Let’s remember a time when Paris was an endless feast – Meanderings through France n° 97
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
During the reign of Napoleon III for almost 20 years, from 1852 till 1870, France and especially Paris lived a tremendous period of prosperity. People believed in progress, optimism was omnipresent and the cultural effervescence reached a peak like never before. Architects, painters, musicians, actors, photographers, jewellers were the stars of the time and people were eager to discover their creations and be part of this raising consumer society. A new exhibition in the Orsay Museum proposes us to share their enthusiasm. It is called “Spectaculaire Second Empire” and displays artefacts from several French museums and from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Orsay Museum is 30 years old this year and makes this anniversary a true celebration with this exceptional exhibition. The museum is set in an elegant building that used to be a railway station. Built for the 1900’ Universal Exhibition it has always been seen as one of the most beautiful construction on the right bank of the Seine facing the Tuileries gardens. It was classified French Historic Monument in 1978 and turned into an Art Gallery in 1986. The architects deliberately decided not to divide into small parts the huge station concourse and you feel at once impressed by its size: 42 metres high, 138 m long and 40 m wide! The pieces of art on display here are directly lit by the natural light that filters through the 35,000 sq metres glass roof and they might look different depending on the time of the day or on the weather.
Napoleon III was Napoleon’s nephew, his father was Louis Bonaparte one of Napoleon’s brother, and he was born in Holland in 1808 at a time when his father was king of Holland. He lived in exile after the collapse of Napoleon’s empire in 1815 but took an active role in French political life, first as deputy member of the Assemblée Nationale, and later when he was elected President of the Republic in 1848.
But his true dream was to follow his uncle’s footstep and restore the French Empire. He achieved this goal in 1852 with a bold coup d’état. He was a great admirer of British modernity and meant to transform France and make it an industrialized, wealthy and powerful country.
In only 18 years France became a modern country in spite of several financial scandals and of several wars waged during his reign that ended with the shameful battle of Sedan lost against the Prussian in 1870. Today his reign is mainly remembered for Paris’ transformation. Together with Baron Haussmann, Napoleon III created large avenues and boulevards lined with high buildings now called Haussmann style buildings. In 1850 Paris still was a medieval town with many squalid districts and Napoleon III wanted better living conditions for its inhabitants and dreamed of eradicating poverty.
Paris as we know and love it now is mostly his creation. But sadly after the smear campaign led by Victor Hugo who hated him, none of French governments accepted to pay tribute to his major contribution to French history. He had to end his days in exile in UK where his dear friend Queen Victoria welcome him. He still lies in St Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough.
The exhibition set in the Orsay Museum retraces this interesting and hectic period. Technical and artistic creations were in a frenzy of endless novelties and artists of the time are still famous today: Courbet, Monet, Degas, Manet, Lami, Garnier, Offenbach and many others were driven by this incredible energy. In spite of a “weird” museography (you almost have to get down on all fours to be able to read the explanations written on small signs put on the floor!), this exhibition makes us relive this exuberant and major period of French history.
More about the Orsay Museum: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/home.html?cHash=1030a57d48
Text and Photos © Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny