Art Through Time: A Global View
The Urban Experience Art: Paris Street; Rainy Day
With its gaslights, carriages, and cobblestone streets, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day may seem to some twenty-first-century viewers like a quaint evocation of old-world Paris.
However, when it was painted in 1877, it constituted a bold look at a swiftly modernizing city. The fashionably dressed Parisian couple in the foreground of the painting strolls down a street near the Saint-Lazare train station. In preceding decades, the railroad’s expansion had prompted a radical transformation of the neighborhood, as had urban initiatives led by city administrator Baron Haussmann in the 1850s and ’60s. The broad boulevard and grand, uniform buildings that set the scene for Caillebotte’s figures are evidence of the so-called “Haussmannization” of Paris.
Caillebotte brings vitality to his city scene through the careful manipulation of angles, cropping of figures, and placement of objects. The viewer’s vantage point is from the sidewalk, facing the couple at right. Parallel to the picture plane and cut off at the knees, the pair appears close to the viewer and moving closer. One can easily imagine that in moments, they will step straight through the picture plane and continue on their way. The viewer’s eye, however, does not stop with these figures. Rather, it bounces around the canvas, following the asymmetric rhythm of the umbrellas Caillebotte has scattered throughout the scene.
The geometric order, monumental figures, and dramatic perspective employed by Caillebotte seem to offer a vision quite different from the images most often associated with Impressionism—Monet’s light-dappled haystacks, indistinct landscapes, and nearly abstract lily ponds. What links Caillebotte to the Impressionist artists with whom he exhibited—Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, and others—is not his style so much as his desire to capture momentary experience and fleeting vision in works that explore themes of class, identity, urbanity, and modernity.
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.”
The Art Institute of Chicago Web site. http://www.artic.edu/aic.
Broude, Norma, ed. Gustave Caillebotte and the Fashioning of Identity in Impressionist Paris. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Callen, Anthea. The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique and the Making of Modernity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Clark, T.J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Distel, Anne, et al. Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.
Herbert, Robert L. Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.