Monday, February 14, 2011

Living through Winter in Paris, 1880s

Boulevard Saint Martin in Winter, Paris 1913

What was it like to live through a winter in Paris in the late 1800's? For many students both at Julian's and the ateliers, it was far from glamorous, but they were willing to endure much for their art. Here is Cecilia Beaux' description of her experience:

"Our pension was in the quarter of the Pont de l'Ama, but not near to the river and its beauty. All that a skimping French pension could mean in mid-winter was ours. Mdlle. de Villeneuve, our keeper, bore her considerable years, which had borne much skimping, too, under a brown wig and a long nose. She carried Fi-Fi, a tiny, old dog with rattling teeth and a cracked bark, constantly under her arm. She had bony fingers, and for the first time I heard the rattle also of keys.

Friends were expecting us and there were others there who were to become friends. Our room was au premier, and was furnished in Bon-Marche imitations of Louis XV, and of course second-hand at that. We were to spend a few months in a type of French house which at that time Americans, who wished to appear respectable, and even stylish, used to frequent. Our room looked into a side street. We did not know then that we should have been thankful that in this quarter it was not a court that our windows commanded, and although the street was in itself monotonous, we soon found that on all stories our opposite neighbors were not.

Probably our waterproofs and cotton gloves had already instructed our landlady in the type of art students we represented, and she guessed that we were too serieuse even to recognize the character of the tenants en face. They were much on the balconies and one of them used to come out and water her flowers in a red flannel petticoat.

Our room was, of course, unheated, though it had a pretty chimney-piece and a clock, and what heat the previous summer had left behind had died long since between the closed windows and door. I was not pampered, and of course steam heat was unknown to me at home, but I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. Of course, a wood fire was impossible for us, but they wheeled us in a Schoubersky, a black charcoal stove, which could travel from room to room and never demand a chimney. Our chimney was a very retiring one, but with the Schoubersky approximately near it, we might avoid suffocation.

Until May, we never saw the sun, but I had started immediately at the Julien Cours in the rue de Berry, and my good circulation did the rest, for a polite little French woman in the adjoining room used to borrow our Schoubersky in the morning and forget to return it.

We were far from touching the high elegance that existed near us. We wore shabby clothes, demodee [outmoded], and prim, and until spring came and we did a little shopping, we were invisible in the street. Our complexions always proved that we were English, our ulsters bore out this fact, and the cochers [coachmen] shouted, "Anglaise [English]!" when they wanted to be rude.

In February and March, the snow had fallen sparsely and melted. It never lay upon the pavements of Paris, and I learned what it was to leave a chill house for the bitter chill of outdoors. Not once did we see the sun, and perhaps this had something to do with another moment of ecstasy.

One morning in early April, we met, and saw, the first of Spring in Paris. All of youth, hope, and joy seemed to be in those shafts of sunshine, pouring through virgin leaf and violet shadow, and in the voices that called this and that from cleverly manipulated pushcarts heaped with flowers, vegetables, fruit, whose fresh moisture the sun touched with rainbow hues.

Every French heart bounded with the hour's happiness, and I knew that my heart was French, too. We saw the French sky for the first time; a Heaven not too high to be mixed with Earth's quality. Tender blue and white lifting large forms over, but in perfect unison with wall and verdure and the sumptuous greys of Paris."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux


  1. We have lived through a couple of winters in very poorly heated conditions (you could see your breath in the house). I can only imagine what no heat must have been like: layers of clothing, as many blankets on the bed as possible, no baths, frustration with the lady who "forgot" to return the coal stove, the savoring of a heated room at l'Academie, and great thankfulness for the arrival of Spring!