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Posts Tagged ‘19th century France’

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“I equal the highest-born ladies with my birth, I surpass them with my beauty, and I judge them with my mind.” Thus spoke Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione, who was convinced that she was the most beautiful woman since God had created the World. With this attitude, she managed to lead not one but several lives. Conspirator and diplomat in petticoats, an emancipated courtesan, a pioneer of photography,  an art director and producer, La Castiglione was, above all, a professional beauty. Aged only 18, married for a year and mother of a male child, Virginia—Nicchia to family and friends—already managed to add several lovers to her stable of admirers in her native land. One of them was Victor Emmanuel IIKing of Sardinia, who dreamt of a united Italy.

 

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A part of Northern Italy (in yellow) was then a territory of the Austrian Empire and the Austrians were unwilling to part with it. An armed conflict could not be won without strong allies. One of the most desirable allies for this project was Napoleon III. Knowing the French monarch’s penchant for women, Victor Emmanuel and his minister Cavour (Virginia’s cousin) thought of the Pearl of Italy as Virginia was then known. They charged her with the mission of convincing the French emperor to lend a helping hand for the unification of the country. Impressed with the importance of the plot, she accepted eagerly. The king and his minister profited from their visit to France by spreading the rumor of her beauty so that when she finally appeared in Paris, in January 1856, she was the object of a wide-spread curiosity at the Court.

 

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A costume ball saw La Castiglione in her famous Queen of Hearts outfit. She wears it without a corset and the transparent gauze reveals her bosom. Empress Eugenie remarked with open sarcasm that the heart was seated too low

 

The diplomatic task was not as easy as Virginia expected. Napoleon III, usually easily seducible, resisted for four agonizing months.  During that time, the countess spent heavily on extravagant outfits with very low-cut necklines. One wit observed that the larger Virginia’s décolletages became, the less room there remained in men’s pants. She began to specialize in spectacular entrances, usually toward the end of social gatherings. On one such occasion, she entered the ballroom as Napoleon III was leaving. “You are too late,” he said to her. “No, Sire. You are leaving too early,” she retorted.

This marked a break in her bad luck. The emperor, who had considered her a dull doll, took notice. Her appearance at a masked ball as a Decadent Roman Woman finally brought result. With her abundant hair loose and her skirt split to show a nude leg, a ring on each toe, she caused a sensation. A crowd gathered around her to gape; some women even climbed onto the furniture to get a better view. Within a week, she became the emperor’s mistress and her letters describing successful pillow talks reached the Sardinian embassy to be dispatched by the diplomatic mail.

While Virginia enjoyed the status of the emperor’s mistress, her impoverished husband returned home to sell the family silver. His wife extravagance had ruined him and the pair separated for good. Virginia made no friends at the French court either. She was heartily hated by all for her stupid arrogance. They called her the Too Much Countess and when she kept bragging about her lover’s gifts, the emperor cut her off without mercy. Napoleon III would not tolerate indiscreet mistresses.

 

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The Too Much Countess

 

After two years basking in the imperial favor, La Castiglione returned home to Turin, defeated, and soon sank into boredom. She brightened up when Victor Emmanuel granted her a pension for her diplomatic merits. She began to travel to the courts of Europe as her scandalous reputation led to invitations from people who wanted to satisfy their curiosity. During her stay at the court of the King of Prussia, she made the acquaintance of Chancellor Bismarck. Her second chance at diplomacy came much later (in 1871) when Napoleon III, ill, defeated, and with his empire in ruins, asked her to intervene with Bismarck to cancel his plan for the Prussian army to occupy Paris. Paris was spared the Prussian occupation.

 

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During her first stay in Paris, Virginia posed for many photographs as was expected from fashionable ladies. She returned in 1861 with her son Giorgio to have more pictures taken. This was a hobby, and a passion, that was to last for the next forty years. She spent her fortune on elaborate costumes and props

 

In 1863, she was invited to a costume ball in the imperial palace. She appeared disguised as Queen of Etruria. Virginia rushed the next day to the photography studio to immortalize her outfit. Convinced of her success and her return to the upper echelons, she took lascivious and suave poses, miming innocence. However, the costume was judged scandalous. The press was unleashed and she was accused of appearing naked at the party.

 

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Her husband, still in Italy, threatened to take Giorgio back. She responded with a photograph called “The Vengeance”. In this picture, she is dressed in the same costume of Queen of Etruria but with a cape covering her shoulders. Another addition is a dagger she holds in her hand. After this, her husband ceased to protest.

