Pleasures of Paris

Organized by Barbara Stern Shapiro and the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, September 1991)

In the 1860’s, the poet Charles Baudelaire identified a new Parisian type: the flaneur, whose main occupation in life was to stroll through the streets of Paris discovering the harsh new poetry of modern life. Pleasures of Paris, a generous summer show at the Museum of Fine Arts, is organized so that you too, can be a flaneur, strolling along the boulevards and promenades of City of Light as it was a hundred years ago.

An underlying theme of Pleasures of Paris is looking — and being looked at. Seeing — and being seen. Look at the eyes. Notice who’s watching and who’s being watched. Follow the gaze. You’ll see looks of longing, looks of hunger, looks of envy, looks of rapture, looks of shame. Seductions, rejections, obsessions. Admiring glances and scornful grimaces. Absinthe-drinking couples staring in opposite directions; lovers drowning in each other’s eyes.

Picture after picture shows people looking at one other, or looking away.

Some of them are even looking at you. A lady in the audience in Tissot‘s The Amateur Circus turns away from the acrobats to stare at you with a clear, cool gaze. In another Tissot painting of the circus, The Ladies of the Chariots, one of the riders, dressed like an Amazon or dominatrix with breastplate, crown, and whip, watches you watching her as her horse rounds the curve of the circus ring.

But most of these Parisians are much too self-absorbed to return your gaze. In Alphone Mucha‘s poster, Sarah Bernhardt, magnificent as La Dame aux Camelias, gazes at the stars, surrounded by a silver starry sky. The divine Sarah was one of the first modern stars, and you can see premonitions of Andy Warhol in Mucha’s poster, which glorifies and flattens her, like Warhol’s silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe. In Jules Cheret‘s poster La Loie Fuller, the American dancer dances wildly in swirls and swirls of flame-colored cloth. In Steinlen‘s Yvette Guilbert aux Ambassadeurs, the singer breathes deep as she waits in the wings. Toulouse-Lautrec‘s Woman on Trapeze, brilliantly placed between the two Tissots, seems to float, suspended in the air. Her eyes are closed and her face is pale as she leans back and surrenders herself to the gaze of the crowd. Picasso‘s sad, blue Harlequin sits alone in a cafe, lost in his sad, blue dreams.

Pleasures of Paris is arranged as a series of works of art clustered around different Parisian pleasures: boulevards, parks, racetracks, museums, brothels, cafes, concerts, cabarets, the opera, the circus.

Great paintings by great artists like Picasso and Manet mingle with posters, prints and photographs by artists who are less well-known.

This clustering of images evokes the feel of turn-of-the-century Paris: the outpouring of creativity, the sense of movement and multiplicity, the constant mingling and jostling of the crowd, the flow of life, the joie de vie.

Turn-of-the-century Paris was a spectacle, a non-stop dance on the edge where life and theater meet. In his Parisian Sketchbooks of 1876, Henry James wrote of “the brilliant picturesqueness of Paris.” Day and night, the streets were filled with people: workers, waiters, delivery boys, men step ping out in top hat and tails, and marvelous women in marvelous clothes, bedecked and beplumed like exotic birds. Everyone always seemed to be in motion — dancing, skating, riding horses, riding bikes, strolling the boulevards, eating, drinking, visiting a park, making love, making art.

Some artists recorded the details of daily life; others distilled it to abstractions. Pierre Bonnard‘s 1897 The Square at Evening is a dance of shadows in the yellow light. Some saw Paris as monumental; The Neurdein Brother‘s photographs of the Eiffel Tower and a railway station look as ancient as the pyramids and as magical as the Taj Mahal. For others, little verdant patches of nature still reigned supreme, undaunted by gaslight and concrete. Cezanne‘s On the Banks of the Pond shows some city couples sitting on the grass, just outside of town. The artist’s tiny, throbbing brushstrokes, like the smell of Spring, agitate the water and the trees, and the sweet, electric energy of green, green grass.

One the pleasures of Paris was music: concerts in cafes and dance halls like Moulin Rouge, symphony orchestras, street singers, Folies Bergere, opera.

Renoir‘s A Box at the Opera shows a woman and a young girl listening to an opera from a plush crimson loge.  The painting is amazingly sensual: the lace of the woman’s black dress looks like fur; one pink rose floats in her decolletage; her skin is soft and pink. Enraptured, she leans on one hand, abandoning herself to the music. Her other hand caresses a sheet of music; pale blue notes drift across the page like little waves. Her lips are slightly parted; her cheeks are flushed; her deep black eyes glisten with tears. The opera-lover’s daughter is a younger version of herself with long black hair that cascades down her slender back as she gazes dreamily down at a huge bouquet of voluptuous red roses.

In complete contrast, Mary Cassatt’s 1878 At the Opera shows a woman dressed all in black; a single pearl gleams in her ear. She is holding a pair of opera-glasses up to her eyes and watching something intently; her other hand clutches a fan. Her whole being is tense and alert; all her energy is focussed on her gaze. From a far balcony, a man in evening clothes watches her watching the stage.

Edouard Manet‘s 1862 painting The Street Singer shows a street singer coming out of the door of a cafe, carrying a guitar and eating cherries, which she carries in a white, cone-shaped paper bag.  One evening,  Manet — a great flaneur — was strolling with a friend, and saw a woman coming out of a cabaret, holding a guitar. The artist was immediately struck by the singer’s appearance, and asked her if she would come to his studio and model for him. She turned him down and walked away laughing, then disappeared into the night. Back in the studio, Manet posed his favorite model, Victorine Murent, as a street singer.

As the street singer, Victorine has a faraway look in her eyes — completely different from the cool, direct gaze with which, as Olympia, she shocked Manet’s contemporaries. Her mouth is hidden by a bunch of cherries which glisten lusciously, erotically red. She has just walked out of the cabaret through a swinging door. The door is still open, revealing a glimpse of the noisy, smoky room. In a moment, the door will swing back shut, and the cafe will disappear, and the street singer will vanish, into the street, into the night, never to be seen again.

Only here, in this painting, where she is forever caught in the golden net of the Paris night at the moment when she stepped out through the swinging door, onto the street, and into our dreams.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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