“Everything is so truly regal, so large, so grand, so comprehensive it makes me jealous.” Victoria, the most powerful monarch on the planet and the queen of France’s main rival, knew that the French capital offered an incomparable spectacle, even before the government and private speculators had finished shining up its sparkling new boulevards and apartment buildings. The English queen made her comment on the occasion of a visit during the Paris Exposition of 1855, the first of the five (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900) that France would host by the time the century ended. The expositions alone helped draw visitors to the French capital. In 1900, a remarkable 51 million people visited Paris during the six-month celebration that dubbed itself the “universal exposition,” putting its aspirations and sense of self front and center in its very naming process.
If France had a rich culture of the written word that propagated the importance of the French language, the equal dedication to the production and display of what was regarded as the universal language of images facilitated making the French capital, in particular, an international stage manager of world culture. Visual culture in modern France, from the fine arts to the mass-reproduced commercial forms such as photography, fashion, and film played a central role in creating the magnetic pull toward Paris. The history of Paris, perhaps like Rome before it, also testifies to the fact that great capitals do not simply embody the nation to its citizens but also advance the nation’s significance on a global scale. From art museums and world’s fairs to the spoils of empire in its ethnographic museums, Paris became a place to visit in the name of seeing the best of French and world culture on display.
Although all major capitals have magnetic appeal, Paris seems to hold a special place in the pantheon. A battle raged between the power of the countryside, where the majority of the population lived until the twentieth century, and the overwhelming appeal of the capital over the course of modern French history. The banality of the giant presence of Paris has led to the development of a cottage industry of historians working on the provinces, on rural life, and on the colonies. The rich and varied set of histories they have produced guarantee that French history does not rise and fall with the fate of Paris, despite its overwhelming importance.
It is a hard story to modify, for Paris did more than just dictate national life from the center, having transformed the site of the Capetian throne into the seat of the modern Republic. Paris wed the promise of political democracy and the rights of man and the reputation for tolerating foreigners with the glitter and beauty of an internationally oriented cultural capital. This produced an urban mythology that blended all these qualities. Thus Paris also became known as a culturally free and artistically open city, leading the charge with one of the nineteenth century’s great battle cries: progress.
The story of image-making and positive change in Paris begins with the physical reconstruction of the city in the mid-nineteenth century. It reoriented the physical space toward seeing and looking, helping to construct the city itself as a spectacular image. That renovation is often called Haussmannization, named after Baron Georges Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine under Napoleon III, who directed the planning and execution of the city’s modernization. Haussmann’s plan soon became the global model for similar urban renovations and planning throughout the world.
Redevelopment began in the 1850s at the city’s center with the razing of the medieval pattern of small and irregular streets in the densely populated area around the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité. A boulevard would now run through the area—a leitmotif that characterized the process that favored radical change as opposed to minor improvements. Contemporaries joked that Haussmann would have straightened the bends in the Seine River in order to improve the view across his new bridges. With these changes came land speculation and the displacement of vast numbers of working-class Parisians who found themselves forced out of their houses.
Boulevards not only facilitated the circulation of people and goods but also provided sweeping vistas and generally prioritized looking and seeing. The boulevards created a new social geography, which turned the street into a spectacle. What made the spectacle worth seeing was the sense that any and all observers might gather there to watch and be part of the crowd. Alfred Delvau, a nineteenth-century Parisian man-about-town, proclaimed that “the boulevards are not only the heart and head of Paris, but also the soul of the entire world.” Even such Parisian boosterism shared the logic of universalism. Among the regime’s crowning achievements, not completed until well into the Third Republic in 1876, the new Opéra, designed by Charles Garnier, theatrically staged the audience. It offered a ceremonial staircase as wide as a boulevard and a set of boxes that created a theatrical visual experience, which rivaled the shows the audience came to see and hear.
4. The monumental staircase at the Paris Opéra designed by Charles Garnier during the period of Parisian modernization, like the new boulevards throughout the city, was made for seeing and being seen.