 

The volcanic countess continued to produce dramatic photographs of herself for many years. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a collection of some 400 of them. Virginia appears as a tragic victim,  a pursued virgin, a nun, an Odalisque, and many other incarnations. She was the first to invent dramatic poses. By choosing the costumes, the angles, and the shots, she wrote a new chapter in the history of photography.

 

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La Castiglione in 1875. As the years passed, the mirror returned a less satisfactory image.

 

Women, who build their life on their beauty alone, suffer when old age hits.  A few of the lucky ones accept their fate and do not fight the wrinkles. Others hang on using artificial means to keep their beauty until they become the caricatures of their former selves. Some go into hiding.  No longer able to admire herself in the mirror, Virginia banned all mirrors from her house. With both her husband and her son deceased, she ended her days alone, immured in a modest Parisian apartment with the walls covered in black and the shutters closed. She died in 1899, aged 62. The Italian embassy immediately dispatched an agent to burn all possible compromising correspondence.

 

Related posts:

The English Courtesan Who Made a French Emperor

Disdéri’s Photo Studio: Kings, Queens, and Pretty Legs

 

Traveller’s Bonus: Top 10 Free Museums in Paris

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Carriages returning from a Sunday parade in the Bois

 

A previous post described the random free spectacles of the Paris streets. The largest and most ostentatious free show had a steady schedule. Every day, between 2:00 and 4:00 PM, the wealthy shamelessly exposed their luxury to each other, and to the unwashed masses, in the Bois de Boulogne parade.

 

Going to the Bois on a workday

 

Before becoming the favorite place of all social Paris in the 19th century, the Bois de Boulogne had a history. Originally, the forest extended on the plains and hillsides of the right bank of the Seine. A landmark of brigands and vagabonds, the ancient forest was also the favorite place of royal hunts. At the end of Napoleon I’s regime, it was devastated by the occupying troops who encamped there. Although in poor condition and crossed by narrow roads of bad quality, it became nevertheless, around 1830, the rendezvous of all Paris society.


In 1852, the State yielded the wood to the city of Paris with the charge of its development and maintenance. Emperor Napoleon III had envisioned the creation of a large landscaped park similar to Hyde Park. The project was entrusted to the engineer J.J. Alphand who created two lakes, the largest of which measures 19 hectares. Various amenities: large alleys, the racecourse of Longchamp (opened in 1858), the Garden of Acclimatization, and several restaurants completed the whole landscape.

 

Riding in the Daumont style
Riding in the Daumont Style


During the Second Empire (1852-1870), the equestrian rendezvous of the Bois de Boulogne was rated as a meeting of the supreme social chic. The chroniclers of the time tell us of its splendor:

“At the height of luxury was the attelage à la Grand Daumont, with its postilions in livery— of sober or bright colors according to the tastes of the masters—the footmen behind the hood, arms crossed, the two men in a row on horses of the same dress as the four draft horses. Then there came the eighth-spring, the queen of the passenger carriages. There was also the elegant half-Daumont of a duke with horses very close and absolutely under the whip of the gentleman-coachman who drove almost standing. The tandem cabriolet was another fantasy designed to bring out the talent of the gentleman-coachman. Then came a cute cart dragged by two pretty ponies under the hand of the elegant lady who also wanted to show that she could hold the reins.  All aristocratic, luxurious and worldly Paris was there, struggling with elegance and sumptuousness … “

 

 

Romance, or the carnal desire, also played its part. The poet Beaudelaire best describes the mood:


“Sometimes a horseman gallops gracefully beside an open carriage, and his horse appears, by his bows, to salute in his own way. The carriage carries away, in an alley streaked with light and shade, the beauties lying as in a boat, indolent, vaguely listening to the gallantries fall into their ears and indulging themselves lazily in the wind of the promenade. The fur and muslin rise to their chins and overflow like a wave over the door. The servants are stiff, perpendicular, inert, and all alike; it is always the monotonous and featureless effigy of punctual, disciplined servility … “

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On the side of the great courtesans, luxury was no less brilliant. The famous Madame Musard had a half-Daumont, whose postilions were dressed in violet livery and mounted black horses of admirable beauty. Cora Pearl had set up her stable and was leading it with an authority that made the gossips tell that she must have been brought up by a groom. Adele Courtois, Caroline Letessier, the Barucci, famous for the baccarat affair, all had their car driven to the Daumont, and their livery could compete with those of the oldest houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

Empress Eugenie

Lady Harriet, the courtesan who financed the emperor while he was waiting for his crown, approached by her colors the imperial livery. Madame Lejeune had the audacity to do better. She took the imperial colors outright. One day, her Daumont went out, preceded by two scouts in green and gold, with a hunter on horseback at the left door and two carriage boys following also on horseback. As she had a certain resemblance to the Empress, all the sergeants of the town who saw the arrival of this crew on the Place de la Concorde, rushed forward, made room for them, and finally raised the chains of the Arc de Triomphe, so that the sovereign could pass. She went in this style to the entrance of the Bois. This adventure made a big noise. As a consequence, it was expressly forbidden to employ a livery which, even approximately, recalled that of the Emperor.

