More on Paris in the 1860s

By Matthew Truesdell, University of California Berkeley

Written for the concert Paris in the 1860s performed on Sep 25, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“The Parisian,” noted a perceptive American visitor to Paris in the late 1860s, “cares but little for his home … As much time as he can spare from his business he spends on the streets, at the café, or at some place of amusement.” And why not? For most Parisians, “home” was a constricted apartment with few amenities, while just beyond the doorstep lay the most stylish and sophisticated urban environment of the age. Parisians could stroll in the attractive parks or along the broad boulevards of the new Paris, drink and socialize in one of the city’s thousands of cafes, visit a dance hall, or take one of more than 50,000 seats (one for about every thirty-six residents) in the city’s theaters, circuses, and café_concerts.

At its most dazzling, the tone of the city’s social life was set by the court of the Second Empire. The repressive – though gradually liberalizing – regime of Napoleon III practiced a politics of festivity which masked the realities of power beneath a seemingly endless whirl of pleasures, all fully reported in the newspapers and illustrated press for vicarious consumption. The tout-Paris of the age took its cue from the court and pursued, on the surface at least, a hedonistic lifestyle. It paraded its wealth in afternoon carriage rides in the Bois de Boulogne, evenings at the opera or theater, and lavish dinners at the Café Anglais.

Seen from the city’s less affluent districts, the gilded pleasures of the carriage set must have seemed almost incredibly distant. Though the 1860s were a relatively prosperous decade, the city’s poor lived in truly miserable conditions, and most workers put in twelve-hour days for a barely subsistence wage. Nonetheless, the city offered diversions, even here. Paris’ numerous café’s and bal publics provided at least an illusion of escape from the harsh realities of working class life, as did the official celebrations under a ruler who believed that “one of the first duties of a sovereign is to amuse his subjects of all ranks in the social scale.” The opening of one of Baron Haussmann’s new boulevards or the visit of a foreign monarch, for example, provided an excuse for lavish (free) spectacle, as did the regime’s yearly holiday on the birthday of Napoleon I, a celebration which always included fireworks, illuminations, huge military pantomimes, and free performances in the city’s theaters.

The public spaces of Paris were not, of course, reserved for Parisians alone. Rich foreigners, like those parodied by Offenbach in La Vie Parisienne, flocked to the “modern Babylon” for the latest in everything fashionable. Not-so-rich foreigners also came to the city, and sometimes, like Offenbach, a native of Cologne, stayed. These visitors and immigrants came for Paris’ sophisticated, urban culture, and in coming, further enriched that culture in myriad ways. Paris, like New York in the twentieth century, had the ineffable charisma of the symbolic center of the world, of the place to be. It was, as social critic Walter Benjamin aptly put it, “the capital of the nineteenth century.”

Paris was as cosmopolitan in taste as it was in population. Indeed, the city was full of and fascinated by things foreign and exotic, and especially – a legacy of Romanticism reinforced by the French presence in Algeria and Egypt – by anything Oriental. This obsession extended not only to the arts, as in Bizet’s Djamileh or the painters’ interest in Japanese prints, but also the very streets of the city, where visiting Asians sometimes found themselves followed about by crowds of curious locals, and where, in 1861, the regime celebrated its military adventure in China with a grand illuminated representation of the Summer Palace in Peking, which its troops had burned down the year before.

Nothing during the decade more nourished Paris’ taste for the foreign (or brought more foreigners to Paris) than the event for which Offenbach was commissioned to write La Vie Parisienne, the Universal Exposition of 1867. Individual country displays radiated out from the center of an enormous steel and glass oval building on the Champ-de-Mars, so that visitors, by walking around the circular palace would have the impression of traveling around the world. Just outside of the exposition palace itself was an array of foreign restaurants, complete with waitresses in native costume (“One eats and drinks in all the languages,” quipped Offenbach’s librettist, Ludovic Halèvy) and a park where the displays included a Chinese tea-house, an Egyptian temple (a replica of the Bardo Palaqce in Tunisia), and a Turkish bath.

But not even the most flamboyant of diversions could sustain the regime in the face of military defeat at the hands of the Prussians. In retrospect, the combined disasters of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune – the repression of which left much of the city in ruins and some 20,000 Parisians dead in the streets – lend the joy and lightheartedness of the 1860s a certain tragic quality. For Paris, as for Emile Zola’s reckless and extravagant courtesan, Nana, who lay dying in a Paris hotel as the troops left for the front, the frolics of the 1860s gave way to funerals.