Less showy infrastructure improvements also featured prominently in the city’s redesign. Aside from the boulevards, sidewalks were made of improved paving materials such as macadam. The plan also connected the city below ground by magnificent new sewers, an underground pneumatic mail system, and eventually the Métro in 1900. New iron-and-glass pavilions proclaimed the modernity of the redesigned central market, “Les Halles,” which Emile Zola dubbed “the belly of Paris” in his eponymous novel. The city even got a new morgue, complete with a plate glass window through which corpses were displayed in the hope that those who had died in the public domain would be identified before their burial. Considered free public theater, the area in front of the building, in the shadows of Notre Dame, teemed with visitors and street vendors selling oranges and candy.
Green spaces also mattered in the new Paris. Napoleon III, the Republican devotee-turned-emperor, having spent his exile from France during the July Monarchy (1830–48) in London, had developed an appreciation for parks, and his plan provided for spaces such as the Bois de Boulogne, the Park Montsouris, and the Buttes Chaumont that fed the lungs of the city.
The size of the city itself more than doubled during the Second Empire, and its population increased by 50 percent as the outer neighborhoods such as Belleville and Ménilmontant were annexed to the city. As Paris was growing larger, such major new monuments to modern life as train stations and department stores appeared as the cathedrals of the nineteenth century, and they welcomed a huge cross-section of the population. Trains were fundamental in bringing the large population of migrants to the French capital. By the end of the Second Empire, France was home to almost 800,000 foreign-born residents, the vast majority of whom lived in Paris. As a busy crossroads, the train station became the symbol, par excellence, of the modern city on the move. It is no wonder that Jacques Offenbach’s 1866 comic opera La Vie parisienne opens in a train station or that countless painters, Manet among them, painted the cavernous steam-filled spaces. One of the busiest of the nineteenth-century stations, the Gare St. Lazare, literally poured people from the train right into the Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps, department stores that were built only a few minutes’ walk from the station.
Consumerism and display
Although the ubiquity of department stores today may make them seem like natural institutions that must have always been a part of the urban fabric, they are evidence of a new set of assumptions about consumerism that emerged first—and in Paris—in the mid-nineteenth century. These stores derived their economic success from the principle of selling in greater volume than small shops could, with a smaller profit margin at a fixed price. But to achieve that end, they also indulged in some of the most dramatic forms of visual enticement practiced in the century. Among the earliest institutions to use both plate glass and electricity on a consistent basis, they openly solicited any and all comers. The new sumptuous buildings and the arrangement of their products were wonderfully re-created in Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise. “It was like a riot of color, a joy of the street bursting out here, in this wide open shopping corner where everyone could go and feast their eyes,” Zola wrote. The department stores were remarkable emporia that not only claimed to put the universe in a garden on permanent display but also would later inspire the logic of the universal expositions. They promised to make all the world’s products available to shoppers under one roof; they entranced seemingly powerless female shoppers, and in their wake, doctors began to diagnose new pathologies such as kleptomania.
The nineteenth-century historian Ernest Renan exclaimed that at the expositions, “Europe is off to view the merchandise,” which later led the philosopher Walter Benjamin to describe them as pilgrimages to the commodity fetish. The relation between viewing and consumption, aided by the city renovations that prioritized street life as a visual experience, changed the charge of crowd gatherings in Paris since the Revolution from negative to positive. Whether one’s aim was to tame it, join it, or please it, the crowd had become a central player in modern France. French political culture had earlier seemed to hinge on the collective action of the Parisian crowd during the Revolution of 1789, again in 1848, and especially in the bloody showdown between the government and the Communards in 1871.
Although Haussmann’s renovations have been interpreted as a form of crowd control, it is probably more accurate to say that the capitalist logic of crowd-pleasing through consumerism came to dominate street life in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. New forms of street furniture such as the Morris Columns, those advertising structures located on major boulevards, offered dedicated public spaces for advertising posters. This did not prevent the invasion of other city spaces, including the sides of omnibuses and theater curtains, from hosting a new and splashy form of visual culture—the four-color lithographic poster. Far from its early handbill origins with black-and-white, text-laden small pieces of paper, the color poster became the art of the Parisian wall. Poster art, derided by critics as a “mobile and degenerate art form,” changed the look of the city, tarting it up and saturating its streets with advertisements. Jules Chéret, known as the master of the poster, who made more than one thousand designs in the 1870s and 1880s, linked bright colors and the unbridled joy of lithe and smiling women with every product from soap to bicycles to liquor to music hall shows.
