The Revolutionary Origins of the Flâneur

Richard Wrigley

Although the figure of the flâneur—the leisurely, urban male pedestrian observer—is associated with France’s July Monarchy (1830-1848), it was already current throughout the 1820s. Yet it is striking that texts from this decade are unequivocal that the phenomenon had its roots in the Revolution. For Beauregard and Pain in 1828, “flâneur” was “one of a crowd of words born since the Revolution.”[1] An article from 1823 titled “Of the advantage of strolling” (“De l’avantage de flaner”) from Le Diable boîteux, journal des spectacles, des mœurs et de la littérature treats the flâneur as coeval with the Revolution: “During the Revolution, whereas all citizens were in a state of agitation and consternation, while the different parties tore themselves apart, me, I was calm: I strolled (‘je flanais’). Under the Consulate, I left poor Frenchmen to chase after Victory and Glory: I did not budge from the capital, and I continued to stroll. The Empire came along and still I strolled.”[2] Far from being a flippant aside, I think we should take this observation seriously.

I argue that the origins of the flâneur are to be found in aspects of the political culture forged and experienced during the French Revolution, and that a key dimension to this new type of identity depends on self-determined mobility within the public spaces of Paris. The dual premises for this argument are that the flâneur comes into being well before its better-known heyday in the 1830s and after, and that the phenomenon is essentially political in nature. Although the word flâneur only surfaced in the early nineteenth century, the kind of peculiarly Parisian pedestrian observer signalled by this term is a product of a specific combination of conditions to be found at the end of the revolutionary decade.[3] That this lineage has not been acknowledged has much to do with a virtual monopoly on thinking about the subject derived from Walter Benjamin’s characterization of the type in his unfinished Passagen-Werk (1982 (German); 1999 (English)) as an alienated viewer of commodities, centered on Charles Baudelaire’s vision of Second Empire Paris (1852-1870), which renders the flâneur a strangely apolitical creature.  Laurent Turcot’s fine account of the eighteenth-century Parisian “promeneur” jumps from Nicolas Rétif de la Bretonne and Louis-Sébastien Mercier to the “Romantic flâneur of the 1830s,” leaving one wondering what happened to walking during the Revolution and its aftermath.[4] He also focuses on sites for the collective activity of promenade (e.g. the Tuileries gardens), rather than walking more inclusively understood.

By contrast, I see the flâneur as being emblematic of a new generation of empowered citizens, equipped with the high degree of self-awareness required to inhabit and navigate not only a dramatically uncertain and changing urban landscape,[5] but also and more significantly a nascent political culture, as it took form in, and indelibly imprinted itself on, the identity of Paris’s public spaces.[6] However, as I will suggest, it is in fact by virtue of a desire for independence, evading reduction to one of a small number of labels based on “parti” or “classe,” that the proto-flâneur’s true political identity should be understood. In the same way that such observers step aside from being reductively labelled, they are also at one remove from public spectacle. Such distance renders them more—not less—keenly observant.

Increased mobility was a crucial element in revolutionary politics,[7] whether it involved crossing the city to view or participate in momentous gatherings such as the storming of the Bastille;[8] women walking to Versailles and back on October 5, 1789; crowds following festival itineraries; or citizens attending section meetings and those of political societies, converging on the Hôtel de Ville or the Place de la Révolution for executions, attending the National Assembly in the Manège, rallying to the royal palace of the Tuileries (June 20, 1792, August 10, 1792), and flocking to the seat of the Convention (9 Thermidor Year 2 / 27 July 1794) in moments of crisis. As these episodes emphasize, the other dimension to mobility as an element in political participation—individual and collective—was locality, both in terms of shared access to institutions, from and within particular neighbourhoods, but also the ambiguity of thoroughfares which enabled connection and evasion.

Journalistic reportage and the activities of police agents keeping track of esprit public (public mood or opinion) shared an assumption that opinions, anecdote, and incidents only made sense when tied to specific locations. Both also relied on a repertoire of rubrics to organize description and opinion. In police reports, “Spectacles,” “Commerce,” “Places publiques,” “Finances,” “Ordre public” shaped their mix of panorama and snapshot. [9] Significantly, it was when groups coalesced (or dissolved at the approach of a patrol) that suspicions were aroused. This is vividly the case with agioteurs (speculators) who sought to evade the round ups carried out in the Palais Royal and elsewhere. Their favored place of retreat, because this allowed dispersed activity and was less amenable to being corralled and searched, were the boulevards to the north. Interestingly, this association of mobility with criminality in the early history of flânerie is to be found later in the 1830 observations of Eugène-François Vidocq, criminal turned police chief, who uses the flâneur as a synonym for criminals passing themselves off as leisured dawdlers.[10]

Reports assume that the mood of the city was manifest in people’s behavior as they gathered in and occupied spaces.[11] Thus, in order to illustrate “The deepest calm” (“Le calme le plus profond”) prevailing in Paris in the spring of 1796, an article in La Gazette française evoked the harmonious spectacle of walkers on the Champs-Elysées and other promenades where “pretty women and soldiers made way for each other to respectfully allow the other to pass freely.” Free flow of pedestrians was a sign of political felicity.[12]

