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Art and Culture

The charm of the Parisian landscape is unquestionably due to its talented artists and craftsmen over the centuries; but it is also a result of its successful blending of styles from different periods, including contemporary buildings. Paris is a dynamic city whose contrasting faces never cease to astonish visitors and inhabitants alike.


Medieval Paris

From the 6C to the 10C marshy areas were dried up and cultivated, while the city’s port and trade activities developed around place de Grève. Walls were built around the city, and its first streets constructed – extensions of the town’s few bridges. Traffic and hygienic conditions improved when Philippe-Auguste had the streets paved. Soon, fountains began to dot the Parisian landscape, and springs – such as the one in Belleville – were tapped more frequently, providing a better water service.

Romanesque architecture, known as Norman style in England, didn’t blossom in Paris as it did in the rest of France. Some rare examples include the chancel columns and bell-tower porch at St-Germain-des-Prés, the apse of St-Martin-des-Champs, and a few capitals in St-Pierre-de-Montmartre and St-Aignan Chapel.

Greater Paris was the cradle of Gothic architecture. Vast churches were built as tall and light as possible, using ogive or pointed arches and groin vaults (St-Germain-des-Prés chancel), whose thrust and weight are contained by side aisles and external buttressing (St-Julien-le-Pauvre apse).

Early Gothic (12C) architecture is best illustrated by Notre-Dame Cathedral, where the transition of building techniques and styles from the 12C to the early 14C can be seen in the vast chancel, slightly projecting transept and the dark triforium gallery. Capitals are decorated with motifs of plants and flowers from the greater Paris area. Sources of light are limited to narrow windows in the nave, topped by small round windows, or oculi, at the transept crossing.

High or Rayonnant Gothic (13C-14C) is a style developed during the reign of Louis IX, when structural engineering reached new heights under architect Pierre de Montreuil. Walls are replaced by huge panels of glass, allowing light to flood in. Slender piers support the vault, reinforced externally by unobtrusive buttressing or flying buttresses (St-Martin-des-Champs refectory). With the new use of light, stained glass began to flourish. The chevet of Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle and the Royal Chapel at Vincennes are Paris’ masterpieces of High Gothic architecture. The gargoyles were another innovation, designed as spouts to drain off rainwater. It is this style, in particular, that was assimilated in England at Canterbury and London (St Stephen’s, Westminster).

In the 15C a trend emerged towards more exaggerated decoration during the Late or Flamboyant Gothic period (15C) with an increase in purely decorative vaulting (St Merri transept, St-Germain-l’Auxerrois porch) – flame motifs flourish on window tracery; the triforium gives way to ever taller clerestory windows; piers culminating in ribs without capitals run straight to the ceiling (St-Séverin ambulatory), from which hang monumental vault bosses (St-Étienne-du-Mont).

With the outbreak of the Hundred Years‘ War (1337-1453), civil architecture reverted to the sombre, massive style of feudal times (the Bastille and Men at Arms Hall in the Conciergerie).

Large residences with huge gardens such as the Hôtel St-Paul were built in the Marais district, along with many small half-timbered houses, a few of which can still be seen on rue François-Miron and on Île St-Louis.

In domestic architecture, defensive features – turrets, crenellations, wicket gates – blend with richly sculpted decorative elements such as balustrades and mullioned dormer windows.

The Renaissance

In the 16C, the war with Italy kindled the interest of French artists in Antiquity and non-religious decoration. Cradle or coffered ceilings (St-Nicolas-des-Champs) replaced ogive vaults, and architectural orders – especially lonic and Corinthian – were reintroduced. The rood screen at St-Étienne-du-Mont and the stalls at St-Gervais are the finest examples of this style. However, Paris was not entirely loyal to the Italian influence. The capital preserved its own style, at least in terms of religious architecture.

A trio of Renaissance Parisian architects – The Renaissance in France is inextricably linked with the châteaux de la Loire. But Paris stands out for two majestic new edifices, the Louvre and the Tuileries, built by three men: Pierre Lescot (1515-78), Baptiste Androuët Du Cerceau (1560-1602) and Philibert Delorme (1517-70). All three were influenced by Italian architecture. The former two introduced from Italy the continuous façade broken by projecting bays with semicircular pediments. The Cour Carrée in the Louvre combines the splendour of Antiquity with rich decoration: statues nestling in niches between fluted pilasters; a frieze and cornices above doorways; and inside, coffered ceilings (Henri II staircase in the Clock Pavilion of the Louvre).

Work on the first Hôtel de Ville was begun in 1533 by Le Boccador and Pierre Chambiges.

