Impressionists on the Parisian Boulevards

December 12, 2011

When it is time to discuss of what makes a “Grand Boulevard”, it is interesting to get the view of the impressionists, contemporaries of the Parisian Haussmann period, which is traditionally attached to the notion of Boulevard.

Ludovic Piette (a french Painter) was writing to Camille Pissarro [1]:

    I have always loved the immense streets of Paris, shimmering in the sun, the crowds of all colours, those beautiful linear and aerial perspectives, those eccentric fashions, etc. But how to do it? To install oneself in the middle of the street is impossible in Paris.

Pissarro, was lucky enough to have a room with view on the Boulevard Montmartre, allowing him to epitomize the qualities of the “Grand boulevard”:

Boulevard Montmartre by Camille Pissarro (1897)

This 35 meters wide boulevard opened in 1763, pre-date the Hausmann’s work in Paris, but carries most of the features usually attributed to the typical Haussmannian boulevard. It pertains to the orthodox Parisian definition of the Grand Boulevards [5]:

  • The boulevards are linear and offer an open perspective (like the one opened by Haussmann), changing direction only at major intersections
  • Notice the intense level of traffic and how the lamppost are sitting in the carriage way, to not use the pedestrian realm
  • …and how wide is the pedestrian space

Usually sidewalks use around half of a typical Parisian boulevard width, This has not varied since the French second empire (1852-1870). Below is a compared cross section of Boulevard Montmartre in Paris and Broadway Street (at Cambie) in Vancouver [2].

proposed 36 meters wide Montmartre Boulevard, Paris, cross section (top), compared to Broadway Street (30 meters wide) at cambie, Vancouver BC (bottom). Notice how Broadway should have no more than the equivalent of 4 lanes of traffic to fit the Parisian boulevard model. It has up to 7 lanes!

Quality of the Urban furnitures is important and got noticed (many of them has been designed by Gabriel Jean Antoine Davioud):

From a balcony on boulevard Haussmann. Gustave caillebotte (1880)

…But one of the main feature of the Parisian boulevards, is the buzz/energy surrounding them: the gentle crowd, the trees, the play of light, is why people will like to mingle here (last picture in the post also gives a strong incentive to do so!)

Boulevard des capucines Monet (1874)

The above and ample sidewalks provide a fertile ground for the development of coffee patio, in adition of the Boulevard theatres.

Evening on a Parisian boulevard. Georges Stein (1870-1955)

Building form

The formal avenue de l’Opéra opened in time for the Universal exposition of 1878, is an exception. It is bereft of trees (and the sidewalk could have been reduced accordingly) on the insistence of the Opera’s architect, Charles Garnier, this to preserve the perspective onto its masterpiece [6]. The move has been appreciated enough to keep this avenue bereft of trees up to today [11]. Another architect request- to have the street free of urban furniture- has been lost in time…

Avenue de l'opera, Pissarro (1898)

In the Pissarro and others impressionists paintings, ornamental and architectural details of the buildings lining the boulevards are basically absent.

Haussmann designed the Avenue of the Opéra, but it has been built after his 1870′s “resignation”, (associated to the fall of the Napoleon III regime), this between 1876 and 1878. When Haussmann was providing architectural template to the properties developers, the new regime, pressed by the deadline of the 1878′s exposition, had been far less stringent in their building request:

  • They have divided the area in 55 lots, sold in 1876, to almost as many different landowners, required to build in a 2 years time frame to the maximum height authorized by the by-laws, and that all principal horizontal lines in each block should coincide, which ensured that all the windows would be at the same level. Balconies were obligatory [7]. Other pre-existing regulation ensured the aesthetic unity of the avenue.

That is what Pissarro expresses in his canvas, where the militaristic rigor of the buildings is gently counter balanced by the chimneys disorder on their roofs, and colorful shopkeeper awnings at their feet.


