Paris is often described as being most beautiful in the rain. It is easy to see why; in the rain, the many lights of the city illuminate the puddles collecting on cobbled streets, while the sky becomes low and romantic. The artist Gustave Caillebotte has a fine opportunity to depict this sentiment in ‘Rue de Paris un Temps de Pluie,’ as Parisians stroll through an afternoon shower. However, rather than seizing this opportunity, he presents his viewer with a entirely different impression of Paris in the rain. An impression which, although depicted in one of the most beautiful urbanscapes of the 19th century, is not positive at all.
Rue de Paris par un Temps de Pluie is one of the first paintings to truly demonstrate the changing city of Paris. In 1851, Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann undertook a great urban renovation in Paris, creating the great boulevards across the city of light, depicted here by Caillebotte. However, the artist meets these seemingly positive changes with skepticism and criticism. Although the main building in the background of the painting is impressive, it also appears imposing and aloof. Unlike his contemporaries, Caillebotte did not see this ‘new’ Paris and its ‘new’ buildings and boulevards as being festive and bright. Rather, he believed that these modern changes created a city of distance and solitude.
Notice how Caillbotte creates this sense of distance throughout the painting. For example, look how distant the people in the painting are, as they walk head down hidden under their umbrellas, their hats deeming each man and woman anonymous. Even the fashionable couple in the foreground seem distant from each other and occupied by something other than their partner, while ignoring the figure walking towards them. Indeed, the grey sky and dark palette of colours used in the work are both synonymous to loneliness. Moreover, Caillebotte did not pick this specific place by chance either. Le Carrefour de Moscou (the location of the painting) was very close to la Gare Saint Lazare, a train station which by nature saw people from all walks of life. In this way, the artist seems to be compelling his viewer to understand that through modernity, people will grow distant, and relationships between human beings will grow as artificial as these new buildings.
In this way, Emile Zola (Caillbotte most severe critic) was spot on when he inferred that Caillbotte was reflecting on the “grand challenge of modern times.” Caillebotte did not chose to paint Paris in the rain for the romanticism that is commonly evoked, but for the sheer, murky dreariness of the scene. Ultimately, (much like our friend Van Gogh*) the painting stands as a fundamental criticism of modernity. Uniquely, Caillbotte makes this criticism so compelling by subverting the lovely and romantic image of Paris in the rain.
Something a little more technical. This painting is certainly a very realistic one, remarkably so, and thus appears to be a formidable example of urban realism. Therefore, it is not surprising to note that, innovatively for the time, Caillbotte painted ‘Rue de Paris par un Temps de Pluie’ from a photograph. This is a remarkable reproduction of the newly shaped street – look how the buildings are so meticulously recreated with their detailed facade. Moreover, You can see the foreground and background are slightly out of focus, and the rather sharp cropping of the man on the right suggests that this is a interpretation of a photograph. Though there are few examples of this practice before, this painting is truly one of the great example of this emerging partnership, a partnership so important to the history of art that art would change forever.