At last I have come into a dreamland.
—HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the improbable president of the Second Republic—or prince-president, as some preferred to call him—was not an easy man to fathom. His face in repose was nearly impossible to read: pale, grave in expression, and dominated by a large nose, an outsized mustache, its tips waxed, and a pointed goatee. The small pale blue eyes showed scarcely a sign of life. The eyelids drooped, causing him to look half asleep. George Sand likened him to a “sleepwalker.” Yet he had a surprisingly bright smile, and though of less than average height and a bit bowlegged, he sat a horse well and looked perfectly cast parading on horseback.
Some of the political elite of Paris took him for a “crétin,” certain he would be easy to manipulate. Victor Hugo, on the other hand, was favorably impressed. The British ambassador was “charmed.” Richard Rush found the president “courteously attentive,” and Rush’s replacement as American minister, William C. Rives of Virginia, would report being received in a manner “most cordial and flattering.”
As time passed, Louis Napoleon was seen more and more as a study in contrasts, a mixture of opposites, at once naïve and calculating, sincere and full of schemes. “He was very much better than what his previous life and crazy enterprises led one to expect,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, who in a brief turn as foreign minister had the opportunity to observe the president at close hand.
As a private person he possessed some attractive qualities—a kindly disposition, humanity, gentleness and even tenderness, a perfect simplicity. … His power of concealing his thoughts, resulting from his conspiratorial past, was aided by the immobility of his countenance … for his eyes were as dull as opaque glass.
The president was, in addition, a notorious womanizer, a “grand coureur de femmes,” which was considered highly admirable by some, regrettable by others, and either way a common explanation for the half-asleep look. “His vulgar pleasures weakened his energies,” was all de Tocqueville had to contribute on the subject.
The one American who enjoyed anything like a friendship with the president was Dr. Thomas W. Evans, a sociable Philadelphian who had become the foremost dentist in Paris, due both to his professional skill— he was reputedly the first in Paris to specialize in gold fillings—and the fact that Louis Napoleon was his patient. To Evans, the president was a “charmer” whose “extraordinary self-control” and “seeming impassiveness” were greatly to his advantage. Rather than cold and calculating, Evans found him generous and affectionate. Those who spoke ill of him, according to Evans, were either his political enemies or people who did not know the man.
“My power is in an immortal name,” he himself was fond of saying, and indeed, except for the name, he would seem to have come out of nowhere and with almost nothing to qualify him for high position or to account for his popularity. Except in infancy, he had never lived in Paris. As a consequence of schooling in Switzerland and Germany, he spoke French with a slight German accent, and after years of exile in London, enjoyed a cup of tea quite as much as any Englishman.
Born in 1808, the son of the first Napoleon’s brother Louis Bonaparte, he had lived abroad with his mother during most of his youth, and in 1830, having tried and failed at a ludicrously inept attempt to overthrow King Louis-Philippe, he had been exiled to the United States, where he stayed only briefly before settling in London. (Like Louis-Philippe, he spoke English with ease and, as Thomas Evans had discovered, preferred conversing in English when he did not care to have others nearby understand what was said.)
In 1840, still trusting to his star, he had launched a second clumsy attempt at insurrection, but this time was sentenced to life imprisonment northeast of Paris in the medieval Castle of Ham, replete with moat and drawbridge. There, provided with a young companion, a laundress who bore him two sons, he spent five and a half years reading history, political theory, and military treatises. To those surprised by the range of his knowledge, he liked to say, “Do you forget my years of study at the university of Ham?”
Then in 1846 he shaved off his mustache and beard, disguised himself in the clothes of a workman, put a plank over his shoulder, walked out of the prison, and escaped to London to pursue his “destiny” still again.
His popular strength, as shown by his overwhelming victory in the presidential election of 1848, was mainly in rural France. Yet even in Paris, what opposition there was remained relatively quiet. In the time since the election, he had become more popular still. His name, he liked to say, was a complete program in itself. “It stands for order, authority, religion, the welfare of the people, national dignity. …” And this, after so much unrest and appalling bloodshed, was what people longed for—order above all.
As a leader, Louis Napoleon also had a marked gift for grand-style theatrics and display of a kind long missing in the life of the nation. Presidential balls at the Élysée Palace were now large and exuberantly lavish, with guests announced by title even though titles had been done away with by the constitution. Paris dearly loved a show, as he understood. At public appearances, he was commonly greeted with cries of “Vive l’empire! Vive l’empereur!”
The autumn of 1851 was particularly beautiful—like Indian summer at home, wrote a correspondent for the New York Times. The air was “soft and hazy, the sunlight rich and mellow.” The misery of so many was “crouching out of sight” no less than ever, off in the narrow, crooked streets, and being out of sight, was “as usual out of mind.” The well-dressed, well-fed populace filled the boulevards. The fashionable avenue of the ChampsÉlysées was as crowded as on the finest days of spring.
There was talk, of course, of political unrest, of hidden plots and coups d’état, and it seemed to matter not at all to the Parisians.
They eat, drink, and make merry, and make the most of the passing day. Future probabilities or possibilities are not allowed to interfere with the pleasures of present possession. This way of taking life is wise enough—for, remember, it is French life.
On the first day of December 1851, Louis Napoleon sent for his American dentist friend, Thomas Evans, who on arriving at the Élysée Palace found the president more than ordinarily affectionate toward him. There were, however, Evans later wrote, moments when it seemed the president had something he wished to talk about, yet did not.
At a formal reception at the palace that evening, he stood greeting his guests in his usual calm, attentive way, showing no sign that anything out of the ordinary might be on his mind. About ten he excused himself and went behind closed doors to join a small coterie of trusted fellow conspirators. As they gathered about his desk, he opened a bundle of secret papers bearing a single code word, “Rubicon.”
Soon after midnight, in the first hours of December 2, 1851, the surprise coup was under way.
Before daybreak more than seventy political figures, generals, and journalists had been roused from their beds and arrested. By dawn troops lined the boulevards and occupied the National Assembly, the railroad depots, and other strategic points. Proclamations put up on the walls of buildings proclaimed the National Assembly dissolved. The constitution Louis Napoleon had taken an oath to uphold had been done away with and a new constitution called for.
Everything had been considered. Soldiers posted at newspaper offices kept them from opening. Even the ropes of church bells had been cut so they could not be used to summon protest.
In a matter of hours, Louis Napoleon had made himself dictator. Later that morning he rode through Paris on horseback without incident. Not for another two days did protest flare, and it was quickly, decisively crushed, leaving hundreds dead.
Two weeks later, in a national referendum, the country voted overwhelming approval of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état.
Many were outraged. The American minister, William Rives, felt so incensed he refused to attend the president’s diplomatic receptions until gently reproved from Washington by Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Victor Hugo, who had thought well of the president at the beginning, fled to Belgium that he might speak his mind freely about “Napoleon the Little.” “On 2 December, an odious, repulsive, infamous, unprecedented crime was committed,” he wrote.
The author of this crime is a malefactor of the most cynical and degraded kind. His servants are the comrades of a pirate. … When France awakes she will start back with a terrible shudder.
Hugo would remove himself further to the English Isle of Guernsey, where he would live in exile for fifteen years.
The usual bustle of Paris resumed yet again, crowds in the streets taking up the familiar pace of business and pleasure. Many of those arrested were released. Newspapers resumed publication, though by a new decree anyone found propagating false news would be immediately arrested, which in effect meant no real freedom of the press.
Political discord and violence had been put to rest at last, it seemed, and for the greater part of the population, even in Paris, that was sufficient for now. When the words Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité were removed from the façades of public buildings, there was hardly a word of protest.
The following October, Louis Napoleon, age forty-four, was proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III, and the close of the year 1852 marked the official beginning of the Second Empire. To a large part of the nation, however, it was not until a bright morning in January 1853, when, at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, he married the beautiful Spanish countess Eugénie-Marie de Montijo—and France once again had both an emperor and an empress—that the Second Empire was truly under way.