Paris had always had an important theatrical tradition. Over the course of the nineteenth century, new commercial entertainments—music and dance halls such as the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre and the Folies Bergère down the hill—pioneered a form of variety shows featuring contortionists, cyclists, jugglers, singers, and even the “Pétomane” (farter). These entertainments also revived and popularized the “can-can” or “Chahut”—the dance immortalized in many of the posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The can-can included a scandalous display of women’s undergarments and an athletic eroticism that made it one of the raciest shows in town. Paris also developed a rich landscape of café-concerts, where popular songs could be heard for the price of a drink or two. These cabaret singers, from Aristide Bruant to Yvette Guilbert, performed narrative tales of their hardscrabble origins and performed street-savvy acts about the tough-luck life for wealthy middle class and foreign audiences who went to hear them as part of an increasing habit of urban slumming.
If consumer culture saturated public space, the expositions and their unprecedented scale, scope, and frequency in Paris demanded special attention, as they further cemented the tie of consumption to spectacular visual display. Paris, in short, did not merely host expositions, it had become one. Although Paris was not the only city to host world’s fairs, it does have the distinction of having hosted the lion’s share. The most remembered were held at the end of the century: the one in 1889 gave Paris its iconic object in the Eiffel Tower; the other, in 1900, held the record for the most-visited fair until 1970, when Osaka, Japan, surpassed it.
5. A poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec advertises the Moulin Rouge, 1891.
In choosing to make the world’s tallest structure the focus of an event that was planned to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution, the French commemorated both the grandeur of the Revolution and the forward-thinking aspects of their radical past.
6. The fashionably dressed “Parisienne” atop the monumental Porte Binet at the Universal Exposition, Paris, 1900, attested that contemporary fashion rather than out-of-style allegory dominated the Exposition in 1900.
In 1900 La Parisienne, a gigantic statue of “the modern woman” attired in a costume designed by the couturier Paquin, broke with the conventions of monumental sculpture, which tended toward the allegorical or the heroic, and instead advertised style, fashion, and modern life as well as the contemporary decorative arts. The expositions offered a cavalcade of things and experiences, from a display of scientific innovations to pavilions dedicated to the fine arts to an assortment of entertainments such as the “Cairo Street” and “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” (both in 1889). Over time, the increasing number of privately funded commercial entertainments offered what might be considered as “infotainment” today. Attractions such as the Maréorama and the Tour du Monde simulated boat and train rides in front of moving panoramas offering a vision of far-flung places that unfolded before the eyes of the spectators. These rides may have been precursors to modern amusement parks, but they also suggest that the appeal of the fair and its attractions resided in the experience of exposure to the entire world in condensed version on the fairgrounds.
7. The Moroccan Café on “Cairo Street” epitomized the exoticism of the Universal Exposition of1889.
The expositions also mimicked the general conceit of all great nineteenth-century capital cities whose claims to distinction resided in their scale and ability to offer a digested, condensed array of the human experience. If the expositions took real life and literally transformed it into a show, this experience also had a particular resonance and familiarity in Paris, which had an unparalleled array of museums, most notably the Louvre. Even before the expositions took the world as display to new heights by spectacularizing everyday life in displays dedicated to work or human habitation, Paris had been home for more than a hundred years to the greatest public collection and exhibition of civilization’s artistic achievements.
During the revolutionary era, several museums emerged: the Museum of Natural History (from the former Jardin des Plantes), the Conservatory of Arts and Métiers (which displayed new inventions and technological innovation), the Museum of French Monuments, and the Louvre. This last institution, opened during the height of the Revolution in 1793 on the first anniversary of the end of the monarchy, became the world’s paradigmatic public art museum. It is still the largest and most visited museum anywhere in the world. The revolutionaries nationalized the king’s former palace and his collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other objects, and put them on permanent display, free of charge and open to the public—who were now declared their owners. The collection also included a significant amount of religious art newly confiscated during the Revolution. Its conservation in the Louvre helped assure it a future. Institutions such as the museum replaced religious experience with a secularized aesthetic.
