Paris in Beautiful Color Images from 1890: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Panthéon, and More (1890)

The 17th and 18th cen­turies in Eng­land marked a peri­od of osten­ta­tion for a grow­ing, and increas­ing­ly wealthy, landown­ing class. These were also times of inter­nal reli­gious wars between Catholics and Protes­tants, a peri­od that saw the regi­cide of Charles I, the restora­tion of Charles II to the throne, and William and Mary’s “Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion,” depos­ing his suc­ces­sor, James II. All of this over the span of 28 years. Anti-Catholic sen­ti­ment ran high among the peo­ple, and it made a par­tic­u­lar­ly con­ve­nient polit­i­cal tool.

But there are two groups you might not have found at anti-Catholic ral­lies dur­ing the most heat­ed of polit­i­cal times, not, at least, dur­ing the final, for­ma­tive years of their edu­ca­tion. Both young scions of gen­try and nobil­i­ty on a gap year, and artists and poets seek­ing out the finest train­ing, took the Euro­pean Grand Tour, for sev­er­al months or sev­er­al years, a sojourn through the most­ly-Catholic con­ti­nent. No clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion was com­plete with­out a vis­it to Flo­rence, Milan, Rome, Vien­na, and, of course, Paris.

Here, gen­tle­man picked up the lat­est fash­ions and dance steps, bud­ding archi­tects stud­ied cathe­drals and Catholic art, and every­one, Catholic and Protes­tant alike, gawked at the tow­er­ing Notre Dame. The impor­tance of the Grand Tour, remarked his­to­ri­an E.P. Thomp­son, “showed that rul­ing class con­trol in the 18th cen­tu­ry was locat­ed pri­mar­i­ly in cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny.” Tour­ing gen­tle­men wrote mem­oirs and guide­books and com­mis­sioned paint­ings. Artists sent back draw­ings and poems, as both sou­venirs and proof of their cul­tur­al mas­tery.

Through these aris­to­crat­ic tourists the rest of the world came to see Europe as a suc­ces­sion of mon­u­ments, like the Greek and Roman cities of antiq­ui­ty. At the same time, an impe­ri­al­ist craze for Neo­clas­si­cal archi­tec­ture began to make Europe’s biggest cities resem­ble clas­si­cal mod­els more and more.

The last half of the 18th cen­tu­ry saw the con­struc­tion of the Pan­théon, La Made­line—the Catholic church first ded­i­cat­ed as a tem­ple to Napoleonand the Lou­vre, all mon­u­ments to clas­si­cal archi­tec­ture.

The Grand Tour approach to look­ing at cities and the cor­re­spond­ing Neo­clas­si­cal wave of build­ing came togeth­er in the age of pho­tog­ra­phy, when prints of the great places could give their view­ers a sense of hav­ing been there, or at least hit all the major entries in the guide­book. Wan­der­ing gen­try and artists became entre­pre­neurs, using the new tech­nol­o­gy to not only sim­u­late a Grand Tour, but to sell prints for post­cards and the rare pho­to­graph­ic book.

By 1890, when the pho­tos of Paris here were tak­en, such prints were com­mon­place. They rep­re­sent­ed a democ­ra­ti­za­tion, in a way, of Europe’s great land­marks, and of the lit­er­ary and fine arts tech­niques once pri­mar­i­ly used to record them. No doubt some few peo­ple saw the devel­op­ment as a vul­gar one, but art his­to­ri­ans today can be grate­ful that Paris at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry was so well-doc­u­ment­ed. In this dig­i­tal col­lec­tion from the Library of Con­gress, Beaux-Arts mas­ter­pieces like the Paris Opera House sit beside the Goth­ic Notre Dame and Neo-Clas­si­cal Pan­théon.

It is a shame these pho­tos do not let view­ers go inside to expe­ri­ence first­hand the build­ings that inspired The Phan­tom of the Opera and The Hunch­back of Notre Dame, and in which are buried such lit­er­ary roy­al­ty as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola, and Vic­tor Hugo him­self. But this rich archive of ear­ly col­or pho­tographs from just before the turn of the cen­tu­ry does capture—for all time, per­haps, now that they are online—the great­est feats of archi­tec­tur­al engi­neer­ing from the old Medieval  order, the Ancien Régime, the Repub­lic, and the Empire.

The col­lec­tion rep­re­sents yet anoth­er way of dig­i­tal­ly pre­serv­ing the mem­o­ries of these grand build­ings should they one day be lost, as Notre Dame near­ly was just a few days ago. It also shows the state of pho­tog­ra­phy at the dawn of the post­card boom, when Pho­tochrom prints like these could be pur­chased cheap­ly and mailed for a few cents or cen­times. See many more of these stun­ning pho­tos at the Library of Con­gress Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tions here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rome Comes to Life in Pho­tochrom Col­or Pho­tos Tak­en in 1890: The Colos­se­um, Tre­vi Foun­tain & More

Venice in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images 125 Years Ago: The Rial­to Bridge, St. Mark’s Basil­i­ca, Doge’s Palace & More

Tsarist Rus­sia Comes to Life in Vivid Col­or Pho­tographs Tak­en Cir­ca 1905–1915

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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