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February 12, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part IV


Sorry for the delay, but here’s the next installment in my (ongoing) attempt to reconstruct what Impressionism meant to its creators and its contemporaries. As I explained in parts #1-#3 I’m trying to re-evaluate each element in what I’ve called the Standard Account of Impressionism (which, for purposes of convenience, will here be represented by quotes from a popular art history book: “A Treasury of Impressionism” by Nathaniel Harris).

As I mentioned in Part #2, Mr. Harris begins his book by denying the existence of any controversial content in Impressionist pictures. He is then left with the problem of explaining why the French art market didn’t embrace this happy, cheerful painting in the late 1860s or 1870s. To make sense of this the mysterious market failure, he provides the following social analysis:

…France [during the Second Empire]was going through an economic and social transformation: her version of the Industrial Revolution, with its accompanying factories and workshops, booms and slumps, railways and steamships. The middle class, or bourgeoisie, grew rich and powerful from the proceeds of expanding industry and trade. A new industrial working class began to resent the appalling conditions in which it lived and laboured. The specters of socialism and communism began to haunt France; and indeed the radical workers of Paris took the opportunity provided by the defeat of 1870 to organize a revolutionary government, the Commune, that was bloodily suppressed by the regular army. Bourgeois distaste for exposes of economic realities, and a deep fear of revolution in any form, were two shaping factors in contemporary attitudes to art.

Well, we dealt with Mr. Harris’ claims of “economic and social transformation” and “bourgeois wealth and power” in Parts II and III and found his ideas both simplistic and overstated. Now we’ll deal with his next claim: did the inequities of industrial capitalism create a resentful proletariat who eventually rose against their repressive bourgeois overlords during the Commune?

Mr. Harris’ view of the French masses as being masticated by the iron teeth of 2nd Empire modernization, creating huge social turmoil, appears more than a bit overstated. In the countryside, life was difficult—as it had been for centuries—but was slowly improving. During the period 1852-1871, the intake of calories of the average Frenchman rose about 16%. As a result, by the end of the 2nd Empire the French were—for the first time in history—getting enough to eat. The improved diet showed up in various ways: the height of the peasantry increased and vitamin deficiency diseases were gradually disappearing. There was an increase in agricultural yields, although Frenchmen could achieve only half to two-thirds the yields obtained by contemporary Dutch or German farmers. (Fertilizers were very sparsely used, chiefly on a few large and very up-to-date farms.)

J. Millet, The Gleaners, 1857 (Detail)

While only one peasant in four made a living cultivating his own land, the numbers of the more impoverished grades of peasantry (such as small landowners who had been forced into day labor) decreased and the number of peasants who either worked their own land or were tenant farmers increased, so that the number of farmer-businessmen equaled the number of agricultural wage-hands—again, a milestone reached for the first time in French history. And farm wages, which prior to the 2nd Empire had been very low, increased to the point where landowners and big farmers complained about the high cost of labor. While life in the French countryside during the 2nd Empire left a great deal to be desired, rural France did not undergo wrenching economic or social adjustments but rather seems to have enjoyed an era of modest improvement.

G. Courbet, Les Paysans de Flagey Revenant de la Foire, 1850 (Detail)

The contentment of rural France put the 2nd Empire on fairly solid political ground, as one contemporary noted:

The peasants! That’s where every government must get its greatest support. The peasants will defend Napoleon [III] less out of sympathy than out of self-interest. They form a mass of 20 or 22 million individuals. That’s a formidable army, and it would be a fine thing to command it.

The condition of the urban proletariat was difficult--certainly as difficult as that of the peasantry—but it doesn’t appear to have been deteriorating and may have been improving. This, of course, was quite unlike the situation during the 1840s which ultimately was expressed in the explosion of 1848. Under the 2nd Empire, wages began a sustained rise for the first time in 30 years. This was accompanied by a rise in the cost of living, however, so that the extent of any financial advance was modest. None the less, as J. Rougerie comments:

Poverty was still a fact, but there is no doubt that workers of the 1850s and the 1860s (decades when work was plentiful and wages rising, even if the cost of living was rising sharply too) were better off than their predecessors of the 1840s (a period of falling or stagnant wages, uncertain work prospects and endemic dearth.)

Also, as we have seen, the slow growth of industry (the volume of French manufacturing was rising at only about 1% a year in the latter 1860s) makes any claims that French industrialization created a vast new--and disaffected--urban proletariat highly suspicious. There were, however, other developments that made for considerable social tension in the larger cities, particularly Paris.

