Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Urban images in art: Gustave Caillebotte

Paris Street Rainy Day
This image of pedestrians on a Paris street is taken from one of the most beloved works of art ever, "Paris Street, Rainy Day" by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). As testimony to its place in the pantheon, quite the crowd turned out to see it on the final weekend of an exhibition of Caillebotte's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye."
Entrance to the Caillebotte show, Saturday 10/3/15
It's not hard to imagine why Caillebotte's best-known work has such appeal: Even in the rain, Paris is Paris, and very few of us are currently in positions where we wouldn't rather be strolling in Paris. [Point of irrelevant information: I used to have an umbrella with this scene on it.] There are people, ordinary people like you and me, they look good, they're active, and the scene is very accessible. Like another mega-famous Impressionist work, George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte," you feel like you could very comfortably pop into the scene yourself.

Yet Caillebotte's own attitude to the scene is marked by ambivalence, which becomes clear upon viewing five other Paris street scenes he painted during the same time period, between 1876 and 1880. He depicts a new Paris, produced in large part by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman, a local official during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. Haussman's public works program assaulted the medieval city with brio, smashing old structures and widening streets. He was Robert Moses a century before Moses would remake New York City, except that the technology of Haussman's day prevented him from building expressways. Whatever the value of cleaning up the "dirty, crowded and unhealthy" old city (Rice, quoted in "Haussman," cited below), it also removed places of meeting... which may have been Napoleon III's idea to begin with.

Caillebotte's Paris paintings show people who are disconnected from each other, walking wide streets by buildings large and unfriendly enough to draw the ire of a 19th century James Howard Kunstler. (Come to think of it, Kunstler's favored word for this kind of design, "despotic," is precisely what Napoleon III was.) The city is not human-scaled, and the people are alienated.
"The Rue Halevy Seen from a Balcony," from
The painter's vantage point, an upper-story window, means he (and by extension us) aren't connected to the people in the painting either. In none of the six paintings is anyone making eye contact with anyone else. Even the couple in "Paris Street, Rainy Day" isn't, upon a closer look, particularly connecting with each other. In "The Pont de l'Europe" I thought I saw someone looking at a dog, but despite Gracen Johnson's eloquent tribute to dogs' contributions to urbanism, I think he's actually looking between the dog and its owner.
A few days later, by something of a coincidence, I attended an exhibit of watercolors at the Waterloo Center for the Arts by local retired architect Michael Broshar. Broshar's cityscapes are cozy and human-scaled.
"Venice 1"
"Chicago Street"
Broshar paints places he enjoys, and it's easy to see why. Clearly he's making a different point than Caillebotte was.

Caillebotte's ambivalence is underscored by his suburban and rural landscapes included in the exhibition. (See, for example, "The Bridge over the Seine at Argenteuil," painted in 1885.) There is still no socializing, but the colors are brighter and the skies clearer. Thanks to the commentary accompanying the exhibit, I can also tell you his brushstrokes were bolder.

The Paris we know and love today evolved out of Haussman's overhaul. Somehow over time urbanism and complexity reasserted itself. Maybe in an America beset by suburban sprawl our frame of reference is different, too.

SEE ALSO: "Physical Design Issues Illustrated" (on Hale Woodruff), 15 April 2013

Holland Carter, "Painting Paris in a New, Natural Light," New York Times, 10 July 2015, C17 & 19
"Haussman and New Paris,"
Mary Morton and George Shackleford, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye (Chicago, 2015)

Muddy but sociable: "The Halt at the Inn" by Isack van Ostade, c. 1645
National Gallery of Art

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