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The American in the Classroom

La Vie Parisienne, 1868 to 1875

What was the scene in Paris like when Christopher Newman, the American, lived there in 1868 or when Henry James himself lived there in 1875? To give students some historical background and help them imagine life in Paris in the Second Empire, you may want to ask them to explore a particular aspect of geography, politics, commerce, or the arts in Paris at that time.

Students can use encyclopedias, books, or the Web to investigate any of the following topics ("pistes de recherche") and recreate the Paris scene. The following ideas, or any of the terms in blue, may be starting points for research. Some recommended Web links and a brief bibliography follow.

The Parisian Landscape

Modernization of Paris
Can you imagine what it would have been like to walk through Paris before it had sewers and sidewalks? Many changes came about in the city landscape when Napoléon III commissioned Baron Haussmann to carry out a program of grand public works during this period. Haussmann created wide boulevards during the Second Empire, giving Paris a whole new look. This was a political measure to allow the French government to send troops in quickly if there were popular revolts in the streets of Paris. Which famous avenues can you name that were built by Haussmann in this period? Can you find pictures of any of the boulevards or parks Haussmann built? Who in Paris might have been upset by these massive construction projects? Who might have benefited? Find out about other public works and new sights in Paris like the "grands magasins" (big stores) built around this time or the Universal Exhibitions of 1855 and 1867.

Social Unrest
The Second Empire in Paris was known for social decadence. Napoléon III, his wife, Empress Eugénie, and their court often dressed lavishly, and there were many types of spectacular entertainment: from plays featuring Sarah Bernhardt to Nadar's balloon excursions or "la fête de l'Empereur" (Napoléon's birthday was declared a national holiday). But there was a great chasm between the rich and poor in Paris. The rich could feast on pheasant and truffles while the poor could barely afford horsemeat. Not all of the Emperor's subjects were content with their lot. Napoléon III even wrote a book about poverty and social issues. Explore the growing problem of working-class housing in Paris during the Second Empire. Why might Napoléon III have had a tough time getting support for this urban cause in his time?

The Tuileries Palace
When Claire's sister-in-law, the Marquise, tells Christopher Newman how boring her aristocratic life is, despite "season tickets" to the Opéra, she longs to find a gentleman to accompany her to the real scene of the action, inside the Tuileries. The Tuileries, once the palace of Cathérine de Medici, became the heart of Imperial Paris. Besides the Czar of Russia and the King of Prussia, who might have been invited to gala-balls and receptions there in 1868? Who besides nobility was admitted to the Last French Court? Try to find a sample menu for a fancy dinner at the time or paintings that show the fashions worn by the Empress and her ladies.

What did the Cent-Gardes look like? How did the Tuileries Palace change between 1868 and 1875? What would James have seen on that spot in Paris if he had strolled by in 1875? What would a visitor to Paris see there today?

Research the events of the Paris Commune from 1870-1871 and the Bloody Week and explain why the Tuileries Palace, where Napoléon III, Empress Eugénie, and their court dressed their finest, was a target for the Paris mob.

The Franco-Prussian War
By 1870, Louis Napoléon had gotten involved with the Franco-Prussian War. Why do you think the Germans won the War? What did the French lose after Sédans? When the Germans won, Parisians were ready to riot, and lots of armed, unhappy National Guards were not getting paid their wages. Who took control of the government afterwards, and why did he choose Versailles for new government headquarters? Why did the geographic location matter to him?

In 1870, Paris was divided into several political factions: monarchists (who were subdivided); those who liked the Empire; and social revolutionaries. Find out about the Siege of Paris and the role of Adolphe Thiers. Why do you think James avoided writing about the political turmoil in Paris in 1870 and 1871? Would Claire's family have had as powerful a social influence after the fall of the Empire?

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Art And Literature In Paris

Famous French Writers
James had mixed feelings about the French writers of his time. He admired their style but often disagreed with their morals. He enjoyed reading Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and George Sand. Through his literary friend Ivan Turgenev, a Russian expatriate who had settled in Paris, James was introduced to Gustave Flaubert and spent some time in Flaubert's salons, where writers like Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, and Guy de Maupassant met. The prolific, revolutionary writer Victor Hugo was in political exile at the time. Other writers to research include Alexandre Dumas père and Charles Baudelaire.