Classical Architecture

Paris continued to expand, and new civil and religious edifices were always underway, despite the Wars of Religion and the siege of the city by Henri de Navarre. Charles IX and Louis XIII pushed the walls built by Philippe-Auguste farther west. The right bank benefited from this dynamic urban development.

Paris was transformed in the 17C with the rise of Classical art and architecture inspired by Antiquity. Rules were established by the Academy of Architecture, founded in 1671, and strengthened by an absolute monarchy, asserting the need to combine religion and Antiquity and leading Classical art to its pinnacle.

Religious architecture was modelled on Roman churches, with columns, pediments and statues competing for space.

The Jesuit style of the Counter-Reformation adopted for the design of St-Paul-St-Louis caught on and the Paris skyline was soon filled with domes. Lemercier built the Sorbonne and Val-de-Grâce (finished by Le Muet). The Sun King’s architects demonstrated their progressive assimilation and mastery of the dome through the magnificent creations that beautified the city under Louis XIV: Hardouin-Mansart (Invalides, St-Roch), Libéral-Bruant (Salpêtrière), Le Vau (St-Louis-en-l’Île), Soufflot (Panthéon).

Public buildings were shaped by Classical symmetry and pure lines. Place des Vosges, place Dauphine and Hôpital St-Louis typify the Louis XIII style with the use of brick and stone; whereas Salomon de Brosse blended French and Italian features in the Luxembourg Palace built for Marie de Medici. Mansart, Androuet Du Cerceau, Delamair and Le Muet created a new design in the Marais for the Parisian town house, or hôtel particulier, smaller than before and featuring a garden.

Classical architecture reached its height between 1650 and 1750 with magnificent buildings by Perrault (Louvre Colonnade), Le Vau (Institut de France) and Gabriel (place de la Concorde, École Militaire). Although originality was in vogue at the end of the 17C, the Rococo style (decorations on the Hôtel de Soubise) never was very popular in Paris. Under Louis XVI, taste gravitated towards the more elegant simplicity of Antiquity (Palais de la Légion d’Honneur) as epitomised by Ledoux (Farmers General Wall toll-houses).

Urban development – Construction work was ongoing throughout the 17C in Paris. François Mansart (1598-1666) designed the Val-de-Grâce, the Hôtel de la Vrillière (Banque de France), and the façade of the Hôtel Carnavalet. His nephew, Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646-1708) built the Invalides dome, place Vendôme, place des Victoires and the Hôtel Conti.

Paris was fitted out with magnificent buildings and avenues. The right and left banks tried to outdo each other. The Palais Cardinal designed by Jacques Lemercier, as well as the Cours de la Reine (Champs-Elysées), and place Royale – a model of Classical symmetry – were constructed on the Right Bank. The Hôtel Lambert was built on Île St-Louis by Le Vau (1612-70), who also designed St-Sulpice and the Collège des Quatre Nations (now the Institut de France) on the Left Bank. The Manufacture des Gobelins and the Observatoire were erected in the late 17C.

The building frenzy continued into the 18C, when an impressive number of new monuments appeared on the Paris skyline: the Palais-Royal arcades, the Hôtel des Monnaies, the Palais de l’Élysée, the Palais-Bourbon, the Théâtre de l’Odéon, and the Palais de Bagatelle. After the Revolution, the city was divided into chic areas and the working-class districts west of the Marais, whose winding streets add a touch of charm from the past to present-day Paris (Latin Quarter and St-Merri Quarter).

Safety and cleanliness improved with the addition of lanterns that were lit until midnight, as well as a road maintenance service and fire brigade. Traffic problems were alleviated by ring-roads built around the capital. The banks of the Seine were remodelled and new bridges constructed, allowing fresh supplies to be brought in by boat on a daily basis. Finally, Paris adopted its current system of street names and numbers with no 1 being the house closest to the Seine.

Second Empire and innovation

The Empire and Restoration were not marked by any significant architectural achievements. Napoléon I continued construction of the Louvre and built monuments such as the Madeleine, the Arc de Triomphe and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. But the real transformation of Paris took place during the Second Empire, when Baron Haussmann’s massive urban planning programme and the new application of cast iron in construction irrevocably altered the city. The technique of cladding metallic sub-structures was refined by Baltard (St Augustin, Pavillon Baltard at Nogent-sur-Marne), Labrouste (Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève), and Hittorff (Gare du Nord), the most famous example of the new building method being Gustave Eiffel’s Tower.

Paris was enlarged to encompass some of its surrounding villages, and the current system of the 20 arrondissements was created. Haussmann’s wide avenues enhance buildings such as the Opéra Garnier , one of the finer stone edifices of a period that was less preoccupied with monumental buildings.

