Paris in the 1890’s: Politics, Morality and Art

by Stephanie Hepp

Paris in the 1890’s experienced a unique era of political transition and scandal. Party labels changed, as well as party attitudes.  The political sphere in Paris at this time was becoming more polarized, as was the intellectual community.  The controversial Dreyfus Affair created a moral rift in the Republic in 1894, which strongly affected the intellectual atmosphere for years to come.  Although there was a schism in the political and intellectual realms of Paris, the art community in Montmartre coalesced and expanded to accept artists from all parts of the world.  In the 1890’s, Paris experienced political instability and division of the intellectual community, whereas the art scene thrived.  Writing as a realist in Paris at the time, Henry James endured these experiences and incorporated them into his fiction.

France in the 1890’s experienced great changes in its political party organization.  The Moderate party, consisting of conservative bourgeois republicans, was formed to offset the rising ideas of a new political influence: socialism.  The roots of socialism in France were deep, stemming from the French Radicals’ perspectives from the 1870’s and 1880’s.  Wright argues that Socialist Radicals at this time weren’t a party, but more of a “state of mind” (239).  As the two political parties offset each other, another polarized group of people was forming in the intellectual world.

The intellectual community’s conflict over the Dreyfus Affair, coupled with the presence of political turbulence, further divided the French people into two conflicting parties.  Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer of Jewish descent, was convicted of allegedly sending a letter that contained French military secrets to German authorities.  In later years, it was discovered that Dreyfus did not commit treason, but the significance of the affair nevertheless resonated with French people even after he was exonerated.  The intellectual community was divided morally: those who were in Dreyfus’ camp (Dreyfusards) believed in justice for every man; the anti-Dreyfusards believed in “raison d’état,” in which the conviction was justified based on national interest.  To add fuel to the fire, a novelist Émile Zola wrote a famous article that shaped public opinion in Paris.  The article was titled “J’accuse,” and it openly accused specific army commanders of being unjust when convicting Dreyfus.  In 1895 when the New York Times reported the Dreyfus Affair article, by coincidence it ran a small headline reporting the failed debut of Henry James’s “Guy Domville” in London. The two separate American articles showed a significant difference James and Dreyfus’ personal humiliations: Edel notes that James’ literary embarrassment was “private,” while Dreyfus’ military dishonor was completely “public” (303).  It is apparent that James was aware of moral division caused by the Dreyfus Affair, and his opinions of them were evident in his realist fiction, such as “Collaboration.”

Although the political and intellectual atmospheres in Paris were turbulent, the art community unified and became more tolerant and unbiased towards foreigners’ art, a subject that Henry James took up in his fiction.  Paris, at this time, was still the art capital of the world.  As soon as Parisian artists began to accept and admire international artwork, the global art community viewed art from a similar perspective.  New mediums were discovered, such as printed poster images, and new subject matter was found.  Some impressionist artists found Paris’ busy streets with endless amounts of traffic repulsive, and turned to the natural world for their subject matter.  In conjunction with the changes of artists’ focuses, authors began to write more realistically and more internationally, just as Henry James did.  In this time, Paris’s art scene strengthened because artists adopted a belief that James wrote about in “Collaboration”: the power of art supersedes nationalism and ethnocentrism.

Paris in the 1890’s was politically and intellectually tumultuous, but artistically prosperous.  The two primary French political parties, the Moderates and Socialists, entirely disagreed with each other, and the Dreyfus Affair divided the intellectual community in half.  Henry James picked up on these disorderly events and wrote about them in a way that proved that the artistic community was becoming more open-minded and realistic.

Works Cited

Edel, Leon. The Life of Henry James. Vol. 2. 1963. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1977. Print.

James, Henry. “Collaboration.” Henry James: Complete Stories 1892-1898. 3rd ed. New York: Library of America, 1996. 234-255. librarycat.richmond.edu. Web. 13 Sept. 2010. http://felix.richmond.edu/cgi-bin/Pscandoc.cgi?app=2&folder=17941&doc=1.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times: From the Enlightenment to the Present. 5th ed. 1960. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Print.

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