By: Alexandra Grant
Submitted for Course: EURO 2200 European Culture 19th Century to 1920s
In the middle of the 19th Century, the French Revolution encompassed its people and culture in a time of industrialization and change. With the shift of power to Napoleon III and the Second Empire, one of the most effected French cities was Paris. During the Second Empire’s reign, a clear correlation between the changing Parisian culture and the style and focus of visual art creation emerged. Through the changing infrastructure of the city, the conforming of individuals to a more homogenous populous and the emergence of the middle class, Paris’ changes were seen depicted in art. From its early days to its very end, the evolution of Paris during the Second Empire can be seen in Young Ladies of the Village (1851-52) by Gustave Courbet, showing the former, and Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte, showing the latter.
Throughout the Revolution and before the Second Empire’s rule, the French people were traditional and industrial ways of life had not yet come about. The city of Paris consisted of winding narrow streets and an eclectic mix of architectural styles. In Young Ladies of the Village, as with many other paintings created during the emergence of Realism, the focus of the artist, Gustave Courbet, was to depict as realistic an image as possible. Prior to the revolution, one of Paris’ most prevalent architectural styles was Rococo. Rococo was an ornamental style that influenced the decorative arts in France and was based on naturalism, pastel colors, innocence and delicate forms. Originally developed in 1700; this style was popular because of its lighter elements with more curves and natural patterns. (McKenzie) Courbet’s painting Young Ladies of the Village mirrors the Rococo style with its soft lines, pastel colours and the innocence of a young French girl. In addition the untouched fields and animals grazing in the grass, lend to the pragmatic essence of French life before industrial ways altered French lifestyles.
In contrast, Paris Street, Rainy Day portrays a very different, but still very real reproduction, of life after the Second Empire. The once winding roads are now replaced with wide and straight boulevards which were much easier to travel and allowed for simple military occupation if the need arose. The sometimes wide array of architectural styles, replaced by a singular method. Napoleon had declared in early life that “if [he] were the master of France, [he] would not only make Paris the most beautiful town which existed, but the most beautiful town that could exist.” (Braham) However this was not quite the outcome. Within the painting, Caillebotte illustrates wide cobblestone boulevards and buildings that strike remarkable resemblance to Zola’s department store in A Ladies’ Paradise. The uniformity of the backgrounds buildings is a true testament to the real Paris of the Second Empire and even of today. Known as the Napoleonic era which occurred during the Second Empire, the building style was actually seen as “far from truly beautifying” and the buildings “among the most derivative and monotonous monuments of European architecture. (Braham) The painting Paris Street, Rainy Day has a pallet that is monotonous in and of itself. With the only real color seen in the uniform green line painted on all the featured buildings, the repetitive and bland colors, as well as the lack of diverse shapes or perspectives, lends to the dreary image of Paris on a rainy day during the Second Empire.
Furthermore, the conversion to a more homogenous looking Paris could also been seen in its people. Along with the change to the architectural makeup, so to, was the economic structure of Paris altered during the Second Empire. The economic crisis of the late 1840s had been prolonged by political instability; the restoration of order