Although the royal collection itself was not particularly dedicated to French art (nationalism in art became more a function of the nineteenth century than of earlier periods), the Napoleonic military campaigns especially enriched the museum’s collection. Napoleon brought approximately four hundred treasures from Italy, including the four magnificent bronze horses from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. At the end of his regime, some of the plunder was returned, including the horses, which were simply lifted off the top of the Arc du Carrousel by the Germans and sent back to Venice. Rather than appropriate the objects as simple war loot, Napoleon legalized the transfer through written agreements. This great transfer of antiquities helped establish that Paris, rather than Rome, would become the nineteenth-century European cultural capital for the propagation of civilization, a reputation due in no small measure to its visual expression in art and architecture.
The Louvre defined what has been called the “universal survey museum” and continues to exercise enormous influence today. In the twenty-first century, it has been franchised by a 2007 agreement between the government of France and the city of Abu Dhabi. In an agreement worth 1.3 billion dollars to the French, the Louvre will attach its name to a new 260,000-square-foot complex there, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The museum direction (as part of a new international agency for French museums) will oversee the building and installation of the institution as part of a leisure complex on Saadiyat Island, opposite the city of Abu Dhabi. (The island will also include a branch of the Guggenheim, presumably for contemporary art.) A direct gift of $32.5 million from Abu Dhabi will also help renovate a new “international wing” of the Louvre in its Parisian headquarters.
The French president at the time of the deal’s creation, Jacques Chirac, supported the decision, explaining that “by choosing the Louvre, the emirate of Abu Dhabi not only sealed a partnership with the world’s most visited and well-known museum, but selected one which, from its very inception, had a vocation to reach out to the world, to the essence of mankind, through the contemplation of works of art. . . . Having been originally created from ancient French Royal collections, and constantly enriched over more than two centuries, the Louvre has adhered, from its beginning, to a conviction that art is a universal messenger.” Such a grandiose impression has enabled the Louvre to draw visitors to the heart of the French capital for more than two hundred years. Yet the new branch of the Louvre offers a remarkable combination of two models of French culture: the dissemination of the civilizing mission and the magnetic appeal of culture in Paris.
In addition, the rise of travel since the late nineteenth century made Paris a singular tourist destination. More recently, globalization has made shipping cultural objects more common, effectively de-territorializing culture in unpredictable ways. France nevertheless continues to play an important role in such new global equations because of its history as collector and arbiter of world culture.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Paris functioned as the new Rome by virtue of the imperial makeover of Haussmannization and also because every artist sought to visit the Louvre’s great collections. The French also cultivated art instruction in an incomparable manner. In particular, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, founded in 1795, soon became the European center of training for painting and sculpture. The French state created the Academy that ran the school, determined what counted as great art, and then showed and bought the art in large quantities to further enhance its values and the power of its teachers and students. In fact, whatever the political regime, its leaders all agreed that state support of art would enhance the regime. If the World’s Fairs were venues for the display of art and industry, the biennial Salon run by the Academy of Fine Arts functioned as the primary institution for the display of contemporary painting. Between 1791 and 1860, seven to eight thousand painters exhibited 68,238 paintings. Hundreds of thousands of visitors frequented the Salon (520,000 in 1876) to see the fortunate artists whose work had been selected for display by the jury. The jury, which initially consisted only of members of the Academy, also rejected thousands of artists, who were thus excluded from the biennial display.
The hermeticism of the Salon system also generated the initial celebrity of the Impressionists, who eventually became the most popular artists in the world. Although there is much debate about what Impressionism is and what it can tell us about the society in which it thrived, there is little dispute that the painters shared a profound hostility to the Academy of Fine Arts and acted on that, as a group, in the 1860s and ’70s. Academic painting drew on classical themes, on history and especially antiquity; the Impressionists instead painted modern life. They organized their own exhibitions, especially in the formation of the Independent Salon. Their art challenged regimes of both taste and politics until the Republic was firmly established in the 1870s. From that point on, their art was more consonant with the democracy of the new regime, silencing its work as a form of critique but not lessening its popularity.
