“A Universe of New Sensations”: Fanny Explores Paris

This blog series details Fanny’s journey at the age of 18, on her family’s two year Grand Tour of Europe. The main sources of information are the six daily journals that she kept, as well as her sketchbooks, which are now part of the collections at the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historical Site. The journey starts here.

When last we left Fanny, she was eagerly anticipating her arrival in Paris. The city was an undisputed cultural capital and for Fanny, it was the opening of a new world.[1] While in Boston, she had avidly followed French fashion, read travel books about which sights to see, and studied the artists whose works were in the Louvre. Now it was her chance to see it all in person. While in Paris, Fanny experienced a buffet of the arts, consuming opera, theater, art museums, fashion, and even French cafés and department stores with the newly awakened appetite of a young traveler.

The Appletons arrived in Paris on December 14th. Their drive into the city gave them a distant glimpse of the Rue Rivoli,[2] the Tuileries[3] and the newly completed church, La Madeleine.[4] Their accommodations at the English hotel, the Bedford, were not up to Fanny’s expectations nor dreams. The next day, Nathan Appleton sought out more luxurious apartments on the Rue de Rivoli, at Le Meurices. Here, Fanny was much more comfortable, delighted with the apartments that were “mirrored and curtained a la Francaise & warmed & carpeted a l’Anglaise.”[5] This hotel, which opened in 1815, is a 5-star hotel still open today.

For the wealthy and privileged Appletons, Paris’ shops, cafés and boutiques were a pleasure ground waiting to be explored. Fanny eagerly wrote home to her friend, Susan Benjamin, that “we make discoveries of new worlds at every step, like Columbus!”[6] The Palais Royal’s arcade of shops was the center of fashion and commerce for Parisians:

…A square… each side about the length of Beacon St. & where the brilliancy in the evening carries me into the “Arabian nights” splendors as by magic & see every variety of costume from the pretty tasteful grisettes to the stalking grenadiers & exquisites of every nation.[7]

Fanny comments to Susan that the French are not as far advanced in their fashion tastes, though, as she had thought back in Boston. The women still wear “long dresses & enormous bonnets” with “large bishop sleeves & cloaks” that give an overall “portly appearance to the damoiselles,” [8] and that there is a predominance of mustachioed dandies, that a “smooth face is quite a wonder.” [9]

All these fashionable people strolled along the nearly quarter mile arcade of shops and cafés, “the choicest articles arranged with exquisite taste all in the windows, most tempting game & bonbonoreries [sic],[10]  cloaks, hats/caps, beautiful miniatures & such jewelry! -all is glare, glitter & splendor….” [11] People line the tables at the cafés, drinking coffee, eating “dainties” and reading the paper. In a world so rich and glamorous, the desire to spend money was “annihilated” with an excess of temptation, one bijou[12] lost in such a world. One shop that Fanny mentioned in particular was Giroux’s, a luxury goods store established in 1799 by Francois-Simon-Alphonse Giroux, which sold furniture and artwork to the likes of the royal families. Truly, for Fanny, every street in Paris was a Vanity Fair.[13]

One of Fanny’s chief complaints about Paris in the winter was that there was too much mud, it was too cold, and there were no leaves on the trees of the Tuileries. How was a girl supposed to indulge herself in the romance of the city in frigid temperatures with the threat of a cold fogging her head? “Paradise could never have been cradled within the reach of east-winds, or 20℉ahrenheit! Imagine Eve with the Influenza & blue cheeks!”[14] The cold weather had its positive effects, though – it drove them into the Louvre, which proved to be another spark to her budding passion for art. While in the museum, she flew from “one glorious picture to another, like a bee,” until her “senses were nearly extinguished with the bewilderment.” She took particular note of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a Spanish Baroque painter known for his religious works – a genre of art Fanny would come to greatly admire on this trip. She also noted that there were “a great many copyists at work & several females – Was I not envious?”[15] It seemed this young art enthusiast had higher aspirations than simply looking at the artwork.

On another family excursion, Fanny was impressed with the artistry and industry of silk tapestry makers. This particular sightseeing endeavor was probably motivated by the interests of Nathan Appleton, who was a key figure in the creation of the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. The success of that business was no doubt what Fanny had to thank for this Grand Tour experience in the first place. So, the Appletons went to the Gobelin Manufactory in Paris. This factory supplied exquisite tapestry to French monarchs since Louis XIV. The weavers, hard at work on an “enormous picture of Raphael,” made “perfect imitations of these splendid pictures, growing inch by inch, from nothing [and] look very like enchantment.” It was even possible, she pondered, that these copies, made of worsted silk, might outlast the original artwork. “What an immortalization for the genius entrusted to perishable colours and canvass.” And the carpets were so grand that they were “worthy to be pressed by royalty alone.” She found the establishment neat and the workers industrious, thoroughly enjoying her day. [16]

