The Flâneur - Symbol of Modernity in 19th Century Paris

by KathleenDuffy

A well-dressed male strolling nonchalently through the metropolis may seem insignificant. Yet in 19th century Paris the 'flâneur' became an artistic symbol of modern life.

‘Flâneur’ is a word that is hard to define. There are various theories as to its origins - perhaps it comes from the old Scandinavian 'flana' - to run around (not that a genuine flâneur would ever be seen running!) or maybe the nineteenth century Encyclopedie Larousee shows the true origin, suggesting it comes from an Irish word for ‘libertine’.

This same edition of Larousee describes the flâneur as a ‘loiterer, a fritterer away of time’ and goes on to declare that only in the big city could the flâneur exist because only there would he find a stage large and crowded enough for walking and watching.

The Flâneur- A Product of 19th Century Capitalism

Whatever the true origins for  the word ‘flâneur’, it gained literary significance in the nineteenth century when the French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire,  wrote an essay, The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863.   In this influential essay Baudelaire elevated the image of the solitary male pedestrian to the status of the new icon of Parisian urban life. 

Image of Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat. 1862
Image of Charles Baudelaire by Étienn...

It was the theorist, Walter Benjamin, who in his book of essays, Illuminations,  reminded 20th century readers of Charles Baudelaire.  Benjamin, a Jew who tragically committed suicide in 1943, was fascinated by Baudelaire and was also a great interpreter of the rise of nineteenth-century capitalism and the resulting new modern mentality.

At the time of his death he was working on what has become known as 'The Arcades Project' - a detailed study of the Parisian shopping arcades of the nineteenth century - a new phenomenon in Paris at the time and a haunt of the flâneur.

But what was so special about the  flâneur that attracted not only poets, but novelists and painters too?  A man walking along the street surveying the crowd, always alone, stopping to stroll into an arcade and gaze at the merchandise on show, pausing to observe the hurrying crowds, set apart from them by his sauntering pace, his dandyism...what is so significant?

In The Painter of Modern Life Baudelaire described this new man of the street:

"The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect 'flaneur', for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite."

He continues in this vein, describing a kind of physical and psychological freedom that was rarely if ever experienced by the women of a great metropolis.

'To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define"

Karl Marx recognised the same fleeting, intangible, chaotic atmosphere of the modern metropolis that capitalism had unleashed when he wrote these  lines in the Communist Manifesto:

"All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned..". and later ."..Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeosis epoch from all earlier ones."

The Re-Building of Paris

So why did the flâneur emerge onto the Parisian boulevard?

Napoleon III  and Baron Haussman, his architect and planner, razed the intimate, ancient Parisian streets to the ground and replaced them with broad, straight avenues, perfect for cavalry charges and a deterrent for builders of revolutionary barricades. These boulevards built by Haussmann ensured that the French army could  easily put down the Paris Commune uprising of 1871.  

But repression was not the sole purpose.  It was time to reconstruct Paris to accommodate expanding capitalism and  for the benefit of workers, placating the revolutionaries. Electric lighting was introduced, new sewerage systems and parks, modelled on Hyde Park in London,  came into play. The intimacy of the Old Paris was lost and the beautiful, mesmerising  but alienating New Paris emerged.

...To this ...

Boulevard Haussmann
Boulevard Haussmann

Modern Paris Creates a New Mentality

Architecture changes people. Wide pavements created  a constant stream of humanity thrown together physically, negotiating fast-moving horses and carriages, coping with chaos yet absorbed in their own concerns.   The architecture of modernity had created a new modern mentality. Parisians were swarming in crowds in situations where they were united physically, yet unconnected emotionally.

And yet the opportunity for fleeting, ephemeral, (including sexual) experiences was rife, the eye was assaulted with ever-changing scenarios that required constant vigilance and the body became a sharply honed instrument that negotiated its way through the mass of humanity.  Along these wide pavements people were going somewhere, fulfilling obligations that society had imposed on them - work, business meetings, trysts, rendezvous in the cafes that spilled out onto the boulevards. Shopping in the new department stores and arcades that spilled out their commodities was the new experience of the bourgeoise women of Paris.

Rue de Rivoli

...with shopping arcades on the right
Rue de Rivoli by Edouard Cortes
Rue de Rivoli by Edouard Cortes

Amongst all this activity the flâneur made a point of walking slowly.  He was obviously a man of leisure, educated, monied, so his time was free.  Like the women, he went through these glittering palaces of consumerism too, observing but not buying. He may have been escaping the stultifying domestic sphere with its duties and obligations, and entering the world of surprise, shock and chance encounter.

