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Artists and the Paris Commune

The Paris Commune in 



Most of the Impressionist painters lived in Paris in the 1860s. At this time the city was one of contrasts.  The centre was being developed for the wealthy whilst the poor lived in the slums in the north and east of Paris.


Impressionists were drawn from the better-off families. They painted a version of modern Paris in the 1870s that reflected the world view of the 3rd Republic established after the fall of Emperor Louis Napoleon.  This reflected the development of its centre by George–Eugene Haussmann in the 1860s to create a modern and impressive centre of Paris.  


Thousands of working-class homes, shops and small workshops were demolished to make way for wide roads lined with trees, massive squares, new upmarket cafes and restaurants, expensive flats, department stores for the very rich, and parks for the middle class to stroll around.


Dissent among the working classes rose during the 1860s as squalor mounted – eight in ten homes in the poorer areas did not have running water and few could afford to heat their homes in the winter. 


During Napoleon’s III rule which lasted from 1851-1871, the working class grew poorer while the rich became richer.  Paris had no elected mayors, with appointments to local councils being made by the Emperor. His art policies were designed to co-opt the artists so their work would reflect the glory of his rule.  


In 1870 France entered a disastrous war with Prussia. This lead to the abdication of the Emperor followed by the surrender of the French Army and the siege of Paris by Prussian troops. The city was defended by Paris's national guard were less than sympathetic to the Emperor or the Monarchist government.   


The government left Paris for Versailles and the rich retreated to their country homes or abroad. Many impressionist artists left the city, some arrived in London.


Paris was left to the working class who had many grievances against the ruling class. They took matters into their own hands and declared Paris a socialist commune, independent of France.


The artists who remained in the city, led by the realist Courbet, set up a cooperative, opened up art galleries free to the public, abolished the divisions between fine art and crafts and reorganised the hierarchical art education which had dominated France under the rule of Napoleon. 


Here is an English translation of the manifesto drawn up by Artists for the Commune.





Paris Commune Poster low res.jpg


The commune lasted just 73 days.  The government sent in troops to quell the uprising, and the fighting was brutal. Daily executions resulted in 30,000 dead Parisians with daily executions, 50,000 prisoners, 4,000 deportations to Caledonia. Haussmann's avenues were burnt out with roads and pavements dug up and barricades built by the Communards.

Manet’s lithograph Civil War, 1871 (probably completed in the days following the so-called Bloody Week- 18 – 28 May 1871) evokes the horror of the Madeleine church slaughter where 300 communards were shot dead, no one escaped.   


This is the only artwork produced by any of the Impressionists of the Paris Commune.


This is a raw civil war scene and one in which the government troops gave no mercy.  


Manet adds to the drama of the scene by showing the dead man wearing a National Guard uniform and clutching a piece of white cloth, suggesting he was trying to surrender, while the Madeleine appears in the top right background. To Parisians, the sign of the Madeleine would not only place the scene but recall the slaughter. 


Others details reinforce Manet’s sympathies towards the Communards.  The pair of legs extending into the lower right-hand corner belong to a civilian, testifying to the indiscriminate nature of the slaughter. 


The Paris Commune was the largest urban insurrection in Modern Europe, until the Warsaw Uprising in 1943. Some of the homes that the Impressionists had lived in were destroyed. Its impact on the wealthy was traumatic as they saw their Paris in ruins.

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