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Celebrity Roots in Paris


Louis Boulanger, Paganini in Prison, 1831. Courtesy of Stanford University Libraries,
Photo Credit: 
Michael Marrinan

Tracing the Roots of Celebrity

Throngs of people rush to a storefront where the latest image of a famous musician has been placed in the window. The performing artist in the image is captured looking somewhat sinister in dramatic lighting with a background that looks like a prison. This portrayal seems to confirm rumors of the performer’s strange personality and criminal history.

Though the picture could pass as a digitally enhanced celebrity photograph from a 21st century fan magazine, it is actually a 19th century lithograph of a renowned Italian violinist.  The image depicts the virtuoso and composer, Niccolo Paganini, and was put on display shortly after he gave his first performance in Paris in 1831.

Parisians, who were as familiar with rumors of Paganini’s scandalous personal life as his reputation as a masterful musician, were eager to see him. The painter Louis Boulanger, who attended Paganini’s first show in Paris, produced this editorialized depiction in which a wild looking Paganini played violin in a jail cell. Paganini insisted that he had never been jailed, and he wrote to newspaper editors challenging the truth of the incriminating image. 

They defended themselves by saying it was simply an artistic interpretation and not meant to be slanderous. Stanford art historian Michael Marrinan suggests that Paganini might have been one of the first to experience the downside of being famous, “Paganini was astonished to find himself illustrated in a lithograph in a storefront window before which a crowd was gathered and discussing him.” Marrinan writes, “It's as though his persona had become "detached" from his being and was living a life of its own. We've just witnessed a contemporary, internet-driven example of this phenomenon with the You Tube success of Susan Boyle.”

Romantic Paris

The Paganini story illustrates both the history and concept of celebrity in Marrinan’s latest publication, Romantic Paris: Histories of a Cultural Landscape, 1800-1850. Marrinan situates public interest in virtuosi of all sorts during this period in France to the creation of modernist celebrity that was largely the result of a huge increase in mass media coverage, including the rise of newspapers.

The idea of celebrity is just one facet of the transformations in Parisan culture that occurred over the pivotal fifty-year period from 1800 to 1850, during which the city also weathered extremes of political and economic fortune. Marrinan, a scholar of European art of the 18th and 19th centuries, paints in Romantic Paris a vast panorama of this period that allows us to see how it set the stage for the decades of changes we usually associate with modernity in French art and culture.  “I argue that much of the period unfolds in the long shadow cast by the adventure (or mis-adventure, depending on one's politics) of the Great Revolution.  My book is about how Parisians strove to place that adventure, and the whole epoch of Napoleonic conquest, under the umbrella of "nationhood" with some kind of coherency.”

Setting for a Revolution

Between the coups d'état of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1799 and of his nephew Louis-Napoléon fifty years later, Paris passed from the shining capital of a pan-European empire to a city overrun and occupied by foreign armies. Ambitious projects for grand public works were delayed and derailed by plague, armed uprisings, and civil war. 

Prof. Marrinan says these extraordinary times became the setting for a revolution in the arts and a time of unbridled experimentation. The artists, architects and dramatists of Paris challenged classical culture and the norms of tradition by engaging the vagaries of contemporary life. These decades were both the setting and inspiration for Hugo's Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable set new standards for operatic productions.  Audiences thrilled by virtuoso performances of Paganini and Liszt, Talma and Taglioni, created the idea of the “star.”

The Arc de Triomphe and Architectural Legacy

Urban planners of the period left an architectural legacy that still informs the distinct and world-renowned reputation of Paris as a cultural and artistic center. The cultural legacy of this era also include a museum that sheltered fragments rescued from the rubble of the Revolution alongside the display of masterpieces, open to one and all, that we visit today as the Louvre.

According to Marrinan, these changes not only impacted high culture and artistic life, but also altered and affected public spaces, where the evidence can still be explored today. Marrinan cites the arch of triumph plaza and sculpture that caps the Champs-Elysées as an example. “Most tourists today visit this monument and think of it as "Napoleonic" in some way.  Yet when Napoleon left France for good in 1815 only the foundations of the great arch were completed.

When Louis-Philippe became king after the 1830 revolution, his government completed the monument, but rather than celebrating Napoleon's personal glory the sculpture was recast as the story of "the nation" emerging victorious from the wars of the Revolution and Empire. Today it is where the "unknown soldiers" of World Wars I & II are buried.”  In Marrinan’s view, all these layers of meaning co-exist in a single space, but they are not visible until the long-term history of the space as a whole--rather than the short-term history of only the monument--is considered.

Over the years, Marrinan’s scholarly investigation into 18th and 19th century Parisian culture led him to uncover and analyze an array of original source material including archive documents, historical texts, built architecture, Parisian guidebooks, sculptures, newspapers, and ephemeral commentary from critics and tourists. Marrinan began working on Romantic Paris after realizing that his knowledge about this diverse, but interconnected information gave him a unusual perspective on how the pivotal era still resonates today. “It is my attempt to give life and voice to a social space whose traces remain part of the city’s fabric, but whose actors have long disappeared.”