Voila, Les Américains Sont Arrivés à Paris

Much like Chaucer’s Prologue, most of the Dramatis Personae in historian David McCullough’s book, The Greater Journey (Simon & Schuster, 2011), are introduced in the first chapter. In subsequent chapters the characters are introduced in chronological order, starting with 1830 and going through 1900. These dates serve as bookends between which McCullough creates, much like a museum curator’s arrangement of art works in a museum, a rich tableaux about a host of Americans who sojourned to Paris in the 19th centurysit. In museums, art works are typically exhibited by period style or thematically, and each work stands on its own and converses with the viewer in a personal aesthetic dialogue. McCullough’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to zero in on a host of important American figures who made a beeline to Paris. If one were to imagine each of the dramatis personae as an independent art work in the socio-politico-cultural expat milieu/museum of American life during 19th century Paris, then the characters are cast in a beehive of myriad pursuits.

Than Longen folk to goon  on pilgrimages,

And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,

And especially, from every shires ende

Of [America], to [Paris] they wende,

The holy blissful [art &culture] for to seke,

In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle.

That toward [Paris] wolden [segl]

So hadde  I   [researched]   everichon

Me thinketh it accordant to resound.

To telle yew al the condicioun

Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,

And whiche they weren, and of what degree;

And eek in what array that they were inne:

Each Ex Pat’s place of origin in the States is presented with ample biographical and anecdotal narrative, and the purpose for each traveler’s journey is detailed. Some sojourned for pleasure, others to study painting, sculpture, or medicine, and yet others to seek medical remedies or for convalescence.  Some traveled out of curiosity or because it was the fashionable thing to do, or simply because they had the means to travel in a vain display of their newly acquired wealth. Several traveled on official U.S. government business as part of the American diplomatic ligation to France or as cultural and economic attachés. Themes including weather conditions, sea storms, meals served on board, sleeping quarters, fear of icebergs, and sea sickness are detailed. As the book progresses and as sea travel improved, that is,  from sail to steam, detailed description of first, second, and third class accommodations is provided, and this includes ticket prices, type of luggage and attire worn, books read,  letters drafted, and journal entries recorded.

Between 1830 and 1860 alone 700 American students traveled to Paris, and 1 out of 3 studied medicine. From Calais and/or le Havre, two popular ports of entry to France, the American sojourners’ first introduction to French culture was the monumental, awe-inspiring, sculpture-studded, Gothic-style Rouen Cathedral. Riding in the “immense cumbersome-looking vehicle – the equivalent of two and a half stagecoaches in one,” and travelling at “seven miles an hour,” on surprisingly excellent roads, “the American adventurers suddenly found themselves plunged [in Paris] into a dark labyrinth of narrow, filthy, foul-smelling streets running off every which way.”  The initial shock was soon ameliorated by the “the gilded dome of [Les] Invalides,” splendid palais, grand boulevards, gardens, and cathedrals.

At the final destination the conductor would announce the following: “Voila Paris, Voila Paris.” And thus David McCullough announces to the reader: Voila les Américains, Voila les Américains  sont arrivés à Paris.

Not only do the primary characters  stand (as round characters) on their own, but, because of McCullough’s  ability to thread the individual experiences with the collective ones, his characters are also presented in diverse prose galleries in which there is an interactive dynamic rich in narrative  and in which artists, authors, politicians, doctors, medical students, public officials, musicians, actors, singers, architects, military personnel, emperors, revolutionary characters,  inventors, city planners, tourists including the good, the bad, and the ugly of American, French, English, and Italian nationalities, to name but a few,  converse with each other in a variety of venues. The jugglers, snake charmers, street vendors, cooks, coach drivers, porters, sailors, beggars, charlatans, manual workers, the sick, the dead and dying, servants, soldiers, courtesans, pickpockets, and an assortment of exotic animals and other characters fill the negative space in this gigantic and all-encompassing prose masterpiece.  The end result is a magnificent opus as rich and vibrant as a world class museum’s walls.

McCullough utilized at least 30 depositories and major libraries, including archival materials in which personal and professional correspondence, diaries, journals, printed materials, travel guides (Galiganani’s New Paris Guide),  and newspaper accounts and reports are cited and from which he drew an abundance of details. In addition to these resources, he consulted with no less than 200 artists, gallery owners, museum archivists and directors, and viewed special and private collections in the US and abroad.