Having undermined the Salon, Impressionists helped bolster the emergent system of exhibition in the private art gallery and often exhibited in the new style of one-person shows. Dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel ascended to power as tastemakers who would now help guide an art-buying public, which had emerged as a force to be pleased. Their world and their interests came to define what was modern about modern art. Art literally depicted the pleasures of a market society and exposed its dark underside. As contemporary Paris increasingly became the actual or implied subject of paintings, its reputation as a center of artistic production and as a place to see only increased. As the century wore on, the newfangled modes of visual expression that were deeply connected to the fabric of modern urban life such as photography, the poster, and film, flourished in the French capital.
Novel technologies of representation
Photography, which made a fledgling appearance in the late 1820s in the experiments of inventor Nicéphore Niépce, became firmly entrenched as a process by Louis Daguerre in 1838. He created the “daguerreotype,” a positive image taken directly from the dark chamber of a camera obscura. France declared the invention of photography as a gift to the world in a joint meeting of the Academy of Science and the Academy of Fine Arts in 1839. In exchange, Daguerre and the Niépce’s heirs were given pensions for life by the French state. Photography lent credence to a new fantasy of archiving modern urban life as long exposure times favored representations of place. Eventually, the portrait would join landscape as the genres most favored in the new proliferation of images. In addition, photography’s limited ability to truthfully capture life as it actually transpired was actively debated then and continues to this day.
Photography nevertheless contributed to the process by which nineteenth-century Parisian life became the stuff of myth through the dissemination of images. Haussmann documented his renovations by hiring Charles Marville to photograph Paris before and after the demolitions. City views already had a rich iconographic tradition in woodcuts, engravings, and lithographs. Photography would soon follow, especially once postcards became widely available in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Postcard series consisted of as many as 10,000 views of the modern city they idealized, including its charming corners of “Old Paris.” From the now-well-known images produced by Eugène Atget for the city government to the work of the Surrealist photographers Man Ray and Brassaï to the photojournalists of everyday life Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson, so many views of Paris dispersed by the burgeoning press and published in thematic photographic books of Parisian life reinforced the act of consuming the city as an image. Representing Paris in literature had already become so frequent that Balzac called it the “city of a hundred thousand novels.” Paintings and photos also repeated and contributed to the heroic trope that the city was a miraculous miniature version of the world.
By the time narrative sound films became popular in the 1920s and ’30s, they developed a slightly different optic on Paris. Steeped more explicitly in the culture of “Paris populaire,” the films depicted working-class heroes, taxi drivers, and loose women, and were set in as many garret maids’ rooms and shady hotels as glamorous nightclubs and elegant cafés. Even one of the most highly valued international film stars of the era, Maurice Chevalier, had an everyman act, complete with the iconic caps and rolled letter r’s, which stood as proof of his birth in the Parisian working-class neighborhood of Ménilmontant.
Photography and the newer medium of film, which had its first public screening in Paris’ Salon Indien at the Grand Café in 1895, also became embedded in the urban fabric—not so much for the views taken but for the remarkable saturation of the urban milieu by photo studios and venues for the exhibition of film. From the moment of photography’s commercial exploitation, Paris fell under the grip of what was known as “Daguerrotypomanie.” By 1850, the city had forty photo studios where Parisians and visitors might have their photo portraits taken. These studios also produced the great photographic fad of the day—the carte de visite—the small card emblazoned with the bearer’s image. By the same token, movies were exhibited at the expositions, at the yearly city carnivals known as the “Fêtes foraines,” in department stores and eventually in the dedicated movie theaters that ranged from the small neighborhood basement theater to sumptuous picture palaces on the boulevards. In 1911 the Gaumont Palace at the Place Clichy became, with its 3,400 seats, the world’s largest movie theater. All major metropolitan centers functioned similarly, of course, but the French claims to “invention” in the history of photography and film, and the recurrent expositions as sites of photographic and cinematic display as well as their status as photographed and filmed events, probably made Paris one of the most “photogenic” places in the world.
8. When it opened in 1911 the Gaumont Palace on the Place de Clichy was the largest movie theater in the world.
Tourists and expatriates
Tourists flocked to Paris because it welcomed looking. Visitors and immigrants alike came to Paris, propelled by images of the city. As a result, Paris also became home to immigrants and expatriates in search of work, on the one hand, and artistic inspiration and community on the other. This experience became so associated with the city that the characters in such films as Casablanca could utter phrases like “We’ll always have Paris” and have it resonate widely. The singular role played by Paris among diverse groups of artists, writers, intellectuals, and political dissidents who went there seeking international creative communities has made it a perennial leading edge of multiple cultural movements.
