Yes, there’s something a bit odd about these trees. They’re six inches tall and made of pipe cleaners; there’s more about them later.
Two paintings caught my eye in the Musée Carnavalet yesterday. The 1834 painting by Isidore Dagnan (below left) shows an early morning view of tree lined Boulevard Poissonnière. Though the road menders are already at work it’s a peaceful, almost rural scene.
The 1848 work by Josquin is a view of Boulevard du Temple. In place of daily life and labour this picture shows an encampment of troops during the June uprising of that year. A single tall, slender tree, stripped of all its branches, serves as a flagpole. Along the roadside a line of poles appear to be the remnants of more trees. The implausible neatness of the encampment and remnants of the broken trees suggest that this is a painting with a political agenda – a portrayal of order restored – but what’s the back story?
(Click on any of the small pictures for a larger image).
The two boulevards were both developed around 1700 along the line of old fortifications, when the sixteenth century Enceinte de Louis XIII and remnants of the earlier city wall of Charles V were demolished. Together with a number of other boulevards built around this time, they were wide, earth roads, planted with double avenues of elm trees. Like all tree planting, this was an investment in an uncertain future.
The painting by Gabriel Lépaulle (above left, also in the Carnavalet museum) shows the aftermath of the attack aimed at Louis Phillipe (King of the French) as he reviewed a guard of honour on the fifth anniversary of the 1830 July Revolution. The king survived but eighteen other people died. Trees frame the action of the painting; the mature trees at the right could well be elms planted when the boulevard was built. The trees to the left, damaged in the attack and contributing to the air of chaos in the picture, look like younger saplings. This may be artistic license, to suit the composition of the picture, but it’s also likely that many of the original trees didn’t survive the turbulent years of the first Revolution, from 1789 to 1799.
Inspired by the three pictures in the Carnavalet museum, a web search for pictures of the two boulevards took me to two extraordinary photos and a rather different painting. The daguerrotype of Boulevard de Temple by Louis Daguerre (above right) dates from only three years after Lépaulle’s painting. It’s a significant picture in the history of photography as it is the first known image to include human figures. It’s an interesting contribution to the history of Paris street trees too, showing several rows of older and younger trees, with what appear to be the remains of snapped off saplings; silent witnesses to turbulent years.
The 1880 picture by John Béraud shows Boulevard Poissonnière in the peaceful era of the Belle Époque. The carriageway was paved by this time and the rather wild looking mature elms had been replaced by a neat avenue of young trees, echoing the air of prosperity in the picture.
And finally a reminder of more recent history; in a 1943 photo by Roger Parry a solitary military figure strides along Boulevard Poissonnière in the rain. The stark, winter trees, neatly spaced along the deserted pavement, suggest wariness in life under the occupation. The same view with trees in spring leaf casting dappled shade might suggest hope and anticipation.
And what about the pipe cleaners? The Carnavalet museum has a series of detailed models, made in the early years of the twentieth century, recording the buildings of Parisian neighborhoods scheduled for slum clearance and redevelopment. In the densely packed streets there’s no room for trees. The pipe cleaner foliage only appears where a later boulevard cuts across the ancient street pattern; trees as a sign of forward planning and improvement? (Some of the ‘slum’ areas were later renovated rather than demolished, but that’s another story).
City trees tell stories of good intentions and grand plans. They have the potential to outlive human life spans, but may fall victim to violent upheaval or peacetime redevelopment. Some Paris street trees are great survivors, while others speak of hope for the future. The city would be a bleak place without them.