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Americans in Paris, 1860–1900

October 24, 2006–January 28, 2007

Picturing Paris

During the late nineteenth century Paris grew dramatically, drawing citizens from all over France as well as foreign visitors and expatriates. In 1853, the year after Emperor Napoleon III ascended the throne, he hired the civic planner Baron Georges-Eugéne Haussmann to transform the ancient capital into a modern metropolis. After the city was besieged and badly damaged during the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune in 1870–71, its renovation resumed during the Third Republic. The uniform height and human scale of many of its buildings, along with the Seine winding through its center, gave Paris a distinctive, harmonious appearance that was enhanced by tree-lined boulevards that Haussmann ruthlessly cut through old neighborhoods, grand vistas terminating in impressive monuments, and hospitable parks, refurbished squares, and verdant promenades. Statuary, redecorated churches and public structures, and the luxurious new Opéra underscored the city's cultural authority and its commitment to art and good taste.

Aware that the time they had in Paris was precious, most Americans devoted themselves to their studies. Yet many responded to the city's beauty and dynamism and recorded its emblematic sites in quick sketches and more complex exhibition pictures. Other painters were drawn to its myriad entertainments—its lively concerts, theaters, and cafés—which they usually depicted from the audience's point of view, thus implying their own roles as visiting spectators.