During the 2nd Empire the French population rose quite slowly, going from 36 million in 1852 to 38.5 million in 1870--a very small increase over nearly 20 years. All of this population increase, however, swelled the population of France's largest cities. As three quarters of the French population was rural at the start of the Imperial period, obviously there had been an exodus of surplus rural population to the cities—one of the trends that, along with higher agricultural prices, reduced social tensions in the countryside.

The largest cities had to deal with this rural influx, which consisted of the poorest and least skilled peasants (day laborers, lumberjacks, etc.) Paris grew at a rate of 2% or more annually during the 2nd Empire. Congestion, particularly in the center of town where many of the jobs were located, became choking. The same problem affected France’s other major urban centers, which often needed significant infrastructure improvements as well, from sewer systems to a network of gas lines. This led Napoleon III to the most visible of his initiatives, the restructuring of urban France and particularly Paris, his capital.

H. Yvon, Napoleon III hands to Baron Haussmann the Decree Annexing the Parisian Suburban Communes, 1860s (Detail)

In 1860, Napoleon III annexed eighteen surburban communes to Paris. The capital immediately doubled in surface area, expanding from 12 arrondisements to 20. Then, in collaboration with his prefect of Paris, Baron Haussmann, the Emperor began the process of condemning property, demolishing buildings and signing contracts with paving companies to create a network of grand urban avenues. These were carved directly through the ancient body of central Paris. Napoleon III's motives included raising the prestige of the Empire’s capital, improving Paris' internal transportation network, and making it more difficult for the notoriously volatile Parisian working class to stage uprisings. (Military barracks were built at many of the hubs of these new avenues to dominate whole neighborhoods. The new Haussmannized avenues themselves seemed designed for artillery fire or cavalry charges, unlike the warren of small streets and alleys they replaced.) But lastly, and I think most centrally, Napoleon III's motive was to awe the masses and co-opt the ambitious, the well-to-do and the up-and-coming by a display of imperial glamour. Throughout his reign, he had attempted to seduce his subjects by lavish social affairs, industrial expositions, and other highly visible festivities. The rebuilding of Paris and other cities was a simple extension of this concept--known at the time as the imperial festival--into the realm of town planning.

Paris wasn't the only French city to get a makeover durin the 2nd Empire: Lyons, Bordeaux, Marseilles were deliberately “Haussmannized” and Lille, bursting with excess population, expanded rather more haphazardly. How did the inhabitants of these cities like Napoleon III's urban renewal campaign? They seem to have resented it greatly, as Alain Plessis notes in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Second Empire 1852-1871.” Their dissatisfaction can be seen from the election results of the 2nd Empire:

The Parisians, the Lyonnais and shortly thereafter the Marseillais were the first to vote massively for the [republican] opposition, for the prefects’ iron-handed approach to town planning had aroused numerous forms of discontent.

The most significant source of discontent was the "affordable housing" crisis these urban renewal projects created. This housing crisis was seen most severely in Paris, but was also a problem in Lille and Lyons. Although more buildings were put up during Haussmanniszation than torn down, the new rents were always much higher. Workers, artisans, employees, low-ranking civil servants who couldn’t make the increased rent tried to find replacement lodgings in the center of town—near where they worked—but they were commonly driven further and further out of the city center. Eventually a lucky few found apartments where they paid more rent for less space than they had enjoyed in the pre-Haussmannized city center. Most, however, crowded into the slums that survived in the annexed suburbs or into brand new slums that sprang up in the previously undeveloped suburbs. As the "new" suburbs often lacked such basics as roads and water supply, the squalor can only be imagined. Getting into the city center to reach their jobs became a major problem for the working class as well.

Of course, the new buildings on the grand avenues of the central city were a magnet for those elements among the bourgeoisie who were not only moving up in the world but who wanted everyone to know it. This created a significant sense of social divisiveness:

Previously, rich and poor had lived in the same neighbourhoods, often in the same buildings, the former occupying only the lower storeys. This close proximity and the encounters in staircases and in the street made for a certain familiarity. Now two antithetical cities had been engendered by social segregation: on the one hand, the quarters inhabited primarily by the well-to-do (the center) or the rich (the west); on the other the popular arrondissements to the north (the population of Les Batignolles soared from 5,000 to 65,000), east and south, teeming with newly-arrived immigrants and the poor expelled from the center. ‘A red belt encloses and lays siege to the center of town—a horseshoe that breaks off only between Les Ternes and Auteuil.’ Thus wrote Lazare, ‘two very different and hostile towns have been created in Paris: the city of luxury surrounded, blocked by the city of poverty. You have exposed every kind of seduction to every kind of envy.’

