Paris in the Nineteenth Century by Christopher Prendergast

“Just as a city cannot be seen until it is painted, a city cannot be read until it is written”.

For French historians by profession or obsession, Christopher Prendergast combines the social and cultural history of nineteenth century Paris with literature, painting and photography. For the rest of us who are simply tourists, flâneurs, and Francophiles, Prendergast gives us a context for the “modern” city of Paris that we have visited and hopefully will get to visit again in the near future!!

Prendergast gives different perspectives from critics culminating a large archive which is “potentially unmanageable”.  His arguments are: 1) to make sense of this modern city and one’s place in it , 2) terms which the city exceeds identification and identity and 3) the price paid by artists trying to make Paris conform to an intelligible design.  He has organized these themes around the notion that Paris is a “space affected by time, arranged and altered by history” (3).

Gare Saint-Lazare by Callibotte, Kimbell

Prendergast shows how Paris has been depicted, reinvented and rediscovered based on the major nineteenth century texts of French authors. My introduction to and education of nineteenth century Paris came from the texts of: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Balzac’s  La Comédie humaine; Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal; Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and L’Art d’être Grand Père; and most importantly, David Pinkney’s Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris.

In my subsequent visits to Paris, including a semester of living in the Latin Quarter as a graduate student, I have used these texts to map out and discover the neighborhoods of these wonderful characters living in the capital du monde as described by Balzac: 1) I passed each day in front of  Madame Vauquer’s boarding house where Goriot resided on my way to Grammaire class in the Val du Grace Consortium! 2) I spent many afternoons in the The Jardin des Plantes where Hugo and his grandchildren took daily strolls (non-fiction!); this was behind the apartment where I resided, 3) The Luxembourg Garden where Hugo placed Cozette and Marius away fom the squalor and menace of the city and they fell in love.

My Grammaire classroom, Val de Grace
Jardin Des Plantes, Paris

Prendergast takes these nineteenth century novels one step further as he explains the new identity of Paris in the muddled “bric-a-brac” of Haussmanization (Baudelaire Fleurs du Mal) and the view from the cafe, parks and boulevards as depicted by the Impressionists and Balzac’s Scènes de la vie Privée: “Paris est Paris, voyez-vous, Ce mot explique ma vie” (Balzac, Père Goriot).

In addition to the influence of nineteenth century literature, I appreciated Prendergast’s insights and criticisms of the Impressionists and writers of this time period as they “mirrored ” Paris in their works.  The famous street scenes of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir emphasize airiness and luminosity, the blending of natural and artificial light, often in contexts celebrating urban sociability and festivity (Paris and the Nineteenth Century, 33).  Prendergast includes illustrations of these images through the plates of Manet’s Rue Mosnier, Pisarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, effet de nuit and Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (85-89). One of the wonderful things about modern day Paris is that you can still experience this great lyric harmony of the representation of light as you stroll down these Haussmann Boulevards.

According to Prendergast,  Baudelaire was the “supreme spokesman for the relation between the city and the new art” with his emphasis on modernité, both social and artistic (33). He is fascinated by the urban window. The window is the key staging post for his flâneur. “For the lovers, the window initially frames a scene of urban pastoral; for the poor, it is a barrier (38).

View from my apartment window, Paris
Pont Neuf, Paris

In addition, Emile Zola uses the windows of a café scene from Café Riche in his novel, La Curée. In the Latin Quarter, today, one can still view these magical boulevards while sitting in the outdoor terraces of cafés with a front row seat to the mixing the play of light and colour with the newspaper kiosks, the Venetian lanterns from the eighteenth century, and the spectacular views of the Seine.

Of course, what would Paris be without the incredible Jardins: The Tuileries, Luxembourg, Jarden des Plantes, to name my favorites. Prendergast states that the “notion of Parisian public space of a fairyland was provided through les jardins enchantés designed by Haussmann (164). These gardens were the manufactured fantasy of release from the strains and tensions of modern city life.

Menagerie, Jardin des Plantes
Menagerie, 1800’s

Many of the Jardins will recur throughout a wide range of nineteenth-century artistic sources, both literary and pictorial (see the images 22-34 of Monet, Renoir, Morisot, Cassatt, Manet, Guillaumin, and Sisley). I have found so many treasures in the Jardin des Plantes in recent visits: The Galerie d’Evolution (my whales and Diplodicus), The Grand Galerie (more whales including a Norwhal), the Menagerie where Hugo walked daily with his grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne, not to mention the hundreds of variations of flowers and plants and kangaroos!!

Cachalot, Galerie d’Evolution
My Diplodocus!

Paris and the Nineteenth Century has everything one could want in a book about Paris: French art, history, architecture, literature and culture. Prendergast is a Distinguished Professor of King’s College, Cambridge and a former Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the City University, NY. As a book of scholarship, this is definitely not a light read; but worth every moment!

Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (