by Luc Sante, visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College
Chopin arrived in Paris in September 1831, at the age of 21. He would receive French citizenship in 1835; he would never return to Poland.
The city he settled in was undergoing its difficult passage into modernity. A three-day insurrection the previous July had ushered out the last Bourbon, Charles X, and brought in Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen Monarch.” The change of kings was a slight improvement, although Louis-Philippe had already begun throwing his weight around; that November the caricaturist Charles Philipon was sent to prison for six months and fined 2,000 francs for depicting the new monarch as a pear with human features.
Beginning in mid-February, 1832, Paris was in the grip of a cholera epidemic that would kill more than 18,500 citizens over the course of nine months. The Romantics, who were generally unaffected, were fascinated; at a soirée at Victor Hugo’s, Franz Liszt played Beethoven’s Funeral March to great effect. Chopin, who had just given his debut concert in Paris, was not yet well enough established to be there himself. That June, a minor uprising began at the funeral of General Lamarque, a veteran of Napoleon’s army; it would be remembered primarily because Hugo employed it as a set-piece in Les misérables.
At the end of 1833, the Luxor obelisk was installed in Place de la Concorde. The following April saw another republican insurrection, that one capped by the massacre of all the inhabitants of a house on Rue Transnonain (today Rue Beaubourg), immortalized in a print by Honoré Daumier. In November 1835, Pierre François Lacenaire, a psychotic killer who became a literary celebrity, went up for trial—his memory is preserved in Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Children of Paradise (1942). The year 1836, when Chopin first met George Sand, was also marked by the debut of the first two cheap daily newspapers, La Presse and Le Siècle, which both began the same day and altered the course of French literature with their frenzied competition over serial novels. That year also saw the inauguration of the Arch of Triumph in the Place de l’Étoile.
The first railroad line out of the city was opened in 1837; Louis-Mandé Daguerre first experimented with daguerreotypes in 1839; the first gas stoves and the first Christmas trees made their appearance in 1840. In 1842, when Chopin began showing signs of serious illness, the first French-made cigarettes arrived on the scene; not long after came the first railway disaster—57 dead on the Versailles line. In the following year, the first attempt was made at electric street lighting. Adolphe Sax won a musical competition on the Champ-de-Mars in 1845 and saw his instrument adopted by French military bands; the same year the first electric telegraph line was installed.
The year the Chopin-Sand liaison came to an end, 1847, was also the year Henry Murger published Scènes de la vie de bohème, which somewhat fancifully documented a social type that had recently come to prominence in the capital. In 1848, when Chopin was so ill he weighed less than 99 pounds, the city erupted in thwarted revolution, with barricades filling the streets from February to June. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected president of the Republic in December (he would stage his coup d’état, culminating in his crowning as emperor, in 1851). In 1849, the year of Chopin’s death, the first bureaucratic steps were taken that would ultimately lead to Baron Haussmann’s razing and rebuilding of large areas of the city. Chopin was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery—that is, all except his heart, which went back to Warsaw in an oil-filled urn.
Luc Sante is a visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard, teaching in both the Art History and Written Arts programs since 1999. His books include The Other Paris, Kill All Your Darlings, The Factory of Facts, and Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. His honors include a Whiting Writers Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Grammy (for album notes), an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, Guggenheim and Cullman fellowships, and, most recently, the first French Heritage Society Literary Award.