The strength of the book is anchored in its very lucid and engaging style. The author does not overwhelm the reader with facts. Rather, the facts are presented in crisp, fluid, rhythmic and delightful prose. As per artist and theme, an abundance of art works are used as a framing device. Not only does McCullough discuss the artistic works of his American characters, but he also draws on European masters’ works (French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, English) who served as a source of inspiration and emulation for several generations of American artists. He takes the reader into the atelier, these typically French studios, into the museums, especially the Louvre, frescoed-ceilinged drawing rooms and galleries, and the reader is treated to a visual vista of easels, models, aspiring artists and their mentors, canvases of all sizes, paint and paint brushes, including sculpture studios whose wall shelves are lined with an opulence of plaster models, casts, and molds; one even gets to experience and fancy the roaring fires and feel the radiating heat from the casting pits.

In all of these studios all the senses are engaged in a symphonic cacophony of sight, sound, smell and touch. One hears the echo of the mallet’s steady and determined pounding on the hardened steel chisels and visualizes the chipping marble bits as they deflect onto the sculptor and the studio floor. And, in a magical and seductive act of betrothal, one can sense and hear the hiss of the hot, golden-yellow, molten bronze as it pours out of the fiery red crucible to seek, much like an amorous lover’s effusion, the inviting crevices of a plaster mold ready to convert the seething liquid into a pleasing aesthetic form. Liquescent bronze morphs into petrified forms – the fruition of which is a delightful brainchild in a Greek Diana or Hercules, a Lincoln, or Sherman. Detailed description of the drawing rooms, private salons, music halls, and practice rooms enhances the panoramic view. One can only behold the performers, their costumes, their performances and hear the audiences’ applause. The views of critics and the audiences, including copious personal observations and critical reviews, enrich the text.

This book appeals to readers who: love art, theater, music, opera and literature; those who love history, and the history of medicine; those who love landscape architecture, manicured gardens where flora, bronze and marble sculptures, individually and collectively, perch on marble pedestals, and, or, are centered amidst spouting fountains whose geometric contours delight the eyes. All the aforementioned thrive harmoniously in a setting of elegant architectural designs where the streamlined thrust of Gothic spires and hovering flying buttresses flirt with dazzling Baroque opulence to counterbalance the more subdued, symmetrical, and elegantly august Neo Classical architecture. There is an abundance of open, green panoramic space nestled in an interlacing and alternating continuum of manicured green that diffuses the austerity of the cold stone, marble, and concrete. These meandering open spaces, often running parallel to the large boulevards and historic structures, serve as a stage for Parisians and non-Parisians alike on which to promenade in all the seasons of their lives. One gets to experience Artistic Paris, Political Paris, Fashionable Paris, Intellectual Paris, Scientific Paris, and Financial Paris.

From the world of the ateliers, museums, galleries, palaces, fancy restaurants, jardins and gothic style cathedrals’ flying buttresses, gargoyles, exquisite stain glass windows, and a plethora of Greek columns and a rich array of Greco-Roman architectural volutes, broken pediments, dentils, and a plethora of details, one travels to the medical schools, the dissecting labs, the large amphitheater-style operating rooms designed exclusively for teaching purposes, and the morgues from whence, for a nominal fee, the cadavers of the indigent were retrieved by medical students.  McCullough’s description of surgical rooms, surgical procedures, and the savoir faire (more like a self-indulging  showmanship) of the acclaimed surgeons performing their duties in dexterous demonstrations and playing to an audience of aspiring physicians is medical theater at its best. The highly acclaimed Auguste Francois Chonel stands front and center on this stage where life and death are held in a balance officiated by none other than the then-internationally accomplished French followers of Asclepius, the Greek god of the healing arts.  Cocksure and trailed by their eager disciples, these master practitioners strutted through Hótel Dieu,  Hópitale des Enfent Malade, Hópitale de la Charité, and Hópitale Saint-Louis to impart knowledge as though they were a prized walking volume of Avicenna’s Cannon. The stale and unpleasant smells of death that permeate these operating and dissecting rooms are ameliorated with narrative that highlights the pleasant results of the healing arts.

