Eighteenth Century Paris: A City Too Big for Words

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

Clara Zou


Le Tableau de Paris (1781)

Eighteenth century Paris is a place that cannot be described in a single phrase, painting, or idea. The City of Lights was the capital for people worldwide, not because of its history, but because of the life that breathed through its streets. The novelty behind a place being the epicenter of the world for its actions in the moment (that are always changing) is hard to fathom and even harder to describe. In Mercier’s Tableau de Paris published in 1781, he chose to compile his work without paintings, because they, “froze the ever-changing flux of life into a fixed form, whereas prose could suggest the constant succession of impressions that was the essence of the urban experience.” A place so indescribable that its renowned reputation can only be described by the ‘impressions’ made by literature is a special place indeed.

In Mercier’s work, the tension and relationship between different groups of people are the focus of every chapter. He purposely chooses to use, “pictures [that] are generalizations” and not the lives of specific individuals. As a result, the reader understands the unique relationship between Parisians is what matters the most, and not the people themselves. In capturing the relationships between different types of people, the chapters express how Paris in the 18th century is an open-minded community that welcomed people in the arts community. After all, one of the trademarks of Paris is its reputation as, “the asylum of liberty, the center of sensual pleasure and the arts.”


A map of eighteenth-century Paris

In one of his chapters, Mercier describes the Parisians and their admiration for the authors that produce, “the great works which do honor to the human mind [that] cannot be produced on command or for pay. They spring from the natural freedom of a broadminded spirit, which develops in spite of dangers.” Paris during the 18th century is a place that welcomes these forward thinking people with an open embrace. Unique to Paris, the authors of such great works are described as being spared any consequences for their sometimes inflammatory product. The understanding that Parisians highly valued these artists and protected them is one that cannot be easily painted; this type of living has been artfully conveyed by Mercier in his chapters.

Not only were authors protected and valued for their work, 18th century Parisians took pride in having them as part of their community. At salons, these “writers and journalists who proclaimed themselves as philosophers of reason and enlightenment… set the intellectual pace, adjudicated public taste and campaigned for more rational social institutions.” In Paris, these people were not only welcomed, but they were heard with open ears and this was what made Paris the capital for the European Enlightenment.


Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814)

It is easy to describe Paris in quick phrases such as the “City of Light” or the “Center for arts”. However, these titles do not do the city justice. Paris is much more than a handful of titles. Eighteenth century Paris is a place that would not be renowned if it had not been for the Parisians that are unique to the life that flows through its streets. A lifestyle that is characterized by the impression of its people; people that are open-minded, protective, appreciative, and many more adjectives that work together to create a city worthy of the title “Capital of the World.”

Works Cited

Popkin, Jeremy. “Editor’s Preface.” Panorama of Paris: Selections from Le Tableau De Paris. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999. 19. Print.

Mercier, Louis-Sébastien. Panorama of Paris: Selections from Le Tableau De Paris. Ed. Jeremy D. Popkin. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999. 26. Print.

Higonnet, Patrice L. R. “Paris in the World.” Paris: Capital of the World. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2002. 231. Print.

Mercier, 26.

Jones, Colin. “The Kingless Capital of Enlightenment.” Paris: The Biography of a City. New York: Viking, 2004. 186. Print.

#painting #Paris #France #Frenchhistory #Europeanhistory #arthistory

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