The Comité Caillebotte has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Following the establishment of the Second Empire in 1851, the physical fabric of Paris was completely transformed. Under the aegis of Baron Georges Haussmann, Napoleon III's powerful Prefect of the Seine, the old, irregular streets of the city were largely demolished and replaced by eighty-five miles of broad, straight boulevards, which became the pervasive hallmark of the modern metropolis and the most important and visible social space of the new French capital. Born in Paris in 1848, Caillebotte (fig. 1) witnessed first-hand the massive demolitions and wholesale new construction that Haussmann's program entailed. Kirk Varnedoe has written about the area near Caillebotte's family home at 77, rue de Miromesnil, in the quartier de l'Europe, "Every street here was pierced, and every building built, during the artist's lifetime. The whole ensemble was an exceptionally unified and undiluted microcosm of the new look that Haussmann's boulevards had imposed throughout Paris" (op. cit., p. 88). The new streets of Paris were prominently featured in Caillebotte's publicly exhibited cityscapes of the late 1870s and early 1880s, the paintings on which he staked his growing reputation. Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark has written, "Among the Impressionists Caillebotte was to become the most uncompromising interpreter of the transformed city. He carried his choice to its logical conclusion, unhesitatingly letting his gaze sweep out towards the far-away vanishing-point of the remorselessly incised boulevards" (Gustave Caillebotte, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bremen, 2008, pp. 12-13).
The present streetscape depicts one of these new, tree-lined thoroughfares, the aptly named boulevard Haussmann. The rectilinear boulevard forms a wide canyon of space that pierces the center of the composition. In contrast to the contemporaneous street scenes of Monet and Renoir (fig. 2), in which the lively bustle softens the architectonic structure of the cityscape, much of the foreground here is left empty of figures, emphasizing the outsized scale of the new Haussmannian boulevards. A limited palette of greys, blues, beiges, and greens suggests the slightly misty light of a damp spring day, with just a few indistinct, anonymous strollers scurrying across the street. The view was painted from the place Saint-Augustin, a city square a few blocks from Caillebotte's family home, looking east along the wide, rectilinear boulevard in the direction of the Opéra. A second painting from 1878, identical in size, was almost certainly conceived as a pendant to the present scene (Berhaut, no. 104; fig. 3). It too was painted from a perspective within the place Saint-Augustin, this time looking up the rue de la Pépinière instead. The building on the right in the latter painting is the same one that appears on the left in our canvas, so that when the two views are hung side-by-side they afford, with some overlap, a single panoramic vista from inside the square.
The pair of paintings also tellingly embodies the contrast between the Paris of yore and the modern city. Unlike the boulevard Haussmann, the rue de la Pépinière--with its winding prospect and irregular roofline--had stood since the eighteenth century, one of the few remnants of old city in the district. Caillebotte calls attention to this disparity by using a higher horizon line for the present scene, which accentuates the plunging perspective of the newly constructed boulevard. Moreover, the inclusion of a strong foreground element (the top-hatted man at the left) emphasizes the boulevard's rapid recession into depth, while the view of the rue de la Pépinière instead focuses attention resolutely in the middle distance. Finally, the greater architectural variety of the eighteenth-century street seems to be matched by its social diversity, which includes two contrasting middle-class figures (one in a top hat and one in a bowler) conversing at the center of the scene and a soldier behind them, distinguished by his red pants, walking towards the adjacent barracks. La Place Saint-Augustin, in contrast, is peopled almost exclusively by smartly dressed, top-hatted flâneurs, the archetypal figure of the modern boulevard for whom, in the words of Walter Benjamin, "the street becomes a dwelling" (quoted in op. cit., exh. cat., 1994, p. 88).
Indeed, the present painting plausibly represents a re-thinking of Caillebotte's undisputed masterpiece, La Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, a monumental streetscape that the artist had exhibited to great acclaim at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877 (Berhaut, no. 57; fig. 4). Rather than looking down on the boulevard from the detached, private space of a balcony, as he would exclusively from 1880 onward (fig. 5), Caillebotte positioned himself in both paintings on the street level itself, which suggests an active engagement with the urban fabric and its social mores. In both compositions, moreover, he juxtaposed a large foreground figure (or pair of figures) on one side of the canvas, cropped by the bottom edge, with a sweeping perspectival plunge on the other side. Even the expanse of parallel brushstrokes marking the street's surface at the far right in La Place Saint-Augustin recalls the meticulously aligned paving stones in Rue de Paris, which emphasize an orderly recession into the distance. Finally, the two paintings are united by their pervasive gray-blue tonality and by the existence of a warmer-toned, less rigidly architectonic pendant: in the case of Rue de Paris, the similarly monumental Pont de l'Europe, which hung alongside it at the Third Impressionist Exhibition (Berhaut, no. 49; Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva).
