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Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, oil on canvas 83-1/2 x 108-3/4 inches / 212.2 x 276.2 cm (The Art Institute of Chicago).  View this work up close on the Google Art Project. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Beth: When Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day was exhibited in 1877 at the Impressionist Exhibition, one anonymous reviewer wrote, "Caillebotte is an impressionist in name only. "He knows how to draw, "and paints more seriously than his friends." Steven: Well, you know, when we think of impressionism, we think of the countryside, light-filled summer, loose brush work, and Caillebotte has given us this complex image of the subtlety of light in the city after a rainstorm. Beth: And without all of that loose, open brushwork. This reviewer is saying he knows how to draw. There is a sense of line, of contours, of forms that exist three-dimensionally in space. That's not what the impressionists were doing in 1877. At that same exhibition, one could have seen Renoir's Moulin de la Galette. Steven: Which is full of light and movement and open brushwork. Beth: Or, paintings by Monet of the Gare Saint-Lazare, where Monet concentrated on the effects of light through the steam in that railway station. Steven: In fact, so much so that even the massiveness of the locomotive dissolved within that atmosphere, but here Caillebotte has given us a sense of massiveness. Look at the apartment buildings in the background. Look at the cobblestones. These are solid forms. Beth: Right, nothing's dissolving into brushwork or light here. Steven: And yet this painting is still all about light, but it's about its reflectivity. It's about shadow, and it's about the way that light can define forms in a far more solid way. Beth: Caillebotte is painting modern Paris, wide boulevards that had just recently been built, and the modern apartment houses that lined those boulevards. Steven: He's also giving us the middle class that then populated this city. Look at how fashionably-dressed the couple in the foreground are. Beth: Although, we do seem to have some different types of people. If we look closely, we mostly see those fashionable, upper class or upper-middle class people, but behind the woman, to the right, just above her shoulder, we see someone who looks working class, and in the background, we see what looks like a painter carrying a ladder. Steven: And, in fact, that was really one of the definitions of the new modern city, was the way in which the lives of people of different classes crossed on the streets. This is a painting that really is about intersections. Beth: The rainy day, the yellowish-gray of the sky capturing a specific moment. Look at the sense of the reflectivity of the water between the cobblestones. Steven: This seems so spontaneous, as if this is this fragment of time, this moment. Nobody seems to be posed. The main figures aren't in the middle. Instead, the man on the right is actually cut off! We only see half his body. This would have been an aesthetic that would have failed, very much at odds with classical art, and perhaps even would have been seen as coming out of the new vision of the photograph. Beth: These are all things that would have felt very radical to an audience in 1877. Steven: And yet, although we don't notice it at first, the painting is really carefully balanced, and carefully composed. This is not a snapshot. If we look at the painting, it's divided into four quadrants. You've got that vertical division in the middle of the canvas. Then, right at the level of the woman's mouth, moving across, and then at the bottom of the apartment in the background. They've got a painting that was divided into four areas, and there really is a sense of stability and balance, even though it's still asymmetrical, for all the seriousness of the issues that we're talking about, this is a really playful painting. For instance, look at the man who's clearly in the middle ground, but seems to be hopping off the red wheels of that coach that we see in the background. There are these playful juxtapositions that Caillebotte is very intentionally placing in here that speaks to the way in which the modern world has become a complex jumble, the way in which things come together in relationships that are unexpected. Beth: And fragmentary and ephemeral, and these were all things that felt very modern in the 1870s. Steven: But he's having fun with them. Look, for instance, at the legs that are dangling from the umbrella held by the man in the center of the painting. Beth: So Caillebotte continued to paint urban themes, though he died rather young when he was in his 40s, and he was independently wealthy, and so had no need to sell his paintings. Throughout his life, he collected the work of his friends, of the impressionists, and amassed, actually, a really remarkable collection that he left to the French state. His collection forms the heart of the great works that we see today at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. (piano music playing)