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11 / The Urban Experience

Paris Street; Rainy Day
Paris Street; Rainy Day
Artist / Origin Gustave Caillebotte (French, 1848–1894)
Region: Europe
Date 1877
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 83 ½ in. (212.2 cm.), W: 108 ¾ in. (276.2 cm.)
Location Charles H. and Mary F.S. Worcester Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Credit Courtesy of Art Resource/Photo by Erich Lessing

expert perspective

Kimberly A. JonesAssociate Curator of French Paintings, National Gallery of Art

Paris Street; Rainy Day

» Gustave Caillebotte (French, 1848–1894)

expert perspective

Kimberly A. Jones Kimberly A. Jones Associate Curator of French Paintings, National Gallery of Art

Probably the most important thing that separates the Impressionists from the artists who came before them is this very strong awareness of the importance of observation. They were very much drawn to and embraced the notion of the painting of modern life—that the artist must be first and foremost aware of the world around him, that he shouldn’t paint fantasies. He shouldn’t paint historical images; he should paint the world he knows and experiences first hand.

Caillebotte’s great masterpiece is the Rainy Day in Paris, in which you literally see a slice of Haussmann’s Paris, with the wonderful angles of the boulevards jutting together into this square. The fact that it’s a rainy day—you can see in the rain-slicked paving stones reflecting the figures as they are walking across them. In the foreground you have one of these very elegant upper-class couples with the elegantly dressed woman and her top-hatted companion as they move along the street, and the umbrellas that they are holding, as they are repeated and duplicated across the composition as these couples move in this wonderful intricate dance across the open square. It’s very much a kind of image of modern Paris, but it’s a very mundane image of Paris, very much in keeping with the Impressionists. It’s not the grandiose or the spectacular or necessarily the unique, but rather the day to day, the most mundane kind of experience that any person living in Paris would have known on a daily basis.

Caillebotte actually made a number of drawings, in preparation for these paintings. He was very, very meticulous. And the umbrellas appear quite often. So they are very much an integral part of the whole composition. They become a wonderful motif that moves and leads the eye through the composition backwards.

And the Impressionists very much were aware and conscious of the changes in Paris, not only the physical changes, but also the social strata. They were observers of the world around them, and they saw new social environments, where for the first time, people of all classes were sort of inhabiting the same space. And so they observed and watched how they interacted, how they sort of experienced the world around them. So it wasn’t just the new Paris and how it looked, but also how it caused people to engage, or not to engage with one another, that the Impressionists really took as sort of the fodder for some of the greatest paintings.” 

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