Boulevard Saint-Michel (Paris)

The Boulevard Saint-Michel is a major street in the Latin Quarter. It is a tree-lined boulevard which runs south from the Pont Saint-Michel on the Seine, crosses the Boulevard Saint-Germain and continues alongside the Sorbonne and the Luxembourg Gardens, ending at the Place Camille Jullian just before the Port-Royal train station. The boulevard was an important part of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. As the central axis of the Left Bank and the university at its heart, the area is and has long been a centre of learning and culture, and a hotbed of student life and political activism. Initially known as Boulevard de Sébastopol Rive Gauche, construction of the boulevard was decreed in 1855 and began in 1860. The name was changed to Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1867.

The Boulevard Saint-Michel is connected with a literary group known as the ‘Vilains bonhommes’ (the ‘naughty fellows’ – a journalistic insult addressed against fellow poet François Coppée and taken as an honorary name). The authors met in a room on the third floor of the Hôtel des Étrangers, dining, drinking, smoking, reciting verse, and creating parodies of each other’s work and that of the Parnassiens (preferably in an obscene manner – young Rimbaud was a master in producing such rhymes). The result was a collection of poems published in the Album zutique. The hotel’s barman Ernest Cabaner was teaching piano to Rimbaud using chromaticism as a method, colouring notes and giving them the sound of a vowel (this was the immediate source of Rimbaud’s inspiration for the 1871 sonnet ‘Voyelles’ in which each vowel is assigned a colour which helped popularize synesthesia).

The Boulevard Saint-Michel has been the subject of a number of paintings. Jean-François Raffaëlli was a Parisian realist painter and printmaker who exhibited with the Impressionists. Until the mid-1870s he produced primarily costume pictures. His interest in the positivist philosophy of Taine led to a change in approach. Having articulated a theory of realism that he named ‘caractérisme’, he began depicting the people of his time, particularly peasants, workers, and rag pickers seen in the suburbs of Paris. His careful observation of man in his milieu paralleled the anti-aesthetic, anti-romantic approach of Naturalist novelists led by Émile Zola. Degas invited him to take part in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1880 and 1881, an initiative that bitterly divided the group. Not only was Raffaëlli not an Impressionist, but he threatened to dominate the 1880 exhibition with a staggering display of thirty-seven works. Monet, resentful of Degas’s insistence on expanding the Impressionist exhibitions by including several realists, refused to exhibit. After 1890, Raffaëlli shifted his attention from the suburbs to the inner city of Paris. The oil painting ‘Boulevard Saint-Michel’ (1890) is an example of that notable stylistic shift in his work.

Luigi Loir was one of the foremost painters of views of Paris and among the first artists to glamorize the urban lifestyle of the late nineteenth century. He was known as the ‘official painter of the Parisian Boulevards’. Amongst the many street paintings are the Boulevard Henri IV, Rue de la Santé, Le Val de Grâce, Quai Saint Michel, Quai des Augustins, Rond Point des Champs Élysées, Boulevard du Palais, and others. His interest in street scenes was influenced by a transformation that had entirely reshaped the urban landscape and the way in which Parisians spent their leisure time. The street itself became the centre of activity – from the bohemian centre of Montmartre to the upper class promenades of the leisure class. Loir’s cityscape is more than a simple depiction of Paris and its inhabitants. The artist was fascinated by the changing effects of both the different times of day and the varying weather conditions. Among the many street and boulevard scenes he created is a delightful oil painting of the Boulevard Saint-Michel in the early evening (he also produced a ‘Coin du Boulevard Saint-Michel’).

Peter Sarstedt is an Anglo-Indian singer and songwriter. Born in Delhi in 1941, the family returned to England thirteen years later. The singer hit the big time in 1969 with his song ‘Where Do You Go To (my Lovely)?’, a song about a fictional poor girl from the backstreets of Naples named Marie-Claire (it has been suggested that this is a reference to Sophia Loren) who grows up to become a member of the jet set. The lyrics describe her from the perspective of a childhood friend. The title suggests that wealth has not brought her happiness or contentment in life. The lyrics contain a set of international references to what was hot and fashionable in the late sixties and early seventies, from personalities such as Marlene Dietrich (actress and singer), Zizi Jeanmaire (ballerina), Pierre Balmain (designer), Sacha Distel (singer), the Aga Khan (racehorse owner who, in 1969, married the fashion model Sarah Croker-Poole), Picasso and The Rolling Stones, to exotic places like Juan-les-Pins (Riviera beach resort) and Saint Moritz (ski resort in the Alps). In 1969 the song was awarded the prestigious Ivor Novello Award presented by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) – the writing community in other words. The two opening verses seem to justify John Peel’s comments on this song. In a New Musical Express interview, the legendary BBC disc jockey named the record as his personal worst of all time.

You talk like Marlene Dietrich
And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire
Your clothes are all made by Balmain
And there’s diamonds and pearls in your hair, yes there are.

You live in a fancy apartment
Off the Boulevard Saint-Michel
Where you keep your Rolling Stones records
And a friend of Sacha Distel, yes you do.