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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A New Paris

Avenue de l'Opera, 1898, Camile Pissarro
Everyone loves Paris.  It has been called the most beautiful city in the world.  Of course Venice, Washington DC, Vienna, and several others have been dubbed with the same distinction but "The City of Light" usually manages to top the list of cities remembered by world travelers for its beauty.  And in painting, we only have to look at the work of the Impressionists with their broad, expansive views of the city's boulevard's of the 1870s and 80s to confirm our theory.  The men and women painting these pictures were "in love" with their city, for it was a new city, much more beautiful than that which they'd grown up in.  It was a city owing it's beauty to two men--Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), and Baron Haussmann whom he named the Perfect of the Seine.  Between the years 1853 and 1870, the good Baron tore down the old Paris and built a new one.  The Impressionists showcased it.

Haussmann's broad new avenues (superimposed
over this medieval map) can be seein in red while the
green areas indicate newly created parks.
Paris, the first half of the nineteenth century was a disaster. In 1800 the city was a modest little medieval cesspool of around 500,000. But by 1850 the city had grown into a monstrous dung heap of over a million. Even the government had long since fled the city in favor of Versailles. Under Housemann's dictatorial direction, the narrow, thousand-year-old streets were replaced by elegant avenues 130 feet wide. Entire neighborhoods disappeared. Twenty-thousand houses were torn down and replaced by 40,000 modern buildings, many still standing today. The Seine was tamed. Many of the old, medieval structures had been built right down to the river's edge. Haussmann ripped them out and built stone embankments, and a modern storm sewer system five times larger than before.  Graceful bridges replaced rickety wooden structures, trees were reintroduced into the city, and everywhere, new, bright beaux-arts architecture...architecture and more architecture, all of it united in a single, somewhat baroque style giving the city for the first time in history (anywhere) a single, unified look and feel.

The area near Notre Dame, with new avenues
(in red) new builldings (dark blue) and new
public areas (light blue)
This was the invention of urban renewal on a grand scale. And, while most people agreed that the end result was far superior to what was before, Haussmann was a man of many enemies. Chief among them was Victor Hugo. The costs were astronomical.  Little amenities we take for granted today (such as public restrooms and those big, round French columns for posters) were deemed scandalous wastes of taxpayer money. Poverty and crime were sent packing to the growing, untamed suburbs while the government and gentility retook the city as demonstrated by the hugely successful Universal Exposition of 1855. The transition was painful, and the process sometimes not pretty, but as the would-be Impressionist were coming of age, so was the city they loved. Maybe it was a coincidence and maybe not, but they both bloomed at once--art not imitating the new way of life but proclaiming it.
The "City of Light" today

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