Monday 1 September 2008

Temps de Pluie

The Art Institute of Chicago is the proud owner of Gustave Caillebotte’s ambitious grande machine, first exhibited in 1877 at the Third Impressionist Exhibition under the title, Rue de Paris; Temps de pluie. It is a compelling image with its perambulating figures frozen in mid-step, its Parisian apartment blocks with plunging perspectives and its striking tonal and surface qualities that capture the watery essence and unexpected luminosity of a wide and open urban space on a day of incessant rain. The finish is smooth and closely controlled with none of the surface agitation that typified the Impressionist approach. The current position of the Art Institute is that this painting is not sufficiently robust to travel and it’s unavailable for loans to other museums. All of which means that to see it, you must travel to Chicago.

Thirty years have passed since I made the journey to Chicago and saw this painting for myself. I can still recall the tremendous quality of physical presence and its capacity to totally absorb the senses. With a narrow range of colours the artist created an immense diversity of chromatic notes to compel our attention. The composition is bold and unconventional, drawing heavily on the vocabulary of photographic imagery in the portrayal of space and depth. The location is the Place de Dublin at the heart of the Quartier de l’Europe, a massive Parisian residential development that in 1877 was little more than 10 years old. By engaging with photography and contemporary architecture and turning his back on monumental and historic Paris the artist made a clear declaration that the modern world was his chosen subject.

In the last 30 years the reputation of this painting has increased enormously and public estimation of Caillebotte has graduated from that of a footnote in the standard account of Impressionism to a respectable position just below the first tier of Impressionist masters. There was a touring retrospective in 1994-95 and the sterling efforts of the late Kirk Varnedoe (organiser of the pioneering Houston retrospective in 1976) and Marie Berhaut (compiler of the Caillebotte catalogue raisonnée) have contributed greatly to the revaluation of this long under-rated artist.

All of which is by way of preamble to a Saturday evening stroll south from Place de Clichy down rue St-Pétersbourg to visit the original location of the painting at the Place de Dublin. The photographs I took from rue Turin (the original vantage point of the artist) show that it is possible to obtain a rough approximation of what Caillebotte recorded but due to tree planting and some remodelling of pavements it was impossible to recreate the scene in the way that Varnedoe did in his research in the mid Seventies. The last image below is a more general view of the Place de Dublin, showing from the left, rue Clappeyron, rue de Turin, rue de St-Pétersbourg and rue de Moscou. I have a suspicion that somewhere there’s an error in my positioning but the time of day (Saturday at 19.45) turned out to be good because of the absence of traffic. Though somehow the timing is never completely right because the previous day would have been ideal – it rained without a break from dawn till dusk.

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