Equally noteworthy, however, are the differences between the two streetscapes, painted just a year apart. The tight brushwork and sharp focus of Rue de Paris have been replaced in Place Saint-Augustin by a looser, more recognizably Impressionist technique (fig. 6), which appears here in Caillebotte's work for the first time. The architectural severity of the boulevard is partially camouflaged by foliage now, while the vaporous atmosphere seals off the far distance of the scene, tempering the contrast between near and far. Although Caillebotte retained the horizontal axis through the building bases, he eliminated the prominent lamppost that divides Rue de Paris vertically in two, and he muted the sensation of disciplined order that governs even the smallest details in the 1877 canvas, from the silvery umbrellas to the distant chimneys. If Rue de Paris is distinguished by its sense of frozen monumentality, Place Saint-Augustin boasts a heightened spontaneity that represents a new departure for the artist --"much more momentary, casual, and charming in feel than any of Caillebotte's earlier works," Varnedoe has declared (op. cit., p. 110).
The present painting was featured in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, which took place in April-May 1879. As he had in 1877, Caillebotte played a key role in organizing and promoting the exhibition, a fact that did not go unrecognized in the press. In a review for the Paris-Journal, Bertall identified Caillebotte as "the new pontiff of the movement" (quoted in The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, p. 274). In addition to lending ten paintings by his Impressionist colleagues, Caillebotte submitted an exceptionally large number of his own works, all recent paintings from 1877-1879. Ronald Pickvance has declared, "Caillebotte's exhibit in 1879 was the single most important one of his lifetime, both in terms of the number of works shown as well as their imposing scale" (ibid., p. 256). The catalogue lists nineteen oils and six pastels by Caillebotte, including portraits, boating scenes on the Yerres, and views of Paris from a window. Critics, however, described Caillebotte's submission as including as many as thirty-five canvases, displayed both on the wall and on easels, suggesting that numerous paintings were included hors catalogue. That the present painting was among these is confirmed by the fact that it was the subject of a caricature in Le Monde parisien, testament as well to the importance that contemporary audiences accorded the composition (see M. Berhaut, op. cit., 1994, pp. 283 and 286).
At the previous Impressionist exhibition in 1877, Caillebotte had been noted, generally with approval, as one of the most traditional of the group. With their smoothly finished surfaces and immense scale, paintings such as Rue de Paris looked very different from the majority of the other works in the show, and they met with acclaim from critics who otherwise had acute doubts about the Impressionist mission. Many commentators even raised the question of whether Caillebotte could truly be considered an Impressionist painter. The reviewer for La Petite République Française, for example, wrote glowingly, "Caillebotte is an Impressionist only in name. He knows how to draw and paints more seriously than his friends. Le Pont de l'Europe and Une rue de Paris, par un jour de pluie... deserve all possible critical praises" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., San Francisco, 1986, p. 209). Roger Ballu, writing in La Chronique des Arts, noted the same disparity, but was one of the few critics to interpret it in a negative light: "Is Caillebotte an Impressionist, for example, in his large canvas entitled Rue de Paris, temps de pluie? The open umbrellas are all of a uniformly silvery tint, yet the rain is nowhere to be seen. The painter was not able to produce that mist formed by falling raindrops" (quoted in ibid., p. 209).
It may have been partly in response to this critique that Caillebotte turned shortly thereafter to the more broken brushstroke of the present canvas, moving closer to the work of his Impressionist colleagues. When the results of this new direction were shown publicly in 1879, however, they met with a largely hostile and uncomprehending critical response. Caillebotte was singled out at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition as one of the most extreme of the group, attracting more of the ridicule that usually fell on Monet and Renoir. Philippe Burty, typically an ally of the Impressionist painters, denounced Caillebotte's submissions as "hastily brushed" (quoted in ibid., p. 256), while other reviewers decried the preponderance of blue and violet in his work. A more balanced appraisal came from Diego Martinelli, writing for Roma Artistica: "Caillebotte is a young man who combines a passion for art and a rare talent with the means to practice it on his own terms. And it is he, more than all the others, who provokes the public's outrage at this exhibition. It is difficult to judge impartially the painting of this artist, for he shows himself to us today in a very different light from the one we met him in three years ago. He has changed so much that you do not know if it is good or bad" (quoted in ibid., p. 275).
More importantly, Caillebotte himself considered the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition a great success. Shortly after it closed, he wrote buoyantly to Monet, who was ensconced at Vétheuil, "I regret you could not follow the show from close at hand. But for the painters and for the public, despite the malevolence of the press, we have achieved much. Courage then!" (quoted in ibid., p. 261).
(fig. 1) Caillebotte at the place du Louvre. Photo: Martial Caillebotte.
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873. Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
(fig. 3) Gustave Caillebotte, La Caserne de la Pépinière, 1878. Private collection.
(fig. 4) Gustave Caillebotte, Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, 1877. The Art Institute of Chicago.
(fig. 5) Gustave Caillebotte, L'Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann, 1880. Sold, Christie's, New York, 8 May 2000, lot 8.
(fig. 6) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Grands boulevards, 1875. Philadelphia Museum of Art.