Towards the end of the century, new trends developed that were different from the official style. Art Nouveau architects, the most well known being Guimard, defined a new decorative vocabulary for façades, interiors and furniture featuring stylised floral motifs, asymmetrical designs and materials such as glass and ceramics.

The 20C

The 20C marks a turning point in urban architecture. Architects and structural engineers collaborated on ever more economical and functional designs using industrially manufactured, thus cheaper, materials (cast iron, plate-glass, artificial stone) and improved building methods. Buildings in totally different styles have gone up side-by-side. While the Grand and Petit Palais, Pont Alexandre-III and Sacré-Cœur look to the past for their inspiration, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (Frères Perret), Palais de Chaillot and Palais de Tokyo, fashioned in reinforced concrete, look resolutely ahead to the modern age.

Late 20C – Since 1945, under the influence of Le Corbusier (Fondation, Cité Universitaire), architectural design has undergone a fundamental reappraisal. A wide variety of new forms, styles and lines strive to fit into the existing urban landscape, starting with social housing in the 1970s. Ricardo Bofill’s buildings use elements of Classical architecture while employing modern materials such as glass and cement.

Glass has been used to cover most new constructions (La Défense, Institut du Monde Arabe, Bibliothèque de France, Palais de la culture du Japon), enabling architects to achieve stunning technical effects.

Blending past and future – Architecture today falls within the wider scope of town planning, with new buildings designed as part of a larger scheme of renovations in a district (Maine-Montparnasse, Les Halles, La Villette, Bercy) or of newly created areas (La Défense, Tolbiac). Green spaces, pedestrian zones and bicycle paths have also been designed as part of the restructuring of the city.

The International Foundation for Human Rights in the Arche de La Défense, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Palais Omnisports de Bercy are only a few examples of how the city’s reputation as an important centre for culture and sports has been enhanced in recent years.

Paris has often chosen foreign architects to undertake its large-scale buildings. The Louvre Pyramide, one of the finest examples of a successful alliance of old and new, is the work of American architect Ieoh Ming Pei.

But the era of huge projects seems to be coming to an end. Today the accent is on improving and preserving existing monuments. Now, just a few years into the 21C Paris has experienced exciting contemporary developments such as Jean Nouvel’s harmonius balance of glass and metal at Musée du Quai Branly.


Painting and Sculpture

Painting and sculpture have always been closely interwoven into Parisian life. After centuries of working on commission from the monarchy, 19C and 20C artists began to reach levels of freedom and creativity acclaimed throughout the world.

In the Middle Ages

Painting and sculpture appeared within a religious context during this period, as Gothic buildings were gradually decorated. Stained glass, the main medium, reached stunning heights (Sainte-Chapelle, rose windows in Notre-Dame). The palette of colours was broadened and became increasingly suffused with light. The realism of painting from the Middle Ages is striking through its expressive faces and minutely detailed clothing. Painters from this period were given the name Primitives.

Gothic sculpture also flourished. Realism and a sense of drama combined to transform what was until then mere decoration into a true art form. Churches were covered with statues: little sculptures adorn the balustrade and the sides of the chancel at Notre-Dame, whereas the Portal of the Last Judgement marks the beginning of a more sober style that developed in the 13C into French Gothic.

The Renaissance

At the beginning of the 14C the Parisian schools of painting chose a style that was still realistic but more subdued. Expressions became finer and details more important, leading to a mannerist style. Painting evolved and adopted new themes such as mythology and portraits, as well as humanist themes with Antiquity as the ideal. The influence of Italian art is omnipresent in French painting, whereas sculpture preserved its own character.

The art of stained glass was at its peak. Jean Cousin the Younger (1522-94) delved deeper into colour techniques. The Judgement of Solomon and the Story of the Virgin in St-Gervais, and the Story of St-Joseph in St-Merri are like paintings made of stained glass.

Jean Goujon (1510-68) – The master of 16C French statuary. While he didn’t reject Italian mannerism, nature was his fundamental ideal. His works combine grace and elegance despite their complex composition. Fitting into the architectural design, they provide a preliminary idea of French Classicism. The Cariatides (Louvre) and bas-relief sculptures of the Fontaine des Innocents (1547-49) are his two greatest masterpieces.

The 17C

Italian influence continued during the early 17C. Paintings were designed mainly as decoration for royal palaces such as the Louvre and Luxembourg. Sculpture also adopted the Italian style, becoming strictly decorative for the niches designated by architects.

But Classical French art asserts itself under the king’s patronage in the second half of the 17C; and despite competition from Versailles, Paris was its main beneficiary. The main purpose of painting and sculpture became the glorification of the French monarchy, which enriches its ‘great city’ with magnificent monuments decorated by the Court’s best sculptors: Girardon (Richelieu’s tomb), Coysevox (Tuileries Gardens), and Coustou (The Marly Horses).

