Paris – The Boulevard St. Germain And Its Tributaries

FROM the Invalides the Boulevard St. Germain, the west to east highway of the Surrey side of Paris, is easily gained ; but it is not in itself very interesting. The interesting streets either cross it or run more or less parallel with it, such as the old and winding Rue de Grenelle, which we come to at once, the home of the Parisian aristocracy after its removal from the Marais. The houses are little changed : merely the tenants ; and certain Embassies are now here. No. 18 was once the Hôtel de Beauharnais, the home of the fair Joséphine; at the Russian Embassy, No. 79, the Duchesse d’Estrées lived. In an outhouse at No. 115 was buried in unconsecrated ground Adrienne Lecouvreur, the tragedienne who made tragedy, the beloved of Maréchal Saxe. Scribe’s drama has made her story known — how her heart was too much for her, and how Christian burial was refused her by a Christian priest.

The Rue St. Dominique, parallel with the Rue de Grenelle nearer the river, is equally old and august. At No. 13 lived Madame de Genlis, the monitress of French youth. Still nearer the river runs the long Rue de l’Université, which also has an illustrious past and a picturesque present, some great French noble having built nearly every house.

One of the first old streets to cross the Boulevard St. Germain is the Rue du Bac, a roadway made when the Palace of the Tuileries was building, to convey materials from Vaugiraud to the bac (or ferry boat) which crossed the Seine where the Pont Royal now stands. This street also is full of ancient palaces and convents. Chateaubriand died at 118-120. At 128 is the Séminaires des Missions Etrangères, with a terrible little museum called the Chambre des Martyrs, very French in character, displaying instruments of torture which have been used upon missionaries in China and other countries inimical (like poor Adrienne’s priest) to Christianity. The Rue des Saints-Pères resembles the Rue du Bac, but is more attractive to the loiterer because it has perhaps the greatest number of old curiosity shops of any street in Paris. They touch each other : perhaps they take in each other’s dusting. I never saw a customer enter; but that of course means nothing. One might be sure of finding a case made of peau de chagrin here and be equally sure that Balzac had trodden this pavement before you. You will see, however, nothing or very little that is beautiful, because Paris does not care much for sheer beauty.

The Rue des Saints-Pères runs upwards into the Rue de Sèvres, where old convents cluster and the Bon Marché raises its successful modern bulk. It was in the Abbaye-aux-Bois, once at the corner of the Rue de Sèvres and the Rue de la Chaise but now buried beneath a gigantic block of new flats, that Madame Récamier lived from 1814 until her death in 1849, visited latterly every day by the faithful Chateaubriand. M. Georges Cain has a charming chapter on this friendship and its scene in his Promenades dans Paris, of which an English translation, entitled Walks in Paris, has recently been published.

Returning to the Boulevard St. Germain, which we leave as often as we touch it, I remember that, on the south side, between the Invalides end and the statue of the inventor of the semaphore, used to be a little shop devoted to the sale of trophies of Joan of Arc. And since it used to be there, it follows that it is there still, for nothing in Paris ever changes. One of the great charms of Paris is that it is, always the same. I can think of hardly any shop that has changed in the last ten years. This means, I suppose, that the French rarely die. How can they, disliking as they do to leave Paris ? It is the English and the Scotch, born to forsake their homes and live uncomfortably foreign lives, who die.

If one is interested in seeing the Pasteur Institute, now is the time, for it is not far from the Rue de Sèvres, in the Rue Falguière, named after Falguière, the sculptor of the memorial to Pasteur in the Place Breteuil : one of the best examples of recent Paris statuary, with a charming shepherd boy playing his pipe to his flock on one side of the pediment, and grimmer scenes of disease on the others. This monument, however, is some distance from the Institute, the Place Breteuil being the first carrefour in that vast and endless avenue which leads southwards from Napoleon’s tomb. The Institute itself has a spirited statue of Jupille the shepherd, one of its first patients, in his struggle with the wolf that bit him. Pasteur’s tomb is here, but I have not seen it, as I arrived on the wrong day.

One of the most attractive of the Boulevard St. Germain’s byways is entered just round the corner of the Rue de Rennes. This is the Cour du Dragon, which is not only a relic of old Paris, but old Paris is still visible hard at work in it. The Cour du Dragon is a narrow court gained by an archway over which a red dragon perches, holding up the balcony with his vigorous pinions. It was the Hôtel Taranne in the reigns of Charles VI. and VII. and Louis XI.; later it became a famous riding and fencing school. It is now a cheerful nest of artisans — coppersmiths, lock-smiths, coal merchants and the like, who fill it with brisk hammerings, while at the windows above, with their green shutters, the songs of caged birds mingle in the symphony.

As in all Parisian streets or courts where signs are hung, the golden key is prominent. (There is one in Mr. Dexter’s picture of the Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville.) What the proportion of locksmiths is to the population of Paris I cannot say; but their pretty symbol is to be seen everywhere. The reason of their numbers is not very mysterious when we recollect that practically every-one that one meets in this city, and certainly all the people of the middling and working classes, live in flats, and all want keys. The streets and streets of the small houses with which East London is covered are unknown in Paris, where every façade is but the mask which hides vast tenements packed with families. No wonder then that the serrurier is so busy.