As for what he intended to do with his power, the new emperor was emphatically clear on one thing above all. He would make Paris more than ever the most beautiful city in the world and solve a number of intolerable problems in the process.
The great appeal of the city had long been what man built there. There was nothing stunning about its natural setting—no mountain ranges on the horizon, no dramatic coastline. The river Seine, as Emma Willard and other Americans had noted, was hardly to be compared to the Hudson, not to say the Ohio or the Mississippi. The “genius of the place” was in the arrangements of space and architecture, the perspectives of Paris. Now far more—almost unimaginably more—was to be built, and the perspectives to become infinitely longer.
No time was taken up with extended discussion. The emperor disliked discussion. He put a new prefect of the Seine in charge, a career civil servant and master organizer named Georges-Eugène Haussmann, and the choice proved decisive. On the day Haussmann was sworn in, the emperor showed him a map on which he had drawn in blue, red, yellow, and green pencils what he wanted built, and “according to their degree of urgency.”
The work would go on for nearly twenty years. Haussmann liked to call himself a “demolition artist,” and from the way great, broad swaths were cut through whole sections of the city, and entire neighborhoods leveled with little apparent regard for their history or concern for their inhabitants, it seemed to many that headlong destruction was truly his main purpose. On the Île-de-la-Cité, the historic center of Paris, the ancient slums clustered close to Notre-Dame would be leveled. Streets that Victor Hugo knew and wrote about in Notre-Dame de Paris totally disappeared. The Hôtel Dieu would be demolished without the least hesitation. “I could never forget the sinister air of that bit of river wedged between two hospital complexes with a covered walkway between them, polluted with evacuations of every kind from a mass of patients eight hundred strong or more,” Haussmann wrote. A resident population of some 15,000 people on the Île-de-la-Cité would be reduced to 5,000.
Broad avenues were to radiate from the Arc de Triomphe like the spokes of a colossal wheel. North from la Cité would run the new boulevard de Sébastopol, and south, the boulevard Saint-Michel. In a long east-west arc on the Left Bank, back from the river, a broad thoroughfare, the new boulevard Saint-Germain, would cut through the heart of the old Latin Quarter.
Haussmann was vigorous and opinionated, a broad-shouldered man, six feet two, who could be ruthless with anything or anyone standing in his way—as often said, just the sort who might succeed in such an ambitious and difficult task.
With its population now more than a million people and still growing, the city had urgent need of modern improvements. Its problems were many and serious. The old tangle of medieval Paris, the crowding, the filth, squalor, foul air and water could be ignored no longer if only for the physical health of the people. It was not that no notable progress had been accomplished in recent years. Much had been done for the betterment of city life under Louis-Philippe. But far more was needed.
The plan was to improve public health and reduce crime, improve the flow of traffic and commerce, provide better sanitation with a vast new sewer system, improve the city’s water supply, and provide more open space and clean air, as well as years of employment for tens of thousands of workers. It was true that straight, wide streets would be less suitable for building barricades and better for the rapid deployment of troops, or for directing artillery fire, as critics often said. But a free flow of traffic and a sense of grandeur were far more important to the planners. The making of a more splendid city was always the paramount objective. The longest of the boulevards planned, the rue Lafayette, was to run three miles in a perfectly straight line. Eventually seventy-one miles of new roads would be built.
Samuel F. B. Morse’s first telegraph.
Early daguerreotype of Paris, with the Pont des Arts in the foreground, the Pont Neuf and the towers of Notre-Dame in the distance.
Andrew Jackson by George P. A. Healy. Painted in Tennessee only days before Jackson’s death in 1845. Jackson was one of several prominent Americans painted by Healy at the request of King Louis-Philippe of France.
Webster’s Reply to Hayne by Healy.
William Wells Brown, fugitive slave, writer, and ardent abolitionist.
Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America.
P. T. Barnum and Tom Thumb.
Pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
No American artist ever caused such a stir in Paris as Catlin, painter of the Plains Indians, who arrived with an enormous exhibition of his work and a troupe of Iowas, who performed their dances at the Tuileries Palace before King Louis-Philippe and his family, as portrayed in a painting by Karl Girardet.
George Catlin by William Fisk.
Little Wolf by George Catlin.
Napoleon III and Georges-Eugène Haussmann at the start of the remaking of Paris. Painting by Adolphe Yvon.
Dr. Thomas Evans, the popular American dentist who, at the fall of the Second Empire, arranged the daring escape of the empress to England.
Author Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Paris in 1853 to escape the fanfare over her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, felt at once the “dreamland” charm of the city, its people, its architecture and art. At the Louvre, Géricault’s vast, dramatic The Raft of the Medusa (upper right) seemed to “seize and control” her whole being.
The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, showing the victims of an 1816 disaster at sea.
The laying of the Atlantic Cable in 1858 changed transatlantic communication forever.
Second Empire opulence on display at the Grand Hôtel.
As the German army marched on Paris, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an American student of sculpture, decided he must leave.
Mary Putnam chose to stay, determined to pursue her medical studies no matter what.
With Paris under siege, Léon Gambetta makes his dramatic escape by balloon. As few people knew, the second balloon (right) carried two Americans, Charles May and William Reynolds.
A Soup Kitchen During the Siege of Paris by Henri Pille.
Rat Seller During the Siege of Paris by Narcisse Chaillou.
American minister to France Elihu B. Washburne.
A December 25, 1870, excerpt from the diary Washburne kept every day through the entire siege.
Paris aflame the night of May 23–24, 1871.
Georges Darboy, Archbishop of Paris by Jean-Louis-Victor Viger du Vigneau. Archbishop Darboy was arrested, imprisoned, and secretly executed on orders from the Communard Chief of Police Raoul Rigault.
Raoul Rigault dead in the gutter.
The Ruins of the Tuileries Palace by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier.
Along the great boulevards new apartments would rise—whole apartment blocks of white limestone—none more than six stories high and in a uniform Beaux-Arts architectural style, with high French windows and cast-iron balconies. Sidewalks were to be widened. Streets and boulevards would be lined with trees and glow at night with 32,000 new gas lamps. Gaslight everywhere would turn night into day, making Paris truly la ville lumière.
And with the boulevards came such novelties as newspaper kiosks, public urinals, and cafés with their tables and chairs set outside on the sidewalks.
The emperor directed that the Bois de Boulogne, the vast woodland west of the city, must become a public park surpassing that of any city, and include a magnificent approach, the avenue de l’Impératrice—the avenue of the Empress. Miles of new walking paths, flower beds, lakes, and a waterfall were part of the plan. And other, smaller parks were to be developed, such as the beautiful Parc Monceau.
“At every step is visible the march of improvement,” Haussmann wrote proudly in his diary. But the gulf between the rich and the poor grew greater, and as Haussmann himself acknowledged, over half the population of Paris lived still “in poverty bordering on destitution.”
The Louvre would be completed at last. New libraries were built. A new Palais de Justice would rise on the Île-de-la-Cité, and in time an all new Hôtel Dieu. For all that was lost to demolition on the Île-de-la-Cité, an essential part of the plan was to keep it the heart of the city, and much of historic importance was spared. With most of the dense slums removed, the glorious façade of Notre-Dame would stand in a wash of open light and in full view as it never had.
Les Halles, a great new central market, with cast-iron girders and a skylight roof, would go up, and as a kind of architectural crescendo, the grandest, most exuberant expression of the Second Empire opulence, a new Théâtre de l’Opéra at the head of a new avenue de l’Opéra, was to be the surpassing centerpiece of the new Paris.
Clouds of dust and mountains of rubble became part of the scene. Traffic would be brought to a halt on the rue de Rivoli by the accidental shattering of a water main. The removal of paving stones on the Place du Panthéon revealed an ancient underground cavity very like the cata-combs. With the demolition of an old convent, the skeletons of eleven nuns were exhumed, some still retaining parts of their woolen habits. Workers were badly injured or killed in accidents.
