Class and Nostalgia in Atget’s Organ Grinder and Girl

Posted on March 31, 2015

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By Natasha Coleman ’16

Eugène Atget’s photography is a portal into a changing city, a vision of 19th-century Paris that otherwise would have faded from its inhabitants’ memories. His photographs of contemporary life typically include architecture, parks, and shop windows. Although people were not his primary subjects, his Petits Métiers (“Small Trade”) series (1898-1900) is a significant source of cultural and historical value for that very reason, which tells us about class and social structures in late 19th-century France. Atget photographed working class people as individuals, not typecast by their professions. Although Atget’s photographs were not fully appreciated for their aesthetic value until a few years after his death in 1927, his work represents a historic record of  the vestiges of “Old Paris” which survived the modernization of Haussmannization.[1] In particular, his Organ Grinder and Girl (Joueur d’Orgue) (1898-99; Wheaton College Permanent Collection) is one example of countless working class professions that were already becoming less and less visibly prominent in society [Fig 1]. His sympathetic, yet realistic portrayal of these essential Parisian characters radiates a sense of nostalgia, an aspect of contemporary life that can also be found in modernist artwork.

Figure 1. Eugène Atget. Organ Grinder and Girl (Joueur d'Orgue). 1898-1899. Photograph, silver print, on original mount. 11.5 x 9 in. Wheaton College Permanent Collection, Norton, MA.

Figure 1. Eugène Atget, Organ Grinder and Girl (Joueur d’Orgue), 1898-1899. Photograph, silver print, on original mount. 11.5 x 9 in. Purchased with the Kenneth C. and Louise McKeon Deemer ’33 Fund. Wheaton College Permanent Collection, Norton, MA.

To better appreciate this photograph in all its depth, it is essential to understand the mind behind the camera. Early in his life, Atget had a brief acting and painting career, but neither worked out for him. During his time as an actor, he toured around Paris with a group of traveling actors.[3] This experience probably resonated with him and could possibly be a source of inspiration for his fascination with the street performers of Paris and the stories they have to tell. As he became interested in photography, he initially sold his work to painters, engravers, architects, and metalworkers who used his photographs as models for their own work. As his career progressed into the late 1890s, the French government and such institutions as the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts, the Musée Carnavalet, the Musée de Sculpture Comparée, and the Union des Arts Décoratifs began purchasing his work to record Old Paris.[4] During this phase of his career, he produced his most memorable images, with an outdated camera that contributed to the distinctive qualities of his photographs.[5] Among other photographers of his time documenting similar subjects, Atget had more control and freedom to choose his own themes and style because he did not have a contract with any of his major clients, so he had no criteria to follow.[6] If he had worked directly with them, then we would not have had the chance to see Atget’s unique take on the city.

Despite this relative freedom, Atget approached photography with a documentarian lens and not self-consciously as art. The eighty postcards of his Petits Métiers series, including Joueur d’Orgue, are an example of the mass cultural distribution of his work, which circulated in 1905.[7] Not only were his photographs archived as official documents of Parisian history, but also a means for consumers to have personal keepsakes of the very city they were living in, which would continue changing. Although his main objectives were not expressly artistic, his work nonetheless contributed to defining modernist photography, a canon to which Atget now comfortably belongs. Atget’s work later influenced the Surrealists, which is evident in the 1926 issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, where Man Ray published some of Atget’s most admired photographs.[8] The heart of this art movement blurred the lines between reality and fantasy through unexpected juxtapositions, which was a common theme for both Atget and the Surrealists. There was also overlap in how they approached Paris as an “urban labyrinth of memory and desire, in which society felt nostalgic for the old and possessed a preoccupation with the new.”[9] With this assessment of Atget’s approach to the city in mind, we now turn to an examination of the two central figures in the photograph to understand this complex relationship between the old and the new.

In Joueur d’Orgue, the juxtaposition of age is clearly apparent between the old man and young female assistant. It was common for organ grinders to hire a singer to attract customers.[10] In this case, they depend on each other to survive and make a living. Despite their age difference, these two individuals come from similar backgrounds yet have opposing expressions. Assuming this elderly man is in his mid-60s, he has experienced a roller coaster of political turbulence in France, with the 1848 Revolution, the establishment of the Second Empire, and the Paris Commune. Right before his eyes, this man experienced the effects of Haussmannization and saw his city being completely transformed. His expression is far from optimistic; he looks thoughtful but worn from age and labor. Conversely, this girl is cheerful and her open arms welcome whatever the world has to offer. As a youth, she is just beginning to understand some of the harsh realities of life, yet her infectious smile radiates warmth and joy for the days ahead. The Paris she is accustomed to is completely different from the one the organ grinder grew up in, therefore their opposing expressions depict two different mindsets about the future, one of despair and the other of optimism for the future. The old man’s expression and stance is consistent with other portraits in Atget’s series, which seems to support the fact that people with street professions shared a collective feeling of fatigue. Keeping in mind the photograph is dated at the end of the 19th-century, the young girl has a distinctive role in portraying the mentality of a different generation of the working class.

