By 1865, Napoléon III’s majestic and “revolution-proof” vision to modernize Paris had been methodically implemented for twelve years by his préfet, Baron Haussmann. James Tissot had lived and painted in the city during nine years of this transformation. The economy was booming as overcrowded medieval buildings were demolished, hills were leveled, bridges were constructed, and narrow, tangled streets were replaced with straight, broad tree-lined avenues extending to the western suburbs where fields of cabbages once grew. When the Arc de Triomphe was completed in 1836, five streets radiated from it; Haussmann added seven more and a traffic round-about, and it became known as Place de l’Etoile (Place of the Star). In an effort to create a large, clean and progressive metropolis, rows of neo-classical apartment buildings were constructed with shops at street level, as well as a breathtakingly beautiful new opera house.
To serve a population that had almost doubled in the past fifteen years and was nearing two million, aqueducts transported fresh spring water to city reservoirs, and an extensive sewer system was installed. Telegraph lines allowed modern and efficient communication. Railways now branched out from the city, reaching into the outlying regions and making it an industrial center. Trains also encircled the city, so that the main railroad stations were conveniently connected within the old fortified wall around the capital. The once-squalid city had become an international model of urban planning, with new public squares and parks. The densely wooded Bois de Boulogne was designed on the western edge of the city as an imperial playground, with two lakes, a zoo, an aviary, and an aquarium plus a thoroughbred race course, Longchamp.
The splendid new streets now were a cacophony of horses, carriages, and omnibuses. Parisians flaunted their wealth, and conspicuous consumption was the order of the day. Grand department stores and hotels sprang up, and cafés spilled thousands of tables and chairs into the wide sidewalks, packed with people of all classes taking in the spectacle between two and six in the afternoon. Shops stayed open into the night, drawing crowds from nine o’clock to midnight and beyond, and to the east, there were theaters, music halls and cabarets. With 15,000 gaslights glittering on the streets, Paris became “The City of Light.”
While the Emperor carried on affairs with women including Valentine Haussmann, the 21-year-old daughter of the man renovating Paris, the Empress Eugénie and her friends would drive themselves down the elegant avenue de l’Impératrice – Empress Avenue (now the avenue Foch) – heading for the Bois de Boulogne in an open carriage to boat on the lakes, sip wine at the Swiss Chalet there, and enjoy picnics and galas. Like London’s Hyde Park, it was the place to see and be seen, and to show off fine horses. In the winter, there was ice skating (introduced in 1862 by the Empress Eugénie), and there were always balls at the Tuileries; in 1865, it was the fashion to drive to masked balls at 3 a.m. The Empress patronized Charles Worth, the first dressmaker to offer his own designs at luxury fashion shows and to label his creations. Eugénie’s tastes set style; her extravagant white tulle ballgown strewn with diamonds led to imitations sewn with beetles, butterflies and bells.
The power behind the throne – in cultural matters, at least — was not Eugénie or even a mistress, but Princess Mathilde. A first cousin of Napoléon III, she was engaged to him briefly at age 16, though they were mismatched intellectually. When the man she did marry turned out to be cruel and abusive, she fled him with her Parisian lover, the Comte de Nieuwerkerke. She took her family’s jewels, using them as collateral for a bank loan of 500,000 francs that funded her cousin’s rise to power. Even after Napoléon III’s marriage to Eugénie, a Spanish countess educated in Paris, Mathilde wielded enormous power. At the Paris townhouse Napoléon III put at her disposal, she regularly received scientists, writers, painters, and musicians, and she obtained advantages for them. She herself was an artist, winning a medal for her painting at the Salon in 1865, and it was at her request that the Comte de Nieuwerkerke (a failed sculptor) was promoted to Superintendent of Fine Arts in 1863, at an annual salary of 60,000 francs. It is said that Princess Mathilde decided who was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, or which painter won a medal.
What would Tissot, a man who had depicted himself in a self-portrait a few years earlier as a hooded monk, have been doing amid the heady delights of life in the imperial capital?
In an 1865 photograph, he’s a dapper dresser. Though still living in the dilapidated Latin Quarter at 29, he was enjoying increasing professional success and was described as a boulevardier – a man-about-town.
In addition to painters, his friends included poets (Camille-André Lemoyne, 1822 – 1907, who dedicated a published poem to Tissot in 1860), writers (Alphonse Daudet, 1840 – 1897, who lived in the rented room below his), and composers (Emmanuel Chabrier, 1841 – 1894, whose portrait Tissot drew in 1861).
He was associated, loosely, with a band of artistic rebels led by Manet – men who met at the Café de Bade to debate the purpose of art and express their frustration with the rigidity of the Paris art Establishment. But, perhaps, Tissot – a traditionalist at heart — had more closely allied himself with some of the most prominent figures of the Second Empire.
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Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
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