To be sure, not all were pleased with the transformation. When a character in an English novel of the time, The Parisians by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, asked, “Is there not something drearily monotonous in these interminable perspectives?” more than a few readers nodded in agreement.
“How frightfully the way lengthens before one’s eyes!” the same character, a French vicomte, continued.
In the twists and curves of the old Paris one was relieved from the pain of seeing how far one had to go from one spot to another; each tortuous street had a separate idiosyncrasy; what picturesque diversities, what interesting recollections—all swept away! Mon Dieu! And what for?
The cost of it all, exceeding even the most extravagant expenditures of times past, was to be met with some government funds and a great deal of borrowed money. By 1869 some 2.5 billion francs would be spent, forty times the cost of Louis-Philippe’s improvements. Such an investment, it was promised, would be more than compensated for by increasing prosperity. “When building flourishes, everything flourishes in Paris,” went an old saying. And with order and prosperity the people might continue to forget the loss of their essential liberties.
Contrary to what many assumed, neither the emperor nor Haussmann profited personally from the project, though certainly others close to the emperor did, and handsomely, including the American dentist Thomas Evans. Acting on “inside” information, Evans purchased land that would rise thirty times above what he paid for it. He would, as well, build his own grand mansion on the broad new boulevard leading from the Place de l’Étoile, where the Arc de Triomphe stood, to the entrance of the Bois de Boulogne.
That the final splendor achieved would make Paris more appealing than ever, few had any doubt.
The number of visitors was already increasing noticeably in the early 1850s. Railroad service to and from the rest of Europe and French ports on the Channel was by now well established, clean, and efficient. At sea, larger and ever-finer steamships were crossing from America on regular schedules year-round, and offering comforts on board unimaginable only a few years earlier. The change was dazzling.
American steamers like the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic of the Collins Line were appropriately called “floating palaces.” The Arctic, as an example, offered accommodations for 200 first-class passengers, a grand dining salon, a gentlemen’s smoking room, a gentlemen’s barber shop. Interiors were richly embellished with satinwood and gilded ceilings, plush armchairs, oversized mirrors, marble-topped tables. On the Pacific, where the décor was equally resplendent, five especially large staterooms were designated bridal suites, and the wine cellar carried more than 3,000 bottles.
Such ships were steam-heated for winter travel and featured indoor plumbing. Ice rooms carried as much as forty tons of ice. Fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables were staples. The cooking was comparable to that of the best restaurants. There were no steerage passengers aboard such vessels, and first-class passage was predictably high-priced, about $150 one way. (For an additional $24 one could bring a dog.) “God grant the time will come when all mankind shall be as luxuriantly cared for at home as they are when they go abroad,” wrote a New York correspondent describing life aboard the Arctic.
The great majority of those crossing the Atlantic in both directions still traveled by sailing ships, and by far the greatest number of those passengers were headed in the opposite direction from Americans bound for France. They were sailing for America in steerage, fleeing famine in Ireland and revolution in Europe—over 200,000 Irish in the peak year of 1851, and even more, 350,000, from Germany in 1853 and 1854.
Still, the number of Americans who could afford to travel by luxury steamships and enjoy comparable accommodations once abroad, was steadily on the rise, and even more were now giving the idea serious consideration. In 1851, largely because of interest in the Great Exposition at London’s Crystal Palace, the Pacific put out from New York carrying 238 passengers, a new steamliner record for a single crossing.
Many who were headed for London went on to Paris, and increasingly the more affluent of them brought their families. No longer was it uncommon, as in the time of James Fenimore Cooper, to see a husband and wife come aboard with three or four young children, as well as a servant or two.
Among the earliest of such couples were Robert and Katherine Cassatt of Pennsylvania, who in the summer of 1851 embarked on an extended sojourn abroad, stopping first in London before moving on to Paris with their three young children, Alexander, Lydia, and Mary. In Paris they settled in for an extended stay at the Hôtel Continental, and seven-year-old Mary was to remember the day of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état the rest of her life. It would also be said that her interest in painting began then, which would appear to make her the youngest American thus far to have come under the spell of the arts in Paris.
Two years later, in the spring of 1853, another notable but very different American family began its time abroad.
The year before, in 1852, a new novel titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin by an unknown author had caused the greatest stir of anything published in America since Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. The book had since become a sensation in Britain as well, and its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, unknown no longer, was on her way to England in the “hope of doing good” for the cause against slavery, as she had told her friend Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
In Britain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been acclaimed for having accomplished greater good for humanity than any other book of fiction. Over half a million British women had signed a petition against slavery. In Paris, where the Stowes were also headed, publishers were still scrambling to finish translations, but George Sand, writing in La Presse, had already called Mrs. Stowe “a saint. Yes—a saint!”
Traveling with her were her husband, the preacher-scholar Calvin Stowe, her younger brother, Charles Beecher, also a preacher, and three of her in-laws, but none of her children. They crossed on the steamship Canada, and for Hatty, as she was known in the family, it was, at age forty-one, her first time at sea.
The author’s British tour was long and exhausting. Having taken no part in the antislavery movement prior to writing her book, she suddenly found herself the most influential voice speaking on behalf of the enslaved people of America. From the day her ship docked at Liverpool, crowds awaited her at every stop of the tour through England and Scotland. Husband Calvin was so undone by it all that he gave up and went home.
By the time Hatty reached Paris, in the first week of June, she craved only some peace and privacy, and wanted her presence in the city kept as quiet as possible. Rather than staying at one of the fashionable hotels, she moved into a private mansion on the narrow rue de Verneuil in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, as the guest of an American friend, Maria Chapman, known as “the soul” of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.
“At last I have come into a dreamland,” Hatty wrote. “I am released from care. I am unknown, unknowing. …”
With her time all her own, she used it to see everything possible, starting the next day, a Sunday, with church service at the Madeleine, her first “Romish” service ever. She usually went accompanied by her brother Charles, whose energetic, good-humored companionship she relished. For nearly three weeks she moved about Paris unnoticed, a small, fragile-looking woman of no apparent importance—“a little bit of a woman,” as she said, “about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff, never very much to look at in my best days.”
She was tireless and saw everything that so many Americans had seen before her, but took time to look hard and to think about what she saw. Hatty was a natural “observer,” wrote Charles, “always looking around on everything.” And for all that others had had to say on the same subjects, there was a freshness, an originality in what she wrote.
She loved Paris at once. She needed no coaching, no interlude in which to acclimate herself. She felt immediately at home, as Oliver Wendell Holmes had, and better just for being among the people. “My spirits always rise when I get among the French.”
The days were unseasonably warm, the temperature eighty degrees in the shade, as she recorded in her journal, describing the pleasure of sitting beneath the trees in the Garden of the Tuileries, observing the human show.
Whole families come, locking up their door, bringing the baby, work, dinner, or lunch, take a certain number of chairs and spend the day. As far as the eye can reach you see a multitude seated, as if in church, with other multitudes moving to and fro, while boys and girls without number are frolicking, racing, playing ball, driving hoop, etc., but contriving to do it without making a hideous racket.
How French children were taught to play and enjoy themselves without disturbing everyone else was a mystery to her.
There were grayheaded old men and women, and invalids. And there were beautiful demoiselles working worsted, embroidery, sewing; men reading papers, and, in fact, people doing everything they would do in their own parlors. All were graceful, kind, and obliging; not a word nor an act of impoliteness or indecency.
No wonder the French adore Paris, she thought.
Pausing for an ice at a garden café at the Palais Royal after a long day, she was delighted to find so many others doing the same. No one recognized the plain little American or paid her any attention—just as she wished.