The traffic on the Grand Boulevards (boulevard des Italiens, des Capucines et Montmartre) is qualified of “intensive” by the Paris Prefecture in 1904, while the one on the 30 meters wide Boulevard Haussmann, (depicted by Raffaelli below), is qualified of “active” by the same source [3][9]. This, in addition to the facts that it is in the immediate vicinity of the most used -by far- railway station of the time- Gare Saint Lazare-[10], and nearby department stores, are the reasons why we see a street much more dominated by pedestrian activities.

Boulevard Haussmann, Raffaelli

Obviously, public transit is the source of numerous complaints (which the subway, to be open in time for the Universal exposition of 1900, is promised to resolve! [8])

Boulevards des italiens, Pissarro (1897)

Most of the carriages seen in this picture and others are fiacres, (carriage for hire which has been replaced by taxis), and “omnibuses” (which has been replaced by buses). Private carriage was a rarity so street parking was not a problem. In those days (1891), it was counted 45,085 vehicles of all sorts in Paris but number was growing much faster than the population and was reaching 65,543 in 1906 (automobile accouting for a mere 4,077) …The Prefecture of Paris was numbering fiacres at 15,775 (today, there is roughly the same number of taxi!) and 2,572 tramways and “omnibus” [3], the equivalent of bus, already carrying in the vicinity of 220 millions passenger circa 1865 [7]…The 3 horses omnibuses seen in the Pissarro painting are the largest of the days (2.45m by 8 meter long including horses: they are considered “monsters” by the witnesses of the days [3][4]. Capacity number are, of course, irrelevant.

The other Boulevards

The impressionists like Degas, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir…, dedicated numerous painting to the Grands Boulevards in the immediate vicinity of gare Saint Lazare (all the canvas presented so far has been drawn in a 10-15mn walk from gare Saint Lazare, which itself has also been the attention of Monet among other). This railway station was also the termini of train from the Vexin français -area around Pontoise- where most of the French impressionists have elected residence at one moment of their life, and this fact can explain why this little area of Paris got far most attention than others…

Nowadays, the probably most photographied avenue is the Champs Elysees. in the XIX, it is pretty much out of reach to most of the people. Even the fiacres are rare, and traffic seems dominated by the much more exclusive landau transportation mode. Notice how the horses manures are speedily removed in the Jean Béraud‘s canvas below:

Champs Elysees - La modiste, Jean beraud (1900)

The Parisian lower class can be found around the Boulevards exterieurs (around 40 to 45 meters wide). Boulevard Clichy is one of them. Edgar Degas lived and died there but this boulevard didn’t inspired him, at the difference of Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh and Pierre Bonnard, which we choose, for its naturalist qualities, to illustrate this boulevard:

Boulevard Clichy, Pierre Bonnard (circa 1900)

The Boulevard exterieurs, marked the limit of Paris before its amalgamation with neighbor suburbs in 1860 at the initative of Haussmann, and have been opened in 1864. They eventually were synonym of life condition that the Haussmann contemporaries were trying to escape (Signac, Vuillard will paint the Boulevard exterieurs under snow, which, by its rarity, in some sort represent an escape of the usual condition).

The large boulevard median was not to separate traffic directions, The 2 ways seen in the painting was existing on both side of the Wall of the Farmers general which has been destroyed in 1860: A canvas of Pissarro better illustrates that fact (the street on side of the median will be converted to one way traffic much later)

Boulevard des Batignolles, Pissarro (1878)

The circulation on the Boulevards exterieurs was considered as active in 1904. As the canvas represents, the type of circulation is much more different than the one seen on the Grand Boulevards, and if there is nowadays no more cabs in Paris than it was fiacres more than a century ago, those are now more evenly spread on the whole Paris area, making them looking rarer.

