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'The Seine. I have painted it all my life, at all hours of the day, at all times of the year, from Paris to the sea . . . Argenteuil, Poissy, Vétheuil, Giverny, Rouen, Le Havre.'
The Seine flowed through its narrow bed, meandering from Paris to the Normandy coast, drawing all the countryside between into one region. 'Le Havre, Rouen and Paris are a single city, in which the Seine is a winding road,' Napoleon III, Emperor of France, was fond of saying. In Paris, along its banks, rows of irregular-shaped houses made a low, untidy skyline. On the Île Saint-Louis, large, old houses with balconies and balustrades lined the narrow road skirting the river. On the Left Bank, the horizon was wide open as far as the blue slate gables of the hôtel de ville; on the right bank you could see as far as the lead-covered dome of Saint Paul's. The Seine was a working river, its surface a clutter of colour, alive with cargo. Emile Zola later described it, in his novel L'Oeuvre: 'a dormant flotilla of skiffs and dinghies, . . . barges loaded with coal lighters . . . flat river barges were moored four deep along the Mail. Piled high with yellow apples, they made a blaze of gold.'
Early in 1860, Claude Monet—twenty, clean-shaven and handsome, with brown, appraising eyes and floppy dark hair—made his way along the Right Bank, to a ramshackle building next to the Palais de Justice, at the angle of the Boulevard de Paris and the quai des Orfèvres. Outside, suspended from the upper floors of the building, swung a huge, rusty sign: SABRA, Dentiste du Peuple. The building where the dentist pulled teeth at one franc apiece also housed the studio of 'Père' Suisse, a former artist's model of uncertain origins who twice daily opened his doors so that students could, for a fee of ten francs a month, sketch from his model. By February 1860, Monet had begun life as an art student in Paris, attending Suisse's studio every day.
In 1860, Paris was still a medieval city, with dark, mouldering, rat-infested streets, and no efficient sewage system. The jumble of crumbling buildings, and the absence of air and sunlight, trapped all the smells of decay and detritus that people still lived among. Household waste ran in indentations down the middle of the grimy cobbled streets. The poor lived in filthy, broken shacks and shanties clustered around Clichy, Mouffetard and the Louvre. Balzac had called all these the Louvre's 'leprous façades'. Napoleon III himself, who in 1830 had thrown out the republicans and restored the Empire, called Paris 'nothing but a vast ruin, with plenty to suit the rats'. But in 1853, Baron Haussmann had been elected Prefect of the Seine. He immediately began making plans to transform the city. On 1 January 1859, Napoleon signed a decree approving the Baron's plans to tear down the inner city wall. Former suburbs of Paris—including Auteuil, Belleville and Montmartre—now became part of the city. But the suburbs were still comparatively rural, especially Montmartre, which in 1859 was a muddle of houses with gardens, broken-down shacks, and cheap little run-down bars and crémeries. The country lanes of Montmartre housed the poor workers employed by the seamstresses, florists and laundresses who worked at the foot of the hillside in Pigalle. This was also the district—lively with cafés, brasseries and café-concerts (cabarets)—where the artists congregated. They gathered in the Café de Bade, Tortini's or the Moulin Rouge, where among chilled pitchers brimming with pink champagne, grimy young men were surrounded by women in brash, red lipstick and cheap crinolines.
The rich were ferried in horse-drawn carriages down the newly created Boulevard Haussmann to the Opéra in Pigalle's rue le Peletier, the women decked out in silk-embroidered crinolines, feathers and pearls. But not just the rich: everyone was on the move. In 1855, the Universal Exhibition—a vast, commercial fair, designed to demonstrate to the world Paris's prosperity, and to show off its decorative arts and material culture—had introduced new fashions and set new precedents in taste. The Emperor's musical soirées, held in the gardens of the Château of the Tuileries, set the sartorial tone. The audiences comprised a mingling of the haute bourgeoisie with newly affluent members of the upwardly mobile merchant and industrial classes who were moving into Haussmann's new apartments and buying chic, new mass-produced ornaments and furniture. Since 1857, 300 newly acquired horse-drawn omnibuses had been circulating among neighbouring boulevards (not simply, as they once had, servicing the more profitable routes). For the first time, Parisians could move easily through the city for shopping and entertainment, although the top deck was barred to women, for fear of their showing their ankles as they mounted the stairs. Haussmann was laying down new streets, pulling down whole districts, and creating new squares. Some said Haussmann's Paris was designed for the easy surveillance of approaching armies; others, that it was really contrived to drive the poor of Paris away from the central arrondissements, out to the suburbs. As the construction took place, and the industrial and commercial classes began to purchase smart new apartments, there was increased potential for extravagance, commerce and the pursuit of pleasure, and an obsession with clothes and decoration. The city was in a state of flux. There was a new sense of bustle and movement, and, for the first time, a mix of people of all classes in the streets, which smelled unmistakably of Paris: a mingling of leeks and lilacs. When the bulldozers arrived and began their clearing-up operation to remove the workers' shacks and create the rue de Rivoli, the rag-pickers came in: tramps and absinthe drinkers, poking about among the debris for the coins and jewellery rumoured to be buried there.The Private Lives of the Impressionists. Copyright © by Sue Roe. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe
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