Archive for the ‘19th Century France’ Category

I was at the private view of the “Diorama”; it is in part a transparency; the spectator is in a dark chamber, and it is very pleasing, and has great illusion. It is without the pale of art, because its object is deception. The art pleases by reminding, not deceiving. The place was filled with foreigners, and I seemed to be in a cage of magpies. – John Constable.

Ruins of Hollyrood Chapel, one of Daguerre's paintings for an 1824 Paris diorama

Imagine a world without films or television, computers or cell phones. Where transportation was slow and costly, and only the rich could afford to travel out of the country. Then imagine a new cutting edge technology in which lifesized illusions of ancient or distant lands were recreated on large transluscent screens and scenes of beauty or disaster were enhanced with lights that simulated scenes containing fire, the changing seasons, and sunrises and sunsets. Dioramas were a 19th century version of virtual reality – spectacles that both entertained and filled the viewer with wonder. Illusionary, seemingly 3D, and augmented by concealed lights in back of the stage, these entertainments were shown in buildings designed to display them.

Photo shows people watching Daguerre's diorama. Undated illustration. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

In 1822, a mere 5 years after Jane Austen’s death, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, introduced the first Diorama theater in Paris.

Diorama in Paris. Image @Jack and Beverley's Optical Toys

“Daguerre made large paintings of scenes and displayed they in elaborate layered stage settings along with real objects. The theater was equipped with windows and louvers that could be opened and closed to front light and back light the images. This caused transparent areas of the scene to change and new images to appear. Most often these were day to night transformations.” – Jack and Beverley’s Optical Toys

Diorama, Regent's Park

One year after Daguerre’s introduction of this wondrous new entertainment, the first diorama opened up in London in Regent’s Park. (The building still stands, but the interior has been vastly transformed.) The subject matter included landscape scenes of the grand tour, religious stories, recreations of paintings and grand architecture, and historical themes well-known to the public. The images could be made more or less bright according to the mood or atmosphere required by the theme. Props were also added for realism:

Diorama theatre

The visitors, after passing through a gloomy anteroom, were ushered into a circular chamber, apparently quite dark. One or two small shrouded lamps placed on the floor served dimly to light the way to a few descending steps and the voice of an invisible guide gave directions to walk forward. The eye soon became sufficiently accustomed to the darkness to distinguish the objects around and to perceive that there were several persons seated on benches opposite an open space resembling a large window. Through the window was seen the interior of Canterbury Cathedral undergoing partial repair with the figures of two or three workmen resting from their labours. The pillars, the arches, the stone floor and steps, stained with damp, and the planks of wood strewn on the ground, all seemed to stand out in bold relief, so solidly as not to admit a doubt of their substantiality, whilst the floor extended to the distant pillars, temptingly inviting the tread of exploring footsteps. Few could be persuaded that what they saw was a mere painting on a flat surface. The impression was strengthened by perceiving the light and shadows change, as if clouds were passing over the sun, the rays of which occasionally shone through the painted windows, casting coloured shadows on the floor. Then shortly the lightness would disappear and the former gloom again obscure the objects that had been momentarily illumined. The illusion was rendered more perfect by the sensitive condition of the eye in the darkness of the surrounding chamber.” “- The History of the Discovery of Cinematography http://www.precinemahistory.net/1800.htm


Dioramas were created for spectacle and entertainment, and one can readily imagine Georgette Heyer’s characters attending these events during the London Season.

The popularity of the dioramas generated a debate over whether their pictures were art. The press discussed them as ‘exhibitions of art.’ But if the dioramas were art, it was a mundane art, and it rarely elevated the viewer’s taste. Indeed, if contemporary reactions are to be believed, the highest artistic achievement the diorama could attain was providing an entertaining substitute for reality. These pleasant but uncomplicated images required little or no preparation for serious thought… – Robert W. Brown.

Diorama diagram. Image @Wikipedia

This first-hand account gives the modern reader a sense of how these 30 – 50 minute light shows seemed to the viewer:

Woodcut of a diorama, day and night scenes.

A bell now rings, we find ourselves in motion; the whole theatre in which we sit, moves round till its wall closes the aperture or stage, and we are in perfect darkness; the bell rings again, a curtain rises, and we are looking on the time-worn towers, transepts, and buttresses of Notre Dame, its rose window on the left, and the water around its base reflecting back the last beams of the setting sun. Gradually these reflections disappear, the warm tints fade from the sky, and arc succeeded by the cool grey hue of twilight, and that again by night—deepening by insensible m degrees till the quay and the surrounding buildings and the water are no longer distinguishable, and Notre Dame itself scarcely reveals to us its outlines against the sky. Before we have long gazed on this scene the moon brgins to emerge slowly—very slowly, from the opposite quarter of the heavens, its first faint rays tempering apparently rather than dispersing the gloom; presently a slight radiance touches the top of one of the pinnacles of the cathedral—and glances as it were athwart the dark breast of the stream; now growing more powerful, the projections of Notre Dame throw their light and fantastic shadows over the left side of the building, until at last, bursting forth in serene unclouded majesty, the whole scene is lit up, except where the vast Cathedral interrupts its beams, on the quay here to the left, and where through the darkness the lamps are now seen, each illumining its allotted space.” – London Volumes 5-6, Edited by Charles Knight, 1843, pp. 284 – 288