In 1648, the Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded; it was to be the most important French art school until 1793. Quarrelling between the corporatists, represented by Vouet, and the independents, represented by Le Brun, kept things lively.

Pierre Mignard (1612-95) – Succeeding Le Brun as First Painter to the King, he was instrumental in the transition from the 17C to the 18C. His little paintings imitating Raphael are known as mignardes. By introducing a lighter, more elegant and realistic touch in his compositions, he started the quarrel between the Poussinist and the Rubenists similar to the literary spat between Ancients and Moderns. The modern painters gave nature the place of honour (the Le Nain brothers’ landscapes), rejecting the Academy’s sobriety.

Between Baroque and Classic

18C French painting was characterised by a surfeit of detail embellishing the themes of religious paintings (Boucher, Pastoral Scene, Louvre) as well as by the humanisation of mythology. This mannerist French style launched the “Fête Galante” genre illustrated by Watteau (1684-1721) in Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (1717, Louvre). Portraitists such as La Tour (Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, 1752-55, Louvre) preferred pastel techniques. Jean-Baptiste Siméon-Chardin (1699-1779), the great master of the French School, devoted himself to still-life paintings and portraits. Boucher’s delicate landscapes heralded the pre-Romantic period.

The late 18C wavered between the pre-Romantic J-H Fragonard (1732-1806) and Neoclassicism, typified by J-L David and his Oath of the Horatii (1784-85, Louvre).

Monumental sculptures were as numerous as in the 17C: Robert le Lorrain (Les Chevaux du soleil, Hôtel de Rohan), Bouchardon (Quatre-Saisons Fountain), and Peigalle (St-Sulpice).

The 19C and 20C

Mirroring the era’s political movements, painting and sculpture reacted violently to the new trends. Bright colours and fantasy came into fashion. Géricault (1791-1824) launched Romanticism: through its bold composition, dynamism and the characters’ striking expressions, Raft of the Medusa (1819, Louvre) is in total opposition to the Classical style. Delacroix carried on in the same spirit. The official Salons were the scenes of battles between the two major trends: one advocating the superiority of drawing, the other that of colour. Ingres (1780-1867), taking his inspiration from Antiquity, lost the battle when he exhibited The Apotheosis of Homer at the 1827 Salon. However, the return to Academic art was successful at the 1863 Salon.

In reaction, Manet organised the 1863 Group featuring all of the painters rejected by the Salon. Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) and Manet portray everyday pleasures on their canvases, sometimes in a provocative manner in their drawings of women (Olympia, 1863, Orsay). Like Courbet before them, they were the precursors of Impressionism.

From Impressionism to Expressionism – The Impressionists use the precepts of Realism (works based on nature) while adding a powerful luminosity to their paintings through the use of a chromatic palette. They also relied on the art of drawing. Edgar Degas’ sketches of dancers show firm strokes. Above all, they had a strong penchant for landscapes (Claude Monet, Argenteuil Bridge, 1834, Orsay). Cézanne (1839-1906) and Pissarro (1830-1903) blended characters and landscapes or indoor scenes (Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, around 1890-95, Orsay).

The success of the genre opened up new possibilities: Seurat created scientific Impressionism in which characters are placed in a subtle balance; systematic juxtaposition of primary colours and their complementary tones gives rise to Pointillism. Nature becomes a symbol under the brush strokes of Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98). Gauguin (1848-1903) and Van Gogh (1853-90) had a different reaction to Impressionism: while not breaking off from it, their explorations were directed towards expressive intensity through the use of bright colours. The Expressionist movement was associated with a new concern over social problems prevalent at the beginning of the 20C, as illustrated by painters such as Rouault and Soutine.

From Fauvism to Cubism – The Fauvists were a new, modernist movement in the early 20C who had nothing left in common with the Realists or Symbolists. Their palette of colours and the shapes represented are often aggressive, which created a scandal at the 1905 Autumn Salon. Vlaminck, Matisse and Derain are the masters of this movement advocating freedom. They strove to free themselves of all constraints and conventions in their daily lives, living a bohemian existence in the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre.

Nevertheless, Matisse reintroduced the concept of rigour and constraints, with the idea that the emphasis on colour shouldn’t lead to an overshadowing of form – however primitive – or composition. Picasso brought this trend to the fore with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Braque applied it to landscape painting. But some preferred more creative impulses to this spirit of discipline. Modigliani, Soutine, Chagall, Zadkine and Léger settled in the La Ruche workshop in Montparnasse, where they gave free rein to their moods, reviving Expressionism. This was the golden age of the Paris School, which came to an end with World War II, when Surrealism burst upon the scene.

