Wednesday 2 November 2011

19th Century Paris: 'Le Peuple de Paris'

The second of the three exhibitions I am featuring this week is 'Le Peuple de Paris' running at the Musée Carnavaet until February 26th 2012. It is a sociological investigation into the lives of the working classes in Paris in the 19th century, looking particularly at how these people and their lifestyles, were portrayed by artists and the media at the time, and provides an intruiging and original insight into an era that continues to fascinate us today.

I asked Miriam Simon, Chief Curator of the exhibition, about how the idea for the exhibition came about and what messages it is seeking to get across about a population and a period which is much misunderstood.


How did this exhibition originate?

MS: The project stems from the fascinating graphic art collection we have at the Musée Carnavalet, particularly the fascinating and important set of caricature lithographs of the people of Paris. French historiography had, certainly until the 1970s, mainly studied the ‘people’ through the labour movement, so it seemed there was room for a more sociological investigation of this socio-economic category, which - taken in its widest sense - represented over two thirds of the population of Paris in the nineteenth century.

How different was life in Paris in the 19th century for the proletariat compared with earlier centuries?

MS: Paris was confronted by many fundamental changes in the nineteenth century, including the industrial revolution, the extension and transformation of the city, and a population explosion, all of which substantially changed the lives of the people - their rhythms, their working conditions, their housing, the way they moved around, how they were looked after by philanthropic societies or governments, not to mention the beginnings of mass culture and the consumer society. However, some features remained from previous centuries, or in fact became things to fight for, in resistance to what was often becoming a very brutal way of life.

Was there an improvement in the standard of living across the century?
MS: Despite the trauma caused by an industrial revolution that was even more violent than it could have been as protection for the people was very slow to be put in place, we can observe a move towards a better standard of living and an increasing search for intimacy.

What can we learn about the people of Paris in the 19th century from the exhibition?
MS: The exhibition challenges certain assumptions about lifestyles at the time, including the alleged mixing of social classes in the pre-Haussmannian city. In general, the documents - which were very largely produced by the elite - show the "people" in a way which was anything but neutral.

We felt that we needed a common thread to tackle a topic as huge as this, and the one we chose was the human body. The working classes are those who perform manual activities, requiring manual dexterity and - or - physical strength, which distinguishes them from other classes. In the nineteenth century, the working classes found themselves in ever increasing confrontation with the bourgeoisie, and this class - which controlled the media - chose to portray the proletariat in ways that differentiated them from themselves. To this end, the people were often qualified by their body, with historians such as Alain Corbin showing how the bourgeoisie often linked them to the odours of the city and the spread of diseases.

How is the exhibition organised?
An introductory room puts the 'people' in their chronological, spatial and symbolic context. After that, we present the most significant corporeality sectors, which, as we have discussed, was the major characteristic of the people. A large room shows the material living conditions, and also the modes of relaxation and recreation. The work of Daumier, who was a unique artist as he had working class origins and was the only artist to look at the topic of the 'people' from the inside, is also the subject of a special presentation.

Misery, poverty, and their treatment by the elite, are then presented in a section linking them together with the increase in health and social fears. This leads to the last room that ends the exhibition with an evocation of revolution. This subject, which in the collective memory characterises to a large extent the people of Paris of the nineteenth century, highlights the different forms and manifestations of this fear of the 'peuple de Paris'.

Le peuple de Paris au XIXe siècle: Des guinguettes aux barricades
Musée Carnavalet 23, rue de Sévigné 75003
Open daily, from 10am - 6pm, except Mondays and public holidays.
Tickets - from
3,5 - €7


Anonymous said...

Thank you, this looks like an exciting exhibition! What an excellent view into past cultural perspectives.

henk van es said...

Hi Adam, Just wanted to let you know how much I do like this series.

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