Another day, after climbing with Charles up the spiral staircase to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, she made no mention of the nearly three hundred steps, only the thrill of the view. But, whatever the vantage point, she refused to let slip from her mind how much might lay out of sight. “All is vivacity, gracefulness, and sparkle to the eye, but, ah, what fires are smoldering below.”
Seeing the emperor and empress ride by in their carriage on the boulevard des Italiens, she thought he looked stiff and homely, she beautiful but sad.
Until the evening her host Marie Chapman held one of her salons on the rue de Verneuil, setting out cake and tea for a gathering of Parisian friends, neither Hatty nor Charles had ventured to say much in French. Charles decided to throw caution to the winds and “talked away, right and left, and right and wrong, too,” as he wrote, “a perfect steeple chase, jumping over ditches and hedges, genders and cases … nouns, adjectives, and terminations of all sorts.” The guests were amazed and delighted, as was his sister. “Poor Hatty!” he wrote. “She could not talk French, except to say, ‘Oui, madame. Non, monsieur.’ ”
The attention paid to her at this and other small gatherings by those who knew who she was, was “very touching,” Charles thought. “She is made to feel perfectly free. … And the regard felt for her is manifested in a way … so considerate that she is rather strengthened by it than exhausted.”
What was the mysterious allure of Paris, she wondered. What was its hold on the heart and imagination? Surely the “life artery” was the ever-flowing Seine, she mused one day when crossing the Pont d’Austerlitz. Her years in Cincinnati, living in the presence of the Ohio and writing about it in her book, had given her a strong inner sense of the river as a divider, an open highway, a measure of the turning of the seasons, of life. But the Seine, embellished with such bridges and show of monumental architecture, was like no river she had ever known. “And there is no scene like this, as I gaze upward and downward, comprehending in a glance the immense panorama of art and architecture—life, motion, enterprise, pleasure, pomp, and power.”
As the instinct of the true Parisienne teaches her the mystery of setting off the graces of her person by the fascinations of dress, so the instinct of the nation to set off the city by the fascinations of architecture and embellishment.
Much in the way Emma Willard and others of New England Puritan background were transported by the Cathedral of Rouen, Hatty Stowe, gazing upward within Notre-Dame, felt a “sublimity” she found impossible to analyze or express. It was a long way from the kitchen table in Brunswick, Maine, where she had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a baby in a clothes basket at her feet.
She had become increasingly interested in art. So the Louvre occupied the greater part of her time. She knew nothing of the “rules of painting,” as she said, but confident in what she knew of the art of literature, she compared the painters who most strongly appealed to her to one or another of her favorite writers. Rembrandt struck her as very like Hawthorne, for example.
He chooses simple and everyday objects, and so arranges light and shadow as to give them a somber richness and a mysterious gloom. The House of Seven Gables is a succession of Rembrandt pictures done in words instead of oils. Now this pleases us because our life really is a haunted one. The simplest thing in it is a mystery, the invisible world always lies round us like a shadow. …
There were no paintings in the museum to which she returned as often as those by Rembrandt.
Rubens—“the great, joyous, full-souled, all powerful Rubens!”—whom she loved no less, was like Shakespeare, she decided. Yet Rubens bothered her. He was full of “triumphant, abounding life, disgusting and pleasing, making me laugh and making me angry, defying me to dislike him.”
Like Shakespeare, he forces you to accept and forgive a thousand excesses, and uses his own faults as musicians use discords only to enhance the perfection of harmony. There certainly is some use even in defects. A faultless style sends you to sleep. Defects rouse and excite sensibility to seek and appreciate excellences.
Walking back and forth the length of the Grande Galerie, pausing to look at pictures from a distance and up close, she found few “glorious enough to seize and control my whole being.” Too many artists “painted with dry eyes and cool hearts,” she thought, “thinking only of mixing their colors and the jugglery of their art, thinking little of heroes, faith, love, or immortality.”
For the large works of Jacques-Louis David hanging with other French paintings in the Salon Carré, she had little use. The problem with David was that he had neither heart nor soul. His paintings were but the “driest imitation” of the classics.
She saw French painting as representative of the “great difficulty and danger” of French life in general:
that passion for the outward and visible, which all their education, all arrangements of their social life, everything in their art and literature, tends continually to cultivate and increase. Hence they have become the leaders of the world in what I should call the minor artistics—all those particulars which render life beautiful. Hence there are more pretty pictures and popular lithographs from France than from any other country in the world, but it produces very little of the deepest and highest style of art.
But there was one stunning exception, she was quick to concede, The Raft of the Medusa, the tremendous (16 by 231/2 feet) dark canvas by Théodore Géricault showing the tragic victims of an 1816 disaster, when the ship Medusa went aground off the coast of Senegal. There are no heroes on the crude raft in Géricault’s wild, dark, unforgiving sea. At least two of the figures in the foreground are already dead. Those still alive cling to one another, and the whole thrust of the pyramid of their bodies is to the upper right-hand corner, where the strongest of the living, a black man, waves a shirt or rag toward one dim semblance of hope, the mere speck of a ship on the far horizon.
If any great work in the Louvre had the power to “seize and control” her whole being, she wrote, it was this. She spent a full hour in front of it.
I gazed until all surrounding objects disappeared, and I was alone in the wide Atlantic. Those transparent emerald waves are no fiction. They leap madly, hungering for their prey. That distended sail is filled with the lurid air. The dead man’s foot hangs off in the seething brine a stark reality. What a fixed gaze of despair in that father’s stony eye! What a group of deathly living ones around that frail mast, while one with intense eagerness flutters a signal to some far-described bark! Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner has no colors more fearfully faithful to his theme. … And there is no voice that can summon the distant flying sail!
Here was the work of a man “who had not seen human life and suffering merely on the outside, but had felt in the very depths of his soul the surging and earthquake of those mysteries of passion and suffering which underlie our whole existence in this world.” She was sure no more powerful piece had ever been painted. It was as though this one picture had been worth the whole trip to France.
After not quite three weeks she and her party were on their way to the Swiss Alps and Germany, but soon were back in Paris for a longer stay.
She had been thinking about the human need for beauty and how in childhood she had been starved for that side of life. She felt she had been senselessly, cruelly cheated. “With all New England’s earnestness and practical efficiency, there is a long withering of the soul’s more ethereal part—a crushing out of the beautiful—which is horrible.”
Children are born there with a sense of beauty equally delicate with any in the world in whom it dies a lingering death of smothered desire and pining, weary starvation. I know because I have felt it.
It was a severe indictment of her own upbringing, indeed of American life, and not until she came to Paris had it struck her so emphatically.
More important was the realization that the beauty of Paris was not just one of the pleasures of the city, but it possessed a magically curative power to bring one’s own sense of beauty back to life. “One in whom this sense had long been repressed, in coming into Paris, feels a rustling and a waking within him, as if the soul were crying to unfold her wings.” Instead of scorning the lighthearted, beauty-loving French, she decided, Americans ought to recognize how much was to be learned from them.
Of the outstanding New Englanders whose brilliance distinguished American letters in the 1850s, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and now Harriet Beecher Stowe had all made pilgrimages to Paris. In 1858 followed yet another, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Herman Melville had passed through in 1849, but his stay had been so brief and uneventful it seems to have mattered little to him. The only one of the New England “immortals” who did not come was Henry Thoreau, but then he seldom went anywhere.
Hawthorne, his wife, and three children arrived for a week’s visit in the bitter cold of January. They had come over from England, where Hawthorne was serving as the American consul at Liverpool, and they stopped at the newly opened Hôtel du Louvre, just across the rue de Rivoli from the museum.
“The splendor of Paris, so far as I have seen, takes me altogether by surprise,” Hawthorne recorded at the end of his first day. London was nothing by comparison. The emperor deserved great credit for the changes brought about in so little time, he thought. Every visitor looking at Paris ought, selfishly, to wish him a long reign. As for the masterpieces in the Louvre, Hawthorne found them “wearisome,” much preferring to watch the crowd of Sunday visitors. If he took any interest in the paintings by Rembrandt, or saw any similarity to his own work, as Mrs. Stowe had, he made no mention of it.
