable

 

 

 

 

 

eiffel story

A postcard stamped with the words Sommet de la Tour Eiffel was a proof that the sender had made it to the top

 

The Eiffel Tower, the unmistakable symbol of Paris, is 128 years old and, with seven million paying visitors a year, it is the most profitable monument in the city. Like all stories, the story of the Eiffel Tower is not without controversy. In the beginning, the odds were against this “odious pillar of bolted metal” as in here:

 
[…]Imagine for a moment a vertiginously ridiculous tower, as well as a gigantic black factory chimney, overlooking Paris, crushing with its barbaric mass the Notre Dame , The Sainte Chapelle, the Saint-Jacques Tower, the Louvre, the dome of the Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our monuments humiliated, all our architectures dwarfed, which will disappear in this astounding dream. And for twenty years we shall see spreading over the whole city, still vibrating with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see the odious shadow of the odious pillar of bolted metal spreading like an inkblot.[…]

 
Thus protested, in a petition published in 1887, the top painters, sculptors, music composers, writers, and other lights of the French cultural elite. Boy, were they wrong! For a start, the tower outlived the twenty years of its proposed duration thanks to its adaptability. It was used for scientific experiments (radio signals from the tower to the Panthéon in 1898), it served as a military radio station in 1903, it facilitated the first public radio program in 1925, and, finally, it adapted to the television signal. As for the ugliness, the 300 petition signatories could not have been more mistaken. What other architectural object in Paris had been inspiring more artistic creativity in painting, poetry, and music? Besides, the petition came too late as the tower had already been under construction for a month. At the time, the project had no other purpose than to showcase the French technical and engineering ability at the 1899 World Fair.

 

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The projected site of the 1899 Paris Universal Exposition on the Champ de Mars

 

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The 1000-foot Tower envisaged for the Philadelphia Universal Exhibition, its height compared to that of the main monuments of the world

 

 

 

The idea of a one-thousand-feet tower came from the United States, where such a project was envisioned for the Philadelphia World Exposition and rejected as impossible to realize. It is well-known, at least among the French, that “l’impossible n’est pas français.” A concourse was launched for a tour with a square base of 25 meters and the height of 300 meters (approx. one thousand feet). The project went to the firm of Gustave Eiffel, whose two engineers, Émile Nouguier and Maurice Kœchlin, were at the origin of the design.

 

 

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The first sketch of the tower by Maurice Kœchlin

 

The construction began on January 28, 1887. Standing 984 feet high upon completion on March 15, 1889, the Eiffel Tower became the world’s tallest structure. It kept that honor for 41 years until the Chrysler Building topped it out in 1930, standing at 1,046 feet.

 

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The tower weighs 10,100 tons and comprises 18,000 metallic parts joined together by 2.5 million rivets. It is possible to climb to the top, but there are 1,665 steps. Most people take the lift.

 

Repainting the tower, which happens every seven years, requires 60 tons of paint. The color of the tower is not uniform. It has three distinct shades of the same hue. The darker is applied near the ground, the lighter covers the upper parts. This is done in order to limit the visual impact of the tower against the Parisian sky.

 

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The tower base with the Trocadéro Palace, which was demolished in 1937 to make room for the Palais de Chaillot

 

Nowadays the color is bronze, but it is not definitive. Indeed, between two painting projects, visitors have the opportunity to give their opinions on the color to be taken for the next painting job. Of course, they have no choice between red, green, yellow or blue, but between different shades of brown-brown-bronze. There is a suggestion box on the first floor of the tower that receives these choices. Initially, the tower was brown-red. Later, it took on a yellow-ocher tone before finding its definitive color in the brown palette.

 

After the completion of the tower, and after having witnessed its success, most of the distinguished petition signatories apologized for their short-sightedness. However, Guy de Maupassant made it his honorable duty to frequently dine at the feet of the tower, which was—according to him—the only place in Paris where the structure could not be seen.

 

Related post:

Paris of the 1870s: Risen From the Ashes

 

beraud

The advertising columns have been an integral part of the Paris boulevard landscape. They hide a story

In The French Art of Drinking without Getting Drunk, we read that Parisians consumed large quantities of drink in public places. It follows that they had to frequently part with excess liquid. Before 1834, they could avail themselves of the services of self-appointed street hygienists who, clad in a leather apron, paced the public places offering a pail. However, money wasted on the men in leather aprons could be better spent on more drinking, and, besides, the pee-man himself could be lounging in some café and drinking away his earnings. Most men simply relieved themselves where the need overtook them and the city stank.

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An early public urinal in alloy

Around 1770, an order was issued to homeowners to install wooden barrels at street corners to serve as urinals. These were useful, but they lacked sophistication and, often, they lacked altogether. In 1834, the Paris City Hall introduced the first public urinals. Unlike the barrels and the men with pails, they were always there, and they were free. The expense of caring for 478 public conveniences proved to be ruinous to the city budget; they needed to generate some income. In 1839, a new design was introduced: an advertising column with the urinal inside. It was a superb idea. By 1868, street columns appeared that served only for advertising and they have been a part of the Parisian street furniture to this day.

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A successful new version added advertising

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The columns generated so much income that their dual function was abandoned and the urinal design developed separately. This one served five men at once

 

The website Vintage Everyday offers a diverting gallery of the Parisian pissotières in all their surprising variety.

 

Related posts:

The French Art of Drinking without Getting Drunk

The Government of Paris Will Sell Your Crinoline

The Government of Paris: A Success Story

 

 

 

 

commune

 

When you take a guided tour in France—whether it is a Loire château, or any other building erected before 1789—inevitably, there comes the time when the guide says: “Unfortunately, during the Revolution…,” and there follows a list of damaged or destroyed artifacts. The French were fond of revolutions – when they were happening. Afterward, seeing what they had done in moments of passion, they wept.

The 1789 revolution, the very first one, is well known. The guillotine, the years of terror, the king Louis XVI and the queen Marie-Antoinette executed. Having gotten the taste of it, the French people became serial revolutionaries. March 18 marks the anniversary of the Commune of Paris, one of the three revolutions that shook the city in the 19th century and, decidedly, the bloodiest of all. The sixty-two days of its duration caused up to thirty thousand deaths (the number varies according to different sources).

What led to this bloodbath? Why did the prosperous France of the Second Empire wake up as an impoverished Third Republic? Why was Paris in ruins?

In July 1870, the French declare war on Prussia, or, rather, are tricked to do it. The crafty Chancellor Bismarck needs the conflict to unify a collection of small German-speaking countries into one powerful nation. Ill-prepared, the French army is defeated by the Prussians in the battle of Sedan and the emperor Napoleon III made prisoner. Riots in Paris follow the bad news and the next day, September 4th, the empire is overthrown. A Republican government moves into the City Hall, while the Prussians close in on Paris.

 

rats

During the siege, dogs, cats, and rats were sold at high prices. The rich dined on exotic meat provided by the zoo animals

 

Paris is besieged during the winter months. The weather is cruel and the city suffers from a severe famine. Hunger and typhoid fever ravage Paris from within, while the Prussians shell it from the outside. Starved and ill, the Parisians learn that a new humiliation had visited the country: the German Empire was proclaimed in Versailles and an armistice has been signed.

 

bismarck

The Empire of Germany, a new European power, is proclaimed in the Versailles palace

 

This does not sit well with the Parisians, who do not consider themselves defeated. The German boots desecrating the exquisite beauty of the Hall of Mirrors? Ce n’est pas acceptable! Anger is rising when they learn the terms of peace.  The Germans demand a two-day entry to Paris, the surrender of two provinces (Alsace and Lorraine) and war reparations amounting to one billion gold coins. Their army would occupy the country until the debt is paid off.

 

victory parade

The German victory parade in the streets of Paris

 

Aware that a revolt is brewing, the government moves its headquarters from Paris to Versailles.  The spark ignites when the government tries to disarm Paris by confiscating 248 cannons from Montmartre and other working-class neighborhoods on the periphery. The cannons belong to the city; they were paid for by war subscription. The people rise to defend their property and the soldiers’ loyalty shifts. Two generals are seized and shot. There is no way back. The insurgents erect barricades and the Commune of Paris is proclaimed.

