Milan, 5 June 2023
I’ve mentioned elsewhere my little collection of art – nothing hugely expensive, I hasten to add; the most I have ever paid for a painting is €2,000, and I went back and forth in an agony of indecision for several days before made the final plunge. I love all my paintings, but there is one that I am particularly proud of because of the sleuthing which I carried out to properly identify its subject.
A little bit of background is in order. I bought the painting at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna – although not during an actual auction, but rather in the part of the Dorotheum where paintings and other objects are sold at fixed prices. I throw in a photo of it.
It’s an aquarelle, not very big – 46 by 63 cm. I loved its naïve style, I found the colour scheme cheerful, and I was intrigued by the scene it depicted. The description the Dorotheum gave it was:
“Belgien, 19. Jhdt.
Panoramablick von einer Brücke an einem Fluss, links and rechts Häuserzeilen, im Vordergrund Spaziergänger”
“Belgium, 19th C.
Panoramic view from a bridge on a river, left and right rows of houses, in the foreground strollers.”
The first thing I did was to take it to a framer who has a shop down the road from our apartment, for him to take off the frame and check the painting over. And here came a big surprise. On the back of the painting, someone had written “Vor Stadt im Paris”, which can be translated “In front of the City in Paris”. So the painting probably wasn’t of somewhere in Belgium as the Dorotheum’s description had suggested, but of Paris!
But where in Paris was this scene painted? Answering this question meant first understanding what waterways existed in Paris in the early 1800s – from the clothes the people in the painting are wearing it’s clear that the scene was painted some time in that period. A bit of sleuthing led me to the conclusion that the only waterway of any substance which existed in Paris in this period was the River Seine. The three canals which currently exist in and around Paris – Canal Saint-Martin, Canal Saint-Denis, Canal de l’Ourq – only got the go-ahead to be built in 1802 (from the-then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte), and were only completed in the early 1820s, which is a bit late for the painting. So not only Paris but the River Seine! More and more exciting!
I won’t bore my readers with a summary of the hours I spent trying to find out where on the River Seine my painting was executed. Suffice to say that, given that the painting depicted a bridge, I became a real expert on all the bridges crossing the Seine in Paris in the early 1800s. But actually the breakthrough came from digging around for information on the shop to the far right of the painting – I throw in a close-up of it.
As readers can see, the shop’s name was “DUHAMEL MD [MARCHAND] FAYENCIER” while underneath it says “Magazin de Porcelan …” (the rest to me is unreadable; however, if any of my sharper-eyed readers can make out what’s written please do tell me). So it seems that the shop was owned by a certain Duhamel and he sold porcelain and possibly earthenware. And here I had a real stroke of luck. Searching away on the internet, I discovered that the Bibliothèque de France had scanned a series of “Almanach du Commerce de Paris”. Here is the front page of the Almanac for 1798-1799, or Year VII in the Revolutionary Calendar, the first of these Almanacs that the Library had scanned.
These Almanacs were the period’s equivalent to the old Yellow Pages that we used to have before the internet came along (minus the phone numbers, of course). They listed all the businesses and shops in Paris, with – very important for me – their addresses. And here, in the Almanac for the Year VII, in the category of “Fayanciers” (the spelling wasn’t yet settled, it seems), I found an entry for a Duhamel. This was extremely encouraging! The name and trade fitted the name of the shop in the painting. The shop was listed as being in rue de la Lanterne. This street no longer exists. It is now the northern section of the rue de la Cité, which runs across the Île de la Cité, linking two bridges, the Pont Notre-Dame to the north and the Pont Cardinal-Lustiger to the south. I held my breath. Could the bridge in the painting be the Pont Notre-Dame? To make sure, I started working my way through successive Almanacs, and I soon got confirmation that the shop had been located at the foot of Pont Notre-Dame. Already in the Almanacs for the years 1806 to 1808 (the Revolutionary Calendar had been dropped by then), the address of the shop was given as “rue du Pont-Notre-Dame, 1” rather than rue de la Lanterne (although they went back to this address in later years), which strongly suggested that the shop was right next to the bridge itself. But the clincher came in the Almanac of 1812, where the address was given as “rue de la Lanterne 1 (Cité) et pont Notre-Dame”, while the Almanac of 1813 gave the address as “rue de la Lanterne, 1, au coin du quai Napoléon”, which at that time was the name of the quay that ran alongside the Seine from Pont Notre-Dame to Pont Saint-Louis at the far end of the island.