As Fanny’s artistic palate improved, she began to critique art as well. It seems that her tastes were decidedly old-fashioned, leaning towards the Renaissance classics (more on that when the Appletons get to Italy). She was not, therefore, entirely enthusiastic about the “modern art” at the Luxembourg Palace. This “modern” art may refer to French Romanticism from the early 19th century, but she never states it as such. Instead she describes this “absurd school” as a:

…collection of horrible figures and extravagant attitudes and disagreeable subjects! It is a veritable morgue. There is hardly a picture (all with figures as large or larger than life) without some pallid, lifeless body with trampling horses & attiduinizing women – all from classical stories, excellently drawn, but such taste!… If there was ever an apology for a nightmare it would be after seeing such a collection of bloody horrors as that Luxembourg gallery displayed. May my dreams be free from such visitants![17]

These intense paintings were not what she considered in good taste – neither as art form nor as proper expression of emotion.  Lucky for Fanny, there were other emotional art forms that she did approve of and that were alive and well in Paris.

If Fanny had a love of the art she saw in Paris (mostly), it could only be outdone by the opera and theatrical performances that she witnessed while in the city. At the insistence of a wealthy friend, Mrs. Wiggins, Fanny and her sister were waited on by servants and “coiffered” in preparation to attend the Italian Opera. Here, Fanny saw Giulia Grisi perform in the opera Norma and was spellbound. To her friend, Susan, Fanny tried to find the words to describe this performer’s skill, saying that she could “compare it to nothing but a torch of melody shaken in the air. She is so beautiful too, and acted this fine character of Norma with great tragic power.”[18] Later, in her journal she wrote that Grisi’s voice was “forever ringing in my ears and the whole floats thro’ my memory as a vision filled with melody not of this earth. And her beauty — and grace — & tragic power!”[19]

That was just the beginning of her eye-opening experiences that would compel her to be a lover of theater her entire life. They also went to a production of Byron at School, performed by juvenile actors. The young hero was “acted by a fine-looking youth resembling very strikingly the little Lord. He made it really pathetic” and had some fine speeches.[20] Another memorable performance at the Theatre Francais, was Don Juan d’Autriche by Casimir Delavigne. Based on history, this tragic story brought tears to Fanny’s eyes and left such an impression on her that she recounted the play’s entire plot in her journal. “This play made a great impression on me & I skeletonize it here as a jog to Memory. Such perfect acting throughout is an intellectual treat…. One would think this my ‘first play’!”[21]

By comparison to their first few thrilling weeks in Paris, the passage of the Christmas holidays felt foreign and hollow to Fanny. It was “far from a merry day with us.”[22] The sky was gloomy, the festivities lacked gaiety, and the church services gaudy. She went to the Catholic St. Roch Church for the chance of seeing the royal family at the service and was disappointed on that account, as well as by the “gold tinsel noise and mummery.” While she was impressed with the grand architecture of the church, she found the rich apparel of the priests clashed with her sense of propriety.  She disapproved that a mere man covered “his frame of dust in splendor when his unclothed spirit in all the dignity of its immortal nature is hardly worthy to stand before that Presence even tho’ thrice washed in the blood of the Redeemer.”[23] It seems she was experiencing a sort of religious culture shock as the ritual and finery of the Catholic ceremony clashed with the Puritan meeting house style of worship she would have been more familiar with. In time, Fanny would find value in these sort of processions – but again, that will have to wait until Italy!

In the meantime, there were plans of Fanny patronizing a certain French sculptor and murmurings of being presented at court.[24]

Join us next time to conclude Fanny’s exploration of Paris.

[1] LONG 21587, p. 74.

[2] The Rue de Rivoli is one of the most famous streets of Paris, with fashionable shops. On one side of the road is the Louvre Palace and the Tuileries.

[3] During Fanny’s time the Tuileries included both the royal and imperial palace in Paris, as well as the gardens, which were a public park. The palace was burned down in the Paris Commune in 1871.

[4] Roman Catholic church, built as a temple in dedication of Napoeon’s army.

[5] LONG 21587, p. 76.

[6] FEAL-B2-F5-I11 FEAL to Susan Benjamin, 1835-12-19.

[7]Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] LONG 21587, pp. 79.

[10] Bonbonnière – French, fancy box for bonbons.

[11] LONG 21587 p.75.

[12] Bijou – French for jewel.

[13] LONG 21587, p. 75.

[14] Ibid., p. 86.

[15] Ibid., p. 80.

[16] Ibid., p. 85-86.

[17] LONG 21587, pp. 83-84.

[18] FEAL-B2-F5-I11 FEAL to Susan Benjamin, 1835-12-19.

[19] LONG 21587, pp.77-79.

[20] Ibid., p. 85.

[21] LONG 21587, p. 86-88.

[22] Ibid., p. 89.

[23] Ibid., pp. 89-90.

[24] Ibid., p.81.

Citation: Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow Papers, Journal LONG 21487, 14 December 1835 – 29 December 1835, pp. 73-91.

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