The subject of the organ grinder was a popular one, and was often used by artist to signal nostalgia for a disappearing way of life. A lithographic bookplate by Pablo Picasso, Le Joueur d’Orgue de Barbarie (1905) [Fig 2] depicts a similar relationship between old and young entertainers. Even though the elderly man and child are not directly conversing with each other, they become a cohesive unit because of their clothing, dictating their profession.[11] The old man appears sad and exhausted as he is sitting down after a hard days work. While the girl in the Atget neutralizes the organ grinder’s seriousness, the young boy in Picasso’s bookplate is just as disheartened as the old man, producing a generally dismal tone. Implied by their placement together, one can assume that a man does not step outside the boundaries of this profession. Picasso’s bookplate was made a few years after Atget’s photograph, further signaling a common interest in capturing marginalized individuals. By providing entertainment to all classes, they were part of the fabric of French culture that artists saw as important to commemorate.

Pablo Picasso. Le Joueur d'Orgue de Barbarie. 1905. Lithographic bookplate. 7 x 10 in. Museum of Modern Art, Brussels.

Figure 2. Pablo Picasso, Le Joueur d’Orgue de Barbarie, 1905. Lithographic bookplate. 7 x 10 in. Museum of Modern Art, Brussels.

Although the organ grinder’s services appealed to other working class people, the bourgeois also appreciated them, indicative of the class mixing on the streets of Paris where performers situated themselves to be seen and consumed. The café-concerts and music halls that were so frequently depicted in paintings of Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, also depicted spaces where classes could interact and be seen together. Despite Haussmannization and the wide boulevards that allowed this kind of space to grow in and around popular entertainment locales, the organ grinder in the photograph looks as though he is stationed in one of the narrow streets still remaining after the reconstruction of Paris, evident by the style of the older building with window shutters in the background. Atget was primarily determined to capture this disappearing portion of the city and the people who inhabited it. With that being said, Atget brilliantly captured these two complementary figures in their solitude, not on a main, modern street with crowds of people, but rather in a Old Paris setting that correlates with their profession. One of the benefits of this profession was the ability to move around and capture people’s attention. This photograph captures a singular moment as they are waiting for their next customer. This fleeting second in time resonates with other modernist works whose goal was to encapsulate the transient aspects of society. From Atget’s perceptive, what better subject to photograph than the very people and places that had been pushed by Haussmannization to the outskirts of Paris.[12]

Keeping Atget’s acting background in mind, many art historians have noticed that his street scenes resemble the stage of a theatre.[13]The poses of the musician and his young assistant do emphasize the theatrical nature of their act. During Atget’s time, Paris was being represented as a spectacle to be consumed, most notably at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. There was a strong sense of nostalgia for the way things used to be in a theatrical exhibition called Vieux Paris (Old Paris) [Fig 3].[14]  This particular venue solidifies the metaphor of the city being displayed as a theatrical performance and its citizens as characters. Old Paris was being replicated with a sense of nostalgia within the very modern city that had come to replace it, a process also reflected in the simultaneous representation of the “ancient and living tradition” in Atget’s work.[15]  As Paris was becoming a staged spectacle on which the bourgeois class display itself, Atget responded by documenting working class professions that would otherwise by overlooked.

Figure 3. Guide Historique, Pittoresque & Anecdotique, “Exposition Universelle de 1900: Le Vieux Paris,” (1900). Gallica Bibliothèque Numérique.

Vieux Paris

Figure 3. Exposition Universelle de 1900, Le Vieux Paris: Guide Historique, Pittoresque & Anecdotique.  Paris: Ménard et Chafour, 1900. Source: Gallica Bibliothèque Numérique.