An instance of the celebration of walking as both a political act and a political metaphor is an article in the Décade philosophique from 1797. The article conforms to the journal’s conciliatory conception of consolidating revolutionary progress, rejecting polarized labels and the constraints of generic categories such as class. That people did not collide and made way for each other was a model for larger social integration: “Such is the progress of life” (“Telle est la marche de la vie”). This was all the more necessary since conflict, competition, and confusion were too easily caused by inflexible selfishness. Mutual self-interest promoted the greater good.[13] These examples provide a context and a backdrop for how we might think of the individual walker, negotiating often convoluted and contentious political situations, as if weaving their way through a crowded street—or, indeed, finding themselves obliged to do so in public spaces.

A further dimension to this characterization of the proto-flâneur is anonymity; that is, the way in which crowds and audiences were as much anonymous as they were legible in terms of social or professional status and physiognomic traits and psychological states (Louis-Léopold Boilly’s imagery comes to mind as exemplifying this paradox). Rather than corresponding to faceless insignificance, or the blurring of individual identity, anonymity can be thought of as a more positive condition of existence—what we might call prudent detachment, avoiding moments when identity had to be checked—in a growing city that continued to witness successive political transitions and shocks.[14] What is at stake here is not some kind of abdication of political integrity, but an awareness of the practical advantages of establishing a sense of being at one remove from the public culture of politics. Episodes such as the conspiracy of Babeuf in 1797, when partisan retribution flared up, were a reminder of the virtues of circumspection, as well as the obsessive anxiety about plotting royalists and Jacobins.

I suggest that the dramatic reconfiguration of political culture after Thermidor engendered forms of independent, non-committal behavior and outlook, reacting to well-established fears of surveillance and denunciation. We are familiar with the idea that festivals progressively excluded direct public participation, rendering the public passive, and probably lukewarm, spectators. I would extend this by making the case for the newly legitimate role of the bystander, whose apparent reticence or neutrality need not be thought of as uninformed or disempowered. And I think this essentially “background” figure comes to occupy an important place, not only in the political landscape, but also in the genealogy of the flâneur.  This characterization is put forward against the grain of prevailing clichés about the Directory as an era of disillusion and self-indulgence.[15]

Such a picture of the flâneur’s genealogy shares many characteristics with another political label best known from 1814-1815 with strong connotations of mobility (and revolutionary precedents): the phenomenon of the weathervane (girouette). The girouette embodies one form of response to changing political conditions: chameleonlike opportunism and a readiness to dispense with one set of loyalties and associated dress and style and replace them with a new outfit, and new expressions of allegiance, so as to conform to the latest status quo. Inevitably, the girouette was defined in contradistinction to people named immobiles, or stationnaires, those who were mocked for wanting to ignore the fluctuating political scene and doggedly hold on to unreconstructed ancien-régime manners and worldview, as if the monarchy had never been abolished. However, in an alternative characterization pertinent to the present argument, those who sought to distinguish themselves from girouettes claimed the moral high ground by claiming that their more understated brand of patriotism was no less an expression of integrity.[16]

The more elusive proto-flâneur occupies a less visible, interstitial space: never reduceable to a single label, always potentially occupying more than one position on the political spectrum (like some politicized figuration of quantum mechanics). Later, in the Restoration, this would be aligned with the symbolically powerful notion of independence, or “l’indépendant.”[17] I think we should see a prefiguration of this in the years of the Thermidorian reaction and Directory.

A further context for the crystallization of the proto-flâneur is the distinction between civilians and soldiers, something which comes to play a major part in the spectacle of public life in the later 1790s with the massive militarization of Parisian society.[18] The saturation of Parisian society and spaces with uniformed men, on and off duty, changed the status of civilians. It may seem obvious to note that the proto-flâneur is a civilian, but this needs emphasizing since it feeds into the distinctive forms of behavior and spectatorship which later became associated with the type. At the end of the eighteenth century, the proto-flâneur had yet to be identified with a standardized form of male dress (the suit to all intents and purposes), but nevertheless should be thought of as a type of male not in uniform (all the more so given the Directory’s proclivity for elaborate outfits to distinguish its functionaries). This distinction was crucial to the flâneur’s crystallization in the post-Napoleonic era, and its essentially political nature.

The preceding material also provides a way to reconsider the anodyne clichés of the flâneur in the July Monarchy. Not only should we free the flâneur from its assumed dependency on the passages (arcades), and the assumption that the flâneur is little more than a superficial window-shopper. We also need to address the apparent contradiction that declarations of the flâneur as quintessentially Parisian seem to applaud mindless wandering as much as they acknowledge that this type also embodied a certain local knowledge. I would argue that the apparently inconsequential persona of the flâneur which dominates early canonical texts (for example, the Physiologie du flaneur (1841), is a descendant of the marginal figure which emerged from the fractured political (and urban) landscape of the 1790s. In addition, we need to distinguish between the lengthy era of the July Monarchy and the quite different circumstances of the Second Empire. It is paradoxical that Benjamin’s flâneur, meticulously crafted out of his reading of Baudelaire as a poetic prism through which the politically and culturally oppressive conditions of the 1860s were revealed, has attained remarkable transhistorical acclaim. 

