The Palais-Royal: Social Centre of 19th-Century Paris
The Palais-Royal, a former royal palace in Paris, was a spectacular shopping, entertainment and dining complex for the first half of the 19th century. It attracted all of Parisian society, from the high to the low. In Napoleon in America, when General Jean-Pierre Piat is trying to confuse the policeman who is following him, he heads for the galleries of the Palais-Royal, “aiming to lose himself among the philosophers and rogues, the idle and the profligate, the pickpockets and ladies of fair virtue.” (1)
The Palais-Royal was built between 1633 and 1639 for Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s chief minister. When Richelieu died, the property was left to the king. During the reign of Louis XIV, the Palais-Royal became the residence of the king’s younger brother, the Duke of Orléans, and his family.
The Palais-Royal continued as the off-and-on dwelling of the Orléans family until the late 18th century, undergoing several renovations in the process. In 1780, it came into the possession of Louis Philippe II d’Orléans. His extravagant lifestyle had left him deep in debt, so he decided to turn the palace into a money-spinner. He built rows of apartments and arcaded commercial space around the palace garden, rented them out, and opened the garden and arcades to the public. Only drunkards, women clothed exceptionally indecently, and people dressed in rags were refused entry. The Palais-Royal became home to shops, cafes, restaurants, theatres and more, including gamblers, pickpockets and prostitutes. In 1787, the Cirque du Palais-Royal – a glass-roofed hall that hosted performances, food, boutiques and gaming – opened in the centre of the garden. The Palais-Royal was the social, shopping and entertainment centre of Paris.
Philippe was liberal-minded, so the Palais-Royal was also a gathering place for political dissidents. On July 12, 1789, journalist Camille Desmoulins stood on a table outside a café in the Palais-Royal garden and urged the crowd to take up arms against the Bourbon monarchy. Two days later the mob stormed the Bastille, starting the French Revolution.
Philippe supported the Revolution. In 1792, he changed his name to Philippe Égalité. The Palais-Royal became the Palais-Égalité. Philippe even voted in favour of the execution of his cousin, King Louis XVI. However, because of his royal background he was himself guillotined in November 1793. The Palais-Royal was confiscated by the French state. The government continued to rent it out to respectable tenants. In December 1798, the Cirque du Palais-Royal was destroyed by fire.
The Palais-Royal under Napoleon
As a young officer in Paris, Napoleon visited the garden and arcades of the Palais-Royal. After coming to power in 1799, he installed the Tribunat – a legislative assembly created on January 1, 1800 – in the palace.
[T]o make the locality available a number of market-stalls were compulsorily removed and the owners forcibly ejected; casinos and houses of ill-fame were also suppressed. The choice of such a locality was the object of many pleasantries, and it was generally considered that the place was chosen on purpose to throw contempt on the Tribunat.
One of the Tribunes…brought forward a motion of order on this subject. Instead of blaming the place chosen, he felicitated the Tribunat on sitting in the Palais Royal. ‘As soldiers of liberty,’ he said, ‘we are well placed in the very spot where the national cockade was first worn. If monarchical ambition were once more to send here its armed satellites we could point them to the places where the soldiers of the former Monarchy first waved over their heads the new-born banner of liberty. If they dared to reproach us with an idol of fifteen days [a reference to Napoleon], we could remind them that here began the overthrow of an idol of fifteen centuries [a reference to the French monarchy].’ (2)
An Englishman who visited Paris shortly after peace was temporarily concluded between Britain and France in 1801 wrote a description of the Palais-Royal on January 1, 1802. It was the French custom to celebrate New Year’s Day by giving gifts to relatives and friends.
The Palais Royal, as it is universally called (notwithstanding its first revolutionary and already superannuated name of ‘Jardin d’Égalité’ and its present constitutional one of ‘Palais du Tribunat’) was thronged this morning with persons of all classes, who soon dispersed themselves among the various shops, in order to purchase these little annual presents, or ‘étrennes,’ as they are called in the language of the country. The jewelers vied with each other in displaying, in their windows, all the taste, fashion, and magnificence of their choicest merchandise; and diamond rings, pearl lockets, and amber necklaces offered to gallantry elegant but expensive means of testifying its ardour. The milliners brought forth their finest lace, their most tawdry colours, and their most extravagant patterns; and the confectioners, with streamers at their door, ornamented cakes within, perfumed bon bons, and amorous mottoes, soon found the means of filling their respective shops.
