Queen Elizabeth and the Flower Markets of Paris

Although lots of things have been named in honour of Queen Elizabeth you might be surprised to know that one of them is  the main flower market in Paris.  This occupies a small square and the adjacent riverside on  the Ile de la Cité,  close to Notre Dame.  Apparently it was visited by the queen early in her reign, and also on her  later trips to the city. When she went to Paris as part of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings it was renamed Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II to reflect the “enormous affection” in which she was held by the French.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when, as regular readers, might recall  I wrote about  Jules Lachaume who opened the first proper florists shop in 1847. As I was writing that post  I wondered how people bought flowers before that. I knew there were itinerant flower sellers and later flower stalls in the street but I knew very little about their history. Nor had I realised quite how well their story had been capture by artists and photographers, so to celebrate my return to France for the summer I thought I should investigate a bit further…

In fact the same year that Lachaume  opened his florists, a painter was born who put flowers and the ways they were sold well and truly on the map. Even if you’ve never heard of Victor Gabriel Gilbert – and I hadn’t either until recently – you may well know his pictures. They’re the equivalent of snapshots of Parisian street life and capture the city’s markets especially its flower markets in brilliant detail.

Victor Gilbert was born  in Paris in 1847, but was a sickly child  although he had a talent for drawing. Unfortunately his family could not afford lessons for him so at the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a painter and decorator. However he also managed to attended evening  classes  in art  at the Ecole de la Ville in Paris.

Despite his lack of formal training, Gilbert  submitted some  paintings to the prestigious Paris Salon in  1873.  The Salon was the exhibition space of  the  “Société des Artistes Français”, founded by Louis XIV as the Royal Academy. Competition for wall space in their exhibitions was extremely fierce and usually favoured students who were enrolled in “proper”art schools  with a more rigidly academic  style of painting. Nevertheless  two of Gilbert’s pictures were  accepted – one of which sold.

More importantly he was noticed by a well-known  art dealer, Paul  Martin who was also about to become an important backer of the Impressionist movement. Martin took him under his wing and by 1875 Gilbert received so much critical acclaim and public recognition  that he was able to give  up his day job and concentrate on his painting.  He soon discovered the subjects that were to keep him busy for the rest of his life: street scenes, cafés, and food and flower markets, and he gradually emerged as their main, although not only, chronicler.

France had, like much of Europe in the early 19thc undergone huge social change, partly because of war and revolution but also because of large-scale industrialisation. Inevitably this led to changes in the way that artists saw and portrayed  the world.   There was a much greater emphasis on ordinary  everyday scenes which were depicted in a much more honest and realistic, almost photographic way, and did not try to disguise the more unpleasant elements of life.  This movement, known as Realism, became firmly entrenched in France after the two revolutions of 1830 and 1848 when the last two French kings were overthrown. Gilbert was in its artistic vanguard, in the same way that Zola was in the forefront of realism in literature.

In many ways Realism was dark and almost depressing – if you’ve read Zola you’ll know what I mean  – so much of Gilbert’s early work, such scenes in  the fish or meat markets  was almost oppressive  in colour and feel, but at the same time it captured the bustle and the dynamism of the city. Later, partly under the influence of Martin and the Impressionists, Gilbert  lifted the mood and turned his attention  more towards  colour and the effects of light. I say partly because another, perhaps even more important reason for this change in the feel of his work was Paris was changing rapidly in front of him.

For more information on Realism, see Gabriel Weisberg , The Realist Tradition : French painting and drawing, 1830-1900 (1980)


Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected the first President of France  following the 1848 revolution, and in 1852 in a popular coup became emperor as Napoleon III. He had  grand ideas for redeveloping Paris, and chose George-Eugene Haussmann, as the man to oversee the transformation.  Beginning in 1853 the city not only  absorbed the surrounding villages and turned them into new suburbs, but most of the mediaeval city with its dark narrow crowded lanes and streets was flattened and wide boulevards laid out in their stead. These were lined with the stylish but standardised apartment blocks which are still largely what we see today.  To service the growing city new railways, gas and water supplies were brought in, while grand public buildings such as the largest opera house in the world and the great market of Les Halles, went up as well.

One Parisian in 5 was involved in the city’s construction and under Haussman’s direction Paris  became, within the space of less than twenty years,  the   “city of light” we know today.

Constructed between 1853 and 1870 Les Halles has ten enormous pavilions by Victor Baltard which, together with the surrounding streets, sold meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and flowers and became known as  the “Belly of Paris” a nickname used by  Émile Zola as the title of his novel Le Ventre de Paris,   However, over time, as with Covent Garden, its London equivalent, its central location became  increasingly logistically difficult and a larger more modern easily accessible  base was needed.

