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The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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21st May 2003 - Paris Burning

This date in 1871 marked an important event in the life and history of the city of Paris, as it was the day upon which the Paris Commune was breached by Versailles government troops.

The Commune was the government, made up of partly of revolutionaries, which ruled in Paris during the months of March, April and May 1871, following the disastrous outcome (for the French) of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the power vacuum that emerged in Paris after that conflict was ended. The leaders who had been deposed by the Commune were based in Versailles, but had been beseiging the city during the Commune's reign - now, while a grand concert was being performed in the Tuileries Gardens, the Versailles troops began to re-capture parts of the south west of the city.

In the week to follow there would be great destruction and bloodshedding in the 'beautiful city'. More people died during the last week in May than in any of the battles of the Franco-Prussian war, indeed, less people died in the massacres of the French Revolution. It is estimated that something in the region of 30,000 Parisians were killed in the collapse of the Commune. Historian Alistair Horne, in his volume The Fall of Paris (Pan: London, 2002) notes wryly that "it was perfect weather for arson", and records the list of gutted streets and buildings which included the Tuileries, the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais-Royal, the Palais de Justice, the Prefecture of Police, the Cour des Comptes, the Légion d'Honneur, the Conseil d'État, much of Rue de Rivoli and Rue de Lille (pp. 389-90).

This bears a great contrast to a mere four years earlier when Paris had hosted her dazzling Great Exhibition of 1867, at which Whistler had shown work. Whistler was in England in 1871 and so was not present at the Commune; other artists such as Renoir and a young Seurat left Paris before her fall; and a few, like Courbet, were dedicated Communards who stayed in the city through the final days.