Or he may have been an artist, like Manet, who dressed like a dandy and strolled around Paris absorbing the strange vibrancy of it all, picking up models,  and interpreting the contradictions of modern life in paint.

A Bar at the Folie-Bergere by Manet
A Bar at the Folie-Bergere by Manet
Edward Manet by Latour
Edward Manet by Latour

Or perhaps he was Constantin Guys, one of Baudelaire's favourite artists, who sketched and painted the people of the boulevards, their encounters, and the dark underbelly beneath the bright lights.

There is talk that many flâneurs in Paris took turtles for walks along the boulevards and arcades as if to emphasise their immunity to the crowd, yet there is no real evidence for this. However, it does emphasise the point that the flâneur was a new kind of creature thrown up by the growth of capitalism which laid out its shining commodities, lit by the new electric lights and presented to the public in theatrical window displays.

The flâneur strolled amongst it all, seemingly unaffected yet keenly observing.

Women Flâneurs?

There were no women flâneurs.  A 'respectable' woman could not regularly stroll unaccompanied along the boulevards of this new, modern Paris soaking up the breathless shocks of the city, yet removed from it all. Her strolling would have been interrupted by male intrusion into her private space, such as it was.  She would have been taken for a prostitute or a woman of the 'lower' classes.   

Perhaps the prostitutes of Paris were the nearest thing to the flâneur, for they did indeed stroll along the boulevards and seat themselves at cafe tables without men.  

But they were themselves commodities, and always on the lookout for potential clients. They were hardly detached from the scene they were surveying.

Le Flaneur Parisien - Theophile Steinlen
Le Flaneur Parisien - Theophile Steinlen

As a result, these women did not feel removed from the crowd, but were a part of it, looking for an opportunity for mutual exploitation.  In addition, they were part of the new modernity and, unlike their middle class counterparts, they were occupying public spaces that were  denied those women in the bourgeois domestic sphere.  

The appearance of prostitutes on the boulevards and in the cafes caused consternation among 'respectable' Parisians and I have covered this aspect in another article which you can find here.

The Flâneur- A Symbol of Modernity

The emergence of the flâneur emphasised many things that the new modernity had thrown up. Class and gendered ownership of urban space, for instance.  

He was often, with some exceptions,  a man of substance  who had freedom to stroll the boulevards with an air of nonchalance and with time on his hands.  Men of the lower classes may have had no time to indulge themselves in this manner, or they probably hung around corners in groups, something a genuine flâneur would never have tolerated.   As for women - society would never allow them to be true flâneurs.

Today we are becoming more and more interested in how changes in  architecture and geography can impact on the psychology of crowds and individuals. Amongst all the changes that Haussmann made to Paris, the emergence of the flâneur is one of the most interesting and complex.

The Parisian flâneur was a product of a new kind of city, a vibrant, chaotic place, a teeming mass of humanity which the flaneur negotiated with skill and aplomb.  

Most of all, the flaneur was modern!


Time for a stroll....

Man at Window - Caillebotte


  1. Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Soinit (Verso 2002)
  2. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity by Marshall Berman (Verso, 1983)
  3. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire (Phaidon Press, 2001)
Updated: 06/06/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 06/08/2014

Hello WordChazer - That’s such an interesting concept about Virginia Woolfe. Yes, thinking about it, her descriptions are often very cinematic, as though her eyes were sweeping across an urban landscape. Its the flow of someone observing, transposed into literature. Love her writing. I have not read Bellow (must put on ‘To Do’ list).

Guest on 06/07/2014

I had a Masters student client who wondered whether the flaneur was an influence on Saul Bellow's characters. He also wrote in depth about Virginia Woolfe and thought that she was the closest thing to a female flaneur possible in her observations. His essays were a joy to proofread.

KathleenDuffy on 06/07/2014

Mira - Lovely to get your kind comments. Thank you!

KathleenDuffy on 06/07/2014

Mari - Thank you so much for your comment. I'm really glad you enjoyed it!

Mira on 06/07/2014

Nice piece, Kathleen! I enjoyed your writing very much :-)
It's also so true that "architecture changes people" -- great points!

Maritravel on 06/06/2014

Loved this, Kathleen. It was something I knew nothing about and you've covered it very well.

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