Though James considered himself a realist, his vision of realism was far different than the views of French realists and naturalists of his time. One popular French naturalist of the time was Emile Zolá, who James probably met at Flaubert's. List the titles of some of Zolá's novels. Imagine a discussion between him and James: What might they disagree about? How would each describe Napoléon's legacy? How might a French realist have changed the ending of The American?

Art and Early Impressionism
Although Paris had a famous Salon for painters to exhibit new work every year, experimental painting styles were not encouraged. A group of painters formed the Salon des Réfusés and held the First Impressionist Exhibit in 1874. Why do you think the Impressionists were not yet popular at the time of the Second Empire? If you can, find a picture of the famous painting, Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe by Manet from 1863. Tell why it was controversial: Who liked it? Who didn't? Do you think James had seen it? Would he have liked it? Why or why not?

While living in Paris, Henry James wrote a newspaper article for the New York Tribune titled "Chartres Portrayed." Find pictures of Monet's paintings of cathedrals (in books or museums) and compare them to actual photographs of French cathedrals such as Chartres or the description of Chartres by James. How do they differ? In what way was Monet's painting successful?

Find out about other types of artists of that time, such as the painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet and the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

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Technology In Mid-19th-Century France

"The invention of photography in 1839 was one of the pivotal achievements in the history of art, and much of its significant early history was centered in France. The first decades in the history of the medium were rich in experimentation, and by the 1850s there were more great photographers working in Paris than in any other artistic capital of the time."

-- Press Release, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Research any of these French photographers of the mid-19th century:
  • Eugene Atget (gardens of Versailles)
  • Edouard Baldus
  • the Bisson brothers (monuments)
  • Adolph Braun (still lifes)
  • Gustave Le Gray (commissioned by Napoléon III to glorify the Empire)
  • Nadar (portrait of Georges Sand)

Who might be likely to have their photo taken in Paris in the mid-19th century? How do French photographs from this period differ from American photographs from the same time? How are they alike? How much would a photograph cost, compared to today? How are photographs different now?

French Railroads (Les Chemins de Fer)
One of the highlights of the Second Empire was the construction of an extensive, centralized French railroad system. Paris was the hub for all the French railroads. Try to find a picture of Monet's 1877 painting of a railroad station in Paris, La Gare Saint-Lazarre. Why did Monet choose the symbol of the railroad? On the occasion of "la fête de L'Empereur," hundreds of people would come to Paris by train. Was there any event like this in America? What reputation do French trains have? If anyone you know has taken the train in France, ask that person how they are different from trains in the United States.

The Suez Canal
How did the French diplomat de Lesseps persuade Egypt to allow the building of the Suez Canal in 1869? Try to find a picture of the Suez Canal. How was the Suez Canal funded? Who benefited most from the canal commercially? Why?

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Recommended Books and Web Sites

The following bibliography and list of Web sites may prove helpful for student research. Although some of the books are out of print, they may be found in a school or public library.

Bierman, John. Napoléon III and His Carnival Empire. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Burchell, S. C. Imperial Masquerade: The Paris of Napoléon III. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Davidson, Marshall B. The Horizon Concise History of France. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1971.

Horne, Alistair. The Terrible Year: The Paris Commune, 1871. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.

James, Henry. Parisian Sketches. New York University Press, New York, 1957.

Lefebvre, Clotilde, ed. Paris, France. The Knopf Guide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Pudney, John. Suez: De Lesseps' Canal. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.

Richardson, Joanna. La Vie Parisienne 1852-1870. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.

Web Sites
Note: These sites may contain nude images or other work you may feel is inappropriate for your class. Please review the sites before recommending them to students.

To look up French words online, go to

For a virtual tour of Haussmann's Paris and of the Impressionist cafés, go to

For some photos of the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune, try

For vintage post card views of late 19th-century Paris, go to

For paintings from the First Impressionist Exhibit (of 1874) by Monet (including one of the city's great boulevards, Boulevard des Capucines), Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot, Degas, and Sisley, go to

You can find a good short explanation of the origins of Impressionism at

Find out about the realist school of French painters, which ties in with realist French literature of the time, and see paintings by Gustave Courbet at and by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot at

For a description of Rodin, go to To see pictures of his sculptures from 1876, try

Teacher's Guide:
Viewing Strategies | Activities and Investigations | Novel to Film
La Vie Parisienne, 1868 to 1875 | eNewsletter Sign-up

Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A James Timeline
Teacher's Guide | Genius in the Family | Henry Wants a Hit!
The Forum | Links and Bibliography

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