Furthermore, the ways in which organ grinders were depicted in visual culture reveals how societal perceptions of them evolved.  In the 17th century, street musicians were viewed as untrustworthy scoundrels who were not accepted or respected in society. Itinerant musicians would travel from one rural town to another in order to make ends meet. Most visual representations of them were unflattering. Florence Gétreau recognized a shift in their portrayal from ghastly to pitiful during the 18th century.[16] A more romanticized version resulted from a population shift from rural areas to urban centers. As these traveling musicians began increasing in number in the city, idealized depictions offered a way for urban dwellers to become more familiar with them. To achieve this goal, they were included in almanacs and songbooks, common types of mass culture that were easily accessible.[17] By the mid-19th century, the figure of the organ grinder became less noticeable in everyday life. So as to preserve this cultural figure, many artists started to depict them as historical artifacts rather than contemporary tradesmen. Specifically, Jean Henri Marlet’s Tableaux de Paris (1821-24) was a series of lithographs that illustrated street performers.[18] Unlike Atget’s photographs of individuals, Marlet typecast his subjects by profession. In The Puppeteer on the Pont Neuf (1821-24), for example, the primary subject is more the puppet show as a form of street entertainment, rather than on the people themselves. [Fig 4].The performers and members of the audience are only generally treated, with a relative lack of detail in their faces. None of them are facing the viewer; instead their backs are turned toward the puppet show, creating distance between them and us. Marlet’s stereotypical representations provide insight about the social significance of working class professions, but also signals the unique value of Atget’s series because of its realistic, authentic depictions of its subjects. From the 1860s and onward, many street musicians were still seen as threatening, but their characterization in paintings and photographs was more sympathetic as they were increasingly appreciated with a sense of nostalgia for a disappearing way of life.

Figure 4. Jean Henri Marlet, The Puppeteer on the Pont Neuf, 1821-24. Lithograph. Bridgeman Art Library, Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet.

Figure 4. Jean Henri Marlet, The Puppeteer on the Pont Neuf, 1821-24. Lithograph. Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet.

The process of obtaining an itinerant musician license was difficult; regulations were strict and plentiful.[19] After securing the license, they had a few options for acquiring an organ and renting was the cheapest option.[20]  Men tended to dominated this profession and few women were organ grinders, but rather assisted men by signing or carrying out other tasks. Like many other working class people, they are simply doing their best to survive and make an honest living. Honoré Daumier’s watercolor The Joueur d’Orgue (Organ Grinder) (c.1860) shares this viewpoint [Fig 5]. As Colta Ives, Margret Stuffmann and Martin Sonnabend point out, the melancholy audience, composed of middle-aged men and women, is positioned in the background rather than the foreground, building a “dark, accusing human wall” facing the viewer.[21] Instead of showing appreciation for the music, they look just as sorrowful as the performers themselves, displaying their class bonds with the organ grinder. Daumier is sympathetic toward the organ grinder who is working hard to provide a service to his fellow equals. This is not an idealized depiction, but rather a representation of an outsider and his marginalized audience in contemporary Paris. Atget’s photograph exudes the same sense of class sympathy, except the juxtaposition of the two main figures creates a more optimistic tone than the one in Daumier’s melancholy watercolor. This contrast could stem from the different time periods in which they were made and the distinctive questions they were posing in each work.

Figure 5. Honore Daumier, “The Organ Grinder (L’Orgue de Barbarie),” c.1860. Pen and ink watercolor, 13 3/8 x 10 1/4 in. Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris.

Figure 5. Honore Daumier, The Organ Grinder (L’Orgue de Barbarie), c.1860. Pen and ink watercolor. 13 3/8 x 10 1/4 in. Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris.

There are also informative parallels between the photographs of Eugène Atget and Charles Nègre, who both documented organ grinders in the 1850s and 1890s respectively. During Nègre’s time, the camera’s relatively long shutter speeds meant that it could not capture motion, requiring subjects to be posed. In Nègre’s Organ Grinder at 21, Quai Bourbon, (1853) [Fig 6] the shadowed border surrounds the isolated figure returning home after a hard day’s work.[22] His face is turned away from the camera, hiding his identity and providing a more generalized notion of the organ grinder. By contrast, Atget’s organ grinder is looking directly into the camera, made vulnerable by exposing himself, but at the same time he is doing so with a sense of security and confidence. The same goes for the young girl by his side who is openly expressing herself. Nègre’s figure is blurry, appearing like a ghost on the streets, capturing the ephemeral quality of the photograph.[23] Although Atget’s photo captures this same quality, the two individuals have their own personalities, while Nègre’s organ grinder has the spotlight for just a moment and then continues to blend in with the rest of the city. Since Nègre was a major photographer before Atget’s time, Nègre’s nostaglic photographs of the organ grinder could have easily inspired Atget and his choice of subject.

Figure 6. Charles Nègre, “Organ Grinder at 21, Quai Bourbon,” 1853. Photograph, salt print from paper negative, 3 15/16 x 3 1/4 in. J Paul Getty Museum.

Figure 6. Charles Nègre, Organ Grinder at 21, Quai Bourbon, 1853. Photograph, salt print from paper negative. 3 15/16 x 3 1/4 in. J Paul Getty Museum.