This luxury only grew from year to year. It was at its peak in 1867 at the time of the World Exposition. With the fall of the Empire, the splendor would gradually fade: the walks in the Bois and participation in the various events took a different look.

 

Courses in the Bois de Boulogne by Eduard Manet 1872

During the siege of Paris, part of the food of fish and game came from the Bois. More destructive authorization was given to the trade of timber dealers to exploit the Bois de Boulogne. The devastation increased during the battles between Versailles and the Communards. After the war, the southern part, the most devastated, was transformed into the racecourse of Auteuil. From 1872, social life resumed and we could see again the parades of carriages crossing the Bois for the Grand Prix de Longchamp.

 

 

After the Great War ended in 1918, this activity declined. The prodigal nobility of the nineteenth and early twentieth century no longer existed. Only the profiteers of war, the new rich, held the high ground and the automobile had taken over. An époque ended.

Related posts:

The English Courtesan that Made a French Emperor

The Guide to Gay Paree 1868: Sightseeing

 

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When one lives in Paris, nothing is as difficult as staying at home. The city contains so many enticing spectacles, free or paid entertainment, that the temptation often becomes the strongest and that one abandons one’s home, attracted as we are by the charm of the street. We do not know what we are going to see, but we are sure we will see something, and that something will be new. Curiosity is so strong in Paris that the trees themselves undergo it and set themselves in motion.”

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ACROSS PARIS by Crafty

So said Crafty, whose real name was Victor Eugène Géruzez (1840 – 1906). This graphic artist, painter, draftsman, and author of literature for youth, authored several picture albums depicting life in Paris in his humorous style. Let’s see how trees moved in Paris (and still do) as well as other spectacles, most of them completely free.

 

 

 

 

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Fire!

 

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The Aftermath of Fire

 

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A Wedding

 

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The Omnibus Station 

 

 

 

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Poster Men Taking a Lunch Rest

 

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A Runaway Horse

 

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A Guided City Tour

 

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A Downpour

 

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At the Confectioner’s

 

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At the Bookseller’s / Food for the Mind

 

C-AN ACCIDENT ( Rue de Rivoli )

Running on Empty

 

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Traffic-Stopping Street Hygiene

 

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The Suburban Train

 

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After Midnight

 

Related post:

Events in the Street: Female Duel with Sand-Filled Socks

A Traveler’s Bonus:  The Most Beautiful Metro Stations in Paris

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A Belle Epoque courtesan of the first magnitude, Marthe de Florian (1864-1939) has been well forgotten since her “sentimental retirement”. But the reopening of her apartment, seven decades after her death, reminded her to our good memory by the brilliance of her treasures.

 

Monsieur Olivier Choppin Janvry is not close to forgetting the spring day of  2010 when he was mandated by a provincial notary to open a Parisian apartment which remained hermetically sealed since the beginning of WW2. This real estate of fifteen hundred square feet located in the Pigalle neighborhood was a frozen in sanctuary. Under a thin layer of dust, a whole world of high gallantry began to revive through the correspondence carefully classified and color-coded with silk ribbon ties according to the sender.

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France during WW2

The owner of the place died in Trouville-sur-Mer on August 29, 1939, bequeathing the apartment to her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, then aged 20. During the German occupation, soon after, Solange left Paris to join the Free Zone in the south of France and settled down in the Ardèche. She never returned to the capital but, for the next seventy years, she scrupulously paid the quarterly dues on this Parisian apartment.

When she died in May 2010,  aged 91, the apartment revealed its Art Nouveau treasures, and especially a superb life-size portrait of its former owner clad in a vaporous evening dress of pale pink satin.

 

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An expert identified the author of the portrait: Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). Executed in 1898, this masterpiece remained an unknown in the work of the famous portrait painter and later sold for more than two million euros. It was common knowledge that the artist did not deign to honor a portrait commission below one million francs – except for a privileged relationship with the model. The wealthy Italian buyer of the painting was offered as a bonus a package of correspondence enlightening the personality of the said model and the gallant history of the Third Republic.