Bourgeoisie who had prospered and who believed in conspicuous consumption—and neither category embraced the entire social class—did their best to distinguish themselves from the common man. Their chief showcase was housing. The outright wealthy established themselves in private townhouses with lavishly decorated facades, the less affluent in the new buildings put up along Haussmann’s avenues. As Mr. Plessis remarks:

All these buildings were alike, as if to provide a clear statement of class cohesion. The bourgeois flat always included a dining room and at least one living room; both usually overlooked the street and were the object of painstaking attention…The table was always very copiously garnished, even for ordinary meals.
G. Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day (Detail)

Housing was not the only avenue for displaying wealth. In Paris, the bourgeoisie attended boulevard cafes with brightly lit terraces, racecourses, theaters such as the Theatre de Vaudeville or the Theatre des Varietes, and promenaded in the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes. They also vacationed in spa towns or on the beach at Deauville.

E. Degas, At the Seaside, 1876

As we have seen, Napoleon III’s government had given great impetus to the development of modern capital markets in order to help big business—particularly the railroad industry—finance itself. There was a significant development of stock investing, which created (as contemporary Americans can attest) a somewhat giddy atmosphere around the glamorous possibility of unearned riches. Paris had become an important international money market. The sharp rise in stock prices that followed the Imperial coup d’etat in 1852 whetted speculators’ appetites right from the beginning of the Empire. Every newspaper carried a stock market column. This became such a visible social fever that Dumas the younger remarked that the Bourse became for this generation what the cathedral had been in the Middle Ages.

E. Degas, Portraits at the Bourse, 1878 (Detail)

The “yuppies” of the 2nd Empire also earned social disapproval by their questionable sexual exploits. As Mr. Plessis explains:

…the social life of the Second Empire had a bad reputation. It was described…as the triumph of immorality, a union between gambling and debauchery—the money obtained by rapidly and dishonestly earned gains from stock market or real estate speculation and the money spent in no time by a frivolous society tormented by a huge appetite for all forms of sensual delight and seeking out every kind of easy or even corrupt pleasure. The capital became ‘a new Babylon’, an immense den of iniquity, famous for its demi-mondaines…for its ‘lionesses’ recruited among actresses…and for its countless courtesans… [Of course, this debauchery was] attributable only to a tiny, visible minority. They did not faithfully reflect the life of the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire, not even that of the predominantly Parisian upper bourgeoisie. Alongside the profiteers of the regime and the nouveaux riches…the old dynasties…often continued to lead a quiet life…These bourgeois by and large preserved their traditional virtues of integrity and seriousness in business, of hard work (even in a wealthy family a young man was expected to work), and of barely diminished prudence.
E. Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863 (Detail)

The higher price of living, the forced exile from the city center to the wilderness of the suburbs, working while surrounded by fancy new avenues and buildings (where other people now lived), the public displays of “unearned” wealth, and the hidden whispers of orgiastic sexual indulgence could hardly have failed to arouse resentment in the bosom of the struggling proletariat.

As the first decade of the 2nd Empire came to a close, Napoleon III became aware that the urban bourgeoisie was a disaffected constituency. Looking for a counterbalance, he turned to the working man. For a decade past the Emperor had proclaimed a desire to alleviate their poverty, but had never quite gotten around to doing anything concrete for the urban masses. Maybe it was time to seek their support.

A vestigal French labor movement had survived the repression of the 1850s(despite that movement's links to the disturbances of 1848 and the 2nd Republic.) Mutual aid societies served as fronts for resistance societies. Strikes were fairly frequent, although illegal. Cunningly, Napoleon III decided to ease up on the repression of his (hopefully) new friends. In 1862 he pardoned the lengthy sentences given to the leaders of a typographers strike and passed a bill making it legal for workers to form ‘coalitions’ provided the freedom to work was respected. Napoleon III subsidized a visit by a delegation of French labor to the London Exhibition of 1862, which resulted two years later in the creation of the International Working Men’s Association. With government support, it began to expand in France. According to Leroy-Beaulieu:

…[I]n its early years [the International] was looked upon favourably in official circles, it was regarded as an ally. It was shown an ill-concealed tolerance. Thus it took root in the shadow of the regime.