Although privileged travelers always visited Paris in order to perfect the international language of diplomacy that they had learned at home and to contemplate art and history as well as partake in the capital’s pleasures, the rise of leisure travel in the twentieth century as part of the emergence of a broader consumer culture in the West resulted in more visits to Paris than elsewhere in the world. If Paris has always been the world’s great host, in the twentieth century Americans became its great visitors. Tourism for self-improvement and tourism in pursuit of pleasure blurred increasingly over the course of the twentieth century, making Paris a perfect place to visit because of its reputation for being able to satisfy all such urges from the intellectual to the sensual. Study-abroad programs began to flourish in American universities, and Paris became a top destination in such travel and exchange.
The “Lost Generation” of writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos made a Paris period a precursor to achievement for cutting-edge American writers. France provided the distance from which they could better see their own country—a romantic conceit that also helped associate these American writers with the sophistication of Europe. Depressed by the ravages of World War I, they lived partially in exile in France, seeking a better life in Europe, while criticizing the excesses of American life in their writing. Their own excesses also became legendary. Of the summer of 1925 when he met Hemingway in Paris, Fitzgerald described it as “1,000 parties and no work.”
Paris also attracted Americans seeking the greater freedom of personal expression they associated with the city. American lesbian writers and artists—notably Natalie Clifford Barney, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Alice Toklas—socialized in salons on the Left Bank. In 1940 Gertrude Stein looked back on the almost forty years she had already spent in Paris to explain, “Paris was where the twentieth century was.” Stein was not simply referring to her life in the century but she connected the singular role Paris played in the production of innovative literary modernism.
African American soldiers returning from Paris after World War I described a city with much greater racial equality than what they knew at home. In their wake, African American jazz musicians flooded the French capital in the 1920s and headlined in clubs where the craze for jazz was palpable. The African American performer Josephine Baker became a much-sought-after nightclub act. Although she dressed in banana skirts and indulged in all sorts of self-exoticization as part of her act, the St. Louis–born American, who became a French citizen in 1937, also refused to play segregated theaters in the United States. France also inspired her to make a familial statement against racism by adopting twelve children of different races and national origins. Her “rainbow tribe,” as she called them, lived on and off in a château deep in the French countryside of the Dordogne. For Baker, France’s social commitment to racial equality meant that she had come home there—even away from the cosmopolitan diversity of the capital.
But Paris also held an appeal for the African American literati, among them Richard Wright and James Baldwin. By the end of the 1920s, the African American writer Claude McKay proclaimed that the “cream of Harlem was in Paris.” As African Americanscelebrated the freedom they felt in Paris, they also had to confront the racism of the French colonial project. That project also ended up bringing black Africans from a broad diaspora to the French capital, where an important strain of francophone Pan-Africanism would subsequently develop.
Less literary American tourists were at once seeking the great bounty of human civilization that could be found in Paris as well as the specialties of French culture. The American Expeditionary Forces deployed almost 2 million American soldiers during World War I, and, for the first time, ordinary Americans spent significant amounts of time there. During the course of World War II, a wide variety of American soldiers also went to Europe for the first time. After the war, peacetime France welcomed 264,000 American visitors in 1950. This number more than quadrupled by 1970 when Americans accounted for the more than 1.35 million visitors to France. The jet age arrived with a new tourist: the economy-class traveler who had little time and wanted to see all of Europe in ten days’ vacation. Paris’ Orly airport, the first of the jet-age renovated airports, opened in February 1961 and served as the gateway to the Continent.
Food and fashion
Parisians and French government officials may have envisioned Paris as the storehouse of the world’s treasures but they also did not hesitate to see it as the apex of a rich and diverse French culture. One particularly vaunted French expertise was the preparation and serving of food, known throughout the world by the French word “cuisine.” The author of the Physiology of Taste (1825) Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, declared that “The destiny of nations turns on how they feed themselves,” and this founder of “gastronomy” popularized the idea that only in France had eating become a science. Restaurants were an exclusively Parisian institution from their inception in the 1770s to the middle of the nineteenth century. Because Paris had so many visitors, restaurants began to play a disproportionately important role. As publicly available spaces, cafes and restaurants were open to foreigners while also affording them the chance to get a better view of French “daily life” and to literally savor the pleasures of this strange new world. The restaurant, like so many nineteenth-century Parisian institutions, also benefited from the endless promotional literature generated about the capital, and French food thus became the stuff of sensuous dreams abounding in fantasies of perfect sauces. Promoting food has perhaps been as seminal to the success of French cuisine as the food itself.
French regional cuisine as an idea soon followed as the passion of the automobile age, spurred on by the Michelin rating system and the efforts of food writer Maurice Edmond Sailland, the Prince of Gastronomy, who wrote under the pen name Curnonsky. Americans including Julia Child and Peter Mayle have, in the twentieth century, continued to fuel an anthropological fascination with the French relationship to food in everything from the cultivation of quality ingredients to their careful preparation. Not only has this reputation been a boon to French economic interests but food has also been elevated to the rank of patrimony—as part of the great cultural heritage of France. French wine and champagne are major export industries to this day.
The French obsession with food, perhaps reinforced by daily gustatory rituals such as continuing to shop for fresh bread in a world of prepackaged products, proved international news in the early 1990s as a result of what became known as the “French Paradox,” a label first used on the television news magazine 60 Minutes. The French appeared to consume an unusual amount of sumptuous food such as creamy cheeses and lots of red meat and wine, yet had lower rates of death from heart disease than their American counterparts. Although there are no definitive explanations, the benefits of wine or the lack of French snacking and the commitment to ritualistically eating regular and long meals, are often offered as reasons for the paradox. The French prefer their foods fresh and closer to the source (including a willingness to see a rabbit, head to foot, at the butcher’s counter) and are never in a hurry when it comes to food. They also believe that “terroir,” the link between food and its soil and traditions of cultivation, gives food its taste. Despite this devotion to the Frenchness of French food, France also has the largest number of McDonald’s outlets of any country outside the United States. Contradiction held in productive tension also goes right to the gut.
While tradition may shape eating habits, the spirit of innovation made Paris the world capital of that most ephemeral of cultural forms: fashion. Fashion depends on a world of both seeing and being seen, and the Parisian cauldron of spectacle and display served as a necessary precondition for the lead Paris took in establishing itself as an international center for the fashion industry. Like many of the forms of cultural dominance in the modern period, Paris was given a leg up by the Old Regime monarchy’s earlier investment in fashion and the complex but well-organized system of guilds that controlled the production of luxury wear. But in the nineteenth century, fashion became a currency that determined every major city’s importance, and none rivaled Paris. The mechanization of production and the democratization of supply, which meant that consumers, over a range of social classes, could get access to new products with relative ease, created both ready-to-wear and a new kind of haute couture. While London cornered the market on tradition in dress, Paris became associated with femininity, elegance, and rapid change. This is why the giant statue of Parisienne in contemporary garb at the monumental entry at the Exposition of 1900 made sense to organizers and visitors alike.
The fashion designer emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century as the figure who channeled general trends into something artistic and promoted it as a personal vision. A genealogy of the world’s great designers begins in Paris in the nineteenth century with the transplanted Englishman Charles Worth and extends to his employee, Paul Poiret, and from him to Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, and Coco Chanel. After World War II, fashion heralded the recovery of France in part due to Christian Dior’s “New Look.” After Dior’s untimely death, the very young Yves Saint Laurent dominated high fashion by creating ready-to-wear looks; later twentieth-century figures such as Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaulthier have very much followed in that mold. Despite the current dispersal of sites of clothing production all over the globe, fashion weeks maintain the strong connection between cities and fashion. The contemporary circuit begins in New York, travels to London, then on to Milan, and culminates in its final leg in Paris, suggesting the city still maintains a sort of symbolic power to serve as the capital of this international industry. One of the world’s largest luxury groups, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey) is also based in Paris and draws on the city’s reputation for fashion and quality.
The capital of modernism
While Paris clearly established fashion as a modern business, the nineteenth-century critic Charles Baudelaire championed the importance of fashion in aesthetic terms. In his 1863 essay about modern life he made the observation, radical for its time, that fashion plates could be used to understand modern notions of beauty. “Couture culture” shared many of the same concerns as the emergent Modernist avant-garde art world since they were both preoccupied with the tension between originality and reproduction, and the difference in value of the unique work of art and the mass-produced commodity. In this way, Parisian fashion both reflected and contributed to Modernist aesthetics.