Another sign which probably puzzles many English people is that of the stoppeur. Bellows’ dictionary does not recognise the word. What is a stoppeur and what does he stop ? I discovered the answer in the most practical way possible; for a Frenchman, in a crowd, helped me to it by pushing his lighted cigar into my back and burning a hole in it, right in the middle of the coat, where a patch would necessarily show. I was in despair until the femme de chambre reassured me. It was nothing, she said : all that was needed was a stoppeur. She would take the coat herself. It seems that the stoppeur’s craft is that of mending holes so deftly that you would not know there had been any. He ascertains the pattern by means of a magnifying glass, and then extracts threads from some part of the garment that does not show and weaves them in. I paid three francs and have been looking for the injured spot ever since, but cannot find it. It is a modern miracle.

Diagonally opposite the Court of the Dragon is the Church of St. Germain — not the St. Germain who owns the church at the east end of the Louvre, but St. Germain du Pré, a lesser luminary. It has no particular beauty, but a number of frescoes by Flandrin, the pupil of Ingres, give it a cachet. Flandrin’s bust is to be observed on the north wall. The frescoes cannot be seen except under very favourable conditions, and therefore for me the greatness of Flandrin has to be sought in his drawings at the Luxembourg and the Louvre — sufficient proof of his exquisite hand.

Before descending the Rue Buonaparte to the river, let us ascend it to see the great church of St. Sulpice and its paintings by Delacroix in the Chapel of the Holy Angels. Under the Convention St. Sulpice was the Temple of Victory, and here General Buonaparte was feasted in 1799. The church is famous for its music and an organ second only to that of St. Eustache. And now let us descend the Rue Buonaparte to the quais, where several buildings await us, beginning with the Beaux-Arts at the foot of the street; but first the Rue Jacob, which bisects the Rue Buonaparte, should be looked at, for it has had many illustrious inhabitants, including our own Laurence Sterne, who lodged here, at No. 46, in the Hôtel of his friend Madame Rambouillet (of the easy manners) when he was studying the French for A Sentimental Journey. It was here perhaps that he penned the famous opening sentence : ” ` They order,’ said I, ` these things better in France’ ” —which no other writer on Paris has succeeded in forgetting. At No. 20 lived Adrienne Lecouvreur, and hither Voltaire must often have come, for he greatly admired her. At No. 7 is a fine old staircase and an old well in the court.

The Palais des Beaux-Arts, where the Royal Academy Schools of Paris are situated, is an unexhilarating building containing a great number of unexciting paintings. Indeed, I think that no public edifice of Paris is so dreary : within and without one has a sense, not exactly of decay, but certainly of neglect. This is not the less odd when one thinks of the purpose of the institution, which is to foster the arts, and when one thinks also of the spotless perfection in which the Petit Palais, the latest of the Parisian picture galleries, is maintained. The spirit, however, is willing, if the flesh is weak, for in the first and second courts are examples of the best French architecture, and a bust of Jean Goujon is let into the wall of the Musée des Antiques. The building contains a number of casts of the best sculptures and an amphitheatre with Delaroche’s pageant of painters on the hemicycle and Ingres’ Victory of Romulus over the Sabines opposite it; but there is not always enough light to see either well. For the best view of Delaroche’s great work one must go upstairs to the Gallery. The library also is upstairs, with many thousand of valuable works on art and a collection of drawings by the masters, access to which is made easy to genuine students.

By returning to the first court we come to the Musée de la Renaissance, which now occupies an old chapel of the Couvent des Petits-Augustins, on the site of which the Palais de Beaux-Arts was built. Here are more casts and copies, and there are still more in the adjoining Cour du Mûrier, where stands the memorial of Henri Regnault, the painter, and the students who died with him during the defence of Paris in 1870-71.

We then enter the Salle de Melpomène, so called from the dominating cast of the Melpomène at the Louvre, and are straightway among what seem at the first glance to be old friends from all the best galleries of the world but too quickly are revealed as counterfeits. Rembrandt’s School of Anatomy and the Syndics, our own National Gallery Correggio, the Dresden Raphael, the Wallace Collection Velasquez (the Lady with a Fan), one of Hals’ groups of arquebusiers, and Paul Potter’s Bull: all are here, together with countless others, all the work of Beaux-Arts students, and some exceedingly good, but also (like most copies) exceedingly depressing.

In other rooms almost pitch dark are modelled studies of expression and paintings which have won the Grand Prix of Rome during the past two hundred years. It is odd to notice how few names one recognises : it is as though, like the Newdigate, this prize were an end in itself.