Sculpture – During the Second Empire and the Third Republic, Paris was gradually transformed into an open-air museum. Works by Carpeaux (Observatory Fountain) and Rude (Marshal Ney, the Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe) precede those of the great masters of the late 19C and the period between the two World Wars, including Rodin (Balzac, Victor Hugo, Bronze Age), Dalou (place de la Nation), Bourdelle (Palais de Tokyo, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées), Maillol (Tuileries Gardens) and Landowski (Ste-Geneviève on the Pont de la Tournelle, Animals at the Porte de St-Cloud).

The Art Nouveau style is epitomised by Hector Guimard’s famous wrought-iron metro entrances, created around 1900.

Abstract sculpture is also given its place: Calder’s mobile, Louis Leygue, and Agam. Renewing a 19C tradition, sculptures were erected in streets and gardens: of famous people (Georges Pompidou, Jean Moulin, Arthur Rimbaud) along with Symbolist works, and sculpture-fountains (Fontaine Stravinski, by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle, next to Beaubourg).

Paris in paintings

Paris began to be the subject or background in paintings at the time of the Wars of Religion. During the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIII, it was used as a theme by Jacques Callot (1592-1635) in his engravings and by Dutch landscape painters (De Verwer, Zeeman) fascinated by the light and atmosphere on the banks of the Seine.

The urban landscape of Paris really came into its own with the Impressionists, who preferred painting outdoors rather than in a studio.

Corot painted the Paris quaysides and Ville d’Avray a few miles away. Lépine, Monet (St-Germain-l’Auxerrois, Gare St-Lazare), Renoir (Moulin de la Galette, Moulin Rouge), Sisley (Île St-Louis) and Pissarro (The Pont Neuf) depict light effects in the capital at all hours and in all seasons. Paris is also an important focus in works by Seurat (The Eiffel Tower), Gauguin, Cézanne and Van Gogh (Montmartre scenes). Toulouse-Lautrec portrays a totally different view of Paris life in his witty, intimate sketches of cabaret artists. Among the Nabi artists, Vuillard captures the peace of Paris squares and gardens in a more poetic vein. In the early 20C, Paris figured prominently in the work of Fauve painters Marquet and Utrillo with their scenes of unfashionable neighbourhoods. Views of the capital by the naïve painters are sensitive, imaginative and highly colourful.

Among more modern artists, Balthus (Paris between the wars), Yves Brayer and Bernard Buffet have cast Paris in a new light.


In 1825, French inventor Nicéphore Niépce became the first to produce a permanent photograph – an image produced on a polished pewter plate. Not long after this, Niépce teamed up with Louis Daguerre (born near Paris) and together they refined the process. However, the breakthrough in photography came when William Henry Fox Talbot in England invented the negative/positive photographic process in the 1830s, which led to the modern understanding of photography.

Eugène Atget, one of the fathers of modern photography, immortalised street scenes and tradesmen in a Paris that no longer exists (cabbies, street singers, rag merchants, lace sellers).

In more recent times, Edouard Boubat, izis, Brassaï (known as the “Toulouse-Lautrec of the camera lens”) and Marcel Bovis captured the magic of Paris at night; Jacques-Henri Lartigue recorded the Roaring Twenties; Cartier-Bresson, the archetypal globe-trotter and founding member of the Magnum agency, caught views of Paris that resemble watercolours (Île de la Cité); Willy Ronis shot scenes of Belleville-Ménilmontant, now changed beyond all recognition.

Robert Doisneau (1912-94) – One of the great photographers of Paris, he specialised in humorous shots of ordinary people filled with depth and poetry: children playing, concierges, scenes of cafés and markets. The Kiss, taken in front of the Hôtel de Ville in 1950, remains his most famous work.


In the late 19C and early 20C, Paris encourages the development of the cinema by helping some of its pioneers, who were inspired by photography and theatre.

1892 – Émile Reynaud opens the Optical Theatre in the Musée Grévin, holding a total of 12 000 showings attended by 500 000 spectators.

28 December 1895 – The Lumière Brothers hold their first public showing of the cinematograph on boulevard des Capucines.

1896-1897 – Georges Meliès (1861-1938) invents double exposure and presents his first films with scripts.

1898 – Charles Pathé creates his international firm and studios. First newsreels (Pathé-Journal).

1900 – The cinéorama (a 100m/110yd circular screen invented by Grimoin-Sanson) was presented at the Paris Exposition.

The Lumière Brothers and the cinematograph – In February 1895, Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948) Lumière registered the patent for the cinematograph, a machine that projects animated scenes at a speed of 18 frames per second. Their Sortie des usines Lumière (shot in 1894) was a success, and showings were held in the Salon Indien at the Grand-Café, boulevard des Capucines.

