When did Paris become romantic?

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…



6 Responses to When did Paris become romantic?

  1. troutsky says:

    From my experience in that great city the romance sprang from the affectionate way people seemed to meet, greet and socialize in the cafes and restaurants. Compared to London or Frankfort at least.Plus it is very beautiful.

    • lichanos says:


      You’re the Debordian radical, and you tell me the city is “very beautiful?” If ever a city was created as a spectacle for useful mystification of its inhabitants, it’s Paris! If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what has happened to your consciousness?

      The street sociability is wonderful. Try finding a cafe in Manhattan where you can watch the crowd for hours and buy just one cup of coffee – although I’m told that this is changing, alas, there too.

  2. Man of Roma says:

    Paris IS romantic, even if what you say is not far from being true.
    France IS romantic.
    French movies ARE romantic.
    Sweetness, good nature, refinement, elegance, non chalence, irony etc. (I lack words and time): all this combines to make France what it is (and especially what it was, but still is to some extent, ) and which of course it is not just the only thing the French have.

    It isn’t rational, I can’t say it well now. Moreover one could think it’s a ‘latin’ take of it, me being like a cousin to them. Let’s not forget though this romanticism was been felt by millions of people in centuries. La ville lumière. London had cash. Paris had the refinement and the dream. They can’t (coudn’t) be all wrong my (LA?) dude 🙂

    And let us not define this romanticism. Often definitions arrive ‘after’ discussion, not before, like at the times of good ol’ Socrates.


    By the way, Paris is romantic in a way not too far from how Rome, or Venice, ‘are’ romantic, though in its own peculiar, Parisien, way.

  3. lichanos says:

    This Paris-romance thing is funny. I used to think it was the most beautiful city, but with time, (and visits to places like Rome!) my view of it has changed radically. Of course, I’ve not been there in ages, so time to go!

    Some people find Manhattan romantic. Exciting, fascinating, sure, but romantic? Not for me. Now I see Manhattan as a machine to produce money, and Paris as a machine of the State.

    Even funnier, Troutsky, a Marxist blogger I like to tweak, says HE thinks Paris is romantic. (comment above)

  4. Man of Roma says:

    ‘Romantic to me’, in fact. a lot of subjectivity, but let us not get into technical philosophy now. Gotta go to my women whom I feel complaiing. Today (plus tomorrow)is an important day for agnostics Christians.

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