Life outside the Boulevards

We couldn’t close this chapter, without mentioning what was the life condition outside the Boulevards in the Haussmann century. Charles marville‘s photographies illustrate what Paris was looking before Haussmann:

rue Tirechape - Charles marville (1858-1878). This street is not existing anymore

[1] Mon cher Pissarro – Lettres de Ludovic Piette à Camille Pissarro, Ludovic Piette, Paris 1985

[2] Broadway Street, Vancouver: cross section from beyond the B line, City of Vancouver 1999. Notice it is not the worst configuration found but the existing one…the proposed introduction of a LRT makes things worse with proposed sidewalk as narrow as 2.70m in the 1999 study. Currently Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, has been one way since 1951 but is considered to be reversed back two ways, and it is this configuration which is presented here. You will notice the bus getting out of its lane to avoid a cyclist – that is per design: Bus+bike lanes is the modus operandi in France, wholly supported by the Green councilors of Paris, at the very much difference of Adriane Carr in Vancouver (her position on the topic being summarized here)

[3] Etudes sur les transformations de Paris et autres écrits sur l’urbanisme, Eugène Hénard, 1903-1909. as reedited by éd. L’Équerre, 1982.

[4] The longest carriage is 20 meters, it is used for beam transportation by carpenter: it s then considered as an exceptional convoy[3]

[5] There are several Boulevard denominations in Paris, the grand boulevards being the ones built in replacement of Louis XIII city’s wall, according to the 1676 Pierre Bullet’s plan under the Louis XIV reign)

[6] The perspective has also been obtained by the leveling of an hill, the buttes des Moulins, which will have provided a convenient pretext to a slum cleansing operation in the whole Opera area.

[7] The autumn of Central Paris: the defeat of town planning 1850-1970, Anthony Sutcliffe, MacGill-Queens’university press, 1971

[8] It didn’t, and remarkably enough, Louis Dausset, on budget Committee was stating as soon as 1909

    “When we built the Metropolitan and encourage the development of trams, we gave our citizens and visitors a test for moving about…So underground transport does nothing to reduce surface movement in Paris; on the contrary, it multiply it” ([7] citing C.M. report no 128, 1909).

Among Haussmann’s achievement was also the reorganization of the Public transit services, with the creation of the Compagnie Generale d’Omnibus created at the occasion of the universal exposition of 1855, this on a model not much different of the one used by Seoul, Korea.

[9] To give some substance on the level of Traffic, around 10,750 horses drawing vehicle/day has been counted on the Boulevard des Italiens in 1840 ([7] citing L’œuvre du baron Haussmann, Louis Reau, 1954)

[10] the Compagnie de l’Ouest very quickly developed suburban services from gare Saint Lazare. In 1869, It was by far the busiest railway station of Paris, handling 13,254,000 a year-more than 80% of them being commuters. The other 6 Paris termini together handled no more than 21,417,000 ([7] citing La gare du Nord, René Clozier, (a priori a PhD thesis of 1940))

[10] In his book, “L’assassinat de Paris” (1977), Louis Chevalier mentions that trees has been removed of Avenue de l’Opéra in 1955. Archive photography doesn’t confirm that. What is more probably is that the sidewalk has been reduced in 1955.

4 Responses to “Impressionists on the Parisian Boulevards”

  1. Great report. My own analysis of the Haussmann percées is that their length is as important as their width. Most are either 1 or 2 k.m. long. Formerly, with the exception of the Grands Boulevards built along the space of the old city walls and the field of fire left clear in front of them, the longest streets in Paris were just 0.5 k.m. long and most ran from the riverside quays north into the right bank. What would enhance the report is providing average daily traffic counts. It would be fascinating to know what those streets carry today.

    We are left with a quandary: can we use transportation implementation to remove trip capacity from the street? (I’ve updated an old post:

    I’m thinking about the comparison between Montmatre and Broadway at the top of the post. What would happen if we were to apply all the Impressionist ideas to Broadway as a way of closing the post?

    Broadway B-Line carries 110,000 ADT according to what the Director of Engineering for the City of Vancouver reported at the Alan Jacobs lecture last summer, and occupies one lane at peak hour. Do Paris numbers suggest that LRT would double that?