Diorama, Edinburgh

By the early half of the 19th century there were five diaromas open in London. They were also popular in other British cities, as well as Breslau, Berlin, Cologne, Stockholm, and the United states. It is interesting to note that the end of the diorama’s popularity coincided with the rise of photography.

The Annual Peeps Diorama competition grows bigger every year: Easter at the National Peeps-thedral

Dioramas have shrunk in size, and today’s viewers know them only as scenes in boxes or bottles, as museum displays, or for competitions, such as the science fair or annual peeps contest.

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The lush fashion exhibition, Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion, closed in Milan in September. On the website, readers are still allowed to choose where they would like it to travel next!

The beautiful cameo necklace and earrings complete this evening ensemble.

The catalogue, written by Cristina Barreto and Martin Lancaster, is sumptuous and filled with color photographs. The clothes are compared to fashion illustrations of the day. One cannot get a better education of French fashion during this period than this book. This video and the link to the slide show below it show what we have missed by not traveling to Milan last spring and summer.

Napoleon’s desire to protect the garment industry in France after the French Revolution resulted in an explosion of designs that propelled the French fashion industry to the forefront, making it hugely influential. By encouraging women to purchase many gowns (so that they would not be seen in the same dress too often), France became synonymous with fashion. See the slide show of images from the exhibition by clicking on this link.

The many French fashions shown from the 1795-1810 years

Vote where you would like the exhibit to travel next. If the exhibit comes to New York, I hope to see the same mannequins. Aren’t they simply superb?

Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion in Milan

Order the catalog at Amazon: It ships within 1-3 months.

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They say an image is worth a thousand words. This one, drawn in 1855, made me pause. It’s from Forrester’s Pictorial Miscellany for the Family Circle by Matthew Forrester.

French shepherd sitting on raised stool and stilts. Book illustration, pen drawing. Image @Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the accompanying text (p. 65-67):

The Shepherds of Les Bas Landes.

In the south-western part of France, bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the Pyrenees, a chain of high mountains separating France from Spain, there is a large barren tract of land, that, from the number of its heaths, has conferred the title of Les Landes on the department to which it belongs. Being generally a level plain, intermixed with shrubs and swamps, it is naturally described as being the most desolate and dreary portion of France. A few spots, like the oases of the African deserts, are to be found at long intervals of space, and here only can rye be grown, the rest being a dreary waste, dotted with heath, firs, or cork trees.

The climate is very unhealthy, the heat in summer being scorching, and in winter the marshes are enveloped in dense fogs. From the « level nature of the land, and from the fact that a considerable portion of it is under water, the shepherds have recourse to stilts, and the dexterity which is manifested in their management has often elicited wonder and admiration from the passing traveller, who rarely meets with many traces of civilization. You will see a picture of one of these shepherds on the preceding page. There he sits from morning till night, knitting away, and watching his flock.

The shepherds in these parts are very careful of their flocks, whose docility is remarkable. Not less so is the good understanding between the sheep and the dogs. The celerity with which the shepherds draw their flocks around them is not more astonishing than the process by which they effect it is simple and beautiful. If they are at no great distance from him, he gives a peculiar whistle, and they leave off feeding, and obey the call; if they are afar off and scattered, he utters a shrill cry, and instantly the flocks are seen leaping over the swamps, and scampering towards him. When they have mustered around him, the shepherd sets off on his return to the cabin, or resting place he has secured, and the flock follow behind, like so many well-trained hounds.

Their fine looking dogs, a couple of which are generally attached to each flock, have nobler duties to perform than that of chasing the animals together, and biting the legs of stragglers. To their protection is confided the flock from the predatory expeditions of wolves and bears, against whose approach they are continually on the watch, and to whom they at once offer battle. So well aware are the sheep of the fatherly care of these dogs, and that they themselves have nothing to fear from them, that they crowd around them as if they really sought their protection, and dogs and sheep may be seen resting together in perfect harmony. Thus habituated to scenes of such gentleness and magnanimity, the shepherds themselves are brave, generous, and humane, and though, as may be imagined, for the most part plunged in the deepest ignorance, are highly sensitive among themselves to the slightest dereliction from the strict paths of true morality.

Given this bucolic description, would the shepherd’s heart be torn asunder once his sheep were ripped from his protection and driven to market?

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