The first half of the 19th century was a troublesome time in French history. Napoleon’s empire had fallen and the country was going through political upheavals that included attempts to restore the monarchy or, under the worst of circumstances, another violent revolution.
Strangely enough, the art movement of that era had taken an exactly opposing direction and Paris was seen by painters, writers and musicians all over Europe as the world centre of Romanticism.
The organisers of Petit Palais on Champs Elysées had the brilliant idea to gather all the works that come under this category, and are usually housed in a number of museums in France and other European cities, and bring them together in the show Paris Romantique.
Paris Romantique displays artworks from the Romantic era of early 19th century France ironically during a time of political upheaval
Special care has been taken to create for the visitors a dramatic and emotional mood first. As I went around from corridor to corridor of the Petit Palais, I realise that the effort by the artists of the period to devote their talents to an optimistic future, and no longer to destructive movements, has been successfully captured. One is stunned by paintings of the then debuting geniuses such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Anne-Louis Girodet or Horace Vernet.
Even for experienced art lovers, not to say experts, there is many a surprise waiting. One discovers scenes of Paris by a youthful British painter with the strange sounding name of Thomas Shotter Boys. His distant view of the Notre Dame Cathedral — much in the news because of the fire three months ago — seen from a newly-rising housing area across the River Seine, is incredibly realistic.
Even music is not forgotten, and one can clearly see the handwritten score of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique as well as that of Georges Bizet’s legendary Carmen displayed in the exhibition. The portraits of both these Romantique-age musical geniuses and of Frederic Chopin, painted by a number of artists, are also present in the show.
The second revolution of 1830, following which the newly installed King Charles X was replaced by Louis-Philippe — a decision that had inevitably led to further rioting and massacres — is also illustrated in horrifying detail in the works created by Honoré Daumier and a number of other little known artists and sculptors.
While talking about Romanticism one cannot ignore the Bohemian movement during the same period, initiated by the intellectuals living in New Athens — a neighbourhood of Paris — and led by geniuses such as the writer George Sand and painter Gustave Moreau, and the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer, whose home and studio also served as a literary salon during the period.
The intoxicating visit to the Petit Palais finally leads you to many scenes of the Grands Boulevards — a heavily commercialised area today. However, in the Romantic period, it was at its height as a centre of nightlife, with many theatres, art galleries and restaurants. A number of portraits of the personalities of the day and dramatic scenes bring the area and its ambience to life. One example is a painting by Louis-Léopold Boilly, titled ‘The Effect of Melodrama’, in which a young woman is seen swooning, overcome with emotions inspired by a stage performance she had been watching.
Added to all this, the basement hall of the Petit Palais is devoted to Romantic Germany (1780-1850), full of drawings from the museums of Weimar.
At the end of the show, one is left stunned not only by the scenes of a turbulent time in French history, but also by the grace and glamour of the Romantic period.
“Paris Romantique (1815 -1848)” is being displayed at Petit Palais in Paris from May 22 to September 15, 2019
The writer is an art critic based in Paris.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 18th, 2019