What an extraordinary place is the Palais Royal! There is nothing like it in any town in Europe. I remember hearing an English epicure once observe, ‘that as soon as the peace took place, he would give himself the happiness of passing six weeks in the Palais Royal, without once going out of its gates.’ Certainly, if a man be contented with sensual pleasures, there is not one which he may not gratify within the walls of this building. Restaurateurs, or taverns, where dinners are served from ten sols to two louis a head. Coffee houses, where, for three-pence, the lounger may pass the whole of his day in playing chess, talking politics, or reading the papers. Gambling houses, where the man of pleasure, at the risk of all that is dearest to him in life, purchases the anxious feelings which fear and hope excite, and where the chevalier d’industrie finds the disgraceful means of a dishonourable existence. Taylors, haberdashers, silversmiths, and watchmakers offer every variety of clothing, of ornament, and of machinery. Booksellers’ shops are seen in every corner, where the homme de lettres finds his favourite authors, the romantic young lady her novels, and the politician his pamphlets. Opticians, where the frequenter of spectacles purchases his opera glass, and the philosopher his telescope. Crowds of unfortunate, and sometimes lovely females, challenge, with every variety of dress, the attention of passengers, and, while they offer a too easy banquet to libertines and dotards, fill every reflecting mind with pity and with sorrow….
[W]hile the cellars are filled with inferior restaurateurs, or eating houses, where bands of music are constantly playing, frequently dressed in theatrical costumes, the upper rooms are occupied with gambling parties, cabinets of intrigue, and coffee-houses. The latter have every variety of decoration; some are painted to represent the Alps, and others are covered with glass, reflecting in every direction a different room. The gambling tables are numerous; and I am assured, that on the stairs, descending from one of these, there is a pawnbroker’s shop, where it sometimes happens that a ruined gamester, after losing the contents of his purse, deposits, for the sake of making a last and desperate effort, his watch, his buckles, and sometimes his coat. With the trifle advanced him he returns, and, if successful, redeems, on going away, the objects he has pledged. If he fail, a pistol, or the river, ends his miserable days. Such is the consequence of play, and such are the scenes which this profligate place presents.
The buildings which formerly filled the centre are now pulled down, and that part is really a garden, which many persons frequent for exercise. There are ice houses at each end, and chairs scattered about on which the Parisians sit in rows, and take lemonade and other refreshments. The space under the arcades, not occupied by the shops, is, as formerly, filled every hour of the day, and the greatest part of the night, with figures of all descriptions, with persons of every class, and I might add, of every nation in the world.
‘Le théâtre de Monteaussier’ is still in the Palais Royal, besides many smaller play houses. Puppet shows, dwarfs, giants, quack doctors, vociferating newsmen, and quiet venders of libels, who in a whisper offer you indecent and forbidden publications, complete the catalogue of many coloured curiosities which this place presents. (3)
In 1807, Napoleon dissolved the Tribunat, as it was too liberal for his liking. That same year he temporarily installed the Paris stock exchange at the Palais-Royal.
The Palais-Royal during the Bourbon Restoration
After Napoleon abdicated in 1814, the French throne was given to Louis XVI’s brother, King Louis XVIII. The Palais-Royal was handed to Philippe Égalité’s son, Louis Philippe, who was then the Duke of Orléans.
British journalist John Scott left a detailed description of the Palais-Royal at the time.