In 1866 the Minister of the Interior even advised his prefects to display greater tolerance for strikes.

Like many of Napoleon III’s political manuvers, this one miscarried. With official support the French labor movement expanded rapidly, providing a fertile medium in which an originally small nucleus of socialists, anarchists and Jacobins could grow. But the working-class movement did not endorse the Empire; rather their support went to the radical republican opposition.

Parisian political unrest—fed by labor agitators and a press that ceased to be censored in 1868—became endemic. A sign of how far out of control the situation had gotten came at the 1870 funeral of the republican journalist Victor Noir. Noir had been shot in an argument with Prince Pierre Bonaparte; the funeral was attended by perhaps 100,000 people. The uneasy government mobilized a considerable number of troops, and jailed the popular Republican journalist Rochefort.

The wily Napoleon III outwitted his growing political opposition, however, by proposing a new constitution a few months later in a national plebiscite. This constitution was far more democratic and liberal, but was still headed by—you guessed it—a hereditary emperor. Still, the new constitution split the opposition, who couldn’t bring themselves to vote against the substance of the reforms, even though it meant enshrining Napoleon III’s one-man rule. The ‘yes’ vote was proof of a strong desire on the part of rural (and even of most urban) France to avoid revolution and to uphold social order.

However, all this went by the board only a few months later when, during the early stages of the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III (outmanuvered, surrounded and on the point of annihilation) surrendered to the Prussian Army. The 2nd Empire abruptly collapsed and was replaced by a government of national defense.

Diplomatic missions sent looking for allies to other European capitals failed. The Prussians, having disposed of France’s regular army, proceeded to beseige Paris. Armies hastily raised in the provinces by Leon Gambetta, a member of the government of national defense, couldn’t relieve the siege of Paris. (Gambetta had been forced to exit the encircled Paris via hot-air balloon.) The new government capitulated on 28 January 1871. Bismarck demanded that the peace treaty be signed by a legal French government, so elections were held in February for a National Assembly. The rural majority voted for supporters of social order and the advocates of peace, returning a National Assembly dominated by monarchists. Having won a vote of confidence in 26 departements, Adolphe Thiers was appointed ‘head of the executive of the French Republic.’ His first task was to negotiate the terms of the treaty of Frankfurt (10 May 1871), which called on France to hand over Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia and to pay an indemnity of 5 billion francs.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the streets of the capital. The population of Paris was armed: the government had raised 250 battalions of the National Guard in the city. Moreover, the radical political forces of Paris—no longer hiding in fear of Napoleon III’s secret police—had organized. In every Parisian arrondissement, “vigilance” committees were set up in a deliberate echo of 1789. A Central Committee of the Twenty Arrondissements publicly called for an all-out war and a democratic and ‘social’ government. The news of national elections creating a new government with a monarchical majority went down very poorly with such radicals. Most of Paris’ upper class inhabitants had left the city, either as a result of the siege or the obviously tense mood that followed, in which many working-class Parisians were visibly disinclined to accept the new national government in their midst. When on 18 March, Thiers’ military forces failed in their attempt to reclaim the National Guard’s cannon on the Butte Montmartre the break was out in the open, and the national government departed for Versailles. Elections, ostensibly as part of the already decided national vote, were finally held in Paris at the end of March 1871, with the result that a new government, known as the Communal Assembly, was established for the city. Whether the Communal Assembly was to be a simple municipal council or a new national government of France was unspecified. It immediately swung politically to the left when a number of moderate representatives refused to take their seats. The more radical members were elected, unsurprisingly, by the votes of working-class strongholds in the east, the north and, to a lesser extent, the south.

After negotiations between the national government at Versailles and the Commune came to nothing, Thiers became desperate to firmly establish his government. He needed to do so in order to obtain loans on the international money markets, which were necessary in order to start paying the Prussian war indemnity. (The Prussian army still occupied France to enforce the peace treaty, and had no intention of leaving before the indemnity was paid.) Thiers armed a new French army and initiated a civil war against a rebellious Paris. On 21 May, the “national” troops, or Versailles, entered the city with no difficulty whatever. In a foolish attempt to stop them, the communards put up barricade after barricade and set fire to the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and the Cour des Comptes. As far as the political aims (or grievances) of the communards went, it is interesting to note that the fiercest fighting occurred as a result of their attempt to retain control of the Haussmannized urban center—from which the urban proletariat had been excluded—and was not the result of an effort to destroy bourgeois homes, factories or other economic symbols.