Great as were the improvements in transatlantic travel, the perils of the sea had by no means become a thing of the past. In 1854 came news of a terrible tragedy, when the largest of the American “floating palaces,” the Arctic, on a return voyage to New York, collided with another ship in the fog off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The death toll numbered between 350 and 372 passengers and crew. Two years later, a Cunard steamer, Pacific, set out on a winter crossing from Liverpool to New York, with 186 passengers and crew, and was never heard from again.
Still, the ocean travelers from America kept coming, and with the approach of the 1855 Paris Exposition, their numbers grew even larger. “Perhaps never before have there been so many Americans in Europe as at the present time,” reported the New York Times.Among them were the James family of New York, beneficiaries of an inherited fortune—father, mother, four sons, and a daughter. His intention, said the elder James, was “to educate the babies in strange lingoes.” The oldest of the children, William and Henry, were fourteen and twelve respectively. Set loose on their own in Paris, the two boys would often head down the Champs-Élysées and through the Tuileries to the Louvre. Henry would remember how he “looked and looked again” at the pictures, and how he wondered at the “still-present past” of Paris, the “mysteries of fifty sorts,” as he tried to fathom what he might make of his life.
The exposition, staged largely on the Champs-Élysées, was an enormous success. There were more than 5,000 exhibits, and in the course of the year more than 5 million visitors descended on Paris. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert arrived, 800,000 people lined the streets to see them ride by. (With France and Britain then joined as allies of the Turks against the Russians in the Crimean War, the presence of the British monarchs had more than conventional symbolism.)
Flags flew everywhere. Hotels posted COMPLET (FULL) signs. Prices soared. For the emperor and his prefect of the Seine, Haussmann, it was a clear confirmation of their claim that the sums being spent on the city would be returned in full with the money spent by ever-more visitors.
Although the vast demolition and construction continued, it was astonishing how much had already been accomplished. “Paris is singly transformed,” wrote an amazed and approving Prince Albert.
French intellectuals complained that in planning the exposition too much attention was devoted to the Palais de l’Industrie, too much fuss made over the material products of industry and technology. American visitors, however, were delighted to see such attention and the gold medals conferred on Singer sewing machines, Colt revolvers, McCormick reapers, and Professor Morse’s telegraph.
Of the 796 French artists represented at the Gallery of Fine Arts, there were forty paintings by Ingres, the official favorite of the French government, and thirty-five by Delacroix. American painters, by contrast, were so few—a scant twelve in all—as to be barely noticeable. Among them were William Morris Hunt and George Healy, who had thirteen of his portraits accepted, as well as his latest work—Benjamin Franklin pleading the cause of American independence before Louis XVI—for which Healy received a gold medal.
If the emperor and others in power drew one clear conclusion from the Exposition, it was that the next one must be bigger and more dazzling still.
In his years painting portraits, George Healy had had the pleasure of conversing while he worked with many outstanding talkers, but he had never met the equal of William B. Ogden from Chicago, who that summer of the exposition came to Healy’s studio for several sittings. Ogden, a real estate developer and railroad man, had been Chicago’s first mayor when it had numbered all of 4,000 people, and he loved to go on about the city’s “marvelous future.” The more Ogden talked, the more interested Healy grew. Now forty-two, he had been wondering if it might be time for a change.
I had often thought of returning to the United States and settling there; but the difficulties of moving with a large family, the uncertainty as to where I should go, the fear of being considered by my country-people, according to a frank saying of the time, as a “blasted foreigner,” had made me hesitate.
Ogden offered the hospitality of his Chicago home until Healy could get settled, and promised “a rich harvest” of commissions among those he knew. So in the fall of 1855, Healy joined the hundreds of other Americans homeward bound from the Exposition. Because Louisa was soon to give birth to another child, she, the baby (a son), and five little girls would follow later. It had been twenty-one years since Healy arrived in Paris as a student. Whether it crossed his mind that he might return again is not known.
With the departure of Healy, one generation in American art made its exit from the stage of Paris while another, as if on cue, made its entrance, and fittingly, in a decidedly different form.
James McNeill Whistler was only just twenty-one. He was small (five feet four inches) and a dandy—slim, with long curly black hair and a black mustache. So high-spirited and noisy was he, so overflowing with wit and self-confidence, many failed to take him seriously.
Much of his boyhood had been spent in St. Petersburg, Russia—his father, Major George Whistler, a civil engineer and West Point graduate, had helped build the first railroad connecting St. Petersburg to Moscow for Czar Nicholas I—and there the boy had first shown his gift for drawing. At sixteen, like his father, he entered West Point, which he instantly loathed. The only course in which he excelled was drawing. In his third year he was discharged for failure in chemistry. “Had silicon been a gas,” he loved to say, “I would have been a major general.”
Like the young George Healy, Whistler had come to Paris for proper training in an atelier, but with the difference that he already spoke excellent French and had all but memorized a recent French novel about the carefree life of artists in the Latin Quarter, Scènes de la Vie de Bohémienne(Scenes of Bohemian Life) by Henri Murger, which was later adapted for the libretto of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.
American students who knew “Jimmie” Whistler in Paris at that time described him as full of “go,” “eccentric,” “always smoking cigarettes, which he made himself,” and “no end of fun.” Nor would his “peculiar” hat be forgotten—a big yellow straw hat with a broad brim and low crown wrapped in a broad black ribbon with its long ends hanging down. It was the signature touch of his Vie de Bohémienne look.
Elated with the new life, he seemed in no hurry to decide on an atelier or settle down to work. He did, however, take up with a young dressmaker named Héloïse, and together they moved into a small studio-bedroom on the rue Jacob. When eventually he entered the popular atelier of Charles Gleyre, he seems to have spent limited time there. Yet what he took away from the experience was of lasting value—that line mattered more than color, and that of all colors, black was of greatest importance, black “the universal harmonizer.”
He and Héloïse moved from the rue Jacob to cheaper quarters, then moved again. “I don’t think he stayed long in any rooms,” another student remembered. He never had enough money, yet kept on enjoying himself expansively at restaurants like Lalouette’s, famous for its burgundy at one franc a bottle and for allowing art students unlimited credit.
“His genius, however, found its way in spite of an excess of the natural indolence and love of pleasure,” said another of his student circle. In fact, Whistler was concentrating on work more than it appeared. In a sense, he was never not working. As would be said, “Everything he enjoyed as a student he turned to his profit as an artist. The women he danced with at night were his models by day.” He was drawing, doing etchings of exceptional vitality, and spending long days at the Louvre working on copies.
He made many friends among the French students, including one Henri Fantin-Latour, who would prove as valued as any of his lifetime. He also began going back and forth to London, and in 1859, having parted company with Héloïse, he moved there, his student days at an end. But by no means was Whistler finished with Paris, or Paris with him.
He left owing Monsieur Lalouette, the restaurant owner, 3,000 francs, all of which, in time, he paid back.
In the nearly twenty years since his student days at the Sorbonne, Charles Sumner had become one of the most eloquent and disputatious figures in American politics. With his imposing height, his rare command of the English language, and his deep, powerful voice, he could rouse and inspire audiences as could few others, and when unleashing his passion for causes, he seldom failed to provoke storms of criticism, even outrage. He had argued for world peace, spoken out fearlessly against the Mexican War and slavery, and with little or no apparent concern over whom he offended. His friends worried for his safety. “For heaven’s sake don’t let him do himself harm while trying to help other people,” Thomas Appleton wrote to his father from England.
It was Sumner’s continuing part in the “question” of slavery, above all, that had propelled him to national prominence. He was one of the founders of the Free Soil Party and, in 1851, at age forty, was elected to the United States Senate. Having once concluded—while observing how black students were treated at the Sorbonne—that the attitude toward and treatment of African-Americans at home was contrary to the “natural order of things,” Sumner had made plain his hatred of slavery and never gave up on it. “I think slavery a sin, individual and national,” he wrote, “and I think it the duty of each individual to cease committing it.”
The first news of the savage physical attack on Sumner in the United States Senate reached Paris on June 9, 1856. Within days all Europe knew the sensational story.
The assault had taken place on May 22, after Sumner, earlier in the week, delivered his longest, most strident and contentious speech yet, “The Crime against Kansas,” as he called it. Like Webster’s reply to Hayne, it was one of the most important orations in the history of the Senate and was delivered to a packed chamber over the course of two days. And again it was a Massachusetts senator who stood at center stage.
But such was Sumner’s wrath that, unlike Webster, he launched into personal attacks of a kind traditionally not tolerated in the Senate, with the result that the speech and the ensuing attack on Sumner were to have consequences far beyond those resulting from what Webster had declaimed.
He would expose “the whole crime” of slavery “without sparing language,” Sumner told a friend in advance, and he did. In printed form the speech ran more than a hundred pages, and he had memorized every word. He denounced not only “the reptile monster,” slavery, and the “swindle” of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was the center of the debate, but he singled out for acid scorn several members of the Senate who had perpetuated “human wrongs,” one of whom, Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, was not present to reply. Sumner likened Butler to a silly old Don Quixote in love with the “harlot slavery.” “He cannot open his mouth but out there flies a blunder.”
To no one’s surprise the speech was immediately denounced in the South and acclaimed in the North. The abolitionists, and especially in Massachusetts, were overjoyed. “Your speech,” wrote Sumner’s close friend Henry Longfellow, “is the greatest voice on the greatest subject that has yet been uttered.”
An incensed congressman named Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, who was a slaveholder and kinsman of Senator Butler, brooded for more than a day over what he ought to do to defend the honor of South Carolina in the face of such insults. The main question on his mind was whether to go after Sumner with a horsewhip or his heavy, gutta-percha cane. He chose the cane, having decided, he later explained, that Sumner with his size and strength might readily “wrest” a whip from his hand and turn on him with it, and then where would he be?
It was early afternoon when Brooks slipped into the back of the Senate Chamber and stood waiting. Only a few others were still present. Sumner was alone at his desk busily signing papers.
Brooks approached and addressed him. “Mr. Sumner,” he said, “I have read your speech over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine. …” When Sumner looked up, Brooks struck the first backhanded blow to the head.
Sumner’s desk, like other desks in the Senate, was screwed to the floor, and with his long legs, he could sit only with his knees wedged tightly underneath. Desperate to defend himself, he rose up with such explosive force that he ripped the desk loose from the floor.
Brooks kept striking, left and right—“thirty first-rate stripes,” he later boasted—until the supposedly unbreakable cane shattered. “I wore my cane out completely, but saved the head which is gold.”
Sumner lay on the floor unconscious and covered with blood. Brooks slipped quietly out of the chamber. After several minutes, Sumner regained consciousness and was taken to his lodgings and put to bed.
In Kansas, abolitionist John Brown and his men, hearing the news of the attack on Sumner, “went crazy,” as one of them would recall, and rushed off to slaughter five innocent men in the infamous Pottawatomie Massacre.
Congressman Brooks received only a fine of $300 for what he had done. Instead, he was a hero in the South, greeted with cheers wherever he went and presented with gifts of gold-headed canes.
Sumner never fully recovered from the attack. After a long convalescence, he tried to return to his work in the Senate but found it impossible. He could walk only with difficulty. Getting out of a chair was painful. His condition was described as “an oppressive sense of weight or stricture on the brain,” and this was greatly increased by any mental effort, even by conversation.
With the arrival of the New Year, when he tried again to resume his duties in the Senate, he found even one day too much for him. His doctors advised a trip abroad—for the beneficial effects of days at sea and for “a complete separation from the cares and responsibilities that must beset him at home.”
The voyage was a far cry from what it had been on the packet Albany in 1837. Sumner departed New York this time in the comforts of the steamship Fulton, with flags flying and a booming thirty-one-gun salute in his honor.
He had come on board looking extremely feeble, walking with the support of a cane. At forty-six, he might have been taken for a man in his late sixties. For the first seven days he was confined to his stateroom, suffering from seasickness. But the morning he emerged, it was obvious the voyage, seasickness included, had done worlds of good. A newspaper correspondent on board described how the senator could rise from a chair without difficulty and could be seen walking the deck with no cane.
To look at Mr. Sumner now and converse with him as he stands firmly on the unsteady deck … I can understand why a ruffian, a chivalric ruffian, would choose knocking such a man when he was down rather than attempt to knock him down.
He became openly sociable, taking time to talk with nearly everyone among the passengers and crew. It was said he could have been elected by a landslide to any office he wished on board.
“The sea air, or seasickness, or absolute separation from politics at home, or all combined, have given me much of my old strength,” he wrote after landing at Le Havre. For the first time since his student days in France, he was keeping a journal again.
On the overland ride to Paris—by rail rather than diligence—he stopped at Rouen as before and again took time to visit the cathedral. From Rouen to Paris, the day was fine. “Civilization seemed to abound,” he wrote of the passing scenery. He was looking forward with greatest anticipation to so much he remembered of Paris—the opera, the theater, a few favorite restaurants, and time with old friends, like the peripatetic Thomas Appleton, who, he knew, was already there.
Once in Paris, he “sallied forth” without delay, “astonished at the magnificence which I saw, beyond all my expectations.” He was off to the opera the first night, for two hours of Guillaume Tell. The next morning he and Appleton took a drive through the city. “The improvements are prodigious,” he wrote, his spirits soaring. He attended performances at the French opera, the Italian opera, and the Opéra Comique seven or eight nights running, and the theater as well. He did it all, it seems— strolled the Garden of the Tuileries, went to the Louvre, “played the flâneur” at the Palais Royal, dined at Trois Frères Provençaux, Véry’s, the Café Anglais. Sumner dined with Appleton at least a dozen times. He crossed the Seine and “revived” old recollections at the Sorbonne. From his “beautiful apartment” at the Hôtel de la Paix, on the rue de la Paix, he could watch “all the movement of Paris.”
Not only had Paris been transformed; he had, too. Such vitality as he had shown walking the deck of the Fulton was even greater now, as he kept a schedule that might have exhausted someone half his age.
Alexis de Tocqueville came to call and converse candidly about the political picture in France. (“He did not disguise his opposition to the government … said that it was a ‘gouvernement de bâtards.’ ”) Another day Sumner joined de Tocqueville for breakfast with several French political figures, among whom was François Guizot, who assured Sumner that he, too, opposed slavery. When someone at the table asked which of the foreign accents in French was the least agreeable to a Frenchman, Guizot, with no hesitation, said German, and recalled that Louis-Philippe judged a man’s ability by the languages he spoke. In a matter of days, Sumner had arranged for a French tutor who spoke no English to come to his hotel every morning to read and speak French to him.
He met and conversed at length with the poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine, who told him nobody could anticipate the future of France: “With a people so changeable, nothing is certain but change.”
At a dinner party he met the American dentist Thomas Evans. “He speaks of the emperor in warmest terms of admiration,” Sumner recorded, “and describes him as laborious and happy, beginning the day with a cold bath, and meeting his wife with a kiss.”
Sumner had never married. His interest in women was considerable, and the face of a particularly beautiful woman could move him deeply. But he was often uncomfortable with women. His work and his friends were his life, and he had many close friends to whom he was devoted, like Longfellow, Appleton, and Samuel Gridley Howe, ardent antislavery leader and pioneer in education for the blind.
On April 23, from Paris, Sumner wrote a long letter to Howe. His time, he said, was indeed “intensely occupied,” but he did tire. His legs dragged after a walk that once would have been nothing. By then he was also fighting a cold—“they call it la grippe here.” But la grippe or not, he was in Paris, and Paris, he could report, was “very gay and beautiful, and abounding in interesting people.”
