Before the Impressionists, relatively few artists bothered painting urban views of Paris – except for the British, that is. They were charmed by picturesque streets, some dating from the Medieval period, the grand buildings by the Seine, and the lively, bustling atmosphere. However, even then sanitation was a cause of complaint as a wonderful new exhibition at London’s Wallace Collection reveals.
Although the French had depicted their capital city to some extent prior to the advent of the British in the nineteenth century, there were very few pictures of quality, certainly none to match the beauty of the city itself. It was the generation of Turner and his contemporaries who initiated a genre which was then taken up by many artists of all nationalities in later years. As curator Stephen Duffy writes in the catalogue: “It is doubtful if, before the nineteenth century, Paris as a subject for view painting had been of such interest to artists as it was to the British in the two decades after Waterloo, and certainly never before had it been depicted by so many painters of such high standing in their own country.” Indeed, the exhibition features four artists who were or were to become RAs, two ARAs and other artists such as Girtin, Bonington and Cox who were judged to be highly important by their fellow artists and critics.
The exhibition itself is entirely loaned, all 60 watercolours, preparatory drawings and prints. This may seem strange given the artistic sensibilities and acquisitive tastes of the 4th Marquess of Hertford – whose collection formed the basis of the Wallace Collection itself – and his son, Sir Richard Wallace. Both men spent most of their lives in Paris and it was perhaps too familiar a locale to be of interest to them as collectors. In addition, many of the works displayed were not aimed at private collectors but were used as book illustrations, feeding the burgeoning tourist industry that began after the fall of Napoleon.
Perhaps another reason why artists did not paint Paris more often prior to the nineteenth century was that it had too much pictorial competition. It was seen primarily as a staging post for young men about to embark on the Grand Tour and the sites of Classical and Renaissance Italy. It offered neither the views of Venice nor the light and sights of Rome, and for the British in particular, its weather and atmosphere were not markedly different from that found in London.
That view changed, however, with the short-lived Peace of Amiens of 1802-03. Britain had signed a treaty with France which temporarily ended hostilities between the two powers and thousands of well-heeled and influential British visitors took advantage of this to marvel at a great exhibition of French products at the Louvre (plus art works looted by Napoleon during his wars) and, in the case of Wordsworth, walk the boulevards with his illegitimate daughter Caroline, whom he had never seen before. Turner was also an interested visitor, filling a sketch book with drawings which were later turned into lucrative engravings. Indeed as Stephen Duffy states, “if it had not been for the demand for book illustrations, driven partly by the interests of tourists to the city, Paris would probably have registered very little on the consciousness of British watercolourists.”
British visitors were constantly struck by the fact that Paris retained so much of its Medieval flavour. For example, even in the early part of the nineteenth century, the French capital was still a closed city with fortified gates and customs posts. The famous French post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau was called le douanier, the customs officer, because for many years he worked at a customs post collecting taxes on goods brought into the city. These gates and post were a constant fascination for the British artists and featured prominently in their work.
While the early British tourists swooned in wonder at the grand Parisian boulevards and impressive state monuments and government buildings, they found domestic housing less to their taste (we are only talking here of comparing stately town houses) and a general comparison was frequently made of London being a huge commercial and industrial metropolis whereas Paris, smaller in scale, concentrated its energy on fashion and food, with pleasure the principal aim.
One Medieval legacy which found less favour with the British were the less-than-quaint sanitary arrangements. “Hazlitt complained,” writes Stephen Duffy, “that ‘in winter, you are splashed all over with the mud; in summer, you are knocked down with the smells’ and for Bonington, a long-term resident, it was ‘this city of mud and dirtiness’. The channels in the middle of many streets for rain and effluent were the subject of particular complaint – ‘a monstrous barbarism’, according to Fanny Trollope, ‘expressly formed for the reception of filth, which is still permitted to deform the greater portion of this beautiful city’. Their prominence in some watercolours by British artists is perhaps surprising, but they were certainly regarded as quintessentially Parisian until they were nearly all replaced in mid-century by new sewers and side gutters.”
The British watercolourists largely concentrated their attentions on the Seine itself and the magnificent buildings such as the Louvre which bordered it. The Left Bank was largely avoided with the exceptions of the Panthéon and the church of Saint-Sulpice. The typical British traveller was also likely to take in an abattoir, a prison and even the city mortuary on their visit. Tourism was then very much seen as including an element of moral and intellectual uplift and a study of such sites was viewed as essential to a better understanding of French social practices. Ever the romantic, Thomas Hardy actually took his first wife Emma Gifford to the Paris mortuary where he viewed several dead bodies. His new wife found the scene ‘repulsive’ and it is perhaps not surprising the marriage was not a happy one.
While on the subject of necrolatry, Père Lachaise Cemetery was a favourite with British visitors. Opened in 1804, it was set away from the city for reasons of health and propriety, a model which was later copied by many Victorian cemetery builders in Britain. Yet for many visitors it was an integral part of their tour, as Stephen Duffy explains: “Marianne Baillie, a poet as well as a travel writer, thought that, together with the Louvre and ‘one or two other interesting spectacles’, it was the only thing worth seeing in the city… In part the appeal of the cemetery was a reflection of the widespread interest in matters of social economy – the health benefits of locating it away from the centre of the city were immediately understood by foreign visitors…But its popularity was also due to the views of Paris which were possible from its hilltop setting and the opportunities for poetic and philosophical ruminations on death and mortality which were offered by its location and its elaborate monuments.”
The great flowering of British watercolours of Paris occurred between Bonington painting his last views in 1828 and the return of Thomas Shotter Boys – an undoubted star of this show – to London in 1837. By then, many more people had been able to see the great Parisian sites for themselves and the novelty of European views in general had dissipated. Watercolour had long been associated with city views and its perceived decline as a medium by the mid-nineteenth century brought its urban subject matter down with it. Photography had arrived and became a wonder of the Victorian age. It seemed more real and immediate and it was not until the Impressionists later in the century that Paris again became a subject worthy of artistic portrayal, although by then it was a very different city from that depicted by the watercolourists.
Having become industrialised and with much of its ancient streets and buildings swept away by Haussmann’s great rebuilding of the 1860s and the devastation wrought by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, old Paris had gone forever.
What is most fascinating about this exhibition, however, is to be able to see Paris as it appeared in the decades of the early nineteenth century and as it had appeared for many centuries before that with very little change.. The show offers us a glimpse of a world which would otherwise be lost for ever and which can now only be seen through the medium of art.