Léon Gaumont (1863-1946) – Pursuing the work begun by the Lumière Brothers with his chronophone, he added synchronised sound to films.

Early 20C – Charles Pathé created his studios on rue Francœur and turned the cinema into an industry.


Paris was the major source and beneficiary of this new art between painting and photography.

The French masters – Their goal was to depict the joys and sorrows of everyday life, and to combine Parisians’ social and cultural demands. Gavarni (1804-66) evokes the seedier side of Paris in his black-and-white posters of street-walkers and poor neighbourhoods. He created posters based on Selected Works by Balzac, who also inspired Grandville’s Petites misères de la vie humaine.

Chéret revolutionised the art of poster-designing in the second half of the 19C with his inflated, or Rococo, style and lively figures in colour.

Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) – As a lithographer, he adopted the principles of his teachers Chéret and Bonnat, but with a more cutting style. He portrayed the poverty in certain areas of Paris and frequented cabarets, where he created some of his greatest pieces such as La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge. His illustrations – verging on caricature and the grotesque – stirred up many a scandal.

Alphonse Mucha – Arriving in Paris in 1887 from his native Prague, Mucha lived in the city during a time of cultural blossoming. While Toulouse-Lautrec sought to bring out the truth of his subjects, Mucha created figures surrounded by great decorative verve and an abundance of motifs. Like Lautrec, he made poster designs for theatre openings, notably for Sarah Bernhardt.


The story of Paris as a literary capital began with the creation of its university, while the 18C saw the rise of the city’s intellectual and cultural prestige. The history of French literature is closely linked with that of Paris.

Many writers who were born in the city have celebrated it in their books, giving Paris a special place in literature.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

12C-13C – The first Paris university opened its doors. It was the only university in northern France, and gave a boost to intellectual life. The Parisian dialect was adopted by the Court as its official language, putting Paris on the literary map.

15C-16C – Writers, and the heroes of their stories, “go up”’ to Paris, the former in order to write, the latter to study. Low life on the streets was portrayed in epic poems and mystery plays, whereas Rutebœuf and Villon wrote poems about individuals and everyday life. Although Rabelais criticised the Parisian character, he had Gargantua and Pantagruel attend the Sorbonne; and he himself lived and died in the Marais (d. 1553).

1530 – The Collège de France was founded by François I and Guillaume Budé.

As the city grows into its role as capital, many writers choose to make it their second home, including Montaigne, Ronsard and the Pleiade poets, as well as Agrippa d’Aubigné, who witnessed the religious conflicts that overtook Paris and the rest of France in the late 16C.

The 17C

As the city was embellished by Henri IV and Louis XIII, and agitated by the Fronde during Louis XIV’s minority, writers and noted wits of the period developed the famous literary salons, first at the Hôtel de Rambouillet (17C) and later on in the homes of the Marquise de Lambert, Madame du Deffand, and Madame Geoffrin (18C).

After its role as a centre of humanism in the 16C, Paris promoted classicism in the 17C with the assertion of absolute monarchy. Writers during the reign of Louis XIV, such as Molière, went beyond prior conventions and were allowed to criticise society.

1634-1635 – The Académie Française was founded by Richelieu. Paris became the centre of French literature. Contrary to the salons, where open discussion was encouraged, the Académie sought to standardise the French language and exert a restraining influence on all branches of literature.

1680 – The Comédie Française was created under the king’s patronage.

18C – Revival of the literary salons

In the 18C, Louis XV and Louis XVI showed little interest in literature. Society resorted to philosophy salons and cafés (Procope, La Régence), where new ideas developed and the fates of French writers were decided.

1710-1780 – Prominent authors such as Marivaux and Montesquieu attended the salons, where Voltaire and Diderot also congregated.

Marivaux and Beaumarchais (Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro) tinged their light comedies about Paris society and lifestyle with irony, whereas Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), a precursor of Romanticism who was born in the provinces, expressed disdain for the place so full of “noise, smoke and mud!” Others concerned with the dichotomy between ethics and society include the Abbé Prévost (Manon Lescaut), Restif de la Bretonne (Nights of Paris) the Marquis de Sade and Choderlos de Laclos (Dangerous Liaisons). It is Voltaire (1694-1778), master social critic, historian, novelist (Candide), essayist, letter-writer, diarist, dramatist and Humanist philosopher, who perhaps epitomises the best of 18C writing in Paris: ironic and witty with a light touch and perfect turn of phrase.

During the Age of Enlightenment, Paris wielded a great deal of influence in international intellectual circles with emissaries such as d’Alembert and Diderot, who secured subscriptions to their 28-volume Encyclopedia from Catherine the Great of Russia among others.