But whereas the market in Covent Garden was relocated, the buildings, although threatened, were eventually successfully repurposed. Unfortunately  the great steel and glass pavilions of Les Halles were abandoned in 1969 for a new site   at Rungis well outside the city. The buildings were demolished in  1973 and replaced with an underground shopping centre with a garden on top. Both proved a hideous failure and have  already been largely replaced, while  I bet the Parisians are wishing they’d kept Baltard’s pavilions.

For more on the history of Les Halles  here’s a good place to start



But it was not all bricks and mortar. Napoleon had been in exile in London and admired its parks and squares. He  wanted Paris to be even greener and a vast network of parks and gardens was planned which I’ll cover in another post one day.  Apart from large open spaces like at the Bois de Boulogne on the city’s edge,  more importantly it also included smaller parks and gardens in every neighbourhood  with the intention that no-one should be more than 10 minutes walk from public green space.

So Gilbert grew up on a vast demolition and construction site watching  the city change rapidly in front of him.   But he also grew up in a France which was undergoing a wave of political and social turmoil.  By the time he had started to exhibit Paris had also undergone the disaster of the  Franco-Prussian war which led to the downfall of Napoleon III,  the horror of the Paris Commune and and then the  divisive struggles between the new secular  Republic and the Catholic church.

It was not all gloom and doom  because at the same time the newly rebuilt Paris  was fast becoming  the uncontested centre of the art world and then the home of La Belle Epoque.  Gilbert was  honoured at the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, and then elected a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1897. He died in 1935 and was  buried in the cemetery of Montmartre.  There doesn’t seem to be much known or written about Gilbert that’s easily accessible although I gather there is a catalogue of his work being prepared so perhaps one day he’ll get a proper critical assessment.

I mentioned earlier that he was not the only chronicler of Paris’s street life. Another painter, just six years younger also made this his speciality. Eugène Galien-Laloue, born in 1854 had some artistic training with his farther who was a set designer and a member of the Barbican school of landscape painters but when his father died in 1870 he had to find work. By 1874 he was working for the French railway  SNCF as a draughtsman plotting new railway lines which involved being out on site a lot, and he used the opportunity to paint the landscapes and neighbourhoods where he was working. Like Gilbert he managed to gain acceptance of some works at the Salon des Artistes Français and from 1877 exhibited regularly  there.  Nowadays he is best known for his mainly autumnal or wintry street scenes  which often , like those of Gilbert  provide great  insight into  Parisian life of the period, including its flower markets.



Paris has always boasted more  flower markets than just the central one at Les Halles.  The one  renamed for  Queen Elizabeth is the oldest,  founded by Napoleon in 1808  as the Marché aux Fleurs on the north bank of the Seine. It was planted with trees and opened two days a week the following year. It proved very successful and by 1828 there were schemes to replace it with a spectacular indoor market although these came to nothing in the end.

However its site and the surrounding streets were scheduled for demolition under Haussmann’s rebuilding plans , and so the market was relocated to the Ile de la Cite where  they were joined by bird sellers whose specialist market was also scheduled for redevelopment.   The new market opens in 1873 with  rows of classically-inspired metal shelters  hosting over 400 merchants.

Everything was disrupted in 1905 when a new metro line was built through the site and the construction forced the market to close. Although the line opened in 1910, the new Cite station  took up half of the old site and the market didn’t reopen until 1920 and then on a much smaller scale.  There were now just three rows of kiosks, with covered walkways between them, designed by Jean-Camille Formigé, who also  designed  the wonderful greenhouse at Auteuil. They are still in place today.

Apart from being an attractive subject to painters the flower market has also appealed to  photographers through the decades.


The renaming of the market for the late queen pushed it up the tourist trail but also raised awareness of the state of the buildings. President Hollande commissioned a report on their future.

It proposed controversially to replace them with a large cast iron and glass greenhouse with several floors which did not go down well with many Parisians  and the result was that the City council  voted in 2020 to restore the pavilions and pedestrianise the surrounding area, removing car parking, planting more trees and opening a cafe.  The bird market will also be shut down  on animal welfare grounds  and fears about the trafficking of non-domestic birds later this year.   Work is due to be completed in 2025 and the authorities plan to promote it more widely as a “destination.” I’m sure the late queen would have been pleased.

Two other flower markets survive in Paris, both much smaller. One on  the Place des Ternes, originally in the centre one of villages which was incorporated in 1863 under Napoleon III’s plans to expand the city. Ternes  rapidly lost its identity as it was urbanised and the market  now stands in the middle of a major traffic island.


The other flower market still operating is on the Place de la Madeleine, at the bottom of the steps leading up to the church.  It maybe tiny but, unlike Ternes, it has been the subject of many paintings and postcards.

Apart from itinerant flowers sellers and street stalls there were several other markets, now long gone but many of them   can be seen on sites that sell old postcards  or on the combined website of Paris Museums.

Sadly despite the publicity that usually surrounded the late Queen I haven’t been unable to unearth that many more pictures of her in Paris and certainly not at the flower market that has been named in her honour, apart from the few official snaps, so if anyone knows of any let me know and I’ll add them in.

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