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Social Spaces: Places of Entertainment in Nineteenth Century Paris

Our experience of social space is coded. Divisions of gender, class, and race are articulated in these codes. We read the world through this coded experience. This is the focus of Griselda Pollock's article "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity." Read the excerpts of this article. Pollock's article explores the "modern" urban world of Paris which was in the nineteenth century transformed into a modern city. This is marked by what is known as its Haussmannisation. It is named after Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann who was given the responsibility by Napoléon III to carry out a major urban renovation of Paris. The project carried out between 1852 and 1870 was marked primarily by the creation of a network of broad boulevards that cut through the densely packed old city of Paris inherited from the Middle Ages. These avenues were marked by buildings with unified facades. The side walks were lined with cafes , restaurants, and stores. Public parks were also part of this renovation. It is this modern city that is the subject of many Impressionist paintings.

View of the Boulevard Haussmann with the department store, Galeries Lafayette , in the right foreground.

Camille Pisarro, Avenue de l'Opera, 1898.

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris, a rainy day, 1877

Manet, Concert at the Tuilleries,

Entertainment was integral to this modern Paris. I want to focus our attention on two different venues of entertainment: the Opera and the so-called café chantants. The latter also known as cafés-concerts were centers of popular entertainment. Mixing alcohol and popular and frequently vulgar entertainment, the cafés-concerts or café chantants were places of pleasure and places on the margins of polite society. These were not the place for upper class women (haute-bourgeoise). The 1888 Baedeker guide to Paris says at these establishments "the music and singing is never of a high class, while the audience is of a very mixed character...The alluring display of the words entrée libre outside the café chantants is a ruse to attract the public, as each visitor is obliged to order refreshments, which are generally of inferior quality."

This world of the café chantants can be understood in the life of one of its most famous performers, Jane Avril.[For a Hollywood representation of this world see the 2001 Nicole Kidman movie Moulin Rouge] She was born Jeanne Beaudon, the daughter of a member of the lesser nobility, Count Luigi de Font, and a demi monde mother. By the age of 16, Jeanne was left to her own devices to make her way in Paris. Adopting the stage name Jane Avril, she became a highly popular cabaret dancer and performer. She was also made famous by the posters created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that were produced to advertise her performances:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Le Divan Japonais, 1892-3, color lithograph


An Englishman, Arthur Symons described her as having "the beauty of a fallen angel. She was exotic and excitable!" Symons wrote the following description of one of her performances at the Moulin Rouge:

She danced before the mirror, the orange-rosy lamps. The tall, slim girl; the vague distinction of her grace; her candid blue eyes; her straight profile.

She wore a tufted straw bonnet, a black jacket, and a dark blue serge skirt - white bodice opening far down a boyish bosom. Always arm in arm with another jolly girl who also seized my arm for the invariable reason of giving them drinks. The reflections - herself with the unconscious air, as if no one were looking - studying herself before the mirror. She had a perverse genius, besides which she was always adorable and excitable, morbid and sombre, biting and stinging; a creature of cruel moods, of cruel passions; she had the reputation of being a lesbian; and apart from this and from her fascination, never in my experience of such women have I known anyone who had such an absolute passion for her own beauty.

She danced before the mirror under the gallery of the orchestra because she was "folle de son corps". She was so incredibly thin and supple in body that she could turn over backward - at Salome when she danced before Herod and Herodias - until she brushed the floor with her shoulders. [as quoted in]

Symons' description brings out well with its emphasis on the mirror images the "spectacular" nature of this world and its emphasis on appearances. Lautrec's Divan Japonais shows how the spectacle was as much in the audience as on stage. In this lithograph, the head of a popular chanteuse Yvette Guilbert is cropped out by the top border. The fashionable gentleman's attention is directed to the stylish figure of Avril who dominates the image. Significantly Avril is shown with apparently closed eyes. She is clearly the object of the gaze of her gentleman friend whose admiring attention and active looking is emphasized by his use of a monocle. This gentleman can be related to what was known as a flâneur. The term derived from the French verb flaner, to stroll, was developed by Charles Baudelaire to characterize the urban gentleman who strolls through the modern city. Griselda Pollock discusses the flâneur in her article "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity." An essential part of the flâneur is his ability to roam freely and anonymously through the crowds in different urban spaces. Pollock quotes the following description by Baudelaire of the flâneur:

The crowd is his element as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet feel oneself at home; to see the world and to be the centre of the world and yet remain hidden from the world-- such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can clumsily define. The spectator is a prince and everywhere rejoices in his incongnito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family. [see translated excerpts of Baudelaire's series of essays "The Painter and Modern Life."]