 

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800 barricades went up in the city

 

Elected on March 26th, the Commune is in direct opposition to the conservative national government. The core, like in all revolutions, are intellectuals, students, writers, artists, and artisans with egalitarian ideas and the vision of justice for all. Outraged as they are by the government’s betrayal, many Parisians of the middle class join in the insurrection. The main muscle of the revolution is the impressionable working class which, when excited, easily turns into a mob.

 

women

Women were heavily engaged in the insurrection, both as nurses and combatants. The 1789 revolution had its tricoteuses (women who took their knitting to the guillotine to keep their hands busy during the executions). The Commune of Paris gives birth to the pétroleuses. “The women behaved like tigresses, throwing petroleum everywhere and distinguishing themselves by the fury with which they fought”. (Edwin Child, a young Londoner working in Paris.)

 

The basic ideas of the revolution are modern and positive: reform of the working conditions, good children education, separation of the church and the state, women’s equality. Their application is awkward, to say the least. “Property is theft,” the revolutionaries declare as they seize the Bank of France. All religious institutions are invaded, their material goods confiscated, the churches turned into social clubs for the people. On April 23, George Sand, the famous novelist and, herself a Republican, writes to Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary:  “The horrible adventure continues. They ransom, they threaten, they arrest, they judge. They have taken over all the city halls, all the public establishments, they’re pillaging the munitions and the food supplies.” 

 

church

Churches became social clubs for the people

 

Without a clear program and with no political experience, the feeling of brotherhood, with which the Commune started, changes into quarrel and resentment. Valuable time is lost in endless debates and little is achieved. Like George Sand, Parisians become tired of this bizarre social experiment. They long for peace and quiet; the poorer ones want to return to their familiar misery with its own reassuring habits. Others, the ardent supporters, are determined to fight. “The Commune or death!” they chant.

 

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The Versailles troops approach the walls of Paris

 

Meanwhile, in Versailles, the government has reconstituted the army with war prisoners released by the Germans. The Germans hold their position northwest of the city while the Versailles troops approach from the southeast. Paris is surrounded again. The insurgents attempt several attacks outside the city walls, each time with no success. They send emissaries to Versailles, who are killed. The Commune, in turn, captures hostages, chiefly among the clergy.  On May 21st, the Versailles troops break in and the infamous Bloody Week begins.

 

combat

Barricades are reinforced and new ones added as the combat rages street by street. The soldiers break into houses and pierce the walls to avoid confrontation with the barricades

 

The army takes no prisoners. Every adversary is shot dead. Unarmed civilians caught with gunpowder traces on their hands are executed as well. The Communards take revenge by killing the hostages. The Archbishop of Paris is among the victims.

 

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The massacre of hostages

 

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The execution of the Archbishop of Paris

 

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Paris burning. In the foreground is the imperial palace

Paris is shelled again, this time by the French army. The Ministry of Finance is destroyed in the process. Fires break out in many prestigious locations. These are later explained by the partisans of the Commune as the result of the shelling. However, most of the gutted buildings bore no traces of shelling. They were deliberately set on fire. The legend of the pétroleuses, if it is a legend, started here. As a result, working-class women caught carrying a suspicious container were summarily executed.

 

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The City Hall on fire

 

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The imperial palace after the fire

 

Government and police offices are consumed by the fire, their archives destroyed. The air, already unbreathable, is filled with whirling charred paper remains that settle on the roofs and sidewalks. The Tuileries palace is a total loss. The stones will be sold, piece by piece, as construction material. A wing of the Louvre also suffered fire damage.

The novelist Emile Zola, was one of the first reporters to enter the city during the Bloody Week. He wrote: “Never in civilized times has such a terrible crime-ravaged a great city […] The men of the Hotel de Ville could not be other than assassins and arsonists. They were beaten and fled like robbers from the regular army, and took vengeance upon the monuments and houses […] The fires of Paris have pushed over the limit the exasperation of the army. […] Those who burn and who massacre merit no other justice than the gunshot of a soldier.”

 

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The end of the Commune

 

The revenge is atrocious and out of proportion. The Commune killed 64 hostages yet the insurgents are now butchered by the thousands. Nobody is spared, even the injured patients in an ambulance along with the doctors and nurses. Women are shot with children in their arms.

