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Posts Tagged ‘19th century France’

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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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Very few liquors deserved so much attention in literature, painting, and poetry as did the absinthe, the favorite drink of the Parisian artistic community. Absinthe drinking involved an ever-fascinating ritual, best described in one of Marcel Pagnol’s novels (Le Temps des Secrets):

“The poet’s eye shone suddenly, and then, in a deep silence, began a kind of ceremony. He installed before him a glass, which was very big, after checking its cleanliness. He then took the bottle, uncorked it, smelled it, and poured an amber liquid with green reflections, whose dose he seemed to measure with suspicious attention, for, after examination and reflection, he added a few drops. He then took from the tray a kind of small silver shovel, which was narrow and long, and pierced with cut-outs in the shape of arabesques. He put this device, like a bridge, on the edges of the glass, and charged it with two lumps of sugar.


With a hand resting on her hip at the end of her gracefully rounded arm, the Infanta lifted the pitcher high enough, then with an infallible address, she dropped a very thin stream of fresh water on the sugar cubes, which began to fall apart slowly.


The poet, whose chin was almost touching the table, between his two hands laid flat, watched closely the operation. The Infanta’s jug was as motionless as a fountain, and Isabelle was no longer breathing. In the liquid, whose level was rising slowly, I saw forming a kind of milky haze, in twisted twists that eventually joined, while a penetrating scent of anise was refreshing my nostrils. ”

Absinthe was also called the Green Fairy as it was believed that it opened the door to a fairyland


The effect of absinthe varies from person to person but it can be described as mind and eye-sharpening.  Some consumers mention impressive dreams. The active ingredient in absinthe is a plant called wormwood.  The most persistent misunderstanding about wormwood is that it is a drug. Although not true, this vision of absinthe as a dangerous intoxicant and hallucinogen grew until the liquor got banned.

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)


Paintings of absinthe drinkers usually depict melancholy and resigned individuals:

The Absinthe Drinkers Au Café By Edgar Degas, 1876





The Absinthe Drinker by Pablo Picasso, 1901





Absinth Drinkers by Jean Béraud, 1908

Absinthe got popular under the Second Empire (1852-1870).  At the beginning, it was a fashionable drink for the wealthy. Around this time, it became normal to start the meal with an aperitif, and between the 1500 liquors available, absinthe accounted for 90% of aperitifs consumed.

A cozy middle-class moment with absinthe


The consumption of absinthe crested in the years 1880-1910, when its price fell and it became accessible to all, rivaling in popularity with wine. During this time, everyone drank absinthe, from  society ladies to workers. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 liters of wormwood, but in 1910 this figure reached 36,000,000 liters a year. By that time, absinthe was already a major French export. The French colonies were important markets, followed by South American countries like Argentina and Chile.

Posters condemning the consumption of absinthe began to appear. Even the dog shows his disrespect for this working class loser


Absinthe contained 75% alcohol and was not always sufficiently diluted with water. When it began replacing wine, the problems with drunkenness grew and so did the backlash against the liquor. Absinthe was blamed for a syndrome, called absinthism, characterized by hyper-nervosity, epileptic seizures, and hallucinations. According to the anti-absinthe activists, the drink even caused the painter van Gogh’s madness and his ear amputation. (Not true.)

The Green Hour
What we know as the Happy Hour was called the Green Hour because absinthe was the drink of choice. This poster shows the effects of absinthe on the working class (left) and on the better class (right)


Discussions followed discussions. Petitions were signed. The vise slowly tightened around absinthe. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a series of particularly brutal family murders for which absinthe was blamed – largely unjustly. Preceding the crime, the murderer drank not only two glasses of absinthe but also a mint cream, a cognac, six glasses of wine to water his lunch, another glass of wine after work, a cup of coffee with brandy, a liter of wine on the way back, then another coffee with brandy. Only absinthe was blamed for his murderous dementia.

Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1905, in Switzerland in 1910, in the United States in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. It was resurrected in 1987 in former Czechoslovakia and is now available in other countries as well


There are two ways of serving absinthe: the meditative and the flamboyant. Both are depicted in this video:




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french watching

 

The French culinary lifestyle—such as a family eating in a restaurant—surprised many mid-century travelers. In their home countries, eating in a public place made sense only when a person was away from her home and its safe food. This was a habit in France as well until the 1789 revolution. With the aristocrats guillotined or gone to exile, many skilled and creative cooks became unemployed. The only solution was to open public eateries. The well-to-do bourgeois tasted aristocratic cuisine and they liked it.  More than half a century later, when the following text was written, there were hundreds of restaurants in Paris. Eating out made more sense than staying at home. One saved on kitchen fuel, which was a considerable expense at the time, and one could choose from a variety of expertly cooked dishes.

James Jackson Jarves (1818-1888), the author of the text, visited Paris in the early 1850s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles, seen through American spectacles (1852). His wit and the clarity of his style vividly portray the living condition in the mid-century Paris.

To see the French eat one should visit the restaurants of lesser magnitude and fame, particularly of a Sunday, where the rush to dinner, as no one dines that day under his own roof, is absolutely fearful to a lover of a quiet meal. Infants, dogs, and nurses, all have a seat that day, and the amount consumed would indicate considerable preparatory fasting. Eating and drinking, for the moment, become the only business of life. The preparations bespeak the seriousness of the operation.

A family enters, consisting of father, mother, maiden sister, two children under five years of age, and a dog. All the tables are filled. They turn to go out. The restaurateur rushes forward, intercepts their retreat, and promises a table toutsuite. He sees one party have called for their bills, hands them their change, and plumps the newcomers into their warm seats., with an array of broken bread, dirty glasses, and all the debris of the previous meal before them.

Once seated, with bonnets and hats hung up, they are considered as secure as fish fairly hooked. The garçon, with the dexterity and rapidity peculiarly his own, whisks away the soiled tablecloth and dishes, and in an instant has replaced them with snow-white linen and porcelain.

Now commences the tug of eating. Each member of the party, except for the dog who gravely occupies the chair, too well-bred to manifest impatience, plants a napkin under his or her chin, of the dimensions of a moderate-sized tablecloth. The females pin the extremities to each shoulder so that in front they have much the appearance of being in their shrouds. The menu card is studied, orders given, and content and pleasure reign. At these family feasts, children are literally crammed, indulged with wines and the delicacies called for by adult taste, their parents delighted in proportion to the quantity they consume.

Eating, under almost any circumstances, is to a looker-on a vulgar operation. In one of these restaurants, it is certainly an amusing one to a veteran traveler. whose sensibilities had long since their edges blunted. The French from early habit frequently make themselves very much at home at restaurants and cafes, spending their evenings at the latter, reading the journals, and playing chess and dominoes, paying the same by calling for a bottle of beer or a glass of brandy. I have myself seen a woman who had come in by herself, after finishing her repast, coolly throw herself back in a chair and proceed to take a comfortable digestive nap, apparently wholly oblivious to the existence and manifold trials of the race denominated unprotected females.

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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.

italy 1860

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’s 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. 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.

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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 … “

Cora Pearl

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.

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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

 

WEDDING

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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c-AT THE CONFISEUR ( Boulevard de la Madeleine )

At the Confectioner’s

 

c-AT THE BOOKSELLER ( Boulevard des Italiens )

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

 

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florian

 

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.

 

CORRECTION-FRANCE-ART-AUCTIONS

 

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.

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