Posts Tagged ‘Entertainment in 19th century paris’

The Boulevard du Temple in the 1830s

Officially known as the Boulevard du Temple, this Paris street was nicknamed the Boulevard du Crime. Day after day, in this street, murder was rampant, poison was administered to unsuspecting victims, virgins were kidnapped, and vengeance immolated whole families. All this is in public view. With the curtain falling after the performance, everyone went home in good health. As you have already guessed, the Boulevard du Temple was the equivalent of New York’s Broadway.

Seven of the numerous theatres and cabarets on the Boulevard du Temple

Despite the name, the “Boulevard of Crime” was not dangerous or unpleasant. In fact, it was one of the most popular places in Paris. Every day more than 20,000 people came to this street to walk and look for fun.

Théâtre Lyrique

Besides the popular murderous melodramas, the boulevard offered a wide range of amusement, including circus performances.

Inside the Théâtre du Cirque

Boulevard du Crime’s heyday ended with Baron Haussmann’s upheaval of Paris infrastructure in the name of urban renewal. In 1862, Haussmann decided to enlarge the Place du Château d’Eau to what’s now Place de la République, ordering all theatres to be torn down. Despite protests and petitions, the ruthless Prefect Haussmann maintained his decision. The last performances were held on July 15th that summer.

Today, the Boulevard du Temple is quite an ordinary street. A historic boulevard nonetheless, since it was here that the first photograph of human beings in history was taken.

The image is a daguerreotype taken early morning in 1836. Due to long exposures, early photography could not reproduce objects in motion. Only immobile people, like this man having his boots polished, remained in the picture.

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While Sunday in the Anglo-Saxon world–in London and in New York–meant only godly thoughts and strict rest with church, prayers, and roast beef for entertainment, Parisians were out for serious fun. Sunday, especially a summer Sunday, meant a trip beyond the city limits. For many, the goal was their favorite guinguette (‘gang-ette), an establishment with music and dance on the outskirts of Paris where wine and food were significantly cheaper than in the capital.

One of the Parisian favorite guinguettes was the Moulin de la Galette, a medieval windmill standing on the Montmartre hill and offering a magnificent view of the city. Before electricity made them obsolete, there were some three hundred windmills in Paris, of which only four remain today.

Pierre-August Renoir’s famous painting Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876) depicts the jovial and comfortable atmosphere that reigned on the outdoor dance floor:



What better way to perceive the mood in this ball than testimonials! Thanks to the press, it is still possible to read them again. Extract from the Intransigeant of May 28, 1882:

Last Sunday I was at the ball. At the Moulin de la Galette ball. I went there – with two friends, the big big X… the devil’s innkeeper, and the big little B… librettist and dominotier, a bearded, illuminated, pot-bellied like a monk of Rabelais; the other bald like an egg and yellowed like old ivory.

I adore this bastringue, with its large rectangular hall, with a polished floor, all shining – its orchestra with bellowing trombones, squealing flutes – its youthful couples whirling in the waltz, hopping in the polka, swaying in the quadrille; it’s tables where other lovers consume, hand squeezing the hand with tenderness, the classic salad bowl of sweet wine or absinthes to which the bland addition of barley gives a sickly, chlorotic tint, a pale greenness or a greenish whiteness – the color of drowned faces …

The enduring popularity of this guinguette is best illustrated with a photo from 1938


Other popular guinguettes dotted the banks of the rivers Seine and Marne, where Parisians went to enjoy water sports. Again, Renoir is here to show us what it was like. We see the company digesting lunch, but there is a dance floor somewhere and musicians waiting to strike a quadrille.


Pierre-August Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881)

The popularity of guinguettes, which took a dive in the second half of the twentieth century, is now on the rise again.


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Parisians in 1842: The Working Class


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The Moulin Rouge. Polychrome photo, 1914


With nearly 600,000 visitors every year, Moulin Rouge is in the top ten must-see items on the Paris tourist’s list. Located at the bottom of a hill in the Montmartre neighborhood—then a semi-rural setting favored by artists—Moulin Rouge opened its doors in 1889 to offer champagne-filled parties at which remarkable dancers and singers performed. Very soon, the establishment became world-famous for a scandalous dance called the can-can. No one has described the can-can in better words than Mark Twain here.




With enough champagne bottles emptied, spectators found themselves willing participants on the dance floor that was installed so they could admire the performers up close. The great painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, immortalized these scenes of night-time delirium in some of his most famous works. It is mainly thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, that the two most colorful Moulin Rouge dancers remain in our consciousness.



Moulin Rouge’s top star La Goulue with the silhouette of her dance partner Valentin the Boneless



No less popular is this Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster featuring Jane Avril


The two women had only one thing in common: they both excelled on the dance floor. La Goulue, low-born and vulgar, was the prototype of the working-class girl found in the dancing halls. Louise Weber—her real name— was born in 1868 and passed to posterity as La Goulue for her greedy behavior: she liked to empty guests’ glasses within her reach.   The other dancers did not fare any better in terms of nom d’artiste. There was the Cheese Kid, the Sewer Grid, or Nini the Paws-in-the-Air. This joyful band was not impressed with royalty. “Hey, Wales,” La Goulue harangued the heir to the British throne, “the champagne is in your name so is it you who pays or is your Mama [Queen Victoria] treating us?”



