A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life
One of the delights of strolling in Paris, indeed one of the reasons we come to live here, are the endless opportunities for walking on the steps of the world’s greatest artists. It is an emotional - and unjustifiably proud –moment when you sit at the same café where the most notable writers, artists and intellectuals of the inter-war period gathered to exchange ideas; to look across the Seine from the same bridge that inspired the greatest painters of the 20th Century.
The concept of living in towns designed to improve the human condition is one of Roman empire’s undoubted legacy to Western civilisation. Great works of art were created in Florence, Milan, Vienna, London – but foremost in Paris. The greatest centre of intellectual activity since the late twelfth century, Paris was also the largest city in Western Europe. This is when teachers and students started to flock to the cathedral school on the Ile de la Cite, which led to the establishment – on the left bank - of one of the oldest universities in Europe.
Since the 15th century, artists from other European countries set up studios in Paris - the centre of the trade in luxury goods: tapestries, woven with gold and silver thread, precious metalwork studded with gems, expensive clothes and furniture. And paintings, mostly in the form of illuminations. The best example of the genre is Les Tres Riches Heures du Duke de Berry, a prayer book illustrated by the Limbourg brothers, three painters from Nijmegen in northern Netherlands. Views of Paris at this time can be glimpsed on some pages, such as July (Palais de la Cite and the Sainte Chapelle) and October (Louvre Palace). In the delicate shades of green and blue, men and women are working the soil in the foreground, just outside the city wall, with the royal palace and the chapel painted in painstaking detail on the background. People and buildings are beautifully depicted using a white of egg and gum technique that infuses a colourful brilliance to the landscape and gives a delightful snapshot of life in the city – and outside it – at that time.
Renaissance arrived late in France, but when it did, it made a significant impact on the social and cultural scene. By the 16th century Paris was the largest city in Europe and was attracting the greatest European artists and architects. Soon the cultural advantage translated into political strength on the international scene. When Bernini, an already famous architect, came to Paris to work on the extension of the Louvre, the balance of power – artistically as well as politically, was firmly in France’s favour. The Louvre became a model for many royal residences throughout Europe.
Painting the Town
Despite overcrowding, disease, famine and the resulting social unrest, Paris was still thriving in the 18th century: dressmakers, hair stylists and perfume makers were employed to create beauty - or what was perceived as beauty – in every aspect of life. Theatre, literature, dance and music became more central to the Parisian life, as was painting and sculpture. The official painting exhibition of the Academie des Beaux Arts, Le Salon, was the most important cultural event in Europe.
Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet and Jean Fouquet are among the few painters, mostly forgotten by art historians, to have provided a visual record of the city at that time: bridges over the river, multi-storey houses on the bridges, boats on the Seine, the quays and the islands. The river was, evidently, the life and soul of the city and offered the best views.
La Ville Lumiere
Whether the lights that defined Paris since the middle of the 19th century referred to the bright brains of philosophers and writers that congregated in the city, or the gas lights that illuminated the streets and bridges – Paris has been known as the city of Lights.
After the modernisation undertook so successfully by Haussmann, Paris doubled its population and increased its reputation as the most elegant city in Europe. Artists, writers, philosophers and poets flocked to the cultural centre of the world. The city looked even more attractive, and painters captured the new harmony and homogeneity of the blocks lining the wide boulevards.
Camille Pissarro painted Boulevard Montmartre from the same angle by night and bathed in the afternoon sun, in spring and in winter. He also pictured l’Avenue de l’Opera, wide and open in the creamy yellow morning sunlight, the black dots of traffic and pedestrians appearing to move towards the Palais Garnier, silhouetted in the distance.
Parisians are more prominent in Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; A Rainy Day (1877). The two-point perspective composition features a typical Haussmannian corner, cobblestones leading to the corner building with its three level triangular façade. Renoir has used similar composition in his less impressive Pont Neuf, painted a few years earlier.
Like Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec was less interested in buildings and boulevards, and more attracted by the life of Paris during La Belle Epoque and the characters that created it. Their paintings vibrate with the movement, the colour and vitality of Parisian characters.
Van Gogh came from the Netherlands in 1886 and lived in Montmartre with his brother. Montmartre inspired Vincent in many ways: he painted streets and slopes, windmills and Boulevard de Clichy, vegetable gardens and Paris rooftops.
Modern City, Modern Art
Le soleil de l'Art alors brillait seulement sur Paris
During La Belle Époque, a period of peace, economic prosperity and optimism, the arts – if not necessarily the artists – naturally flourished. Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism followed by Expressionism, Cubism and Abstraction. Low rent was the incentive for many artists to settle in Montmartre, but soon the main attraction was the congenial atmosphere and the buzz of creativity. Modigliani, Mondrian, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Suzanne Valendon lived and worked here.
Paris waltzed into the 20th Century with its reputation as a symbol of culture and freedom enhanced by being the home of artistic and literary avant-guard. Even painters not known for their cityscapes could not resist a view of the Seine or the Paris roofs. Picasso painted views of Notre Dame, while in Chagall’s Paris series dream-like couples are floating above a brightly coloured Tour Eiffel.
After the war, during Les Annees Folles, the artistic community moved to Montparnasse; Picasso was among the first to relocate, followed by Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, Cezanne, Fernand Leger, Man Ray.
From Belarus and Italy, Russia and Japan, Italy, Chile and Romania, artists came to Montparnasse, looking to emulate, socialise and support each other in the heart of the intellectual and artistic life. The cafes of Montmartre and Montparnasse, some of whom accepted sketches in lieu of payment, became part of the history of art. The city that has seen many lasting art movements, passing trends, which nurtured many talents, remains a strong magnet for artists and art lovers everywhere and provides endless inspiration.