It is a square enclosure, formed of the buildings of the Orleans Palace; piazzas make a covered walk along three of its sides, and the centre is an open gravelled space, with a few straight lines of slim trees running along its length. There is a neat compact elegance visible in the architecture of what was the palace, but the building is now insignificant compared with its purposes, and you can no more attend to its proportions than you could fix your attention on the prospects adorning the banks of a river, if you were hurried down one of its cataracts. …
The Palais Royal…is dissolute, gay, wretched, elegant, paltry, busy, and idle; it suggests recollections of atrocity, and supplies sights of fascination; it displays virtue and vice living on easy terms, and in immediate neighbourhood with each other. …
[I]t puts on its air of bustling dissipation and lounging sensuality at an early hour of the morning. The chairs that are placed out under the trees are to be hired, with a newspaper, for a couple of sous a piece; they are soon occupied; the crowd of sitters and standers gradually increases; the buzz of conversation swells to a noise; the cafés fill; the piazzas become crowded; the place assumes the look of intense and earnest avocation, yet the whirl and the rush are of those who float and drift in the vortex of pleasure, dissipation, and vice.
The shops of the Palais Royal are brilliant: they are all devoted to toys, ornaments, or luxuries of some sort. Nothing can be imagined more elegant and striking than their numerous collections of ornamental clock-cases; they are formed of the whitest alabaster, and many of them present very ingenious fanciful devices. One, for instance, that I saw, was a female figure, in the garb and with the air of Pleasure, hiding the hours with a fold of her scanty drapery: one hour alone peeped out, and that indicated the time of the day…. The beauty and variety of the snuff-boxes, and the articles in cut-glass, the ribbons and silks, with their exquisite colours, the art of giving which is not known in England, the profusion and seductiveness of the Magazines des Gourmands are matchless. There are also several passages at the back of the place itself all full of this sort of display, though of an inferior kind, and including the features of vice in more distinct deformity. Many of the shops in these are kept by small booksellers, who expose their wares beyond their windows on stalls, and the mentioning of this fact induces me to notice here two circumstances highly characteristic of Paris….
The first is the extreme profligacy and filthiness of the books and prints that are exposed for sale. The vilest publications lie about every where, throwing in your face a grossness which amounts rather to brutality than mere sensuality. … They make the display of nudity their principal object; it is evidently not done by them in the natural and necessary course of the subject, but in the depravity of the artist, addressed to the depravity of the observer. …. United in view to this shameful feature is one of another kind…. [T]he shops that present the grossness above alluded to, are crowded with elegant literature, placed out evidently for numerous purchasers. The best French classics, histories, poets, &c. are heaped on every stall, and lie among the trash of political pamphlets. …
[T]he salons of the Restaurateurs are all full. … From five to half past seven, crowds of both sexes pour into all the numerous receptacles of this description, the invitations to which hang forth so thick as to astonish the British stranger. The price charged within for dinner, is specified on many of the signs, and varies from twenty-five sous, — about one shilling, — to four francs, above three. For these sums four or five dishes a-head are promised; half a bottle, or a bottle of wine, a desert of fruit, and bread ‘at discretion.’ …
The advance of the evening throws out, still more prominently, the native and most peculiar features of the Palais Royal. When the numerous windows of this immense mass of building are lighted up, and present to the eye, contemplating them from the dark and deserted ground in the center, a burning exterior, leading the imagination to the lively scenes within, perhaps a more impressive spectacle is not to be found in the world. From its foundations floods of light stream up, and illuminate crowds that make their ingress and egress to and from the cellars, which are places as well of amusement as of refreshment. Here there are dancing dogs, blind men who play on musical instruments, ballad singers, petite plays, and the game of dominos. The seats are crowded with men and women, — wives mingle with prostitutes, tradesmen with sharpers: the refreshments are all of a light nature; nothing like intoxication is seen, and there is no very gross breach of decorum in behaviour. …
Above the cellars and the shops of the Palais Royal, there are the elegant Cafés, the common and licensed gambling houses and bagnios, and, still higher, the abodes of the guilty, male and female, of every description. The first mentioned (the Cafés) are in fact brilliant temples of luxury: on entering them for the first time, one is almost struck back by their glare of decoration and enjoyment. Ladies and gentlemen in their colours, and statues in their whiteness, and busy waiters, and painted walls, and sparkling delicacies of every kind, are mingled, and repeated, and extended in appearance to infinity, by numerous mirrors, which add vastness to elegance, and the effect of a crowd to the experience of accommodation. …
Leaving these scenes where Pleasure puts on her gayest trappings, and appears in all her smiles and fascinations, you may enter others where her attire is coarser, and she has assumed more of the louring, jaded, desperate look of vice. The Café Montansier was a theatre during the revolutionary period, and it still continues to be divided into galleries and pit — the stage is covered with a vast bouquet of flowers. Here the company is understood to be of a loose description: the men are chiefly military, the women prostitutes. …
The gambling rooms constitute spectacles purely shocking. They are licensed and inspected by the government, and therefore they are orderly and regular on the surface of their arrangements and behaviour: but they are licensed by the government, and therefore they destroy the foundations of order, morals, honour, and loyalty. … About these odious tables, half-pay officers, private soldiers, clerks, and ex-employés are seen in a desperate contention with treacherous fortune: the expression of the face, as the trembling hand puts down the piece of money is awful: one piece follows another, gold is succeeded by silver, and, from five franc coins, the unfortunate wretch is reduced to the risk of a single franc. He loses it, and leaves the room with a face that bespeaks him drained and desperate. For what atrocity is he not now prepared? The appearance of women at these tables is still more horrible….