    1. Let’s be practical and assume that fronting redevelopment will set back 10.5 ft. (3.2 m) and give us an overall street width of 120 feet.

    2. Half of that goes to the pedestrians (50 ft., 15 m)—tight by Parisian standards—and slightly less than 50% assuming LRT will be at the centre of the street.

    3. We need two lanes of vehicular flow and two lanes of off-peak parking for a total of (38 ft., 12.2 m).

    4. That leaves 20 ft. or 6 meters for transit. The rail occupies 8.5 ft./2.6 m each way for a total of 17 ft/5.2m. We have 15 ft/4.5 m for medians and surface stations.

    5. Bike lanes would locate on 8th and 10th avenues.

    6. Your section shows truck traffic. What are the options for the LRT lanes? Can taxis use them? Can trucks run on them off-peak? Or will the traffic studies show that LRT will be on-peak pretty much all day long on Broadway?

    7. Finally, an alternative analysis should show transit below grade. Transit capacity would increase with shorter trip times and longer trains. But, would the additional road space then be used for trucks? Or would it go back to the cars? Do we really want much more than 20,0000 ADT on any arterial?

    It all puts in mind a much older Parisian thoroughfare, rue Saint-Honoré, and its nearby neighbour the traffic-loaded Rue du Rivoli. The former is a joy to experience. It is in places the high-fashion district, and still functions as a neighbourhood place. Rivoli is a nightmare. Neither the arcaded maisonettes, or the moated Louvre do anything to ameliorate the sheer volume of traffic. Revitalization needed there.

    I wonder if we should challenge the assumption that the Metro did not take any trips off the boulevards, and state it another way.

    Metro adds trip capacity along its route. In order to decrease vehicular trips on the surface, we have to take away road space from private automobiles. To make this possible we must provide additional trip capacity first, by implementing public transit.

  2. Voony Says:

    Thanks. Indeed length of Boulevards are important too…the next major intersection is still in the 5-10mn (barely more) walk radius, …that give a pedestrian friendly rhythm to the boulevards…majestic monuments closing the perspective give an impetuous for the extra bit of walking effort.

    I have tried to dig information for the level of traffic at the turn of 1900…but information is kind of spotty, but notice I have digged 10,750 horses drawing vehicle on Boulevard des Italiens in 1840. Today, a communication indicates a peak of 500 vehicles/hr on the same Boulevard (what seems very low, and could be explained by a pretty high level of congestion)…That said, on Bd Montmartre the counting is of 2,300 vehicles/hr (on 4 lanes) what seems inline with what is observed on Vancouver’s Pacific Boulevard (but honestly the level of traffic on Bld Montmartre looks much denser than on Pacific Boulevard, see Vancouver number in this post).

    Your observations about rue St Honore, and Rue de Rivoli are interesting…I could infer that the sheer size of the Louvres, and the endless rigorously uniform arcades on the north side of the rue de Rivoli, kind of over-serve the Rue de Rivoli : too “monumental” architecture, which the human eye can’t embrace – so “human scale” is a bit at lost…

    You also says:
    Metro adds trip capacity along its route. In order to decrease vehicular trips on the surface, we have to take away road space from private automobiles. To make this possible we must provide additional trip capacity first, by implementing public transit

    yes that is in my opinion a key-point: the idea is not to impede the people mobility, but just to make it more efficient, that in turn allow a more efficient use of the street real-estate…and the more public transit use we have, the more pedestrian we have to accommodate…and we want to have street which are more than road (like suggested in the painting)

  3. mezzanine Says:

    This post was awesome! I recently stayed in paris and my hotel was just off avenue opera. the pissaro painting really took me for a loop. you really bring out the nuance to the history and context of paris neighbourhoods.

    I look forward to more vancouver-reflected posts on paris!

  4. [...] and occasionally even a dash of techno. We rarely encounter acoustic music on our trip along the boulevards of the Russian [...]

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