With summer winding down, I thought I'd post a print that's appropriate for the last days of August. It's going to be a case of "one picture is worth a thousand words", too, because I can find very little to share about its history.
Called "Les Nageurs" ("The Swimmers"), this image is No. 15 in a rare series of early 19th c. French prints called Caricatures Parisiennes: Le Supreme Bon Ton. The prints show the pastimes of fashionable young people in Napoleon's Paris. While they're called "caricatures", they have none of the bite of their English counterparts, and more of the hand-tinted elegance of fashion plates.
But consider what a racy scene this must have been at the time. Swimming had long been considered good manly exercise (recall Charles II, swimming in the Thames outside Whitehall in the 1660s) and ladies, too, had been known to dabble in the water, but I can't recall seeing any other picture from this early date showing the two parties in the water together. They're clearly swimming, too, not just splashing about. That one guy hopping into the water with his pointed toes is showing off his chiseled, beach-boy physique (as well as his woolly sideburns), hoping to be scouted for some long-distant episode of Jersey Shore.
Even more interesting is that they appear to be wearing stylish costumes designed specifically for the activity. No skinny-dipping for these folks! The men's drawers are based on breeches or drawers, with button-front falls (that flap-like fly) in the front, and the hems are trimmed with a natty contrasting border, much like the trunks worn by 1950s lifeguards. The ladies are a little harder to figure out, but they, too, seem to be wearing specific swimming "dress," with caps over their hair and knee-length, sleeveless garments. There are buttons under the arm that have become unbuttoned (?) and I'm guessing the fabric is linen by the revealing way it's clinging to the lady's body. For that matter, the men's drawers aren't hiding many secrets, either, which makes this co-ed swim party all the more extraordinary.
Was this kind of easy, athletic freedom common in Paris at the time? Or was it only an invention (or wishful thinking) by the artist?
Above: Les Nageurs (The Swimmers), from the series Le Supreme Bon Ton, No. 15; artist unknown; published by Martinet, Paris, c. 1810-1815
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.