The 19C and 20C

After the French Revolution, literature was no longer restricted to a small section of society. Writers were active in the social and political debates of their times through its major literary trends: Realism, Romanticism, Symbolism, Naturalism and Surrealism.

Paris has a double image, portrayed at times as rich and prestigious, and at others as a more popular city full of vices. Heroes in novels head for Paris, leaving behind their native provinces. In Les Illusions perdues, Lucien de Rubempré dies there. In Les Misérables and La Comédie humaine, by Hugo and Balzac respectively, the city is portrayed as a character with a personality of its own subject to moods and illness. Both Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, and Léon the notary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary run away from Paris society; and some of Zola’s novels depict certain circles and areas of the city as a kind of prison.

Parisian writers such as Dumas the Younger, Musset, the song-writer Béranger, Eugène Sue (Mysteries of Paris), Murger (Scenes of Bohemian Life) and Nerval vacillate between the two images of the city. Contrasts in humour and reflections on life’s contradictions are explored, against the back-drop of Haussmann’s upheavals, in verse by Baudelaire, the Parnassian and Symbolist poets, and in the emerging social-history, realist novel by Émile Zola (Les Rougon-Macquart).

Old Montmartre lives on in the songs of Bruant (1851-1925), the novels of Carco (1886-1958) and Marcel Aymé (1902-67), Montparnasse in the poems of Max Jacob (1876-1944) and Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947); still other writers and poets such as Colette and Cocteau, Simenon, Montherlant, Louise de Vilmorin, Aragon, Prévert, Sacha Guitry, Eluard, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Beckett have celebrated Paris-as-muse in their many works.

Playwrights’ reputations, like novelists’, are made and broken in Paris. Vaudeville, the soul of boulevard theatre, was the 19C heir to the farces featuring dialogue and songs that were performed at the St-Germain and St-Laurent fairs in earlier days, as well as the bawdy tableaux and pastiches of scenes from well-known plays. Talented playwrights also wrote serious vaudeville. Light opera and revues emerged during the Second Empire, whereas dramas were another outgrowth of boulevard theatre.


Paris is rather like a grand orchestra where enchanting music is played. It has been both the theme and setting for a host of musical compositions, and its streets are often filled with the sounds of this art with its long-standing tradition in the city.

In the Middle Ages

Late 12C – A school of polyphony was established at Notre-Dame characterised by its refined expression of the deep religious faith of the period.

13C-14C – Musical works such as Machaut’s Masses (c. 1300-77) and motets by contrapuntist Dufay are composed of several parts.

Under François I – A national musical printing works was created, illustrated by narrative ballads written by Janequin (Les Cris de Paris). Renaissance-style madrigals and courtly songs accompanied on the lute become popular.

1571 – The poet Baïf founded the Academy for Music and Poetry in an attempt to revive Classical verse-form and poetic rhyme.

The Renaissance

“That most noble and gallant art” developed naturally at the Royal Court, first at the Louvre and later at Versailles, where sovereigns, their consorts and companions disported themselves in masques, ballets, allegorical dances, recitals, opera and comedy.

The first Parisian songs were published.

The 17C: a musical high point

Music, like literature, flourished under the renewed interest of the Court. Italian opera was welcomed, thanks to Mazarin, and major foreign operas such as the Marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice (1643) were staged in Paris.

Lully and lyric opera – Florentine composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) settled in Paris, and Louis XIV appointed him to direct music first at Court, then at the Académie Royale de Musique (1672). He created operas and ballets (Ballet des Bienvenus, Ballet de la naissance de Vénus), dominating every genre. In 1661, he collaborated with Molière, developing a new genre, ballet-comédie (Les Fâcheux, Le Sicilien, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme). Religious music was also part of his repertory (Te Deum, 1677), and he attained new heights in choral music at Notre-Dame (with Campra) and Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.

New operatic forms in the 18C

After the prestigious operas of the 17C, music was made more accessible to the general public in the comic operas given at the St-Germain and St-Laurent fairs. However, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) carried on in the tradition of Lully, while accentuating the orchestra’s role. His opera-ballets (Les Indes galantes), lyric tragedies (Castor et Pollux, Dardanus) and comedies (Platée) gave birth to the French style. Rameau moved away from the Italian tradition without renouncing it, prompting the so-called War of the Buffoons.

The Musical Wars – The War of the Buffoons was a quarrel over French and Italian opera in which Rameau was pitted against the Encyclopaedists. The main protagonists in the quarrel were Diderot (Le Neveu de Rameau) and J-J Rousseau (Le Devin de village, Lettre sur la musique française), who enumerated all of the flaws in French music, which Lully still dominated.