So I could finally identify the bridge! It is Pont Notre-Dame. This identification was strengthened by another feature of the painting. Readers will notice that a number of people crossing the bridge are holding plants. I throw in a close-up of two of them.
It just so happens that behind viewers’ right shoulders as they look at the painting, a flower market was located! (and is still located.) Here is a drawing of that market done in 1829.
So now we can understand that the people in the painting holding plants have just bought something at the flower market and are presumably taking them home. The vicinity of the flower market to the shop is emphasised in the entry in the Almanac of 1817, where the address of the shop is given as “au bas du pont Notre-Dame, en face le marché aux Fleurs” (the emphasis is in the original), or “at the foot of Notre-Dame bridge, facing the flower market”. This connection, by the way, tells us that the aquarelle must have been executed after 1809, which is when the market was created.
Identifying the bridge in the painting as the Pont Notre-Dame also clarifies the rather odd wording of the phrase written on the back of the painting, “In front of the City in Paris”. Clearly, the “city” in this case is the Île de la Cité, which takes up most of the right-hand side of the painting.
A few years ago, during a visit my wife and I made to Paris, we visited the Pont Notre-Dame. I was curious to see how much the view had changed. Unfortunately, there were roadworks going on on the bridge and the traffic was horrendous, so I wasn’t able to get a clear view from the point where our artist must have been more or less standing. So I’ve turned to Google Maps Street View for today’s view from the bridge. It’s not brilliant, but it will have to do.
As readers can see, the view has changed quite considerably in the intervening 200 years. At the back of the painting, readers will note a somewhat humpbacked bridge – I throw in a close-up of it.
That bridge is the Pont Marie, which connects the right bank of the Seine to the Île Saint-Louis. Here is a rather more professional painting of it from 1757.
The bridge in this painting has five arches and a slight hump. The painter of the aquarelle faithfully gave the bridge five arches but made the hump much more pronounced. This particular version of the bridge still exists, although the houses on the bridge, some of which you can still see in the 1757 painting, were all torn down by the time the aquarelle was painted, and more recently the hump has been flattened.
Since the aquarelle was painted, two more bridges have been built between Pont Notre-Dame and Pont Marie. One of them, Pont d’Arcole, is visible in the Google Street View photo.
The banks of the river have also been built up in the intervening 200 years. The most obvious change is on the left of the painting, where viewers can see a sort of beach (which is also visible in the 1757 painting of Pont Marie).
This used to be the Place de Grève, a place where boats could be pulled up onto the beach and cargo loaded or unloaded. I presume that those white cocoon-looking things on the beach are some sort of cargo, Lord knows what. Here’s a more sophisticated view of the beach, by the same painter who painted the Pont Marie.
This whole area was “tidied up” in the 1830s, when today’s quays were built up.
The dome one can see above the Place de Grève is the dome of the church of St. Paul St. Louis.
As the Google Street View indicates, you can’t see it any more from the Pont Notre-Dame because the intervening buildings have all increased in height, so here is a photo of it from nearby.
More or less opposite that dome on the other side of the painting, readers will see a spire peeking over the roofs. I think that is the spire of the cathedral of Notre-Dame – looking at maps of the period, I can’t see what else it could be.
Alas, this spire no longer exists, having come crashing down when the cathedral’s roof burned down four years ago. This photo shows the spire enveloped in flames.
As for the building in which Duhamel’s shop was located, it has disappeared. The whole block was torn down to make space for a hospital, which was built in 1878. But it looks like Duhamel had already sold up in 1823 or ’24. Certainly, by 1824 the building housed a new shop, called À la Belle Jardinière, which sold ready-made clothes. I suppose this was a revolutionary idea at the time. In any event, it did roaring business, bought up the surrounding houses and turned them into one big shop. When the hospital was built, the shop moved elsewhere and continued to do business until 1972.
The Duhamel involvement in the sale of earthenware and porcelain didn’t stop with the closure of the shop at the foot of Pont Notre-Dame. The Almanacs show an interesting story. A younger brother got involved in the business in 1804. Then one of the two moved out in 1809 or ’10 and set up another shop in what is now the first Arrondissement near the Halles. Then in 1820, a son of one of the two Duhamels set up a third shop on Boulevard des Italiens. The disappearance of the first shop in 1824 was followed by the disappearance of the shop on Boulevard des Italiens in 1827. The shop near the Halles kept going until 1837, after which it, too, disappeared from the record. Who knows what happened to the Duhamels after that?