 

Who was Marthe de Florian? From a midinette to a high-end courtesan, read her story here.

Update: Some details in this article are disputed here.

Related posts:

The Noon Girl: La Midinette
The Gallery of Achievers: The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt

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The colorful Belle Epoque posters make the joy of collectors. Not only are they highly decorative and amusing in their occasional naïveté but they also inform us about the changing lifestyle. New alimentary products appear, such as chemical taste enhancers and food substitutes. Maggi, powdered milk, and margarine became regular ingredients of people’s diet. Chocolat, previously only served as drink, acquired the solid form of tablets as we know them today. Biscuits were produced industrially.

 

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“The French Sardine Says Hello!” Food talked to people before the advertising industry discovered that humanizing animals we eat was not a good idea.

 

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Sausages that “One Eats with Pleasure and Without Fatigue”. A prodigious pig (cochon prodigue) indeed! An animal that happily slices itself for the consumer’s delight would probably turn off today’s viewers. The Belle Epoque folk were made of a tougher stock.

 

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Seen only in greasy spoons today, a bottle of Maggi was a novelty worthy of a bourgeois table.

 

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A bowlful of chemically enhanced soup before the bedtime was a sign of good parenting

 

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Bonjour! Do you eat Maggi soups? Sold in every grocery

 

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This margarine obtained gold medals in Amsterdam {1883) and Le Havre (1887)

 

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Be it cheese, beer, champagne or herb liquor, monks were trusted to produce quality food and drink

 

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In this boy’s mind, solid chocolate is better than solid gold

 

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Biscuits to be served with champagne. A beautiful poster by Alphonse Mucha, 1896

 

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A boy in a typical school uniform is enjoying sweet biscuits

 

 

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Cookies could start a romance (1896)

 

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“No arms, no chocolate”. This bizarre advertising depicts a well-known French saying. One could think that this cruelty hides a wisdom of some sort; that it can be interpreted as “no effort, no reward.” That is not so. This replica is passed on in popular language and is serving to highlight the absurdity of a ban or to make fun of someone faced with a physical impossibility:

“Mom, can I have chocolate?”
“There’s some in the closet. Go serve yourself.”
“But Mom, I can’t, you know I don’t have arms.”
“No arms, no chocolate!”
Obviously, it makes some sense to the French.

 

 

Related post:

The Belle Epoque Lifestyle: Personal Hygiene

 

 

 

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The Arrival of the Midinettes by Jean Béraud

 

In the earlier Parisian fauna, we met the grisettes and the gigolettesThe former were independent working-class girls often romantically involved with students. The latter, the equivalent of gangsters’ molls, were mostly full-time prostitutes. Generally speaking, while the grisettes centered in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank, which housed the Sorbonne, the Polytechnic School, and other important educational institutions, the gigolettes inhabited the working-class neighborhoods on the city periphery.

The Right Bank, around the rue de la Paix, saw a rapidly-growing number of couture houses and luxury accessories workshops populated by young and fashion-conscious female workers. At noon -midi – these girls hurried out to take a light meal – dinette – in a cheap restaurant or simply on a public garden bench. The age of the midinette extends from around 1850 to the 1960s, when the haute-couture business began to fade.

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The Milliner on the Champs Elysées by Jean Béraud

Both the grisette and the midinette were steady figures in the romantic imagery of Paris. They acted as the muses for writers and painters. Poems, songs,  novels, and later movies, paid homage to them. The tragic Mimi, from the opera La Bohêmeimmediately comes to mind.

The midinette is painted as she trots the streets delivering a dress or a new hat. She is immortalized dancing in public balls or enjoying a Sunday picnic. Little is said about a 12-hour day and insufficient wages. The girl, who wants to be fashionable, may resort to prostitution to pay for her finery.

The temptation is ever-present. At noon, the predators are waiting. Old men in the pursuit of youth gather at the entrance of the couture houses, offering the treat of a luxury lunch; men with dark intentions roam the public gardens, where the girls rest.

 

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“With no regard for your white hair, you run after the midinettes. Merry Spring finds Winter scary – don’t bother the young girls,” says this postcard

 

Paris honored her working girls. The washerwomen became queens for a day.  As for the midinettes, once a year, they participated in a grueling competition known as The Race of the Midinettes.

