An “Eternal Holyday of Taste and Magnificence”: Fanny Explores the Art World of Paris

December 29th 1835 – January 22nd, 1836

We apologize in the delay of posts. We completed the transcription of Fanny’s first travel journal in order to write about the rest of her experience in France.  The next two entries will cover the remainder of that first volume.

There is little doubt that Fanny’s Grand Tour of Europe was a pivotal time in her life. It exposed her to new experiences, shaped her aesthetic tastes, gave her a sense of what was possible for a woman of her privilege, and would be a constant reference point when she looked back on her life – not to mention that she met her future husband, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on this trip. One strain that we’ve noticed throughout Fanny’s first journal is a penchant for the arts, and Paris proved a welcomed playground.

A look into how Fanny spends her free time by consuming the visual and performing arts sheds light onto her growing tastes. In a letter home, she says that her sister pursues antiquity hunting, her father with manufacturers, her brother with dinners, and she “with each in their turn.”[1] After a month of new experiences and sensory overload, Fanny rang in New Year’s Eve at the Italian Opera, by watching Giulia Grisi in a performance of Semiramide. The drama and unapologetic emotions of the opera were enthralling for Fanny, especially when performed by a strong female lead, and Paris provided her access to top-notch performances nightly. The Italian Opera was her favorite, but she also attended the French Opera to see Robert le Diable, in addition to the Opera Comique, La Varieté, Cirque Olympique, Theatre Français, Potre St. Martin, and the Place Vendôme. After each performance, she recorded the plot line and her impression in detail in her journal. There weren’t many operas or theaters that Fanny hadn’t managed to visit by the end of her month in Paris.


Interior of the French opera house, Salle le Peletier, during a performance of ‘Robert le Diable,’ 1832

As her time in Paris dwindled, Fanny spent her days seeking out museums and sights noted for their remarkable architecture (she called these sights “lions” or “boars,” like trophy animals). “We are preparing to slay the lions right and left sans cerémonie, and began the week well attacking first the ‘great boar’ (Notre Dame) with two tusks.”[1] She was more than a little disappointed by the cathedral, however, because “modern fingers would dare to desecrate the mother church and – white-wash Notre Dame!”[2] Fanny scorned any attempt to improve or perfect the interior of the cathedral by painting it. Overall, though, she was impressed with the artistic qualities of the sights Paris had to offer. She went to the “noble palace” of the Hotel des Invalides, which housed veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. The Louvre provided endless afternoons of visual entertainment, exposing Fanny to everything from Ancient Egyptian artifacts, to Renaissance classics and Dutch masters. Also on her checklist was the Pantheon (including climbing its dome), City Hall, and Napoleon’s Triumphal Arch, to name a few.

It was in Paris that Fanny transitioned from simply observing art, to being the subject of a piece of art by a respected master. The portrait artist, Jean-Baptiste Isabey, was commissioned to do a joint painting of Fanny and her sister, Mary. They saw it as an honor to be painted by someone in front of “whom so many crowned heads have sat,” including Napoleon.[3] During their two hours in his studio each day, Isabey charmed the Appleton daughters, talking about Napoleon, cats and love. Fanny was able to see how an artist worked and she commented on his process – how the essence and head of the subject was done in person, and then the hair color, costumes, and background were done after they left the studio. Fanny enjoyed her time with Isabey immensely and it no doubt increased her appreciation for the final piece.

Mary and Fanny Appleton

At one point, she stood atop the Pantheon and gazed out on Paris, reflecting on a city that seemed to have its own heartbeat:

The fine heights of Mont-Marte, Peie la Chaise and the grand Triumphal Arch stood like land marks in the distance. The big towers of Notre Dame and the thousand graceful spires formed as huge bristles from the back of this mighty monster cinched beneath us…. Such a strange mass of curious combinations, the long narrow streets running through its rough surface make it look like cracks in a vast mosaic seen thro a microscope…. This gazing into a great heart like Paris, so far above its pulsations, watching whither conduct its mightiest-arteries and show it lives and breathes. How like a human heart would beat its thousand… impulses – its joy and its sorrow and its madness! What must that heart be, made like this of the concentration of millions of human hearts; what kaleidoscope of actions and feelings![1]

Paris was an awakening for her, the place where she experienced really great art first-hand. This month held “happy days of greenness” when she looked up “with unfeigned awe before a Cathedral or a Raphael and where Grisi’s notes [could] summon a delicious thrill of unschooled excitement!” She hoped that her future experiences would never cause her to look on these firsts with apathetic eyes, nor that they be “wiped out by the finger of experience till we grow wearied and ashamed of admiring at all.”[2]

What Fanny didn’t know – but we do here at the museum, with 180 years of hindsight – is that Paris would leave a lasting impression on her, which she would refer back to the rest of her life, and that her passion for art would continue to grow.

Join us next time to travel by carriage through the French countryside, on our way to sunny Italy.

Citation: Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow Papers, Journal LONG 21487, 29 December 1835 – 22 January 1836, pp. 91-130.

[1] Ibid., p. 114.

[2] Ibid., p. 93.

[1] Ibid., p. 111.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 91.

[1] FEAL to Robert Apthorp, 2-6-1826, Box 2-Folder 6 – Item 1.