The Petit Palais is somewhere in Paris that you’re sure to find crowded exhibitions with viewers deep in thought, just like the Baroque des Lumières in 2017. A stroll through Romantic Paris also promises to be a delight. Nevertheless, there’s still an initial annoyance to overcome; the exhibition has been laid out according to a topographic map which is not such a bad idea. However, the designers, slaves to the incredibly archaic concept of history based on dynasties, have decided to begin with The Tuileries, a section dedicated to Orléans, as if merely evoking “powerful people” still had any relevance in recreating a significant moment in history. We then waste a lot of time and space confirming that Orléans, not content with having cynically robbed the revolution of 1830 of its meaning, had appalling taste – something which everyone already knew. However, it’s not the intricate web of monarchs that matter here but the Parisians of the early 19th century and only them. Only a corner dedicated to Marie d’Orléans is really justified given that the princess-artist was one of the greatest early proponents of neo-medieval style.
Parisians, then, are viewed from the perspective of the material culture. The second section is a miniature Palais-Royal displaying shop windows popular during the 1830s. Thankfully the Palais Galliera has such vast reserves that are likely to evoke the particular look of the fashionable and the dandies from the days of the Battle of Hernani; the showcase of men’s waistcoats is particularly impressive! Farther along, the hall of the Grands Boulevards provides an opportunity to visit the musical and theatrical world, full of legendary figures such as Pauline Viardot, (Maria) Malibran and Rachel. A multitude of portraits and busts of a various composers crowd the room as Rossini watches over them with a sly grin: according to William Tell, he abandoned the scene and led a quiet, idle life in Paris. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the books, music scores and other documents, even photographs, have a limited visual power and should only be exhibited sparingly.
The core of the exhibition is also its best. A major hall takes us back to the Salon, the coveted meeting place for artists of all disciplines, by vividly recreating its atmosphere; paintings are hung close together on a red background as they were each year at the Louvre’s Salon carré. Étienne Bouhot’s exotic Entrée du Louvre immediately recaptures this environment. Bosio’s delightful Henri IV as a child, painted slightly before Rude’s Louis XIII as an adolescent, dominates the collection of sculptures at the centre of the hall. The gallery’s walls are adorned with work that, now as in the past, is excellent, significant and peerless. The pomposity of the exhibition’s last section is illustrated by Moensch’s grotesque Childéric et Basine from 1882. But that does not deter from the overall quality (such as Amaury-Duval’s Isaure Chassériau almost disturbing because of its frontality, Dubufe’s double portrait or Girodet’s Cathelineau) or the tremendous appeal of the “spiritualists”. The Petit Palais has brought together many iconic representations of this trend: Ary Scheffer’s Monique et Augustin (Salon de 1845), Gerard’s Sainte Thérèse, painted for the l’Infirmerie Marie-Thérèse by Madame de Chateaubriand, or Émile Signol’s Résurrection des morts (Resurrection of the Dead) from Angiers, which is more reminiscent of the “Painters of the soul” from the Lynonaise school than the Lukasbrüder suggested by this collection.
If there is any spiritualism, it’s simply because romantic Paris suffers from acute medievality! It would have been unthinkable to not give the neo-gothic style the prominence that it inherently deserves. Victor Hugo’s novel about Notre-Dame played a major role in the success of this antiquated style. The unimaginable popularity began to influence the design of clocks and even tableware. “Gothic cabinets”, that one could decorate when necessary with wall paper, also started to proliferate. The exhibition contains a rare Garneray watercolour on the most famous of these cabinets which belonged to the Countess of Osmond. Another painting also shows the implausible odds and ends collected by Alexandre du Sommerard, which seem like an antique shop gone mad but which nevertheless became the core of the future Musée du Cluny. It’s unfortunate that this wonderful overview has given little attention to another form of religiosity, namely the great social utopias starting with saint-Simonism. A beautiful portrait of Felicien David wearing a Saint-Simon costume is not enough to underline the intensity of the era’s palingenesis aspirations.
The highly anticipated other heart of romantic Paris finally emerges in Hall VII which puts the spotlight on Nouvelle-Athènes, which nobody would dare call “SoPi” (South of Pigale). Portraits of George Sand, Chopin and Liszt immortalized by Lehman underscore the presence of artists in this up and coming neighbourhood. Ary Scheffer moved to rue Chaptal in 1830, and a view from his studio is a reminder of the area’s significance which became the Musée de la Vie romantique. A separate themed exhibition in the 9th arrondissement continues this great display of the banks of the Seine. It’s a modest but pleasant collection focused on literary houses: Charles Nodier at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal and Madame Récamier at the Abbaye-aux-Bois (The Abbey of the Woods). These salons, which existed during a time of democratic disillusionment, were more literary than political: the famous “pear scandal” was an example of how the bourgeoisie monarchy was as capable as anyone else of exercising censure and repression. Visitors in 2019 will be sure to witness an amazing update of Daumier’s best work, from “it was worth the trouble to get us killed” of the victims of 1830 to the Ventre législatif (The Legislative Belly) of 1834, showing the arrogant illiterates of the House in all their vulgarity. However, Dumont’s Génie de la Liberté flies over all these dark images (the plaster of Musée de Semur), which has the grace and the appeal of a liberating dream: Revolution.
Romantic Paris, 1815-1848, Petit Palais; The Literary Salons, Musée de la Vie romantique ; both until September 15, 2019