There is yet much more that belongs to the Palais Royal, but I believe I have described all that will bear description. Prostitution dwells in its splendid apartments, parades its walks, starves in its garrets, and lurks in its corners. … Old men and old women are employed as regular inviters, and they think they consult the interests of those who employ them, by putting their invitations in terms the most offensive to a manly taste.
Such is the Palais Royal; — a vanity fair — a mart of sin and seduction! Open, not on one day of festival, or on a few holidays, but every day of the week. Every day does it present stimulants and opportunities to profligacy and extravagance, to waste and riot, and idleness. … There is but one Palais Royal in the world, say the Parisians, and it is well for the world that there is but one. (4)
Louis-Philippe embarked on a grand renovation of the palace, spearheaded by one of Napoleon’s favourite architects, Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine. This included a suite of apartments for the Duke and his family, apartments for their servants, a long gallery of paintings, and the Galerie d’Orléans, among other things. According to one of Louis Philippe’s sons, François d’Orléans, Prince of Joinville, the place was in need of improvement.
In winter time we lived in the Palais-Royal, which then was not at all what it is nowadays. Where the Galerie d’Orléans is now to be seen, there were hideous wooden passages, with muddy floors, exclusively occupied by milliners’ shops, and peopled, it was said, by thousands of rats. To get rid of this collection of shanties, they were sawn through below, and allowed to come down with a crash. Crowds of people came to witness the collapse, in the hope of seeing the expected multitude of rats rush out. There was not a single one! They had all cleared out in good time. (5)
American journalist Nathaniel Carter visited the Palais-Royal in 1825, after some of the renovations had been completed.
The Palais Royal is in all respects a perfect unique, and baffles description. It is emphatically a little world in itself, sui generis, comprising every possible variety of character, occupation, and amusement, from the highest to the lowest, from the gravest to the most trifling, from the most refined to the most brutal….
The Palais Royal is in the form of a parallelogram, half a mile in circumference, and standing round an open court, which contains six or eight acres. The area is handsomely laid out, planted with trees and adorned with a garden which has a large fountain in the centre, together with jets d’eau constantly throwing the water in fanciful forms to the height of twenty or thirty feet. Originally the whole court from end to end was unobstructed; but necessity or cupidity induced the proprietor to extend across the middle of it several ranges of small buildings, filled with boutiques or hucksters’ shops and forming a kind of market. The proportions of the palace itself are grand and rich in architectural ornament. Lofty arcades, forming a covered walk, extend the whole way round the interior. They are about two hundred in number, enclosed by an iron railing, and lighted in the evening by a lamp to each pillar. Many of the shops in the basement story are occupied by jewelers and other trades equally showy, whose wares are tastefully displayed at the windows, and present a spectacle seldom equaled in brilliancy. Every article which ingenuity has been able to devise, or the wants and luxuries of man require, is here exposed for sale, though generally at a higher price than is asked in other parts of the metropolis.