There is one thing which the painter must have got wrong. You can’t see it in the modern photo from the bridge because the Pont d’Arcole blocks the view, but there is a small channel to the back right. This is the arm of the Seine which runs between Île St Louis and Île de la Cité – you see it very well in the painting of the Place de Grève. I can’t believe the painter didn’t see it; I have to assume that he first sketched the scene “en plein air” and then later painted the aquarelle proper, at which point he either forgot about the channel or decided it was making the painting too complicated.
Which brings us back – sort of – to the cast of colourful characters our painter has peopled the bridge with. I’ve already mentioned the persons carrying plants. We also have what seems to me to be a Gendarme on horseback.
Gendarmes were (and are still) a type of policeman with military connections. Here is a modern picture of what the Gendarmes looked like in the early 1800s.
I have no idea what the other military-looking fellow behind our Gendarme could be, the one going for a walk with his Missus. I welcome inputs from any of my readers who are experts in military uniforms.
There is also what looks like a vitrier, or glazier.
Here is a photo of a vitrier from a later period. You can see better the contraption on his back with which he carried his spare window panes.
I was rather pleased to see him. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, my mother often used to sing old French songs, and there was one song in her repertoire about vitriers. It was only one verse, which was repeated ad infinitum, and which went like so.
Encore un carreau d’cassé, v’là l’vitrier qui passe
Encore un carreau d’cassé, v’là l’vitrier d’passé
V’la l’vitrier, v’la l’vitrier, v’la vitrier qui passe
V’la l’vitrier, v’la l’vitrier, v’la l’vitrier d’passé!
which can be loosely translated as:
Another broken pane, here’s the glazier passing
Another broken pane, here’s the glazier’s gone past
Here’s the glazier, here’s the glazier, here’s the glazier passing
Here’s the glazier, here’s the glazier, here’s the glazier gone past!
Then we have an itinerant shoe-shiner.
This is another trade which survived into the era of photography. I have chosen a photo of Neapolitan boys offering the service. Readers will see the word Sciuscià written on their box. It’s a term which came into use in Naples during the Second World War; it’s an adaptation into the local vernacular of the English word “shoeshine”, which shoeshine boys picked up from American troops. Vittorio De Sica made a powerful film in 1946 about these Neapolitan shoe-shine boys; I highly recommend it to my readers.
Which brings us to the person whose shoes – or rather boots – are being shone.
This character intrigued me. I thought perhaps he could help me date the painting. As I said, I’m not an expert on military uniforms, and even if I were we don’t know if the painter painted the uniform at all accurately. All that being said, I rather think we are dealing with a lancier rouge (although in the painting the man has a red feather in his shako while it should have been white or white and red). Here is a more sophisticated rendition of this uniform.
The regiment, properly known as the 2e régiment de chevaux-légers des Lanciers de la Garde Impériale (2nd regiment of Light Horse Lancers of the Imperial Guard), was known colloquially – and for obvious reasons – as the Red Lancers, or somewhat more irreverently as the écrevisses, or crayfish. The regiment has a grim but romantic history. It was originally formed in 1810 from hussars of the Dutch Royal Guard, after Napoleon merged Holland with France, and at the beginning it was primarily made up of Dutch recruits. The regiment served in Napoleon’s Russian campaign, where it was decimated, the depleted ranks being filled by Frenchmen (particularly from Paris and its environs). The regiment was dissolved a first time in 1814 at the Restoration, reformed during the Cent Jours, fought at the battle of Waterloo where it was again decimated, and finally dissolved at the end of 1815. If I’m right about the regiment, this means that the painting can’t have been painted that long after 1815 (soldiers from the disbanded regiment might have continued wearing their uniforms for a few years, either out of defiance or simply because they had nothing else to wear).
Which brings me finally to the anonymous painter. Who was he? (or maybe she, although I rather doubt it). Given the the phrase written on the back of the painting, I’m guessing that he was a German speaker, and given where I picked the painting up that he was a citizen of the Austrian Empire. Looking at the window of 1809 (when the flower market opened) to a few years after 1815 (when the Red Lancers regiment was disbanded) as the time period when the aquarelle was probably painted, I wonder if my anonymous painter was not an officer in one of the Austrian regiments that occupied Paris after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In which case, the painting – or at least the initial sketch – would have been executed between 1815 and 1818, when the Allies maintained troops on French soil. But I have no name to give to my painter, who has given me so much pleasure since I purchased his aquarelle, and he will probably remain anonymous forever.