Atget was not only an artist, but a master storyteller.[24] His aptitude with the camera is not only evident from the fact that he was a self-taught photographer, but also from the iconography and breathtaking compositions of his works.[25] Joueur d’Orgue is a meaningful historical object, illustrating street life that cogently summarizes Old Paris. From the nostalgic setting of a narrow street (one of the few spared by the remodeling of the city) to the sympathetic portrayal of the elderly organ grinder and his young assistant as individuals, Atget’s subtle insights into class and social issues are evident. What will happen to these hard working people once demand decreases and they can no longer support themselves financially? Although there was longing for the old city and its people, Paris was not waiting for them to keep up. While there was no chance of turning back, Atget’s time and effort to photograph these two people has preserved them as individuals and imprinted them in the minds of many as valuable members of Parisian society.

This essay was written for ARTH 250: Modernism and Mass Culture.  Natasha Coleman proposed the Atget photograph for acquisition by the Wheaton College Permanent Collection as part of a course research project.


[1] Maria Morris Hambourg, “Eugène Atget: About the Artist,” Grove Art Online <http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=229&gt;

[3] Nicole Silvester, “Capturing a Vanished City: The Photography of Eugène Atget,” August 27, 2011, <http://www.brighthub.com/multimedia/photography/articles/123808.aspx>

[4] James Borcoman, Eugène Atget, 1857-1927 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1984), 21.

[5] His camera had an 18x24cm view with two panels. The lens was located in the front panel and the glass plate was in the back. Atget was also able to focus his lens thanks to the “bellows” in his camera. He used a wooden tripod and all together his equipment weighed about 30lbs. National Gallery of Art, Washington, “Atget: The Art of Documentary Photography,” n.d., <http://www.nga.gov/feature/atget /work.shtm> (November 23, 2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Weston Naef, ed., In Focus: Eugène Atget, Photographs from The J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000), 22.

[8] Department of Photographs, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,” n.d., <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm&gt; (November 22, 2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] H. Sutherland Edwards, Old and New Paris: Its History, its People, and its Places with Numerous Illustrations (London: Cassell and Company, 1894), 327.

[11] Naomi Ritter, Art as Spectacle: Images of the Entertainer since Romanticism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989), 165.

[12] Referred to as the military zone, the outer city limits, in-between the center of Paris and the suburbs, was the location of working class homes, where people literally and figuratively lived on the margins. Frits Gierstberg et al., Eugène Atget: Old Paris (Madrid: Fundacion Mapfre, 2011), 26-27.

[13] “The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.”

[14]  Exposition Universelle, Le Vieux Paris: Guide Historique, Pittoresque, Anecdotique (Paris: Ménard et Chaufour, 1900). October 15, 2007, <http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k201257n>

[15] Excerpts from his book can be found online at the Atget Photography website. John Szarkowski, “Eugène Atget, 1857-1927,” n.d., <http://www.atgetphotography.com/The-Photographers/Eugène-Atget.html&gt; (November 14, 2014).

[16] Florence Gétreau, “Street Musicians of Paris: Evolution of an Image,” Music in Art, Music Iconography: Transmission and Transformation of Symbolic Images 23: 1/2  (Spring-Fall 1998):68-69.

[17] Gétreau, 70-71.

[18]  Jean-Henri Marlet, Nouveaux Tableaux de Paris (Paris: Imprimerie de E. Pochard, 1823).

[19] They had to be certified by police and meet the following criteria: have French citizenship, live in the city for a year and have a “fair” moral character. After passing these requirements, they also had to get their badge renewed every 3 months. Sutherland, 327-28.

[20] The least likely possibility was to buy a new organ, which cost anywhere between 400 and 500 francs. A used organ was much cheaper, but still a hefty investment of 100 to 150 francs. During the mid-1800s, that price was actually the equivalent to a supply of medicinal ingredients, which most doctors found to be quite expensive; therefore a working class man or woman would probably opt to rent. A small organ was less than 2 francs and a larger one cost 10 francs. Above average organ grinders could potentially earn up to 50 francs in one day, so in the long run it was worth it to rent. Sutherland, 327-28.

[21] Colta Ives et al., Daumier Drawings (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), 220.

[22] Ives, 220.

[23] The J. Paul Getty Museum, “Organ Grinder at 21, Quai Bourbon,” n.d., <http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=44817&gt;

[24] National Gallery of Art, Washington, “Atget: The Art of Documentary Photography,” n.d., <http://www.nga.gov/feature/atget/bio.shtm&gt;

[25] Françoise Reynaud, “Carnavalet: Histoire de Paris,” April 25, 2012, <http://www.carnavalet.paris.fr/en/exhibitions/Eugène-atget-paris&gt;

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