Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1876-77
Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894)
Oil on canvas, 83 1/2 x 108 3/4 in. (212.2 x 276.2 cm)
Considered the masterpiece of his career, Paris Street; Rainy Day displays the hallmarks of Gustave Caillebotte’s mature style: a modern urban subject, realistically depicted; a peculiar and insistent spatial order; and a sense of time momentarily frozen. Examine the painting closely to find these stylistic features. Although the buildings may not look modem to us, they were new in the artist’s lifetime. What in this painting would have been considered modern in 1876? What else might be modem about the subject matter? How are the people, buildings, and streets depicted? What gives the viewer the sense that time has suddenly stopped?
Caillebotte’s rigorously controlled technique mirrors the pristine modernity of Haussmann’s rebuilt Paris. He experimented with a plunging perspective to create his unique urban view. The composition is divided into a giant "plus" sign. Locate the horizontal and vertical elements which divide the painting into four parts. (The lamppost and its shadow divide the painting vertically; the horizon line divides the painting horizontally.) Are these four quadrants equally divided? What looms forward on the right side of the painting? What zooms backwards into the distance on the left? Look closely into each quadrant: how are the foreground and background tied together?
1. The point or points on the horizon line where people become smaller and smaller and buildings converge and seem to disappear are called vanishing points. Find the visual elements that draw the eye back to these points. How many blocks can you walk back into the painting?
To fully understand Caillebotte’s careful and deliberate organization of space within the painting, groups of students can recreate the scene.
Three people can become the main figures in the "foreground." Moving back in the "picture plane," add those people in the "middle ground" and "background." Pay close attention to the distance between each group of figures. How are the relationships between the "actors" different from the relationship between the figures in the painting? (The scale in the painting is not realistic; the figures in the foreground are too large in relationship to the figures in the middle ground.)
Direct the "actors" to remain frozen in the moment while the remaining students become the viewers of the scene. Where must the viewers stand to have all characters in the correct spatial placement? If the "actors" are allowed to move at will, and then ordered to freeze again, how will the composition and the relationships among the figures change?
2. Write a story, poem, short play, or give an oral presentation about any two people in the painting. Ideas to explore: Who are these anonymous city strollers? Where are they going? Where have they been? Do they talk to one another? How are they dressed? The couple on the right are looking toward the left. What might they be looking at? (Actually, they are looking at the St. Lazare train station.) Summarize the themes which reoccur frequently.
3. Using the collage technique, compose a contemporary urban scene from a familiar aspect of your life. Consider, among other things, subject, location, people and their activities. After cutting out figures and objects from magazines, experiment with perspective and scale (near and far) before gluing down your final composition, much in the way Caillebotte made preparatory drawings before composing the painting. Discuss your unique urban view and explain how scale and perspective contribute to this interpretation.
4. Caillebotte’s life as a patron was invaluable to the Impressionist endeavor. Discuss the concept of patronage. What institutions and individuals have traditionally provided patronage for artists? (The church, royal courts, wealthy and powerful individuals like popes, cardinals, and business leaders.) What kinds of institutions and individuals occupy that role today? (Governments, corporations, museums, and an expanded art-consuming middle class.)
5. Examine the history of Caillebotte’s life as a patron. When did he start purchasing the work of his colleagues? In what other ways did he assist them? What did he hope to accomplish with his will? Did he succeed? Letters Caillebotte wrote to Pissarro and Monet are excellent original sources for further investigation into these issues. [For more in-depth research, see Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist, 1994.]
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