Managing the Image of Paris
Place de la Concorde
Degas, Place de la Concorde, 1875
In this painting, Degas captures a privileged sector of Parisian life in one of the city’s most famous locations. We are looking east towards the Tuileries. The man in the foreground (a friend of Degas) with his top hat and umbrella and cigar titled upwards creates a distinct sense of status and purpose. The young girls (his daughters) with their greyhound add to the proceedings a sense of stability and privilege.
This family and others in the painting are certainly not from the Parisian working class. They are Degas clients and associates. He sold his works to families like these.
The figure to the left of the picture nearly leave the frame are clearly from the privileged sector of French society. By positioning them here Degas creates a sense empty space adding to the sense of the grandeur of the location.
Degas makes his work look informal and spontaneous. The family group in the front appear to hover while waiting to cross the street. They are looking in different directions without any apparent sense of purpose, apart from the man. Degas intention is to make us feel we have just stumbled across the scene in a passing carriage. Yet behind this formalism lies a subtle political message.
The political symbolism is reflected in the tricolour bow tie of the figure on the left. The man's red chest decoration looks like the ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur. In the largely muted monochrome of the painting, these small elements of bright colour (almost the only such instances in the entire work) stand out dramatically; they are meant to be noticed.
In this painting, Paris to Degas requires order. There is no tension in the composition. The Place de la Concorde is free of debris and potholes, with its recent history invisible to the viewer.
The man’s face and top hat cover the controversial statue of Strasbourg (below). The statue functioned as the site of national mourning for Parisians during the Siege of Strasbourg in the Franco Prussian War (September 1870). It was permanently overwhelmed with wreaths, garlands, and flags, in a gesture uncannily echoing Degas placement of the man's hat.
Paris in 1871 -The Reality of Place de la Concorde
One of the many barricades built by the Communards in their defence of Paris in 1871.
Napoleon Gaillard (front right), a key figure in the artists' group, is posing in front of his barricade in the Place de la Concorde. He is dressed in a commandant's uniform. He was nicknamed 'Chateau Gaillard'.
He regarded his efforts as much a work of art as a defensive structure.