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Representing Paris: History and Actuality at the London Panoramas

journal contribution
posted on 2024-02-12, 21:21 authored by Sophie ThomasSophie Thomas

This paper explores questions related to the representation of history and actuality at the popular panoramas of the early nineteenth century, drawing on at least two meanings of the term “actuality”: its reference to existing objective fact, and to realism in representation. It focuses on London and Paris, key cities for the development of the panorama as a form of urban representation, as both sites and subjects for exhibition. At the center, however, of this confluence of place, event, and panoramic illusion making, is an examination of the popularity of Paris as a subject at the panoramas of London. A range of complex factors contributed to its prominence, from the city’s architectural beauty and urban sophistication, to the fear and anxiety it aroused—for political reasons—in English observers. Not surprisingly, many representations of Paris coincided with periods of war or revolution. For example, in 1802 and 1803, during the Napoleonic wars, at least two pictures of Paris were on display in London; in 1814, the battle of Paris was shown at Leicester Square; and as Richard Altick elaborates, the three-day revolt of 1830 was represented at the Queen’s Bazaar in 1832, in the form of “eight grand diorama views, painted on many thousand feet of canvas” (179). Also in 1832, the Diorama presented a view of Paris from Montmartre, and in 1848, the “Colosseum” in Regent’s Park opened a showing of Paris by night, at the very moment the city was in the grip of revolution. Foreign cities were popular subjects at the panoramas generally, but the representations of Paris are instructive because of the strong connection they make between scene and event, and for what this connection tells us about the descriptive procedures of the panorama as a form.




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