Balzac’s Paris

A promenade through the monumental heart of Paris in the time of Balzac, as described through some of his works, and as documented in maps and engravings of
The Vernon Duke Collection
Special Collections Department
University of California Library

Balzac’s Paris
A Guided Tour

Honoré de Balzac is the first novelist to place Paris, the great capital city of his time, at the heart of his work. Balzac’s life (1799-1850) spanned a period of intense urban development, begun by Napoléon I and carried forward by King Louis-Philippe. And yet the majority of transformations that created the Paris tourists know today took place after Balzac, during the time of the Second Empire and Baron Haussmann, and the Third Republic.

We have chosen Balzac’s Paris because it sits on a historical cusp. Balzac felt, and reveled in, the dynamics of change. But he did not live long enough to witness the creation of the urban landscape most of us associate with Paris today. Almost all today’s familiar sites—the railroad stations, the grands boulevards, the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur—were absent. What is more, those monuments that were present existed in settings unimaginable today. The Arc de Triomphe was in a wooded area at the gates of the city. The Champs Elysées was a bucolic place of promenade. The Place de la Concorde had none of today’s familiar statues and fountains. The Palais des Tuileries blocked today’s perspective on the Arc du Carrousel and Louvre.

Indeed, between the Tuileries and Louvre there existed a maze of streets, unthinkable to those who have witnessed the great perspective today from Pyramid to Arch of the Defense, themselves unthinkable monuments to an inhabitant of Balzac’s world. Moreover, the Louvre complex, as it was in Balzac’s time, would be unrecognizable to us today, lacking the wings completed under Napoléon III. Finally, the heart of Paris—the Ile de la Cité and attendant left bank—lacked the neat boulevards of Baron Haussmann’s later renovation and remained a clutter of buildings and narrow winding streets. If Balzac glories in the new constructions taking place on the right bank, the left bank he knew was still the medieval city.

Had we a time machine to transport us physically to Balzac’s Paris, we would discover a dynamic yet totally alien place. Where Balzac mentions monuments and places that seem familiar, we need to look again. The documents displayed from the Vernon Duke Collection—either taken from contemporary histories and guidebooks or reproduced from such books—allow us to see, wander in and explore the maps of Balzac’s Paris. We invite the viewer to retake the central circuit of today’s tourist: Arc de Triomphe—Louvre—Ile de la Cité—Quartier Latin. This time this trip becomes an exercise in defamiliarization.

A complete Table of Contents is provided detailing the list of components within this exhibit. We invite the viewer to compare descriptions of Paris in Balzac’s novels with contemporary documents—maps, engravings and other visual materials—located in the Vernon Duke Collection, some 800 books, maps and documents on the history of Paris, located in the Special Collections Department of the UC Riverside Library. We hope to convey the same sense of unfamiliarity in the familiar to viewers of this exhibition.



Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California, UCR College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Tomás Rivera Library. All rights reserved.