Having contemplated the statue of Voltaire in his robes outside the Institut, the next building of importance after the Beaux Arts, you may, if you so desire, gaze upon the same philosopher in a state of nature by entering the Institut itself, and ascending to its Bibliothèque. There he sits, the skinny cynic, among the books which he wrote and the books which he read and the books which would not have been written but for him. I was glad to see him thus, for it showed me where our, own Arouet, Mr. Bernard Shaw, found his inspiration when he too subjected recently his economical frame to the maker of portraits. Mr. Shaw sat, how-ever, only to a photographer (although a very good one, Mr. Coburn) ; when he visited Rodin it was for the head, a replica of which may be seen at the Luxembourg. Speaking of heads, the Institut is a wilderness of them : heads line the stairs ; heads line the walls not only of its own Bibliothèque but of the Bibliothèque de Mazarin, which also is here, a haven for every student that cares to seek it: heads of the great Frenchmen of all time and of the Caesar’s too.

The Pont des Arts, which leads direct from the old Louvre to the Institut (a connection, if ever, no longer of any importance), is for foot passengers only. One is therefore more at ease there in observing the river than on the noisy bridge of stone. But it is inexcusably ugly, and leaves one continually wondering what Napoleon was about to allow it to be built — and of iron too — in his day of good taste. Looking up stream, the Pont Neuf is close by with the thin green end of the Cité’s wedge protruding under it and, in winter, Henri IV. riding proudly above. In summer, as Mr. Dexter’s drawing shows, he is hidden by leaves. A basin has been constructed at this point from which the tide is excluded, and here are washing houses and swimming baths; for Parisians, having a river, use it.

The Hôtel des Monnaies, close by the Beaux Arts, is another surprise. One would expect in such a country as France, with its meticulously exact control of its public offices, that its Mint, the institution in which its money was made, would be a miracle of precision and efficiency. Efficiency it may have; but its proceedings are casual beyond belief : the workmen in the furnaces loaf and smoke and stare at the visitors and exchange comments on them; the floors are cluttered up with lumber; the walls are dirty; the doors do not fit. A very considerable amount of work seems to be accomplished — there are machines constantly in movement which turn out scores of coins a minute, not only for France but for her few and dispiriting colonies and for other countries; and yet the feeling which one has is that France here is noticeably below herself.

I was shown around by a very charming attendant, who handled the new coins as though he loved them and took precisely that pride in the place that the Government seems to lack. The design on the French franc, although it ought to be cut, I think, a little deeper, a little more boldly, is very attractive, both obverse and reverse, and it is a pleasant sight to see the bright creatures tumbling out of the machine as fast as one can count. Pleasanter still is it to the frail human eye when the same process is repeated with golden Louis’ — basketfuls of which stand negligently about as though it were the cave of the Forty Thieves.

An Englishman’s perhaps indiscreet questions as to what precautions were taken to prevent leakage amused the guide beyond all reason. “It is impossible,” he said ; ” the coins are weighed. They must correspond to the prescribed weight.” ” But who,” my countryman went on, in the relentless English way, “checks the weigher?” “Another,” said the guide. “But a time must come,” continued the Briton, who probably had a business of his own and had suffered, “when there is no one left to check — when the last man of all is officiating : how then ?” Our guide laughed very happily, and repeated that there were no thieves there; and I dare-say he is right. “Perhaps,” I said, to the English inquisitor, “perhaps, like assistants in sweet shops, they are allowed at first to help themselves so much that they acquire a disgust for money.” He looked at me with eyes of stone. I think he had Scotch blood. “Perhaps,” he said at last.

My own contribution to the guide’s entertainment was the production, before a machine that was shooting five-franc pieces into a bowl at the rate of one a second, of the four bad (démonétisé) coins of the same value which had been forced upon me during the few days I had then been in Paris. They gave immense delight.

Several minters (or whatever they are called) stopped working in order to join in the inspection. It was the general opinion that I had been badly treated : although, of course, I ought to have known. Three of the coins were simply those of other nations no longer current in France, and for them I could get from two to three francs each at an exchange. Unless, of course, a man of the world put in, I liked to sell them to a waiter, and then I should get perhaps a slightly better price. ” Be careful, however,” said he, ” that he does not give them back to you in the next change.” The fourth coin was frankly base metal and ought not to have taken in a child. That, by the way, was given to me at a Post Office, the one under the Bourse, and I find that Post Offices are notorious for this habit with foreigners. The minters generally agreed that it was a scandal, but they did so without heat — bearing indeed this misfortune (not their own) very much as their countryman La Rochefoucauld had observed men to do.

After the coins we saw the medal-stampers at work, each seated in a little hole in the ground before his press. The French have a natural gift for the designing of medals, and they are interested in them as souvenirs not only of public but of private events — such as silver weddings, birthdays and other anniversaries. Upstairs there is a collection of medals by the best designers — such as Rotz, Patz, Cariai, Chaplain, Dupuis, Dupré —many of them charming. Here also are collections of the world’s coinage and of historical French medals. Related Articles  Paris – The Faubourg St. Germain.  Paris – Outside The City Walls  France – Saint-Germain