M. Luce, Paris Street in May 1871, 1903-5

The fighting quickly turned ugly. The communards executed hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris; the Versailles summarily shot everyone they arrested. The city suffered a frightening repression that claimed as many as 100,000 lives either immediately or within a few months. The city remained under martial law for five years.

E. Manet, Civil War 1871, 1874

The countryside had won...temporarily, at least. The “rurals” had established a regime whose first aim was internal reconstruction, the payment of the war indemnity and the re-establishment of social stability. Financially, the country recovered remarkably after the war so that the indemnity was paid off in only two years. Government revenues were then devoted to military re-organisation, the establishment of compulsory military service (in imitation of Prussia), the building of fortresses and the modernization of army equipment.

Given the monarchist majority in the National Assembly, its first major political efforts were attempts to bring back the Bourbons. The throne was offered to the Comte de Chambord as Henry V but he refused the crown unless the flag of France reverted to the traditional royal white Bourbon flag. This was clearly unacceptable to a population who for 80 years had waved the Tricolor. A new constitution was therefore drawn up in August 1871 which re-established the Republic but permitted the re-formation of the monarchy should Chambord change his mind over the flag issue.

What of the republican urban bourgeoisie, who were guilty by association with the republican revolutionaries of the Commune? Shell-shocked by national defeat at the hands of Prussia, by their ‘betrayal’ at the hands of their working class comrades in the Commune, and by the demonstrated willingness of the rurals to use savage force to suppress urban dissent, urban republicans at first kept a pretty low profile. However, within a few years it became obvious that the republican movement might be down but it wasn't out; in fact, it was on the march, semi-surrepitously, everywhere.

Thiers soon crossed swords with the rurals because he refused to undermine or repress the rapidly resurgent republican movement. His alienation from the monarchists became complete in 1872 when he announced that the establishment of any non-republican form of government would constitute a revolution. As a result, the rurals forced his resignation in May 1873. Marshall MacMahon (elected, astonishingly, despite being one of the defeated generals of the Franco-Prussian war) became President and the constitution was altered to keep him in office for seven years. The idea was that the elderly Comte de Chambord—who was still being inflexible about the damn flag—would hopefully die and be succeeded by the more accommodating Comte de Paris as the heir to the French throne.

Despite the best efforts of MacMahon and his “Government of Moral Order,” monarchist sentiment in the country at large waned rapidly as war and social disorder receded. By 1875 the Republicans were calling openly for new elections—in which they very well might gain a majority. Worse still, the Bonapartists were again becoming a political force with the coming of age of the Prince Imperial (a potential Napoleon IV). The liberal ‘monarchists’ saw that a republic was preferable to another empire and so sided with the republicans. (Paradoxically, the violent suppression of the Commune ultimately helped persuade the liberal monarchists to support the republican cause, as it showe them how order had been effectively restored under a government elected by universal sufferage.) Consequently, yet another new constitution was drawn up which officially bore the term "Republic". Any return to a monarchy became entirely moot when the elections of 1876 resulted in a republican legislative majority. The urban bourgeoisie had prevailed at last and the Third Republic was born.

G. Dore, Liberty, 1865-75

So here's my version of events:

Friedrich’s Account of Impressionism: The French urban proletariat was not being ground down by the inroads of industrial capitalism (itself only nascent) during the Second Empire; in fact the proletariat’s lot improved relative to the miserable conditions of the 1840s. Rather, the proletariat was deeply alienated as a result of the Haussmannization of Paris, which effectively exiled the working class to the suburban wasteland, and politicized by a socialist labor movement encouraged by Napoleon III himself, which came to flower during the extraordinary vacuum of power caused by the Franco-Prussian War. The socialist Commune and its savage repression were, however, essentially distractions that only temporarily obscured the "slow revolution" by which the moderate republican ideal gained traction against its reactionary enemies: authoritarian government and the smothering power of the rural landowners.

Next we’ll consider if the urban bourgeoisie--eventually victorious on the political field of battle--were really as aesthetically reactionary as Mr. Harris paints them.



posted by Friedrich at February 12, 2003


Thanks for this, little of which I'd ever been able to make sense of before, despite an actual few college French history classes. I can't wait to find out how you line the various vectors and forces up. Will they lead to Impessionism, or do you have something a little less deterministic in mind?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 14, 2003 12:18 AM

Would you please tell me the name of the Archbishop of Paris in 1866?

Posted by: Pauline Shaw on July 12, 2003 12:55 AM

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