 

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Many innocents were shot along with the rebels

 

Four days after the battle is over, Emile Zola reports in a softened tone: “The court martials are still meeting and the summary executions continue, less numerous, it’s true. The sound of firing squads, which one still hears in the mournful city, atrociously prolongs the nightmare […] Paris is sick of executions. It seems to Paris that they’re shooting everyone. Paris is not complaining about the shooting of the members of the Commune, but of innocent people. It believes that, among the pile, there are innocent people, and that it’s time that each execution is preceded by at least an attempt at a serious inquiry […] When the echoes of the last shots have ceased, it will take a great deal of gentleness to heal the million people suffering nightmares, those who have emerged, shivering from the fire and massacre.”

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G. Sand

Emerging, shivering from the fire, is also George Sand. She writes:” I come from Paris, and I do not know whom to speak to. I am suffocated. I am quite upset, or rather out of heart. The sight of the ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian insanity. With very rare exceptions, everybody seemed to me only fit for the strait-jacket. One-half of the population longs to hang the other half, which returns the compliment. That is clearly to be read in the eyes of the passers-by.”

 

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Prisoners being taken to Versailles

 

The surviving rebels are marched twenty miles to Versailles. They suffer insults along the way. One of the gossipy Goncourt brothers later recalled that he saw society ladies, who had never raised their voice, vomit their hatred using invectives that would make a sailor blush.

 

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Female prisoners awaiting interrogations

 

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The trials were of short duration, with the execution soon after

 

The prisoners, who were not condemned to death, were shipped to New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific Ocean.  Forty-three thousand were sent there in crowded conditions and with little food. A handful came back after the amnesty twenty years later.

In all, with thirty thousand dead, not counting the injured, and another forty thousand deported, it took over ten years to restore the Paris working force. Those people were not only the manual laborers. They were also highly skilled workers and artisans of superior training. Even today, 146 years after the event, there are fresh flowers laid at the wall where the last Communards were executed. The working class keeps paying respect to the victims of this Parisian calamity.

Related posts:

How Germany was Born in France (The Shah of Persia, on his 1873 visit to Europe, comments on the post-Commune Paris)

Paris of the 1870s: Risen from the Ashes

12 Events That Influenced 19th Century Paris

 

 

 

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Backstage at the Opera by Jean Béraud

The title of this post is not an exaggeration, although the Opera directors would have preferred a more subtle one or, ideally, a complete silence on the subject.  The Béraud’s painting above needs no further words. There is the internationally popular Edgar Degas with his paintings of hard-working, hard-driven little dancers, and there is our say-it-as-it-is Jean Béraud (more of him here), who bluntly covers the other end of the story. The true story of the Degas’s dancers.

In our day, such an enablement of the sex commerce in a prestigious cultural institution would be unthinkable.  Welcome to the 19th century for a taste of life without women’s rights and women’s education, where a career choice outside marriage was limited mainly to servitude or prostitution. In a world made by men for the men, the Opera direction facilitated the meetings between wealthy men and the ballerinas by providing the former with an access to the backstage and, above all, to the dance foyer, where they could observe the dancers at a close range and, eventually, make a choice.  The access was available for a substantial subscription fee.

In the 19th century, the ballet was more than the high-brow entertainment that makes today’s real men yawn. It was the height of an erotic experience.  In an age, when an accidental glimpse of a female ankle could send a man’s heart into overdrive, the spectacle of exposed legs and nude arms in a variety of alluring positions would beat the Stanley Cup in attendance. (Also, and this may be somewhat important, there were no sports matches to watch.) A man’s prestige mattered as well. To maintain a Paris Opera ballerina, or at least to be seen dining with one, meant that you have arrived socially and economically.

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The Dance Class by Edgar Degas, 1874

Now back to Edgar Degas and his suffering little dancers. Since the profession was morally disreputable, the recruits came from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. A pretty daughter with a dancing talent was a God-sent gift to a struggling family.  It was on the frail shoulders of this 12- to 13-year-old that the future of the family rested – it was her duty to provide them with a better life. Dancing alone would not bring the riches, the riches would come from the admirers; the girls knew that from the very beginning.

