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The New Paris
Everyone loves Paris. It has arguably been called the most beautiful city in the world. Of course Venice, Washington D.C., 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 travellers 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 boulevards of the 1870s and 80s to confirm this 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 its beauty to two men--Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), and Baron Haussmann, whom he named the Prefect of the Seine. Between the years 1853 and 1870, the good Baron tore down the old Paris and put up a new one. The Impressionists showcased it.

Paris, the first half of the nineteenth century was a disaster. In 1800 the city was a modest little medieval cesspool of about 500,000 even the government had fled in favour or Versailles. And by 1850 it was a monstrous dung heap of over a million. Under Housemann's dictatorial direction, the narrow, thousand-year-old streets were replaced by elegant avenues 130 feet wide. Entire neighbourhoods 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, a modern storm sewer system five times larger than before, and graceful bridges replacing rickety wooden structures. He reintroduced trees into the city, and everywhere, new, bright beaux-arts architecture...architecture and more architecture...and all of it united in a single, somewhat classical/baroque style giving the city for the first time in history (anywhere) a single, unified look and feel.

This was the invention of urban renewal, and 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 amongst them was the writer, Victor Hugo, who mourned the passing of the quaint medieval city. 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) was 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.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 January 1999


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