We found this 1913 etching of the Passage St-Pierre by Caroline Armington in the Earls Court Gallery in Hamilton, Ontario, on St. Patrick’s Day in March.
If you look up “Passage St-Pierre” in the index of a modern map of Paris, you will find the Passage St-Pierre-Amelot in the 11th arrondissement. I took a quick look on Google Street View. Nope, that wasn’t it.
So I hauled out the massive, two-volume Dictionnaire Historique des Rues de Paris by Jacques Hillairet – an early pandemic purchase I have never regretted. The back of each volume lists streets that have been renamed or have disappeared. The Passage St-Pierre is in the latter category, “absorbed by the rue Neuve St-Pierre and the rue de l’Hôtel St-Paul.” I wasn’t sure at first what “absorbed” meant.
Hillairet notes that the narrow passage, which dated from the mid 1600s, was created to connect the rue St-Paul with a cemetery behind the church of St. Paul. Later, the passage was extended at a right angle to the original stretch, to connect to the rue St-Antoine.
The Turgot map from before the Revolution shows the church, and the cemetery behind it. The passage went up the north side of the church and then turned to connect with the rue St-Antoine. I have indicated it here in red.
Here is a picture of the church. It was known as St-Paul-des-Champs, but was demolished in the 1790s after having been damaged in the early years of the Revolution. The image below is an impression of how it once looked, created in the 19th century.
Its name was transferred to the nearby church of St-Louis, which is now called the Eglise St-Paul St-Louis.
I wondered why a passage that flanked the church of St-Paul should be called St-Pierre. The Paris Dictionnaire du Nom des Rues provided two theories: (1) there was a statue of St. Peter in the passage and (2) the passage led to a graveyard, so the name evokes the person who is reputed to welcome the dead at the Pearly Gates: St. Peter.
A search on Gallica produced three turn-of-the-century photographs of the passage by Atget. The first, taken in 1899, shows the same archway as the Armington etching, the same building with the diagonal drainpipe, even the word “Pharmacie” painted on the wall to the left of the archway, but Atget’s photo is taken from farther back, showing more of the passage.
The next, date unknown, is taken from a different angle. The building with the drainpipe is clear, but the arch is obscured. However, the catalogue entry with this version noted that the passage led to the Cemetery of Saint Paul, where Rabelais, Mansart, and the Man in the Iron Mask were once buried. Interesting. The church’s cemetery was one of the oldest in Paris, and because it was so close to the Bastille, prisoners who died there (including the Man in the Iron Mask) were buried here.
The third, taken in about 1900, shows a completely different view but includes several businesses that had been established in the passage. Note the child on the left.
A close-up of the final photograph shows a ghostly female figure in the background, the entrance to a lavoir (wash-house) at the far end, and a wine shop sign, as well as some articles displayed for sale. Is that a face in the upper window?
When these photographs were taken, the church was long gone. But a vestige of the tower remains to this day, just off the rue St-Paul, visible on Google Street View.
Some years ago, when Norman and I rented an apartment on the nearby rue Charlemagne, we passed this spot often. At the bottom of the tower was a single-storey shop called “Geb’s” that sold linens (today it is a pizzeria). Although we never went in, we could see through the window the entrance to a spiral staircase that might once have led to the top of the tower. We always wondered what this extremely high wall had been. Now we know.
Opposite that spot, you can also see an archway leading nowhere at the intersection of the rue St-Paul and the rue Neuve St-Pierre. Was it once part of the entrance to the passage? Probably not. But here is an image from Hillairet of the Passage St-Pierre, with a vaguely similar-looking archway. Perhaps the newer one was intended to evoke the lost passage.
In 1912, the street now known as the rue Neuve St-Pierre was created by widening the old Passage St-Pierre and extending it all the way to the rue Beautreillis. The bit that connected with the rue St-Antoine was also widened to become the rue de l’Hôtel St-Paul. This is what Hillairet meant by “absorbed”: the old passage remained a right-of-way, but was widened and changed beyond recognition. The cemetery was closed, presumably emptied of its contents, and an elementary school for boys was created on the site.
Our etching is dated 1913, a year after this change, so Caroline Armington must have created her image using earlier sketches or photographs.
She was born in 1875 in Brampton, Ontario, which at the time was a village on the outskirts of Toronto (it is now a sizable city). Her father had a farm implement business there. Caroline’s parents did not support her ambition to be an artist, so she self-funded her training as a painter by working as a nurse. First, she went to New York, still working as a nurse, but studying and painting in her spare time. She then travelled to Paris in 1900, where she married Frank Armington, a fellow artist she had met in Canada.
They worked for a few years in Canada before returning to Paris in 1905. Caroline took further art instruction at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Académie Julian and began to produce etchings that were favourably received. During the First World War, both she and her husband worked for the American Ambulance Field Service. When the war ended, they remained in France, although they returned to Canada and the United States for visits and tours as their paintings and etchings became increasingly popular.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the couple left Europe for New York; Caroline died a few days after her arrival, having suffered a heart attack before the trip, brought on by an air-raid siren. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:
Her conventional lifestyle, her prolonged absence from Canada, and her work, sometimes considered old-fashioned when viewed against the modernist paradigm, have made her lesser known in her country of birth than she has been in the United States and France.
But that’s not the whole story. Few of her papers survive, and the explanation can be found on the website of the archives of the Region of Peel (where her birthplace of Brampton is located):
When Caroline died in 1939, Frank remarried. He died soon after, in 1941. His second wife and step-daughter moved in 1943, and destroyed the majority of the couple’s papers and photographs.
Oh dear. However, the works of both artists, Caroline and Frank, are still available to see and enjoy, as we will enjoy the etching that started this whole exploration. It now hangs on the wall of my study, between the door and a bookcase, at eye level, where I can look into it an imagine a whole world.
Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Gallica, Google Street View, Peel Archives.