2.2 Paris : The Myth
The French capital has been subject of countless writings, whether romantic or prosaic. Dutch nineteenth-century sources cite French writers frequently, as for instance Eugène Sue, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola, all of whom wrote extensively about Paris. Concurrently images, art criticism, articles in magazines, stories by artists and travel guides influenced the manner of thought on Paris. It is not surprising that Dutch artists had fully formed notions on what the city would look like, before ever having seen it. The nineteenth-century artist Cornelis Kruseman (1797-1857) had dreamed of the exalted feeling that a stay in the world-famous city, this sanctuary of art as he called it, would bring about. On arrival he was extremely disappointed: besides finding beauty and sublimation he also found the most trivial and futile things that one could imagine.1 Some sixty years later the young painter Willem Witsen (1860-1923), who was completely caught up in the Paris myth of the flaneur, reacted in a comparable manner: `but the city, my dear chap, as city, the pub crawling, the sauntering and looking, looking, nothing but looking; I assure you, it is something marvelous, remarking and then the reasoning about it; […] – the futile, the viciousness is the only wretched thing here, and one is often reminded of it’.2 Kruseman’s and Witsen’s exclamations were not uncommon: Paris was at the same time more splendid and so much less so than expected by its visitors.
Myths were part of the manner in which contemporary artists formed an opinion of the city, often with preconceived ideas of what they would find there. Stories also influenced the way in which they moved around the city, choosing sites and streets they were already familiar with in their minds.