He began feeling a little of the old urge to get back to Washington. “I tremble for Kansas. … How disgusting it seems the conduct of those miserable men who thus trifle with the welfare of this region! My blood boils at this outrage, and I long to denounce it again from my place.”
Young Henry James, who through his father met Sumner at this time, was surprised to find the martyr looking so well, his wounds all “rather disappointingly healed.”
The pace of sightseeing and social occasions with “interesting people” hardly slackened. At one evening affair he chatted with the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who predicted that serfdom would be abolished in Russia within ten years. At two other gatherings he had the chance to catch up with Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was back in Paris and making her own effort to learn French.
He visited the Imperial Library, watched in amazement a military review on the Champ de Mars, where 60,000 troops paraded, more soldiers than he had ever seen or expected ever to see again. He made a return visit to the École de Médecine, even “plunged into the dissecting rooms, strong with the stench of human flesh.”
Appleton accompanied him on a shopping expedition for gifts to take home, including a dessert service for Appleton’s sister, Fanny, who had become Mrs. Henry Longfellow. Dining together night after night, they talked on for hours as only they could.
They were two thorough Bostonians close to the same age—Sumner the older by a year. They had known each other for more than twenty years, ever since they had met at Harvard. Appleton had chosen a life devoted mainly to his own enjoyment, nothing like Sumner’s. (As Appleton had written to his father earlier from Paris, “I dine out very often, eat and drink as much as I wish, sleep well after it, paint in pastels, talk a good deal in a very superior way. …”) Still, it would have been hard to find two Americans of the day who had anything approaching their range of common interests, their knowledge and love of opera, theater, art, books, travel, and ideas. Or who could expand on any or all with such compelling vitality.
Possibly there was a homosexual side to their friendship, but there is no evidence of this. Appleton may have been ambiguous sexually, but beyond that nothing is known, and while Sumner’s political enemies would have leapt at the chance to destroy him with charges of scandal of any kind, none was ever made.
Sometimes when dining in Paris they were joined by another guest. One evening it was an American naval officer, William Lynch, the author of a recent, popular book about his explorations of the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. More often it was the two friends to themselves. Regrettably neither recorded anything of these occasions. Still, it is easy to picture them in a setting such as Trois Frères Provençaux, enjoying perhaps a salt cod with garlic, a spécialité de la maison, and a bottle or more of Château Carbonnieux from Bordeaux, the evening sailing along on all manner of observations on Mozart or Verdi or Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, one of the operas they had recently attended and enjoyed, or going on about Keats or Dumas or the cathedral at Rouen or Paris itself. And while Sumner would have contributed little in the way of humor, Appleton would have more than compensated.
For Sumner it was the best medicine possible, talk of the kind he thrived on, and hardly to be found among the politicians in Washington. If Preston Brooks with his attack had brought him near death, was it not his old friend Appleton who had observed, “When good Americans die they go to Paris”?
On May 24, after a stay of two months, Sumner left for a tour of the provinces. Then followed another two months of headlong sightseeing in London, Germany, the Netherlands, Brussels, and Scotland, until it became too much. Feeling unwell again, he consulted a London specialist in phrenology, who told Sumner that his brain, “although apparently functionally sound,” would ultimately give way under the pressure of public life in America.
By early December 1857 he had returned to Washington, in time for the new session of Congress, only to find himself exhausted by just sitting and listening. He could neither work nor abide the whole “vileness and vulgarity” of the capital. When in late December he left again, he felt better almost at once. Still, he tried returning to Washington several times, but to no avail.
Through all his prolonged disability and absence from the Senate, the people of Massachusetts remained loyal to Sumner. There were no serious calls for his resignation, little or no talk of someone taking his place, and in this, as he knew, he was extremely fortunate.
When several doctors advised a return to Europe, he sailed again for Le Havre, leaving on May 22, 1858, two years to the day since the attack in the Senate.
The excruciating ordeal Sumner was subjected to in the summer of 1858 need never have happened. Some American acquaintances in Paris had recommended that he see a French-American physician named Charles Edward Brown-Séquard, reputedly “a bold experimenter on animals and human beings, adventurous in practice as in theory.”
Brown-Séquard came to see Sumner at his hotel and after a three-hour examination determined to his satisfaction that the blows inflicted by Congressman Brooks had, because of Sumner’s seated position, severely damaged certain key points in his spinal cord. The cure the doctor recommended was “fire.” He would burn the naked skin on Sumner’s back at the key points using cotton soaked in some combustible substance. The treatment, warned Brown-Séquard, could be painful. Sumner asked him to begin at once and, at his choice, without anesthetic, lest it reduce the effect of the procedure.
Through the agony of the ordeal—conducted there in the hotel room— Sumner gripped the back of a chair with such force that he broke it in two.
Over the next two weeks he was subjected to an additional five such “treatments,” again without anesthetic. “The doctor is clear,” he explained in a letter to Longfellow, “that without this cruel treatment I should have been a permanent invalid, always subject to sudden and serious relapse. Surely this life is held sometimes on hard conditions.”
Apparently he had no second thoughts about the procedure or about Brown-Séquard. But a number of friends and physicians at home were convinced he had been the victim of a quack experimenting with a “baseless theory” at his expense.
There seems little doubt that Brown-Séquard thought he was doing the right thing, and the fact that such a treatment was prescribed by a physician of reputation in Paris, the world’s center of advanced medicine, gave it great credence, and particularly to a patient desperate for relief.
From what is known from surviving records, the attack by Brooks had neither fractured Sumner’s skull nor caused a concussion, and this, with other evidence, strongly indicates that much of what he suffered after the attack was from what would later be called psychic wounds. His suffering was entirely real, but the indications are it derived far more from the psychological trauma of the attack than from a neurological cause.
That Sumner could barely endure being back in the Senate—back at the scene of the attack—and that his condition so noticeably improved the farther from Washington he was, strongly suggests this, as indeed it did to several physicians at the time. Almost any change of scene would have helped him. Had there been no “cruel treatment” as administered by Brown-Séquard, Paris by itself would almost certainly have proven quite as therapeutic again that summer of 1858 as it had the year before.
When in August, six weeks after the last of the treatments, Sumner received an invitation to a grand banquet to be given by a number of other Americans in Paris in honor of Samuel Morse, he was, as he told Morse in a note, still too weak and beset by pain to attend.
Morse had at last, at age sixty-seven, attained the success and recognition he had longed for. His telegraph was an established part of American life. A few years earlier in a letter to Dominique Arago, the first of the French savants to have acclaimed the importance of the invention, Morse had written proudly, “At this moment my system of telegraphing comprises about fifteen thousand English miles of conductors on this continent.” How many thousands of miles it reached in Europe he did not know.
Financially he was secure as he had never been, even wealthy to the point where he had been able to establish his first real home and in the grand manner, an Italianate mansion called Locust Grove, which he built on the eastern bank of the Hudson River just below Poughkeepsie. He had married Sarah Griswold, and had had four more children. He was still bothered with rival claims to his invention and lawsuits, but all that seemed of far less consequence now, as the most enormous telegraph project yet was nearing completion, the laying of an Atlantic cable connecting America and Britain. An announcement of its success was expected any day, which made the prospect of the banquet all the more cause for excitement.
Morse arrived in Paris with nearly all his large family—his wife, three young boys, his mother-in-law, a party of fifteen in total—and checked into the Hôtel du Louvre.
On August 17, with perfect timing, on the eve of the banquet, came the news of the completion of the Atlantic cable. Messages of greeting had been exchanged across the sea by telegraph between Queen Victoria and the president of the United States, James Buchanan. As later reported in a New York Times account of the dinner in Paris, “the utmost enthusiasm prevailed.”
