As part of this unit a historical perspective is presented after my students have been introduced to and have begun their object analysis of the chosen paintings. Teachers using this unit may choose the extent to which they wish to present the following historical information. A history teacher may wish to go further into the historical background and may wish to introduce it before the paintings.
The beginning of the nineteenth century in France saw Napoleon Bonaparte crowned Napoleon I in 1804. Napoleon sought to preserve the essential gains of the French Revolution of 1789. Among his achievements were a clear legal code (The Code Napoléon) and a start to the beautification of Paris. Discontent over poor working conditions and lack of reform under subsequent rulers led to the Second Republic in 1848. Courbet, the Realist who preceded Impressionism, sympathized with the revolutionary forces devoted to ending the French monarchy. His art in this political climate reflected his commitment to the reality of everyday life and his rejection of idealism. He challenged both accepted art forms and institutional authority. The political revolution of 1848 thus coincided with a revolution in art as artists and the public were filled with new ideas.
Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Bonaparte became president but later declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. During his rule, he improved working conditions, supported the beginning of the industrial revolution, and created the beautifully reconstructed Paris that we know today. Economic prosperity and a broader consensus of support accompanied the strong government and political stability of the Regime. The Second Empire, under Louis Napoleon, had a carefully controlled nature which was reflected in The Royal Academy with its juried exhibitions. The new architecture, wide boulevards and parks of Paris created by Parisian Prefect Georges Haussmann provided an open environment for the outdoor paintings favored by the Impressionists. At the same time the Bourgeoisie, or middle class, "emerged as a major force in France" (9). Their culture brought a belief in the privileges of, and right to, leisure, consumption, spontaneity and individualism which was reflected in Impressionist paintings.
In 1870 Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. He was forced to abdicate that same year following the French defeat at Sedan. The Third Republic was proclaimed as the war continued and Prussian forces besieged Paris. An armistice was signed by the French government that was viewed by many as humiliating and fueled political radicalization. The Third Republic's efforts to end the National Guard in Paris along with popular resistance to the incompetently managed government led to the declaration of a socialist Commune which endured from March 18-May 28, 1871. The Third Republic continued to have frequent domestic crises including an economic crisis in 1873. This disillusionment with the Third Republic provided the atmosphere for the bold, creative style of Van Gogh and the Expressionists. The political system became more stable, yet criticism grew as the middle class and conservatives sought to defend their positions. The Dreyfus affair (1894-1906) in particular led to a political shift from moderate to radical power which directed its energy against the Catholic Church.