In early twentieth-century Modernist cultural circles, Paris served as the movement’s unofficial capital for an international coterie of artists. The Belgian poet Henri Michaux explained that the bookstore of Adrienne Monnier “is the homeland of (all) those free spirits who have not found a homeland.” Partially because of its reputation as cosmopolitan, the city did, in fact, become more so. Literary Modernism flourished there as Proust and Joyce (who could not get published in Great Britain but was fêted in Paris) experimented with ideas of subjectivity and temporality in their works of fiction. Even the “Futurist Manifesto,” by F. T. Marinetti, appeared in the French daily Le Figaro in February 1909 before it was actually published in Italy. Culture in Paris thrilled people in search of a cutting edge. There the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and the choreographer Sergei Diaghilev provoked a near riot in the recently opened Théâtre des Champs Elysées, when the Ballets Russes performed The Rite of Spring in 1913. Its dissonant musical score as well as the subject and its representation (a pagan spring rite celebrated with revealing costumes) shocked audiences at the time of its debut. The American Isadora Duncan is also commemorated in one of the sculptures on Antoine Bourdelle’s bas-relief on the outside of that theater, in the city which first acclaimed her championing of modern dance.
Dada, Surrealism, and Cubism can be thought of as international artistic movements headquartered in Paris. Pablo Picasso, the Spanish Cubist, made his life in France from the 1920s on. Many of the major painters of the School of Paris—Marc Chagall (Russia), Amedeo Modigliani (Italy), Piet Mondrian (Netherlands), Joan Miró (Spain), Constantin Brancusi (Romania), and Chaim Soutine (Lithuania)—were not born in France but moved to Paris, drawn to its artistic energy. So many of the well-known artists of the interwar years who made Paris their home were born elsewhere: the Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, great master of French word play, was born in Rome of Italian, Polish, and Russian descent. The avant-garde photographer Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) was born in Brooklyn but made his career in the city of light. The art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who helped establish the value of the Fauve and Cubist painters, was German-born. Artists gathered for the freedom, for each other, and because there they could contemplate the work of other artists in other media that became of interest to them. Paris provided a lab for artists of many nationalities to generate experiments in culture.
Foreign artists also became part of the artistic establishment and government-sponsored culture. In 1960, the minister of culture André Malraux commissioned Marc Chagall to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opéra, the great jewel in the crown of the city’s nineteenth-century renovations and the epicenter of French culture and Parisian social life. Chagall, who had lived out the war in New York, had returned to France and settled, along with Picasso and Matisse, on the Côte d’Azur rather than in Paris. Although some critics balked at the notion that a foreign artist would be given so significant a commission, Chagall himself accepted the job without pay (except for the cost of the materials) as a sign of gratitude to his adopted home. The Russian Jewish artist, a naturalized Frenchman, painted the ceiling in 1964, with a theme that celebrated foreign artists and their influence in France. The mural embedded tributes to Moussorgsky, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Rameau, Mozart, Berlioz, Wagner, Beethoven, Verdi, Ravel, and Debussy, only three of them Frenchmen, against a backdrop of Parisian monuments. There is perhaps no simpler and more symbolically meaningful way to summarize Parisian cosmopolitanism in the arts, under the patronage of the French state, than the installation of the Chagall mural to the ceiling at the Paris Opéra.
Yet the Chagall commission also worked to perpetuate a necessary myth. Cosmopolitanism and universalism wove remarkably fragmentary and diverse experiences and cultures into something singular, making Paris an important place. The devastation caused by the two world wars, and the crisis in conceptions of French grandeur wrought by decolonization and the American century, have made it harder to perpetuate ideas of global coherence in culture. It became even more difficult to advance the idea that any one place could be a world capital for any particular art form let alone the many arts that Paris claimed to organize. The investment in being a world center may seem like the worst form of national chauvinism and expression of cultural superiority, yet the spell of Paris has bewitched more than the city’s inhabitants for hundreds of years. Especially in a “flattened” world, we will all still have Paris.