The Imperial Asylum at Vincennes

On March 8, 1855, Napoleon III of France announced the creation of the Imperial Asylum at Vincennes. It opened in 1857 and was intended to be a place where workers could receive care comparable to military veterans—particularly significant as construction and factory jobs had become more important and more dangerous. The Emperor subsidized the early costs out of his own private fortune, raising funds and also imposing fees on contractors. Built on forty acres of forested land on a terrace exposed to fresh air from all sides, the Asylum had admitted by 1865 more than 14,000 men from hospitals in Paris and its suburbs, charitable institutions, convalescent homes, and various other establishments. The mean duration of stay was twenty-two days, and patients were discharged when they recovered or were deemed incurable. They received a working-class diet with as much first quality bread as they desired and a pint of wine per day. Facilities included a library with 4,000 books, and games were provided for entertainment but playing cards was not allowed. During the twentieth century the Asylum was renamed several times and eventually became the National Hospital of St. Maurice.

Soon after the Asylum opened, photographer Charles Nègre was commissioned to photograph and document the space. Now regarded as the most celebrated French photographer of his time, he did this with extreme thoroughness, producing one of the first albums containing photographs, showing the inaugural events, daily life, the chapel, kitchen, laundry, dispensary, library, and all other rooms, patients lying in bed, and doctors making rounds in their top hats. The image shown here captures the refectory or communal space, the photograph suggesting at the same time community and transience, in that patients inevitably form bonds with their fellow patients but eventually will walk out again into the world, perhaps through the large doors at the back of the room.

Black and white photograph of the common area of the asylum at vincennes
The Refectory of the Imperial Asylum at Vincennes by Charles Nègre. 1858–59. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 


 

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