A woman's experience was more controlled. Gender and class divisions limited their experience. There could not be a flâneuse, or female equivalent to the flâneur. It would be inappropriate for an upperclass woman to attend a café chantants. As Pollock states: "To enter such spaces as the masked ball or the café-concert constituted a serious threat to a bourgeois woman's reputation and therefore her femininity." Whereas the male in Baudelaire's description of the flâneur could be away from home and be independent, the respectable woman was always contained within the home and family and dependent on patriarchal authority. A painter, Marie Bashkirtsheff, wrote in 1882:

Ah! how women are to be pitied; men are at least free. Absolute independence in everyday life, liberty to come and go, to go out, to dine at an inn or at home, to walk to the Bois or the café; this liberty is half the battle in acquiring talen, and three parts of everyday happiness.

Calling attention to the importance of the spectacle and visibility in nineteenth century Paris, the following account written by Jules Michelet articulates the clear boundaries and taboos a single, upper-class woman faced:

How many irritations for the single woman! She can hardly ever go out in the evening; she would be taken for a prostitute. There are thousands of places where only men are to be seen, and if she needs to go there on business, the men are amazed and laugh like fools. For example, if she should fin herself delayed at the other end of Paris and hungry, she will not dare to enter a restaurant. She would constitute an event. She would be a spectacle. All eyes would be constantly fixed on her and she would overhear uncomplimentary and bold conjectures.

The café chantant was the world for lower class women and women like Jane Avril who were between social classes with her noble father and demi monde mother. Like Avril in Lautrec's Divan Japonais poster, the female alternative for the flâneur in Baudelaire's description is a spectacular object to be seen but who does not see:

Woman is for the artist in general...far more that just the female of man. Rather she is divinity, a star...a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of nature, condensed into a single being; an object of keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer to its contemplator. She is an idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching...Everything that adorns that woman serves to show off her beauty is part of herself....


The café chantant is the context for Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82) .The mirror behind her articulates our role as the gentleman reflected in the mirror standing at the bar. We are constructed as the flâneur. Interpretations of the painting regularly understand that the gentleman is propositioning the young woman. She like the objects on the table before her becomes a commodity for sale. In your journal, explore this painting in relationship to the discussion of gender, class, and social space above. What do you make of her expression? Consider the difference in response between a bourgeois, nineteenth century male and female to this painting. Also compare Manet's painting to the following Bacardi ad that appears to be loosely based on the Bar at the Folies-Bergère:


Consider the contemporary Japanese artist, Yasumasa Morimura's take on the Manet painting in his Daughter of Art History (Theater B), 1990:


The centerpiece Haussmannisation of Paris was the Opéra. The imposing Neo-Baroque facade dominates the Place de l'Opéra which marks the intersection of a number of the grand boulevards. Designed by Charles Garnier, the Opéra was constructed between 1861 and 1875. This was a place designed for spectacle. Its lavishness makes it a bourgeois palace. The entrance stairway served as a stage for grand entrances. The Grand Hall used for receptions and intermissions rivals the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles in its opulence. The Opéra was designed as a place to see and be seen. The spectacle was as much in the public places as what appeared on stage. It was also a place where gender and class divisions were played out. Unlike the cafés-concerts, the opera presented no social stigma for upper class women. The balconies were segregated by social class with the lower classes in the upper boxes. The balconies were also divided into boxes. This created a division between public and more private spaces. The undivided orchestra seats were set aside for independent gentlemen while women sat in the boxes. The Opéra was one of the venues in which young women were introduced to society. Fathers brought their daughters to the Opéra to be introduced to eligible bachelors. The Grand Hall during intermissions was a time for introductions.

Grand entrance stairway.

Reception Area


Interior of the Paris Opéra (Opéra Garnier). Great hall used for intermissions and receptions.

Versailles, Hall of Mirrors

Interior of the Opéra Garnier

The Opéra as a place of spectacle was a popular subject for Impressionist paintings. With an awareness of the gender and class divisions that were part of the Opéra as well as our discussion of looking and the gaze last week, I would like you as a journal assignment to compare these paintings. Pay attention to different approaches of the male artist (Renoir) and the female artist (Cassatt). Also see how a contemporary poster employs gender and spectatorship to advertise the Odéon theater. This poster accentuates the point that the spectacle of the audience is almost as much of the draw to a theater like the Odéon as the actual performance.


Mary Cassatt, La Loge (1882)

Mary Cassatt, Lydia at the Theatre (1879)


Mary Cassatt, At the Opera (1879). In contrast to the other images, note how Cassatt makes this woman an active looker. In your journal try to explain why.

Renoir, The First Outing (1876)

Renoir, La Loge (1874)

Eugène Grasset poster for the Odéon Theater.

Caricature in Petites Misères de la vie humaine, 1843.