My articles No.4 – Paris as the capital of the 19th century

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke described Paris as a “difficult, anxious city,” and how to be in the city “one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people, and things.” (1) It is this confusion and neurotic relationship with the city of Paris that perhaps typifies the fascination so many had with the city in the 19th century. It is one of the reasons why artists like Rilke were drawn to the city. Mesmerised by its modernity, its attractions and vitality, but at the same time scared and nervous of its darker side, of the life on the streets, and disturbed by the temptations around them. In this essay I will discuss what it was about Paris that attracted such people and why they regarded Paris as the “capital of the nineteenth century.” (2)

Paris in the 19th century was a city undergoing incredible change. The capital of the French Revolution was fast becoming the capital of modernity and this was a powerful draw for those fascinated with modernity. Central to the city’s growing status was the process of urban planning, called Haussmannisation. Before Haussmann, Paris had been a city of many, almost isolated, districts. Moving between districts was difficult, and often ill-advised.

These districts were often no more than ghettoised slums for the poor, areas in which Napoleon III’s troops could not easily, or safely, reach. Haussmann’s plans were slum-clearance and population displacement on a grand scale. He wanted to Paris in the 19th century was a city undergoing incredible change. The capital of the French Revolution was fast becoming the capital of modernity and this was a powerful draw for those fascinated with modernity. Central to the city’s growing status was the process of urban planning, called Haussmannisation. Before Haussmann, Paris had been a city of many, almost isolated, districts. Moving between districts was difficult, and often ill-advised. These districts were often no more than ghettoised slums for the poor, areas in which Napoleon III’s troops could not easily, or safely, reach. Haussmann’s plans were slum-clearance and population displacement on a grand scale. He wanted to “open up breathing space in the midst of layers of darkness and choked congestion.” (3) Haussmann, under the authority of Napoleon III, wanted to create a “vast network of boulevards through the heart of the old medieval city,” and he began to systematically tear apart the old city, rebuilding it to his plan. (4)

Part of his vision for the new boulevards was that they “would stimulate a tremendous expansion of local business at every level, and thus help to defray the immense municipal demolition, compensation and construction costs.” (5) Marshall Berman agrees that Haussmann’s boulevards opened up the city for enterprise, saying how they were quickly “lined with small businesses and shops of all kinds, with every corner zoned for restaurants and terraced sidewalk cafes.” (6)

The boulevards displaced thousands, wiping off the map communities that had existed for centuries. Engels, writing of Haussmannisation in his 1872 pamphlet, The Housing Question, is concerned about this. He argues that Haussmannisation did not solve the problem of poor housing for the poor, it simply moved it away from the centre of the city. (7) Of course, the poor were not the primary concern of Haussmann and Haussmannisation achieved its goal of opening up the city, allowing people to move about in a way never before possible. In a perhaps unforseen way, the redevelopment meant that not only could the rich wander along the tree-lined boulevards, but also the poor could easily return from the suburbs to mingle with the wealthier residents and visitors to the city. It also allowed social order to be more readily maintained, now that troops could easily move through the city without hindrance from barricades or hostile districts.

Barry Smart writes of the changes: “the development of a network of boulevards radically transformed the physical structure of the traditional city, allowing a new integrated social and physical space to emerge from the ruins of isolated neighbourhoods.” (8)

The scale of the modernisation of Paris was quite breathtaking. Berman describes it as a “comprehensive system of urban planning that included central markets, bridges, sewers, water supply, the Opera and other cultural palaces [and] a great network of parks.” (9) There were also the arcades, which Bauman describes as “spaces designed to offer the visitors the pleasure of looking; to attract the seekers of pleasure.” (10) Marshall Berman goes on to explain how the combination of all the modernising effects turned Paris into a “uniquely enticing spectacle, a visual and sensual feast.” (11)

The transformation of space in Paris, from the traditional to the modern, was a powerful attraction to the artist and the flâneur, so much so that although “the flâneur can be born anywhere; he can only live in Paris.” (12) Paris, more than any other city, seems to encourage the flâneur. It is the “paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal – the paradise, then, of bohemians, and not only of artists and writers but all those who have gathered about them because they could not be integrated either politically … or socially.” (13)

The flâneur was generally a wealthy man who would wander around the new boulevards and arcades of Paris, watching but not participating in the life on the streets. It was said of him: “He walks through the city at random and alone, a bachelor or widower … The flâneur is in society as he is in the city, suspended from social obligation, disengaged, disinterested, dispassionate.” (14) The flâneur is detached from the city and people he watches. He is fascinated by the thrills and excitement of the city, of the life around him, but at the same time he is disturbed and confused for being tempted by these attractions. Walter Benjamin speaks of how the flâneur’s relationship with the city is often one of estrangement: “To the flâneur his city – even if he was born in it, like Baudelaire – is no longer home. For him it represents a showplace.” (15)

The flâneur will always be an outsider, never able to be part of the city he gazes upon. The flâneur uses the city and its people as a sort of theatre. He needs to be separate from the action, he “needs to preserve the elbow room of the man of leisure while sunk in the crowd; he must see without being seen.” (16) The flâneur is part of the modern city, watching all its thrills without taking part himself.