Paris also becomes the stage for mankind’s darker side. Riots, hunger, starvation, deprivation, diseases such as  cholera, typhoid, smallpox,  wars, repression, foreign invasions and their dastardly effects on Parisians are meticulously detailed, especially the turbulent events of the 1848  suppression when Frenchmen turned on each other and during which 4,000 Parisians were killed, on a daily basis, over a period of several weeks. In documentary fashion, McCullough attunes the reader to the firing of canons and muskets the outcome of which are senseless brutality,  minced human and animal sinew strewn amidst burned-out, plundered palaces and gutted ruins of tenement houses in a setting of churned vegetation that mirrors the equally depraved,  mangled mental pathos. Reminiscent of the street barricades depicted in the recent Les Miserables film production, thousands of trees were hewn down for barricades, and one becomes a witness to mass starvation when, having consumed all the  food stuff, including horses and zoo animals,  people were reduced to eating dogs, cats, and eventually rats and mice.

Inherited through Cain’s genetic coding, this affliction, this bane scourge, this debauched and vicious sub-human behavior is a redundant danse macabre which continues to plague and drone humanity even to this day in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, where myth-makers would have us believe it all began. But I digress.

Cited towards the end of the book, one of the most detailed descriptions is the painstakingly meticulous process utilized by the highly acclaimed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the making of his masterpiece, the equestrian sculpture of General Tecumseh Sherman. The large sculpture was initially modelled from clay — the horse in Paris and segments of the human forms in Paris and the US.  Over a period of several years and after several accidents during which some of the fragile clay disintegrated, plaster piece molds were made, carefully packed and shipped to Paris where they were cast individually and then transformed into a vibrant equestrian art work that rivals other works in this genre. The sculpture was then shipped to New York, gilded, set at the entrance to Central Park, and subsequently unveiled and dedicated in 1903.

Palm in hand, the allegorical figure of “Peace” leads Sherman; the model (appropriately selected) was Hariette (Hettie) Eugenia Anderson, an African America woman. Set on a plain, white, sarcophagus-style pedestal, the sculpture exudes with dynamism. The allegorical figure of “Peace” and “Sherman” interact in a powerful and harmonious display of diagonal lines that give the sculpture a kinetic forward thrust. The flowing fabric draping “Peace” is reminiscent of the linens hugging the “Nike of Samothrace” which Saint-Gaudens no doubt saw majestically displayed at the Louvre. “Peace” and Sherman gaze in the same direction, thus accentuating the diagonal lines. These lines commence with the positioning of the female figure’s forward-tilt, flow through the tresses of the female figure, and ripple across the picture plane to the pulsating hairs of the horse’s tail.  Serving as a unifying visual parenthesis, the lifted arm and the horse’s tail enfold the flapping wings of “Peace,” the horse’s ears, the reigns, Sherman’s flowing military tunic, and the horse’s legs in a continuous unifying diagonal and an accelerative gestural stroke that consigns this composition to a class of its own. Sherman’s sword hangs limp at his side, perhaps Saint-Gaudens’ manner of making a political statement about his abhorrence of war.

McCullough expends much text and effort detailing Samuel F. Morse’s painstaking efforts in executing one of the most significant paintings in his oeuvres. Painted between 1831 and 1833, Morse’s painting The Gallery of the Louvre is a massive oil composition measuring 6 ft. in height and 9ft in width. Morse was greatly influenced by the massive works of the Italian Mannerist and French Neoclassical and Romantic artists whose giant works graced the Louvre’s Maison Carrée,  including the massive works of Veronese (Marriage at Cana, 1563),  David (The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807) and Gericault (The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819).  In the genre of Teniers the Younger’s Archduke Leopold’s Gallery  (1651) and Giovanni Paolo Panini’s The Picture Gallery of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga (1794), a painting Morse had formerly studied while visiting the Palazzo Colonna in Rome,   Morse depicts an exhibit space on whose walls are 38 appropriated miniatures of varying sizes. Of the thirty eight miniatures, sixteen are of a religious nature, and twenty-two are copies of the works of masters, including Veronese, Poussin, Lorrain, Rubens, Reni, 2 by Murillo, 3 by Van Dyck, and 4 by Titian. In the center is Titian’s portrait of Francis 1st while Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (1530), Murillo’s Holy Family (1670) and the Mona Lisa (1503-1517) are also depicted. Of significance is Morse’s deliberate omission of aristocrats, French soldiers, and clergymen. (Earlier in the book McCullough cites Morse’s disdain for Catholicism and his staunch Protestant and Puritan sentiments.)

