Hugo, Manet unveiled Paris’ poor and privileged

by Kim Willsher and Vanessa Thorpe

The Observer

The iron gates of the short passageway, a stone’s throw from the increasingly trendy Montorgueil district of Paris and a brief walk from the prostitutes of Saint Denis, are closed to the public these days. It was here, in what was Passage Saumon off the Rue du Bout du Monde — the end of the world road — that Victor Hugo is said to have sheltered between the stone pillars of the public baths and a ballroom of low repute from a raging battle between republican and monarchist forces on June 5, 1832. The gates were slammed shut then, too, leaving the writer trapped in the crossfire.

A decade on, Hugo would use what he had heard and seen of the failed student uprising, known as the Republican Uprising, when he began writing his most acclaimed novel. “Les Miserables,” Hugo’s tale of working-class suffering and strife played out in the sewers and back streets of Paris’s least salubrious districts, was published in 1862. That same year Edouard Manet, 30 years Hugo’s junior, completed his first major “modern” work depicting contemporary Paris life.

“Musique aux Tuileries” showed the beau monde listening to a band in one of the city’s former royal parks. The two works perfectly depict the starkly contrasting faces of Paris in the mid-19th century.

Manet’s portraits offer an illuminated vision of the City of Light, evoked in all its shadowy grimness by Hugo. There is no record of the two men ever meeting, but both enjoyed privilege and social standing, Manet from birth, Hugo from early literary success. Both were committed republicans, a political ideology to which Hugo, brought up by a fiercely monarchist mother, came late, but embraced with a passion.

And both lived and worked through turbulent times; seismic political shifts saw 19th-century France alternate between republic, hereditary monarchy and constitutional monarchy and back again, each change bringing conflict and instability to the city.

Hugo was 13 when Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo. It heralded the return of the Bourbon monarchy, later ousted by their Orleans cousins in the second French revolution of 1830, followed two years later by the Republican Insurrection. Manet’s youth was marked by similar political and social upheaval as France’s third revolution ousted the Orleans monarchy in 1848 and established a republic once more, only to have its elected leader, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, declare himself Emperor Napoleon III three years later.

To some critics Hugo was France’s social conscience documenting the misery of the lower classes, while Manet came across as the wry, cynical, upper-class dandy voyeur, content to encapsulate the “nouvelle Paris” emerging from the upheaval without engaging with it.

Manet certainly painted the city’s darker corners: the paupers, prostitutes, vagrants and the places they frequented, but it was with the eye of an observer, says Stephane Guegan, curator of the 2011 Manet exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

“It wasn’t that he never paid attention to the poor people he met in the streets — and some paintings even addressed this topic — but never with the intention of overtly criticizing the injustice he saw. That’s the big difference between Manet and Hugo. We know Hugo started writing his novel having seen the horrible conditions in which some workers, adults and children, were living in northern France. He wanted to openly condemn this unbearable situation. On the other hand “Les Miserables” gave him the chance to emulate the greatest French authors of the realistic trend from Balzac to Eugene Sue. Manet had no problem with realism as long as it was compatible with his own [artistic] agenda.” MaryAnne Stevens, of the Royal Academy, says Hugo and Manet reflected Paris’s past and future: “Hugo belongs to the older generation who were part of the revolutions of 1832 and 1848. He was really part of the Romantic generation. Just as the new theater Victor Hugo was espousing was knocking down the doors of convention, Manet, too, was determined to create a new style of art.”

Much of Hugo’s and Manet’s Paris no longer exists. Baron Haussmann, Napoleon III’s city-planning henchman, razed an estimated 60 percent of the medieval capital to create the grand boulevards. The labyrinthine network of narrow, dingy, cobbled rues and passages stretching up from what is now Les Halles and the Marais to the former city gates of Saint Denis and Saint Martin have mostly given way to streets too wide to barricade, paving and, thankfully, closed sewers. The 16th-century church of Saint-Merri, where Hugo’s “Les Miserables” protagonists construct their barricade, still stands, somewhat overshadowed by its neighbor, the modern mammoth that is the Pompidou Center.

“Paris was still very much the Paris of the middle ages when Hugo was writing,” says Stevens. “Manet’s Paris was the Paris of Napoleon III, who had engaged Baron Haussmann to improve the lines of communication in the city and erect all the wide boulevards … partly of course so that they would not be so easy to block by erecting barricades. Manet was largely a portrait painter, so he doesn’t give us a sense of Paris directly. But when he does, it is modern Paris that we see. Manet was also aware of the price Paris was paying for its modernization. His first painting submitted to the Paris Salon — and rejected — was of an absinthe drinker.”

Marked by the vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the city he loved, Hugo’s heroes are anything but well-heeled. The Parisian lower classes in the novel have been crushed by oppression, war, economic woes, famine and cholera among other diseases. Revolutions and political upheavals have come and gone, but their living conditions remain deplorable and their voices are not heard.

The social injustice is echoed in the travails of Jean Valjean, who will never shake off his conviction for stealing a loaf of bread; the desperation is played out in the tragedy of Fantine, a woman fired from her factory job after she has a child — Cosette — out of wedlock, who descends into poverty and prostitution.

Didier Gelot, secretary-general of the French think tank the National Observatory for Poverty and Social Exclusion, says the story is not totally fictional even today, where 14 percent of the French population lives under the poverty line on less than ?960 a month: “Can you still find a Cosette? You can certainly still find a large number — 30-35 percent — of single mothers bringing up children in great poverty.

“And in the current economic climate the language is regressing to the 19th century, with people talking about the unemployed and poor being work-shy, benefit scroungers. In fact, the figures show that, when unemployment goes down, poverty goes down and social inequality goes down, so it’s not about people not wanting to work but about not being able to find jobs.”

Today Paris is still the different cities encapsulated by Hugo and Manet; Manet’s chic Left Bank haunts are as fashionable and genteel as 150 years ago. North of the Seine, the scantily clad prostitutes huddling in the doorways of Saint Denis and Baron Haussman’s grand boulevards are feistily holding out against the creeping gentrification of their traditional turf. “We’ve been here since at least the 19th century,” said one 21st-century Cosette, wrapped in a fur coat and little else. “And we’re not going anywhere soon. There’s a reason it’s called the world’s oldest profession.”