In many ways the flâneur could be regarded as a character to be pitied. He is, as Keith Tester argues, “going about the city in order to find the things which will occupy his gaze and thus complete his otherwise incomplete identity; satisfy his otherwise dissatisfied existence; replace the sense of bereavement with a sense of life.” (17) The flâneur observes the public, who themselves are drawn by the growing consumerism of post-Haussmann Paris, but he is perhaps being as much duped by the spectacle of the public as the consumers he watches are of the hollow attractions of consumerism. (18)

The modernisation of the city continued apace in the mid-19th century, and included, as its ultimate symbol of modernity, the Eiffel Tower, which was built for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Like the boulevards and arcades, the Eiffel Tower has come to symoblise Paris itself. Today we regard the Tower as the ultimate symbol that says this is Paris. However, when it was being built not everyone saw its construction as promising, or that its blatant modern character as rewarding. The French writer, Maupassant, for instance “hated the thought of the tower’s long shadow being cast like ‘an ink spot’ over the beauties of the city.” (19)

Despite Maupassant’s distaste for the Eiffel Tower and what it stood for, the Tower and the Exposition came to represent all that was modern about the city. Maupassant even managed to visit the Tower once or twice, even if only “with disgust and curiosity.” (20) The Tower’s restaurant, perched high above the city, became a popular attraction, drawing visitors from near and far. Maupassant speaks of how it became almost impossible to invite friends for dinner unless you promised to take them to the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant. His description of eating at the restaurant is quite vivid, and is a powerful attack on modern living:

“To eat the canteen-like food served up by those wretched aerial cooks, in all the heat, the dust, the stench, amid the crowd of the common herd celebrating and sweating, and the greasy papers littering the scene and flying everywhere and the smell of delicatessen and wine rising from the tables and wafted by three hundred thousand breaths exuding the stale smell of meals, amid the elbowing, the close contacts, the mass of heated flesh, and the mingled sweat of people scattering their fleas.” (21)

Maupassant, although disgusted by what was happening, is demonstrating how attitudes were changing, how people were embracing modern ideas of living. He speaks of how he is amazed that the people, who were normally repulsed by “the smell of human fatigue,” were now willing to “dine admist that filth and that mob every night.” (22) He mourns the loss of élitism, saying that the embracing of the Eiffel Tower and what it stood for by the one-time élite is “definitive proof of the complete triumph of democracy,” and how “there are no more castes, races, aristocratic natures. There are only rich people and poor people.” (23)

The poor people Maupassant referred to had, of course, been displaced with modernisation, but what had become of them? As Berman says, “those in charge of the demolition and construction did not particularly concern themselves” where they had gone to. (24) Haussmann and those developing the modern Paris probably imagined they would simply disappear, leaving the glittering new city to the wealthy and modern people. Haussmann, however, had miscalculated. By “tearing down the old medieval slums, [he] inadvertently brokek down the self-enclosed and hermetically sealed world of traditional urban poverty.” (25) The poor were no longer trapped in their ghettos and could themselves wander down the new boulevards and gaze upon the splendours and people of the new city.

This irony of modern life creates situations such as that in Baudelaire’s poem The Eyes of the Poor. In the poem a couple are enjoying each other’s company in a glittering Parisian café when they are confronted by the faces of a poor family outside who “gaze raptly at the bright new world that is just inside.” (26) The poor family are not hostile, or even angry. They are simply fascinated with this new world and its inhabitants, as the couple are no doubt themselves. The poor family’s mute curiosity creates a sense of shame, even guilt, and a wish that someone would tell them to go away. This scene, and all those like it, emphasise how modern the city was. There had always been conflict and misunderstanding between the classes, but the development of the new boulevards created a world where rich and poor could mingle. They can share the same urban space, but are still incapable of understanding each other. The rich had created a city they thought would be their own, only to find that the poor came back into the city, almost haunting it.

A symptom of modern life is confusion, chaos and risk. In Haussmann’s Paris there is no better symbol of this confusion than the material used to surface the boulevards – macadam. The boulevards of Paris were long, straight and very wide – ideal for fast-moving traffic. To facilitate this, to the opposition of Napoleon, they were surfaced with macadam, a material which created a surface that was “remarkably smooth, and provided perfect traction for horses’ hooves.” (27) While this was fine for those with carriages, who could drive at full speed up the new boulevards, it was the opposite for the pedestrian, who had to adjust and adapt to the chaos of the traffic in order to survive. Berman argues that the chaos of the boulevard then “spills over into every urban space,” imposing “its tempo on everybody’s time,” transforming “the whole modern environment into a moving chaos,” (28)

Baudelaire argues that the modern man is forced to adapt, but such adaptation brings with it benefits. He says that a “man who knows how to move in and around and through the traffic can go anywhere, down any of the endless urban corridors where traffic itself is free to go.” He argues that this modern mobility “opens up a great wealth of new experience and activities for the urban masses.” (29)

Berman uses the meaphor of macadam and the chaos it created to symbolise how the modernist and anti-modernist are brought together, inveitably, in order to survive. He aruges that the anti-modernist might seek a way out of the chaos, but like the modernist in the traffic and the chaos they “both alike are hindrances and hazards to the horses and vehicles whose paths they cross.” No matter how much the anti-modernist protests, he too will “be forced to discard balance and measure and decorum and to learn the grace of brusque moves in order to survive” in the modern world. (30)

Paris, without doubt, became the capital of the 19th century, especially after the developments of Haussmann. Its programme of modernisation, the development of arcades, department stores and the boulevards, created an atmosphere in which the modern man could seek satisfaction. The sense of confusion and chaos brought on by modernisation created the perfect setting for him. In Paris the modern man, who was struggling to define himself, found a city that was constantly redefining itself. Paris was an exciting place to be. It was full of new places to go, new things to see and do. Like New York in later decades, the streets of Paris were the place to be, not only for the flâneur but also for the artist, the lover, the romantic and even the ordinary man. Baudelaire’s flâneur in The Painter of Modern Life perhaps sums up the attraction of Paris:

“He marvels at the eternal beauty and amazing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom. He gazes upon the landscape of the great city … He delights in fine carriages and proud horses, the dazzling smartness of the grooms … the sinuous gait of the women, the beauty of the children, happy to be alive and nicely dressed – in a word, he delights in universal life.” (31)



1. Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Otto Modersohn, quoted in Keith Tester (ed.), The Flâneur, Routledge, 1994, p. 123.

2. W. Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism , Verso, 1983, quoted in Tester, ibid., p. 1

3. Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air , Verso, 1985, p. 150.

4. ibid., p. 150.

5. ibid., p. 150.

6. ibid., p. 151.

7. F. Engels,“The Housing Question”, 1872, cited in Berman, ibid., p. 153.

8. Barry Smart, “Flânerie: From Baudelaire to Benjamin and Beyond”, quoted in Tester, op. cit., p. 161.

9. Berman, op. cit., p. 150.

10. Zygmunt Bauman, “Desert Spectacular”, in Tester, op. cit., p. 147.

11. Berman, op. cit., p. 150.

12. Paris des cent-et-un, quoted in Tester, op. cit., p. 22.

13. Hannah Arendt, “Introduction” to Walter Benjamin, Illuminations , Fontana Press, 1992, p. 27.

14. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, “The flâneur on and off the streets of Paris”, quoted in Tester, op. cit., p. 26.

15. W. Benjamin, “Gesammelte Schriften”, quoted in Davis Frisby, “The flâneur in social theory”, in Tester, op. cit., p.94.

16. Bauman, op. cit., p. 147.

17. Tester, “Introduction”, op. cit., p. 7.

18. ibid., p. 14.

19. Francis Steegmuller, Maupassant, p. 29.

20. Maupassant,“‘The Evolution of the Novel in the Nineteenth Century”, quoted in Steegmuller, ibid., p. 280.

21. ibid., p. 280.

22. ibid., p. 280.

23. ibid., p. 280.

24. Berman, op. cit., p. 153.

25. Berman, op. cit., p. 153.

26. Berman, op. cit., p. 149.

27. Berman, op. cit., p. 158.

28. Berman, op. cit., p. 159.

29. Berman, op. cit., pp. 159-160.

30. Berman, op. cit., pp.162-163.

31. Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”, 1859, quoted in Bruch Mazlish, “The flâneur: from spectator to representation”, in Tester, op. cit., p. 49.



Walter Benjamin, Illuminations , Fontana Press, 1992.

Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air , Verso, 1985.

Francis Steegmuller, Maupassant .

Keith Tester, The Flâneur , Routledge, 1994.