The description of tenants is as various as the commodities of the market, or as the motley multitude that throng the arcades from morning until midnight. In one end of the palace the noble family of the proprietor resides, and splendid equipages of Dukes and Duchesses are seen at the door; while at the other end, theatrical buffoons, blind fiddlers and dancing automata amuse the crowd, or debauchees and harlots hold their subterranean orgies. The intermediate regions are inhabited by all classes of society, good, bad, and indifferent, high and low, learned and illiterate. A lecture on the abstract sciences is liable to be disturbed by the rattling of dice, or the concussion of billiard-balls in the next room; and the voice of the female calling from the boutique for purchasers of books is drowned in that of her neighbor, who cries bonnets or bonbons. Such is the variety and confusion which this busy, bustling scene forever presents.
In the first and second stories of the Palais Royal are almost innumerable cafés and restaurants, or coffee and eating houses. … The coffee-houses are entirely distinct from the restaurants. Both are furnished in a style which would not disgrace a palace of more elevated character than that of the Duke of Orleans. The whole walls are frequently covered with large mirrors, in elegantly gilt frames, and the windows hung with crimson curtains. In some conspicuous part of the room, a throne is erected to the height of several feet from the floor, ornamented in the most tasty manner, and furnished with silken or velvet cushions. Here the presiding goddess sits in state, dressed with all the showy elegance of the French women. On entering and leaving the room, each person takes off his hat and bows to her with as much reverence as he would manifest in approaching or taking leave of a princess. She returns the salute, and sometimes deigns a smile, or whispers a soft word to those whom she recognizes. But generally she sits in silent and motionless dignity, overlooking the tables beneath her, and frowning at any impoliteness. …
As our object was general information, we went the rounds of the gambling-houses, which are accessible to well-dressed and well-behaved persons, without the necessity of adventuring. … The games of chance are – rouge et noir, roulette, trente et un, and par et impar – played with cards, and with balls thrown into a wheel set in motion. With one slight exception, the chances appear to be exactly even, and the play is doubtless managed with fairness. …
The central situation of the Palais Royal, and the crowds of people who daily resort thither on business and pleasure, have led to many improvements in the vicinity, and among the rest to the construction of several Passages, opening from one principal street to another, through blocks of buildings, and all the way under cover. They are occupied as extensive bazars, consisting of a connected series of stores of every description, where ladies may do their shopping without damping their feet in the worst weather. Some of them are very splendid, particularly at night, when the shops are brilliantly lighted up with gas. The improvement has increased the value of property ten-fold. (6)
By 1830, Parisians were fed up with King Charles X, who had succeeded his brother, Louis XVIII, in 1824. The Prince of Joinville recalled a fête that was held at the Palais-Royal in May 1830, when he was 11 years old.
The Royal Family, headed by Charles X, was present at this fête, whereat pre-eminence of every kind was gathered together and every class represented, and where cordiality seemed universal. After the entrance of the two sets of dancers in costume, the King went out to walk on the terrace which runs along the top of the Galerie d’Orléans. The night was so warm and lovely that the ladies were walking about in their low gowns, and the dazzling illuminations made it as bright as day. The courtyard of the Palais-Royal was closed, but an immense crowd filled the gardens, trying to see as much as possible of the gay doings. I was running in front of Charles X as he walked along, and I saw his tall form advance to the parapet of the terrace on the garden side, with that truly royal air he had about him. He waved his hand several times in greeting to the crowd, which at that short distance, and under that brilliant light, must have recognized him perfectly, not by his features only, but by his full uniform of Colonel-General of the Guard, and also by the retinue that followed him. But there was no shout of ‘Vive le Roi!’ nor any hostile one either. The surging crowd only seemed to be rather more stirred, and the same uproar rose from it as one may hear on a firework night, when some fine set-piece is set alight. One last wave of the hand, with a ‘Bonjour, mon people!’ which the King spoke half in jest and half in earnest, and Charles X departed. I was never to see him again. Immediately afterwards, or nearly so, the crowd laid hands on the chairs in the garden, piled them up on the grass plots where the midday gun stood, and set them on fire. The troops had to be called out to clear the garden, and that first scene of public riot, so new to me filled me with astonishment and rage as well. (6)
In July, Charles X was overthrown by a revolution, and Louis-Philippe became king of the French. In 1831, he and his family moved from the Palais-Royal to the Tuileries Palace. In 1836, the gaming rooms were closed (prostitution had been banned in 1830).
