Paris Street, Rainy Weather, Gustave Caillebotte
Today, the Place de Dublin is a hectic metropolitan intersection in the center of Paris, a contemporary experience that defies the view depicted by Gustave Caillebotte in his 1877 painting Paris Street – Rainy Weather. Yet in this serene scene of carefree couples promenading through the bare street lies an image of startling modernity, of almost futuristic ambition. Caillebotte’s large-scale canvas marks a seminal moment in the experience of city-living when the ceaseless march of progress seemed to have acquired a new, pleasant face that belied the rampant and careless threat of dispossession that lay beneath. The artist’s elegant pedestrians are dressed in the heights of bourgeois fashion, their identical umbrellas reinforce the ubiquity of the season’s trend and the possibility of mass-production. The viewer arrives in a time that is eternally in the present, eternally new. Despite the cleanliness and recent reorganization of the city and its broad, reassuring style Caillebotte captured a grim, monotone Paris which served to emphasize the loneliness of the characters, whose psychological confinement is engendered by their new metropolitan experience.
Caillebotte’s Paris Street – Rainy Weather condenses in its intimate drama the meeting point of capitalist city living and Parisian artistic life. Before the ravages of Baron von Haussmann’s urban regeneration of the city, the winding medieval streets were the perfect setting for the poetic act of flanerie, the aimless strolling with the aim of penetrating the deeper meanings dormant in the urban environment. As Haussmann’s construction teams cleaved the grand Boulevards into the city through the rubble of ancient working-class quarters, the whole face of Paris changed from 1860 to the early twentieth century, into the spacious and refined place that exists today. Despite the picture-book nostalgia established in the mind of the modern viewer, Caillebotte‘s Paris Street- Rainy Weather is a masterpiece of modernity and technology. Influenced by the nascent art of street photography, the artist imparts a privileged view of the urban experience.
As the shadows of the scaffolding hint at further building projects, the fashionable people swarm around the intersection. Perhaps for contemporary audiences, the canvas would have hinted that the passers-by had recently arrived, or were just returning back to, the recently expanded Gare Saint Lazare, a major train station that took people from the leafy suburbs to the city-center. These new city-dwellers are thus instantly aligned with the rural idyll, the former refuse of the bourgeoisie, now reconfigured into the playground of the urban rich.