The second war developed over the new genre, comic opera, which grew out of the Parisian fairs and was launched by Gluck and Puccini, two foreigners who had settled in Paris. Gluck stressed dramatic intensity in his operas, reformed the opera by reducing the action to three acts and replacing the harpsichord by the flute. His works (Orphée et Eurydice, Iphigénie en Aulide and Alceste) transformed the principles of French tragic opera.

1795 – The Conservatoire de Musique de Paris was founded in 1795 and directed successively by Cherubini, Auber and Ambroise Thomas.

The 19C

1801 – The Théâtre de Feydeau and the Théâtre de Favart joined to form the Opéra-Comique de Paris.

Music in Paris was associated with the political and military events that were taking place there: the Revolution produced many popular songs, the most famous being La Carmagnole, a satirical song from 1792. In the 19C the city became the international capital of music, attracting the greatest masters of the century.

1830 – Berlioz composed the Symphonie Fantastique, which still resounds as the manifesto-opus of the young Romantic school.

1866 – Premiere in Paris of Offenbach’s La Vie parisienne.

From 1870, symphonic composition and opera evolved through the work of Bizet, St-Saëns, Charpentier and Dukas, Parisians by birth or adoption. France was the leader in ballet music, which draws inspiration from history and mythology.

Debussy and Ravel were the two major French impressionist composers at the end of the 19C. Refusing all foreign influence (including Wagner) in symphonic music, they gave it a national character. Debussy and Ravel collaborated with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

1894 – The Schola Cantorum was found-ed by Bordes, Guilmant and d’Indy.

1885-1899 – The Chat Noir was the chansonniers’ favourite cabaret.

1899 – Premiere of La Prise de Troie by Berlioz at the Opéra.

The Garde républicaine – A description of Parisian musical life wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Garde Républicaine, formed in 1871. Originating with the Garde de Paris, created in 1848, it is composed of 127 musicians. Its military marches (Sambre et Meuse, Marche lorraine, La Fille du régiment) are hymns to French victories.

The 20C

Cabarets – These popular venues were all the rage at the beginning of the century. The chansonniers (singers) performing in Montmartre’s cabarets are portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec in his famous posters and lithographs.

1902 – Premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy at the Opéra-Comique.

1903 – The Lapin Agile opens.

The Group of Six – Founded by Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc and Tailleferre in 1920, the group created a new musical aesthetic rejecting Romanticism and Impressionism.

1936 – Writers such as Prévert, Aragon and Apollinaire flocked to the Bœuf sur le Toit, where their works were set to music.

During World War I, Nadia Boulanger led a new Parisian movement known as the Neoclassical School, drawing inspiration from Stravinsky and Latin music. After 1920 Paris continued to nurture new forms of musical expression. From the ondes martenot to the Jeune-France Group and its humanist music, Schaeffer and his concrete sounds, Henry, Boulez, Xénakis and Messiaen, each one made an important individual contribution to the musical scene. As major foreign musicians continued to arrive in Paris, the Paris School was created in 1951.

The piano sonatas, ballet (Le Loup, 1953), symphonies and orchestral pieces by composer Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916) are among the greatest works from the second half of the 20C.

National orchestras – Paris possesses some internationally renowned orchestras. The Orchestre National de France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France and its Maîtrise (Choir School created in 1981), the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Orchestre de Paris and Université de Paris-Sorbonne choirs and the Petits Chanteurs de la Croix de Bois interpret major works.

Parisian organists – Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier, Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvre, Jean-Pierre Leguay and Riccardo Miravet; each of these organ players – many of whom are known throughout the world – is connected to a particular church. Organ music is also featured at the Festival d’Art Sacré in the autumn.

Major venues for music – While the Opéra Garnier (inaugurated in 1875) continues to be a highly prestigious opera house (home of the Paris Ballet), the Opéra Bastille (designed by Carlos Ott) has become the main venue for staging operas since it opened in 1989.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has maintained its spirit of musical innovation since it was founded in 1913 by Gabriel Astruc. The Théâtre du Châtelet was a mecca for light opera fans from 1928 to 1970. Renamed the Théâtre musical de Paris in 1980, it presents prestigious concerts and opera productions.

The Cité de la Musique (Parc de la Villette), designed by Christian de Portzamparc, includes the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique, the Musée de la Musique, and the Institut National de Pédagogie Musicale, as well as a concert hall. IRCAM (Institute of Acoustic and Musical Research) is a department of the Centre Pompidou devoted to experimental music. Thanks to the fervour of composer Pierre Boulez and to sophisticated technology using computers, electronic laboratories and sound processors, IRCAM has won international acclaim.

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