Much was written about the significance of the 19th century Paris as a major global cultural capital, and the practices of French artists from that time are directly affiliated with the city itself. Although the Impressionists searched for a quiet and more natural surrounding to express their fascination with the light, others like Gustave Caillebotte searched for their inspiration in the heart of the urban life.
This particular master is somehow overshadowed by his contemporaries, even though he belonged to the Impressionist circle and was their patron and a collector. Caillebotte practiced a style more realistic than that of his peers, was infatuated with photography, and in the later phase of his career, the prolific painter was influenced by Pointillism.
His best-known painting made in 1877 and called Paris Street; Rainy Day epitomizes the modern paradigm. It is a depiction of hurried individuals walking through The Place de Dublin, a specific site located at an intersection to the east of the Gare Saint-Lazare in north Paris. Although it is considered an Impressionist artwork, this masterpiece is slightly different for its apparent realism and linearity rather than broad brush strokes.
At the forefront of the Paris Street; Rainy Day painting by Caillebotte are two figures dressed according to the latest Parisian vogue worn by the bourgeoisie – the woman wears a hat, veil, diamond earrings, and a sophisticated brown dress, and a fur-lined coat, while the man is a proper gentleman in a topcoat, top hat, bow tie, starched white shirt, buttoned waistcoat and an open long coat with collar turned up, and with an inevitable mustaches. The remaining characters in the background are working-class: a maid in a doorway, and the decorator carrying a ladder, while the majority of the figures are holding umbrellas.
Caillebotte took into account the class differences between the 19th century Parisians and presented them in a playful manner of an everyday city scene. It seems that this class aspect was so important to the painter, as a cold and distanced atmosphere, even ghoulish to a certain extent. The expressions of the protagonists seem dim, and they are in a hurry. The cold weather and the rain (as suggested by the title) largely contribute to the feeling of alienation and remorse.
It can be said that the painting is photo-realistic, which is related to Caillebotte's apparent interest in photography. The leading figures look like they are out of focus, while those in the mid-distance (the carriage and the pedestrians in the intersection) are rather sharp; the features in the background become gradually unclear too. In addition to the influence of photography is the cropping of certain figures. Caillebotte reproduces the effect of a camera lens in that the points at the center of the image seem to bulge. The focusing effect of the camera is recreated so that certain subjects are sharpened but not others. The same principle was used for achieving the overall clarity of the composition. What is indeed interesting is that the figures appear as if they just entered the painting, as if the painter took a snapshot of people passing by (in reality, Caillebotte probably spent months carefully observing and planning the composition).
The dominating structure in Paris Street; Rainy Day is the Place de Dublin building presented from the eastern side of the Rue de Turin. It was a newly built Parisian district (this area started developing at that time as a residential center for the sprawling bourgeoisie), part of the grandiose urban renovation project which happened between 1809 and 1891, led by Baron Haussmann. This also indicates how novel this painting was at the time, since it showed an entirely new image of a modern city.
Three roads are included in the image (the northern side of the square): the rue de Moscou (left), the rue Clapeyron (center), and the rue de Turin (right). The rue de Saint-Pétersbourg crosses the square and that is suggested by the line of the buildings to the left and a break in the buildings to the right. The curiosity is that the painting features 'pharmacie' sign on the ground floor of the building between the Rue de Moscou and the Rue Clapeyron, where a pharmacy can still be found today.
Shortly after the painting was publicly exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition of 1877 for the first time, the writer and avid follower of the Impressionists Émile Zola saluted the Paris Street; Rainy Day (although he was not a great fan of Caillebotte's work) in an article "Notes parisiennes: Une exposition: les peintres impressionnistes" published in Le Sémaphore de Marseille that same year.
Many of Caillebotte's paintings remained in the family after his death in 1894 along with Paris Street; Rainy Day until it was acquired by Walter P. Chrysler Jr. in 1955, who then sold it in 1964 to the Art Institute of Chicago where is still held in the collection. Gloria Groom, the AIC curator, described it as the great picture of urban life in the late 19th century.
Paris Street; Rainy Day still is a captivating and powerful artwork which reflect the artist’s great skillfulness, but the conceptual innovation as well. Due to the fact it does represent an urban scene which reveals an array of social implications regarding class and urbanization the painting can be interpreted as an engaged one; an image which articulates modernity with prevailing ambiguity while depicting it in the simplest possible manner.
Editors’ Tip: Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye
The book features fifty of Caillebotte’s strongest paintings, including post-conservation images of Paris Street; Rainy Day (Art Institute of Chicago), along with The Floorscrapers and Pont de l’Europe, all of which date from a particularly fertile period between 1875 and 1882. The artist was criticized at the time for being too realistic and not impressionistic enough, but he was a pioneer in adopting the angled perspective of a modern camera to compose his scenes. Caillebotte’s skill and originality are evident even in the book’s reproductions, and the essays offer critical insights into his inspiration and subjects.
Featured image: Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877. 212.2 × 276.2 centimeters (83.5 × 108.7 in), Art Institute of Chicago. All images creative commons.