My Book Review: Une Vie de Cité : Paris de sa Naissance a Nos Jours, Album, An Overview
by Marcel Poète, Edited by August Picard (1925)
[Une Vie de Cité is a documentary using images of the city of Paris from birth to “present day”(1925!) . No city, in effect, can be presented more perfectly in this genre than Paris. I found this untouched gem in the Fondren Library at SMU campus in Dallas, the first printing, complete with uncut pages, letterpress printing and paper vellum. I believe I was the first person to ever open this book as the almost century old pages where still white. What a treasure! Unfortunately, this copy belonged to the library and I therefore searched Amazon to find my own copy. Voila! I found not only the Album of this series but also the consequent volumes I, II and III from a bookstore in Canada, very reasonably priced. For my Francophile friends, this is a must-have edition to your library (French language only, to date)!]
My English Translation:
The story of Paris is told through the wonderful engravings and unambiguous details throughout this volume, which begins with an engraving of Saint-Jacques from the 12th century. As with most European cities, the topography has changed greatly over the centuries; therefore, to see these images of the original city streets, and buildings is a great treasure. In addition, the Parisian iconography is such a strongly mixed field and is grandly illustrated by the engravings of Israel Silvestre and Jean Marot before photography was even invented. These lithographs and engravings, therefore, are largely based upon the descriptions from manuscripts from the Moyen Age and the interpretation by the artists of these descriptions.
In Une Vie de Cité, Poète must discern between the accurate and the counterfeit copies of grave images to use in his book and therefore uses as a reference the Topographia Galliae of Martin Zeiller, edited in 1655 and works by Gaspard Mérian. These same images were first introduced in the Exposition de 1867 and opened the history of Paris to its citizens and to the world. According to Poète, there is a sort of genealogy of views to be drawn up for a point in the city, which is the essential work of iconographic criticism.
Une Vie de Cité is also richly graced with accurate engravings from the reign of Henri IV in the 16th century to the first construction of the Pont Neuf in the 17th. These topographical reproductions include characters dressed of the mode of Paris by Marot and Silvestre. « …rien ne nous fera défaut pour représenter au naturel la vie de notre cite, dans le bouillonnement d’un grand siècle commençant. » (nothing will fail us to represent our city, in the effervescence of passions in the beginning of a century)
At the turn of the 19th century, most of the Parisian physionomie urbaine such as the buildings, streets, parks, promenades, quais, etc. were documented by gravures from London by Nash, Pugin and Heath in French scenery: le Picturesque Tour of the Seine. The French contributors were Rowlandson (Doctor Syntax in Paris), Cruikshank (Life in Paris). Around midcentury, photography was invented by Louis Daguerre (the daguerreotype) and changed the process of the physical documentation of Paris.
Under the rein of Louis-Philippe, the scenes de moeurs were enhanced by regional French artists such as Bouchot, Daumier, Jacottet. Of course, my favorite period of French history (1845-1920) has been beautifully documented on canvas by the Impressionist artists such as Manet, Monet, Caillebotte, Renior, Cassatt, Morisot, Degas and Pissarro and the Post Impressionists Van Gogh and Seurat (to only name a few). Painting en plein air was the modus operandi of these talented artists and even though Poète chose not to include these illustrations in his Album, they are still an important part of the topographical images of Paris.
Of course, as with any European city dating back to the first century, there are many topographical changes due to restructuring and destruction from wars. The city of Paris changed greatly during the Revolution, the Franco Prussian War and the Rebuilding by Haussmann and Napoleon III, in which the architecture changed dramatically. These changes are reflected in the images of Une Vie de Cité. As the Album was published in 1925, our Parisian journey unfortunately ends around the turn of the century.
*This is the first in a series of blogs on Une Vie de Cité by Marcel Poète.
Marcel Poète. (1925) Une Vie de Cité : Paris de sa Naissance a Nos Jours,
Album. Edited by Auguste Picard.
Copyright 2017 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)