 

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The course started on the Place de la Concorde and led up the Champs Elysées, and past the Arc de Triomphe, to end after 12 kilometers (approx. 8 miles) in Nanterre. A newspaper describes the event in 1903:

All these young ladies, competing first, in the most varied costumes, some, not all, very successful: then the crowd of relatives, friends, and finally innumerable, thick, the troop of the curious. The departure was laborious. At last, at half – past eleven, a real army sprang from the Place de la Concorde towards the Arc de Triomphe; cars, cabs, bicycles, motorcycles, struggled in the midst of all this and, although preceded by Paris guards on horseback, the Midinettes sometimes had to play fists to make their way. The first arrival was Miss Jeanne Cheminel, a pleasant twenty-four-year-old brunette who shot her 12 kilometers in 1:10, which is meritorious. This sturdy walker is a milliner, and that somewhat upset a few seamstresses, who, behind her, nevertheless obtained the best places. Here, in fact, were the first: Jeanne Cheminel, milliner; Lucie Fleury, seamstress; Marie Touvard, seamstress; Louise Balesta, seamstress; Alice Brard, seamstress; Mathide Mignot, seamstress; Kugel, seamstress; Marguerite Pradel, seamstress; Jeanne Brederie, seamstress.

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A competitor in the race offered a pleasant sight: a chic naval hat sitting on freshly curled hair, a dress with a lace collar, the waist squeezed with a corset. A bouquet of fresh flowers pinned at the shoulder completed the outfit

 

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The end of the race shows considerable damage to the outfit and the hairdo. The sport was in its infancy and so was the fashion for the competitors. See how men dressed for this type of events here

 

Related posts:

From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris

La Grisette

Parisian Prostitutes (2): La Gigolette

 

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An attack on a police wagon. Criminal gangs were the scourge of Paris

 

It was never easy to police Paris. The Parisians, instead of being glad for the help and protection, have always despised their policemen.  The contempt has been profound and general. It could be that the Parisians, more than most, don’t want to be told how to behave. A strike, a riot, a revolution, have been their tools of political and social change across the 19th century and well beyond. To say that policing during the Belle Epoque  (1870 – 1914) was a martyrdom would be a slight exaggeration but it was a very hard job on a tiny pay. The police staff was recruited mostly from the army and the discipline in the police corps was just as hard, if not harder. The recruits had to have a virginal criminal record. According to the 1880s tariff, the policeman earned 4 francs and 75 cents for an eleven and a half-hour day. In comparison, a maid-of-all-work touched one franc a day.  For that pitiful wage, the men had to risk their lives in many wild scenarios that are nowadays shared among different rescue services. In 1884, for example, the statistics show one killed policeman and 144 injured ones.

Let’s have a look at a policeman’s day and the variety of crimes committed in that era:

 

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Strikes of all sorts are still part of the urban life in Paris

 

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The Belle Epoque Paris faced the threat of various anarchist bomb-throwers. Bombs exploded in the National Assembly, in police stations, in cafés, or simply in the street. Premature explosions also happened, as in this picture

 

 

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The public, accustomed to the explosion of anarchists’ bombs, reacts to a malfunctioning motorcar

 

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Police had to deal with the raging crowd when a hated criminal was transported. Here they protect Jeanne Weber, a serial child killer

 

 

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Arrestation of the Sirène de Reuilly. Marie-Thérèse de Gordoue, or simply Gourdon in real life, was a successful courtesan and the head of a large crime organization

 

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Criminal gang members, suspected of snitching, were separated from their noses during a surgery without anesthesia

 

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Shopkeepers, working alone, were often victims of robbery and murder

 

 

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The Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of the city continues to this day to be the playground of vice and crime. From time to time, the authorities ordered a thorough cleanup.

 

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A police raid in a “hôtel de passe”. These establishments rented rooms on the hour. Considered immoral, they were often visited by the police. Men went scot-free but women caught in the raid were transported to the police depot, and from there to the Saint-Lazare female prison

 

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Escapes and roof chases kept the policemen in good physical condition

 

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The police operated at different height levels. A pickpocket plucked from a tree

 

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At the commissariat, a thief surrenders a watch he had swallowed

 

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Family drama: The father is not dead yet but the fierce competition among the siblings is already in a full swing

 

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A police commissaire is seriously injured in a Paris riot

 

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Another victim of duty, an undercover police officer is shot in front of the Moulin Rouge

 

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Acts of bravery and dedication abounded despite the public contempt for policemen

 

Related posts:

The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

Murder Most Horrible: The Bloody Trunk Case

Saint-Lazare: Women in Prison

1890’s Terror in Paris: History Repeating Itself

 

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