Richard Wrigley is Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Nottingham, and is currently writing a history of the flâneur.

[1] “une foule de mots nés depuis la révolution” (Costa de Beauregard and Joseph Pain, “La journée d’un flaneur,” Nouveaux Tableaux de Paris, 2 vols. (Paris: Pillet aîné, 1828), 2:290-91). I have used flâneur throughout, but followed quotations’ inconsistency; early usage mostly has no circumflex.

[2] “Pendant la révolution, tandis que tous les citoyens étaient dans l’agitation et dans l’effroi, lorsque les divers partis se déchiraient, moi, j’étais tranquille: je flanais. Sous le consulat, j’ai laissé les pauvres Français courir après la Victoire et la Gloire: je n’ai pas bougé de la capitale, et j’ai continué à flaner. L’Empire est venu et je flanais encore” (Le Diable boîteux, journal des spectacles, des mœurs et de la littérature, 15 December 1823, 3-4). Strolling is a useful but inadequate translation of flâner.

[3] Here I differ from Jonathan Conlin, who argues the type already existed before 1789 (“Mr. What-d’ye-call-him: À la recherche du flâneur à Paris et à Londres au 18e siècle,” in Laurent Turcot and Thierry Belleguic, eds., Les Histoires de Paris (XVIe-XVIIIe siècle), 2 vols. (Paris: Éditions Hermann, 2012), 2:73-95.

[4] Laurent Turcot, Le Promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Le Promeneur, 2007).

[5] On the visible changes to Paris evident by 1795, see the opening chapter of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Histoire de la société française pendant le Directoire (Paris: E. Dentu, 1864).

[6] This argument challenges the one-dimensional characterization of what Jacques Rancière calls “cette errance individuelle réservé à l’égoïsme du ‘petit-bourgeois’” (Rancière, La Nuit des prolétaires. Archives du rêve ouvrier (Paris: Libraire Artheme Fayard, 1981), 10).

[7] David Garrioch, The Making of Revolutionary Paris (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2002), 314-15.

[8] [Anon.], “Tête de Joseph François Foulon promené sur une pique à partir de la place de Grève” [22 July 1789], engraving, 17.5 x 10. 3 cm. Musée Carnavalet, Paris, G. 27880.

[9] On the format and style of police reporting, and the repertoire of stereotypes and behavior which were likely to elicit scrutiny, see Richard Cobb, Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789-1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), “Part One: The Police, Public Authority, and Their Auxiliaries: Assumptions and Habits,” 3-48.

[10] Eugène-François Vidocq, Le Paravoleur, or l’Art de se conduire prudamment en tout pays, notamment à Paris (Paris: Roy-Terry, 1830), 218.

[11] On spatial metaphors for freedom of movement, see Mona Ozouf, La Fête révolutionnaire, 1789-1799 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 203.

[12] “jolies femmes et soldats se dérangeaient mutuellement pour s’ouvrir honnêtement le passage” (“Paris, 2 floréal,” La Gazette française, 3 floréal an IV [22 April 1796], cit. François-Alphonse Aulard, Paris pendant la réaction thermidorienne et sous le Directoire: recueil de documents pour l’histoire de l’esprit public à Paris, 5 vols. (Paris: L. Cerf, 1898-1902), 3:135-36).

[13] “Mélanges. La Promenade dans les rues, allégorie,” Décade philosophique, 30 Thermidor an V [17 August 1797], 355-56, cit. P. Serna, La République des girouettes, 1795-1815 et au delà. Une anomalie française: la république de l’extrême-centre (Paris: Champvallon, 2005),433. Serna fails to notice that this text is given the source “Bibliothèque britannique.”

[14] Garrioch, The Making of Revolutionary Paris, 285; Karlheinz Stierle, La Capitale des signes. Paris et son discours, trans. Marianne Rocher Jacquin (Paris: Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2001), 113.

[15] Exemplified by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Histoire de la société française.

[16] Serna, République, 262.

[17] See my discussion of this term in “The flâneur in the Restoration, or the politics of strolling,” in Annales Benjamin Constant 41 (2016) — Art et libéralisme en France. La contestation par l’image 1814-1830, ed. Cyril Lécosse and Guillaume Poisson, 119-30.

[18] On the increase in the visible presence of men in military uniform, as well as 116,000 national guardsmen, see Garrioch, The Making of Revolutionary Paris, 310.

Cite this article as: Richard Wrigley, “The Revolutionary Origins of the Flâneur,” Journal18, Issue 15 Cities (Spring 2023),

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