Louis-Philippe abdicated during the Revolution of 1848. The Palais-Royal was looted. Furniture and works of art were thrown out the windows. The palace again became the property of the French state and was known as the Palais-National.
The Palais-Royal under Napoleon III
Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, was elected president of the French Republic in December 1848. In 1852, he proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. He put the Palais-Royal at the disposal of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, who lived there for eight years until his death in 1860. Jérôme’s son, Prince Napoléon (known as Plon-Plon) and his wife continued to live in the palace until Napoleon III was dethroned in 1870.
In 1871, the Palais-Royal was set on fire by the revolutionary socialist group known as the Paris Commune. Fortunately the fire was brought under control, so the palace was not destroyed, unlike the Tuileries. The damaged facades were restored and the Council of State was relocated to the building. By then much of the Palais-Royal’s commercial traffic had relocated to the fashionable new boulevards of Paris created during the reign of Napoleon III.
British journalist George Augustus Sala visited the city in 1878-79 and wrote:
I am very much afraid that the Palais Royal…has been…slowly fading to the complexion of…the yellow leaf, socially speaking…. It is no longer a place to dine, to promenade, to flirt, or even to conspire in: from a fashionable point of view. It is too far away. … The great restaurateurs, Véfour excepted, have deserted the arcades of the Palais Royal for the western boulevards. The cafés are, socially and intellectually, only the shadows of their former selves; and…the edifice has…lost the slight political importance which under the Second Empire it possessed. …
Napoleon Jerome kept high state at the Palais Royal, gave good dinners and bad cigars, and hatched vain intrigues there against his cousin and benefactor until the Empire tumbled to pieces like a pack of cards…. Very dreary must be the saloons of the palace now. ….
Disestablished politically, ostracised by the fashionable world, the Palais Royal might ostensibly run the risk of sinking to the level of a tenth-rate neighbourhood. It is not only the great eating-house and coffee-house keepers who have quitted it for the boulevards. To a considerable extent it has even suffered abandonment at the hands of the cheap tailors, who have discovered that a ‘coin de rue,’ or corner of a populous street, is a necessity of carrying on the business of a slop-shop palace on a large scale….
It was thus not without a certain feeling of sadness that I sat down in the sunshine outside the Café de la Rotonde, and, looking across the vast quadrangle, and peering into the dim recesses of the distant arcades, I tried to conjure up memories of the days that shall return no more.” (8)
The Palais-Royal today
The Palais-Royal still exists and is worth a visit if you happen to be in Paris. It is located across from the Louvre, on Rue Saint-Honoré. The palace is occupied by the State Council, the Ministry of Culture, and the Constitutional Council. The garden and courtyard are open to the public, and you can visit the arcades, or galleries, which host shops and restaurants. The Théâtre du Palais-Royal and the theatre of the Comédie-Française are also part of the Palais-Royal complex.
You might also enjoy:
- Shannon Selin, Napoleon in America (Vancouver, 2014), p. 168.
- A.C. Thibaudeau, Bonaparte and the Consulate, translated and edited by G.K. Fortescue (London, 1908), pp. 22-23.
- John Gustavus Lemaistre, A Rough Sketch of Modern Paris (London, 1803), pp. 98-102.
- John Scott, A Visit to Paris in 1814, Third Edition (London, 1815), pp. 117-138.
- François d’Orléans, Memoirs (Vieux Souvenirs) of the Prince de Joinville, translated by Mary Lloyd (London: William Heinemann, 1895). p. 7.
- Nathaniel H. Carter, Letters from Europe, Comprising the Journal of a Tour through Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Italy and Switzerland in the Years 1825, 26 and 27, Vol. I (New York, 1827), pp. 419-423.
- Memoirs (Vieux Souvenirs) of the Prince de Joinville, pp. 29-30.
- George Augustus Sala, Paris Herself Again in 1878-79, Sixth Edition (London, 1882), pp. 19-25.
The Palais Royal…is dissolute, gay, wretched, elegant, paltry, busy, and idle; it suggests recollections of atrocity, and supplies sights of fascination.