For the dancer, the road to success inevitably comes through men.  First, there is the ballet master with his close touch while straightening a waist, repositioning a leg, or stretching an arm. The girl surrenders to the inescapable in order not to compromise her professional ascent. Then come other men, who all, one way or another, hold her career in their hands: the librettist, who gives her a role – or not – in the next ballet and the director who renews – or not – her contract. If she really wants to break out of the anonymity of the dance corps, she must quickly seduce a wealthy protector, who would pay for advanced dance classes.

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A daughter’s virtue was a subject to negotiation

To maintain a pretense of respectability, the direction allowed chaperones to be present at all times. These women, whether they were a mother, an aunt, or an older cousin, were the driving force behind each dancer and the unavoidable intermediaries between the girl and men.  Other lessons were needed and provided:  how to be desirable was taught with the same importance as the pas de danse. Théophile Gautier notes the results of this licentious education:  “The young ballerina is at once corrupt as an old diplomat and as naïve as a good savage. At the age of thirteen, she could teach a courtesan.”

The “mothers” then negotiate the charms of their daughters and they can be quite tyrannical. Is the interested party old and ugly? Too bad, he’s got money so the daughter better be nice to him. Prices are agreed upon and, if a long-term liaison is in the making, a contract is signed at the notary’s office. A skillful mother can make herself included in the monthly allowance.

Those, who are not urged by their mothers to give themselves to a man do so on their own will. Without the protection of a wealthy man and, if possible, a titled one, they have no access to a professional recognition. It’s a man’s world and, in this profession, the masculine element holds the power. The only weapons in the arsenal of the ballerina are cunning and seduction.

Related posts:

Jean Béraud: The Most Parisian of the Paris Painters

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 6: Entertainment

 

 

Eugenie, the Tragic Empress

winterhalterEver since she became an empress, Eugenie de Montijo feared Queen Marie-Antoinette’s fate. She was right to feel uneasy. Eighteen years into the reign and some eighty years after Marie-Antoinette’s head was severed under the guillotine, Eugenie ran in terror through the streets of Paris with a mob at her heels. The year was 1870 and the only friend the French empress found in her distress was her American dentist.

Eugenie doesn’t deserve her lack of fame. Who doesn’t know Marie-Antoinette and her horrible end? Who has never heard of Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I? Both are legendary figures of the French history. One was executed; the other had to agree to a divorce. That the French had two more empresses, Marie-Louise and Eugenie, is a lesser known fact. Marie-Louise’s contribution to the French history was reduced to giving Napoleon his only legitimate heir, an heir that Josephine was unable to provide.  After the fall of the First Empire, Marie-Louise and her little son (who might have ruled as Napoleon II had he not died in the exile) went to live in her native Austria and neither saw France again.

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Napoleon III

With the Bonaparte family banished from the country, France went through two Bourbon kings and two revolutions to become, again, a republic. After 34 years in the exile, the Bonapartes were back, this time headed by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I. His four-year stint as an elected French president ended in 1852 with a coup d’état when he took what he considered rightfully his: the imperial crown. Henceforth, he was known as Napoleon III.

Generally, the French don’t like Napoleon III. They call him Napoleon le Petit and they say that he did nothing for the glory of France. They seem not to notice that their glorious Napoleon I turned Europe into a battlefield where he sacrificed an entire generation of Frenchmen and caused untold misery to people all over the continent from Spain to Russia. His nephew, on the contrary, was an achiever of another sort. Under his 18-year rule, France conquered the world with her culture and industry. He was the builder of Paris as we know it today, with the wide avenues and sanitary underbelly. He was a modern man in every sense and he truly cared for his people’s well-being.

Fortunately, the new emperor was a bachelor and he could hope to find a bride of royal blood to solidify his lofty position.  Unfortunately, he was also the slave of his hormones. While his emissaries were shopping for a suitable bride among the reluctant royal families of Europe—they all still smarted from the consequences of his uncle’s conquests—Napoleon III met the woman of his life and she was not a royal.

Even though Eugenie de Montijo was a stunning beauty, she would never have made the history books had she been only one of Louis Napoleon’s easy conquests. Let’s say it right here:  the man had a long list of bedroom adventures although he wasn’t averse to having sex in any other room, in any stationary or moving vehicle, or even in a haystack –  standing, sitting or laying down.  His sexual appetite was legendary and sometimes embarrassingly noticeable. His Majesty the Empereur was renamed by his sneering courtiers His Majesty the Ampleur.

In Eugenie he found a fortress to be conquered. The rules were laid down very early after the two met.  He was still the Prince-President of the French Republic, she the 26-year-old daughter of a widowed Spanish countess. He invited the two women for a weekend in a country chateau. As he was returning from a horse ride, he spotted Eugenie at one of the numerous windows. Not knowing the exact layout of the building, he called: “How do I get to you?” “Through the chapel, Sire,” she answered.

The siege of Eugenie lasted eleven months before her would-be-conqueror declared defeat. By that time France had, once again, become an empire with Louis Napoleon on the throne. Everyone, especially his family, expected him to do his duty by marrying a virginal princess. Instead, he presented them with a Spanish adventuress of dubious virtue. They were furious.  “But I love her,” he said simply.

Eugenie’s extraordinary resistance to seduction was explained during the wedding night.  She had no appetite for physical love. “Sex? Quelle saleté!” (Sex? What filth!) she was heard saying the next morning. Despite his wife’s attitude, the emperor remained faithful to her for a period of six months before he returned to his old habits. That did not sit well with the new empress. She was very particular about her possessions and she would make a scene for a displaced pillow let alone for a displaced husband. The household was soon aware of her displeasure, most of all the emperor, who was forbidden access to the marital bed. But the pair had to produce an heir. A truce followed during which the task was accomplished. A lovely baby boy was born and given the title Prince Impérial. There were no other children. For the rest of the Napoleon III’s reign, the easily virtuous Eugenie presided over one of the most debauched courts in history, a court where adultery was the norm and a one-night stand with the emperor a badge of honor.

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The Second Empire court at its zenith. A soiree at the Tuileries, 1867

By now the reader has reached the opinion that Eugenie was a gold-digger with a block of ice where her heart ought to have been. That is incorrect. Most of her life was spent in serious charitable endeavors. An early feminist, she was pushing for female education and advocating the recognition of women’s achievements in literature, arts, and education. That her efforts were largely unsuccessful was the fault of the society she lived in. The reforms she championed came too early.

As an empress, Eugenie was without reproach. Always courteous and elegant, she represented her country admirably, whether at home or abroad. Queen Victoria, favorably impressed, quickly became Eugenie’s intimate friend. Politically, Eugenie certainly had an influence on the emperor, especially when he was weakened by a disease in the last years of his reign.  The Bonapartes had many enemies; the most influential among them was the ultra republican Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables. Acting from his exile, he bombarded the imperial pair with insulting pamphlets.  The mud stuck and Eugenie was blamed for everything that went wrong. Like Marie Antoinette, she was foreign and foreign queens were suspected of spying for their homeland and generally wishing ill to the French people.

The declaration of war on Prussia and the consequent debacle were entirely laid at her feet. While her husband, suffering from a debilitating pain, eagerly sought honorable death on the battlefield before surrendering to Bismarck, Eugenie refused to shoot into an angry mob that surrounded the imperial palace.  She chose to flee.  Alone, she tried several addresses before help was offered.  Her savior was Dr. Evans, her American dentist. The pair sneaked off to the coast where the empress, in strict incognito, boarded a ship for England.  As for Dr. Evans, he dined on the story for the rest of his life.

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The widowed Eugenie and her son in a Tissot’s painting, 1878

After the emperor’s comfortable imprisonment in the newly formed German Empire, the family is reunited in Camden Place, Chislehurst, southeast of London, to begin a life in the exile.  A plan for regaining his throne is certainly in the making when the emperor dies. From then on, Eugenie lives entirely for her son’s future. Not long after, tragedy strikes again: the prince, engaged in the war with the Zulus in South Africa, is slain by the savages.

The news makes the round of the planet. That his mother is devastated is understandable. oldBut the prince’s death crushed the hopes of numerous Bonapartists. It was generally understood that should the handsome prince claim the imperial crown it would be his for the taking. The grief in France could be compared to the one felt by the British when Princess Diana succumbed after the car accident. Husbandless and childless, Eugenie drags her sorrow through the rest of her long life. She dies in 1920 at the age of ninety-four.

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