To accomplish this feat, Morse stood on a 12 foot platform spending several hours a day painting and becoming a spectacle and a topic of curious conversation for the daily stream of visitors to the Louvre. The American writer James Fenimore Cooper, sojourning in Paris while writing his acclaimed Leatherstocking novels (which brand the frontiersman Natty Bumppo as an American and French sensation),  would spend two hours per day observing and conversing with Morse. After failing to receive public approval for his paintings in several locales in the United States (Americans had not yet developed an appreciation for Academic Art), Morse gave up on painting and concentrated on developing the telegraph, that instrument that “indeed [annihilated] space.”  It is rather ironic that even though he produced a large body of outstanding canvases, Morse is recognized for his invention instead of his artistic skills.

Much like Augustus Saint Gaudens and Samuel F. Morse’s genius, David McCullough paints a gigantic canvas in prose that is rich in details and in which the fortunate American sojourners in Paris experienced the following:  performances in Garnier’s newly-built Opera House;  witnessed first-hand George Eugene Hausmann’s (Louis Napolen III’s “Demolition artist”) transforming old Paris into a city of Boulevards and elegant structures where a concord of old and new made it a unique city; saw the Eiffel Tower herald the Industrial Age; witnessed Daguerre’s new invention, photography and the Diorama; read Zola, Flaubert and Turgenev; attended the 1867 Exposition Universalle during which the Blue Danube was first conducted by Strauss himself; saw and heard Adolphe Sax’s Le Saxophone for the first time, bought them in great numbers, and shipped them home; became part of the craze created by Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame; became civilized in the gastronomical arts washed down with proper wines and champagnes, including learning proper table manners where elegant place settings, crystal, china, and serviettes became pleasing horizontal canvases and where the partaking of a meal was “l’entente de la vie” (The harmony of life).   Ex Pat John Sanderson’s observation scores a point – that the “French dine to gratify, we to appease appetite. We demolish dinner, they eat it.”

For some,  linguistic skills were rewarding, for others challenging;  book stalls (“ a library on the street from a quarter of a mile of books for six sous a volume”) along both banks of the Seine delivered a universe of reading materials to the intellectually and culturally curious;  some experienced an environment in which “fashion a la mode dernier” became an obsession; some were put out with “ninnies in moustaches”; chewing and spitting tobacco was  considered savage behavior; and in a moment of triumph, Chopin made a cameo appearance to congratulate sixteen-year old New Orleans-born child prodigy, Moreau Gottchalk,  after a stunning piano performance.

The book is further enriched by the occasional personal idiosyncrasies and human foibles that include prudish attitudes when confronted with nude sculptures in gardens or nude paintings in museums. The unbending Puritan and dogmatic Protestant mores and the inability of some to blend into the more relaxed European social fabric are well documented. One of the most delightful passages is the one in which James Fenimore Cooper met  “ ‘a retired  American naval captain with the memorable name of Melancthon T. Woolsey. … a good-hearted but irritable man with a big voice and, like many Americans, inclined to speak  even louder when trying to make himself understood in his outstandingly bad French. “He calls the Tuileries, ‘Tullyrees,’ the Jardins des Plantes, the ‘Garden dis Plants,’ the guillotine, ‘gullyteen’ and the garçons of the cafes, ‘gassons,’ wrote cooper with delight.’ ”

The annual Salon held in the Louvre no doubt increased the appreciation for the arts and helped develop deeper and stronger cultural affinities, and celebrating the Fourth of July with General Lafayette in attendance made the experience a memorable one.  Homesickness and paucity of funds, an affliction of the etrangers, was common, and many queued up to meet the emperor.  Boston socialites fretted about which of the twenty-two dresses to wear to L’Opera.  And no doubt Cassatt, Audubon, Bierstadt, Caitlin, Healy, and Sargent, to name but a very few, stood prominently on that stage called Paris, leaving their mark in the annals of this Great Journey . Many were fortunate to see Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty cast in segments, while others celebrated the opening of Ferdinand Lesseps’ Suez Canal, that 19th century symbol of  French colonialism, that braggartisme  of the Republic’s claim to “le Gloire de France,”  that silly fanfaronade that thrives even to this day.

With an abundance of well-documented endnotes, and a plethora of exquisitely reproduced color plates, David McCullough has served his readers an abundant feast, a feast too rich to describe in a few pages. And much like an acclaimed sculptor who layers and models his clay to create an objet d’art for all the ages, McCullough has created a prose art work deserving a distinctive space in any rare book collection.

In his 1625 essay under the title Of Studies, Francis Bacon stated the following: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. … Reading [this book] maketh a full man.”  And that sums it up!

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a sculptor, a photographer, a writer, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabyr@obu.edu



Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com