The view depicts the area around the Porte Saint-Denis in the decade before the French Revolution. The Porte itself is a monument to the ancient regime, having been erected in 1672, on the site of a 14th.century gate built by Charles V, to glorify the victories of Louis XIV in the Rhine and Franche-Comte. The elegant staffage in the picture, especially the dresses, pin-point a date in the 1780’s, and the haphazard arrangement of buildings and streets show the mediaeval roots of Paris before it was rationalised with a new layout by Baron Haussmann in the 1850’s. The gate, which anticipates the Arc de Triomphe over a hundred years later, was designed by the architect
Francois Blondel, clearly inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome, while the exceptional relief carvings in the upper panels, showing the Sun King’s victories on the eastern front, were the work of the sculptor Michel Augier.
Our knowledge of how Paris looked in the late eighteenth century is largely due to the exquisitely detailed drawings of Lespinassse. In the catalogue to the exhibition “French Landscape Drawings and Sketches of the Eighteenth Century” at the British Museum in 1977 the entry on Lespinasse states that “His well-known series of views of Paris combine purity of line and freshness of colour with an extraordinarily exact sense of topographical and atmospherical accuracy. He had a particular feeling for the transformation brought about by the change in the light at different times of day, and often inscribed on his drawings the hour when they were made.” On one of the two views of Paris exhibited, which are among the masterpieces of late-eighteenth century Parisian topographical drawing, he has noted that “the lighting of this picture is that of the hour between 11 o’clock and midday”.
Lespinasse came from a family of provincial nobility in the neighbourhood of Nevers; he was a Chevalier de l’Ordre Royale et Militaire de Saint-Louis. He was elected to the Academie in 1787 with a panoramic view of Paris. He exhibited at the Salon from 1787 until 1801, and in the latter year published a treatise on perspective. Views of St.Petersburg show that he spent some time in Russia. Other topographical watercolours are in the Musee de Versailles and the Louvre.