Of the eighty gentlemen gathered in formal attire at the Trois Frères Provençaux, at least one in four appear to have had something to say in tribute to Morse. “Every figure of rhetoric was exhausted in his praise,” continued the Times coverage of the “Great Telegraphic Festival.” Morse himself, when it came his turn, spoke modestly of his accomplishments and why all Americans should feel proud, and he was roundly and repeatedly applauded.
Greatest of all was the standing acclaim when the new American minister to France, John Y. Mason, announced that the governments of Europe, with France in their lead, had agreed to honor Professor Morse as a “benefactor of mankind.” He was to be awarded the sum of 400,000 francs (approximately $80,000), with France contributing the largest part of it.
It was a night of nights for Morse and of the kind Charles Sumner, with his oratorical flair, would have thrived on. As it was, in his note to Morse declining the invitation, he had said in a single paragraph what so many had tried to say with such formality and at such length:
I seize the moment to express in this informal manner my humble gratitude for the great discovery with which your name will always be associated. Through you civilization has made one of her surest and grandest triumphs beyond any ever won on a field of battle. Nor do I go beyond the line of most cautious truth when I add, that if mankind had yet arrived at a just appreciation of its benefactors, it would welcome such a conqueror with more than a marshal’s baton.
Morse wrote immediately to express his gratitude.
When in early September, it became known that messages over the Atlantic cable had suddenly stopped, that something had gone wrong, no one took it as anything more than a temporary inconvenience. As said in Galignani’s Messenger, there was “no great cause for despondency in the present interruption. It rather sets forth the necessity for more cables. …”
Feeling strong enough to get about again, Sumner departed on an excursion to Brittany, then the French Alps, to Aix-les-Bains, to try the mineral springs known for their curative value since Roman times. Noticeably improved, he moved on to Italy, then to Vienna, Prague, and Dresden, and afterward to Munich and down the Rhine to Cologne, and then back to Paris. Through the whole journey, he kept up correspondence with old friends at home and took time to be with other friends encountered en route. He was determined, by staying on the move and keeping his mind fully occupied, to “turn the corner” on his health. When, in Paris, Dr. Brown-Séquard warned that he was not yet ready to return to the United States, he promptly went off to Montpellier in the south of France and by the spring of 1859 was in Italy again, then back to France for still more sightseeing in Brittany and Normandy, stopping at Mont-Saint-Michel, Saint-Malo, and Rennes. “If anybody cares to know how I am doing, you can say better and better,” he reported to his brother.
By the autumn of 1859, once more in Paris, he was preparing at last to leave for good, ready to go home and get back to his work in the Senate. In the last few days he treated himself to a shopping binge, in true American tourist fashion, buying china, bronzes, old manuscripts, engravings, and rare books, for which he had a passion, all to take back with him, and made an excursion to La Grange, to pay final homage to the memory of Lafayette.
A friend from Boston, the controversial Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who had come to Europe in hope of relief from health problems of his own, was amazed by the miraculous change in “dear old Sumner.”
He walks on those great long legs of his at the rate of four or five miles an hour. His countenance is as good as ever. He walked upright and sits upright. All the trouble has vanished from his brain. … He is full of information—knowledge of facts, men, and ideas. … I never found him more cheerful or more hopeful. It is a continual feast to see him.
By the fall of 1860, George Healy and his family were well established in Illinois. Another child had been born, a sixth daughter, which made a total of seven children, and Healy had commissions aplenty, just as his Chicago friend, William Ogden, had promised. One of those who sat for his portrait was Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick, who conversed with Healy in French and persuaded him to return to the Catholic faith, from which he had long since strayed.
In the second week of November 1860, following the presidential elections, Healy was asked to paint the president-elect, Abraham Lincoln. On November 15, Healy took the train to Springfield for the first of several sittings in the Illinois State House. A visiting politician who happened by described how Lincoln “sat to the artist with his right foot on top of the left and both feet turned inward—pigeon fashion,” and how, telling stories the whole while, he “laughed at his own wit … and made a couple of hours pass merrily.”
During one session Lincoln sat glancing through letters and began laughing aloud over one from an unknown correspondent. “She complains of my ugliness,” he told Healy. She suggested he grow a beard, “to hide my horrible lantern jaws.” Would Healy like to paint him with a beard, Lincoln asked. He would not, Healy said, and Lincoln laughed again “with perfect delight.”
The portrait was one of Healy’s strongest and most sensitive, and of great importance because it recorded Lincoln in color and without the beard. The head is in profile. His face is not yet marked by the burdens and strain of the years to come. It is a younger, still-untested Abraham Lincoln and as surely rendered as any portrait ever done of him.
Less than five months later, in April 1861, Healy was in Charleston, South Carolina, finishing a portrait of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, just before Beauregard, having joined the Confederates, ordered the fateful bombardment of Fort Sumter in the harbor on April 12. Charleston went wild with excitement. Healy, who had never mixed in politics, was nonetheless, as he said, “a Northern man with Northern feelings and anti-slavery principles.” A Charleston newspaper declared that if the Yankee painter had “not left the city before the sun went down, he should be tarred and feathered.” When Healy laughed on hearing about it, his host assured him it was no laughing matter and said a carriage would be at the door in an hour and he most certainly must leave.
Back in Washington, on receiving word of the firing on Fort Sumter, Senator Charles Sumner went directly to the White House to assure President Lincoln of his full support, “heart and soul,” and told him that “under the war power the right had come to him to emancipate the slaves.”
In Paris the April weather was all it was supposed to be. One fine, sunny day followed another, the temperature in the seventies. Some days not a cloud was visible. Along the Champs-Élysées the fashionable paraded themselves as customary, pleased with the weather and the crowds, delighted to be seen in their new spring finery and to be part of the glittering show.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser had its premiere (the consensus was that it needed work), and among the new translations available in the bookshops was Longfellow’s Hiawatha. In the Garden of the Tuileries and the Luxembourg Gardens, strollers slowed or paused to enjoy the long beds of flowers in bloom.
With great military pageantry and solemnity, the mortal remains of Napoleon were transferred from the Chapel of Saint-Jérome in the Invalides, where they had rested for twenty years, to lie at last beneath the church’s great dome. Emperor Napoleon III in full uniform and the Empress Eugénie in “deep mourning” descended into the crypt to sprinkle holy water on the coffin.
The emperor’s vision of a great imperial city moved steadily forward, with no little racket and raising of dust, and still mountains of rubble were everywhere. Demolition for the “prolongation” of the broad boulevards continued—the boulevard Malesherbes was on schedule for completion that summer—and it was announced that the French architect Charles Garnier had won the design competition for the Théâtre de l’Opéra, the monumental structure intended to epitomize more than any other the splendor of the Second Empire. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Charles Sumner, most Americans liked what they saw of the new Paris.
News of Fort Sumter broke by trans-Atlantic “telegraphic dispatches” on Saturday, April 27. “THE CIVIL WAR IN THE STATES,” ran the headline in Galignani’s Messenger the next day. The city of Washington was described as “in a frantic state of excitement.”
As the news grew steadily more alarming, more and more Americans in Paris were hurriedly making ready to leave. A correspondent for the New York World wrote of the crowds of Americans gathered day after day at Galignani’s and other centers for dispatches, and how, though there was some excitement and “a little angry discussion,” the general feeling was one of gloom and sadness.
We who are residing in a foreign country, away from the immediate scene of action, perhaps can feel more deeply than those at home the evil effects of the present distracted condition of our country. Here men from every section of it … heretofore felt a pride and a pleasure in grasping the hand of an American, from whatever portion of the Union he may have come from. But this has given place to the feeling of bitterness, and the men from the North and South are now, in Europe, looking upon each other as enemies. The effect of the last news will be to send to America most of those who are now here, as the feeling on both sides appears to be that in the present crisis every man should be where his services may be obtained if needed.
For Americans the good time in Paris was put on hold, and no one could say for how long.