This book does not aim to present an inventory of the paintings that have been made in honor of Paris, nor to offer a guide to the Musée Carnavalet, whose mission it is to bring such works together. It is rather to reveal the long adventure of a city and its inhabitants through a local history of painting.
However tempting, it is seemingly impossible to paint here a history of Paris as imagined by painters and photographers: a history, I say, not the history, because its timeline is strictly limited—from the fourteenth to the twentieth century—and because it surveys only two arts. In these pages, historians take the podium and, posted like guardians, build their narrative on that artistic base. There is a long lineage to be mined, opening the gallery to the most notable painters and photographers—the Limbourg brothers, Eugène Delacroix, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Willy Ronis, eulogists of a world they depicted—while also leaving room for others, more humble. Traveling down the same path (together since photography was invented in the mid-nineteenth century), photographers and painters have captured, embellished, and perpetuated the memory of Parisians and their daily life. Great masters and small, both are here. To avoid arbitrariness, we established certain rules, attempting to introduce reason to a draconian choice. Our survey bears on painting, beginning with the fourteenth century, and photography. It entrusts to top experts the responsibility of restoring meanings buried by time, of revealing other shadows amid the relief and sheen of painting. It emerges as a guide. We cannot rely on it, since the twentieth century delivered art from the shackles of representation, which was never happy with a reality we knew to be fictional. As for the subject, it seemed simple to define: the Paris that stands within the old ramparts of the Middle Ages and its administrative territories, today the department of the Seine. We do not include the present-day banlieue (suburbs) and the forests that surround the city, despite the contribution these outskirts have made to the economic and mental expansion of Parisian life. But a city is more than a landscape or a constructed space: this town, anchored around the Seine, brings together a population; it is the capital of a nation that observes and follows it, if not without grumbling. Through it all, the painter and the photographer, through the tools they have chosen and mastered, have offered their rich accounts. A gesture has sufficed: in the sketch of an instant seemingly frozen in time, they have sensed and uncovered political undercurrents and cruel struggles.
This history of Paris evokes the intense life of the city through three types of paintings. It could just as well be built on documentary painting, on illustrative painting, and on imaginary invention. Painters have documented the landscape, the Seine, the gardens, the palace, the churches and squares, the boulevards and streets. They have illustrated the picturesque city as it is, with scenes from daily life, and in doing so offered their account of the spectacle that—whether Etienne Jeaurat or Claude Monet, Gustave Le Gray or Robert Capa—they always saw along with the eyes of their contemporaries.
Others, inspired by recent events, have contributed to the glory of an interested patron, or been guided by a public commission, whether state or municipal, or by the elation of a great idea: in rich hues they have illustrated the celebrations of kings and republicans, the glory of industrial prosperity, or even those splendid events, often military, that celebrated those belonging to an elite or a political group. This form of representation, the reportage of festivities and heroic deeds for a peace-loving people or a nation at war, as seen by the conqueror, the patriot, the traveler, or the tourist, does not fail to inspire opinions. And finally, there are those works in which invention has dominated, revealing a symbolic world; here emerges the Paris born of a triumphant imagination, one that has been present ever since the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry) and through Robert Delaunay and Edouard Boubat. Each era has offered its share of each kind—therefore readers must accept the principle of the great master standing beside the modest enthusiast. It is incongruous, but it is historical. Together, they compose a history that is their own, one that belongs to Parisians, to the French, and also to a broader Western culture.
They are all arranged here in chronological order, according to the acknowledged dates of their paintings, except for those from the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries, when shortcomings or redundancy called for a synthetic presentation, or when layout rightly demanded greater liberty. We of course renounced adventurous reconstructions by official painters, who in the nineteenth century painted an array of famous acts: no matter their virtue, they are guilty of what historians deem to be the greatest of sins, the sin of anachronism. In these pages, we instead chose rigor—the intimate relationship, the lived experience. The book begins in the fourteenth century, because this was when the first painters of Paris emerged, and also when appeared the first portraits to bear the real likeness of their subjects. In 1914, Western painting lost some of its privileged status to other arts. After this date, it was therefore appropriate to invite photography to illustrate our subject for the rest of the twentieth century. Right before 1914, the painting of Paris had entered a revolution: it had broken its ties with academicism and representation. Yet the new masters of image had taken over the new town, the much-visited mother city that is so devoutly inhabited: they sublimated it, sometimes magnified it, and always rehumanized it in order to denounce the other face of the city, presented as an icy metropolis.
Turning the pages of this book, the viewer will become convinced that artists are intimately linked with their societies and that realism in painting is not the only way of expressing a reality, much less a truth. It is in fact the ultimate goal of this book to uncover these magical, irrational articulations, thanks to which an image—be it a photograph or a painting—is never an immediate reproduction or a simple reflection of reality; it instead delves into the inmost depths of a society. Seeing a Daumier, one is aware that the power of the painting is not the sum of its simple forms. Certain works devoted to Paris and seen here again deliver a prophetic message—in the name of a people, in the name of a homeland, in the name of humanity—without losing their aesthetic power, their elusive beauty.
Such a project would never have seen the light of day were it not for a devoted team committed to overcoming obstacles, of which there were many: historians, museum curators, archivists, and editors all contributed their expertise, offered their time, and patiently weaved together this book, which has now been revised, renewed, and embellished since its first edition was published in 1989. This magnificent tome, in short, is the work of many known and a myriad of unknown contributors, artisans, and artists. All deserve the expression of deep gratitude and enthusiastic admiration, feelings that time can never erase.