La Goulue’s sensual, provocative body corresponded to the taste of the time that appreciated generous femininity.



La Goulue entering the Moulin-Rouge. 1892. Lautrec painted her with a smirk on her face that is difficult to interpret: is it the arrogance of a diva or simple tiredness?



Toulouse-Lautrec remained La Goulue’s friend well after her triumphs. In this picture, they sit side by side with La Môme Fromage (the Cheese Kid) opposite


Soon, La Goulue ceased to please and turned to her painter-friend for help. Now self-employed, she would sell her renown in the fairgrounds.  To recall her prestigious past, Lautrec painted two large panels exposed on the front of her fairground hut.  A few years later, when in debt, she had to sell these panels and they were cut into smaller canvasses by a greedy merchant.  In 1929, they were bought and restored by the Louvre and they can now be seen at the Musée d’Orsay.



La Goulue’s fairground hut with panels painted by Toulouse-Lautrec


The next adventure began in 1900 when La Goulue married. With her husband, a magician by trade, she learned to tame wild beasts.  Unfortunately, he was assaulted during a show.





By that time, La Gouloue’s life was on a sharp downward slide. Her husband was shot in 1914, the victim of a German bullet in WW1. Her son, who she claimed was fathered by a prince, died at 27.



La Goulue with her son Simon


She lived miserably in a caravan, caring for ailing circus animals, and she returned to the Moulin Rouge for financial support. She was allowed to sell peanuts and cigarettes on the sidewalk. Now and then, she’d get drunk and shout: “I’m La Goulue! Can’t you see it? I was the greatest star here!”

The newspapers announced La Goulue’s death in 1929.


avril 3

Jane Avril by Edgar Chahine



Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Born near Paris, but seemingly coming from another planet, was Jane Avril, the other celebrated Moulin Rouge star. Strange and mysterious, she did not need the raw sensuality of La Goulue to seduce her audience. She’d come and go as she pleased –no salaried employment for her—and simply danced with every nerve in her body. Except for that, she had nothing in common with the other dancers who  did not understand her and did not like her. For them, she was Mad Jane. But Mad Jane did not care. She found her friends and lovers in intellectual circles.  She could marry if she wanted to for there were willing takers, but she loved her freedom.



Toulouse-Lautrec: Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, a lonely, mysterious figure


Her story of an enfant-martyre explains a lot. Born Jeanne Beaudon, in 1868, to a Second Empire courtesan, and fathered by an Italian aristocrat, to whom she was an embarrassment, she was first brought up by her maternal grandparents. Her life took a turn for the worse when her sadistic mother decided that Jane should live with her in Paris. She was nine when she entered hell. Nowadays, Jane’s mother would be identified as a dangerous psychopath, but the science in Jane’s childhood had not yet reached that stage. Nor did the social services function as they do today. The children, then, were the property of their parents. Several people knew that Jane was beaten at least twice a day for invented offenses, but  no one reported the abuse to the police. It was just not done. The constant stress had to show somewhere and Jane developed a chorea minor, then referred to as Saint Vitus Dance. It is a nervous disorder characterized by rapid, involuntary jerking movements. At fourteen, she ran away from home. At the end of this adventure, she found herself in a insane asylum and happy as a lark. One can fully appreciate the degree of her suffering when a child finds the madhouse a step above her home.

In her biography, Jane relates that during a musical entertainment at the hospital, she suddenly got up and began to dance. In front of her audience’s eyes, she changed from a timid, shivering nonentity into a graceful nymph. Her condition improved and, soon, she was released to her mother’s care. She ran away—for good— at sixteen to live with a student. She gave all of herself to this first love, only to find herself betrayed. This was too heavy a load for her fragile constitution. Immediately after the discovery of her lover’s infidelity, she ran toward the Seine to jump from a bridge. A prostitute talked her out of the idea. Jane spent that night in a brothel. The next day, the prostitutes went to a public ball, taking their new protégé with them.


avrilThe public ball was Jane’s second awakening. From then on, her life became divided into two: a day job to keep her from hunger and a night life to keep away her demons. Her talent led to prestigious theatrical engagements when an exceptional dance number was needed and, for a time, she was the ambassador of French can-can in London and in Madrid. Her poise, grace, and intelligence made her a welcome guest at dinner parties. A friend of novelists, dramatists, artists, philosophers, and scientists, she also captured the heart of Toulouse-Lautrec who saw in her a sister soul. He, too, had an unusual childhood. He too was a victim of physical suffering. They remained friends until the painter’s premature death.



Such was Jane Avril’s status in the world of entertainment that her presence in the audience recommended any show (poster by Toulouse-Lautrec)


In her forties, Jane finally settled down to sixteen years of quiet married life. She died in 1943 at the age of seventy-five.




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