For a painting as tranquil as Paris Street: A Rainy Day, with fine brush strokes and a placid color tone, it hardly seems educated to classify Caillebotte as a serious Impressionist painter. It seems nothing like Monet’s depiction of The Rouen Cathedral or Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette. But yet, Caillebotte’s paintings were displayed in the second Impressionists’ exhibition alongside the pioneers of the movement and his work (which borders on Realism) is often credited for begetting Neo-Impressionism. This unnatural adjustment doesn’t seem so unnatural when we begin to take a closer look at one of Caillebotte’s paintings.
At immediate glance, the contoural and tonal calmness doesn’t appear to fit well with Pissarro or Morisot rugged brush lines (which captures the spirit of the place), and thereby the narrow idea of Impressionism. The brush strokes in Caillebotte’s Paris Street: A Rainy Day seems to smoothly dissolve into the painting without much resistance, as probably did the people of Paris too, who saw their city shift dramatically with Napoleon III orders to have the city rebuilt. He named Baron Georges Haussmann, the city superintendent, to oversee the entire project. As Monet, Renoir and Morisot, Caillebotte too, painted (or documented) the tumultuously changing city and the citizens’ changing lifestyles. But, Caillebotte’s choice of line over broad brush strokes isn’t the only difference.
Inspired by his brother’s venture into photography, Caillebotte too, viewed his paintings as photographic manifestations of paintings. The myriad of elements populating the screen quite asymmetrically bears the foundational desire of Caillebotte to freeze a moment of an ever-changing Paris. Even the lines that lead up to the center lead to something that isn’t considered significant by early standards (as a lamp post and the stems of an umbrella); even the gentle-person at the right corner is vigorously cropped away, thus adding to the primal effects of the art of photography (cropping and zooming in).
The use of the colors, its tone and the fine brush lines gives a sense of dissolution into the medium with little emotions; the dreary compliance of the citizens with the reconstructed city may have been an inspiration for this general tone in Caillebotte’s paintings. The ambitious play of colors by Renoir, the passionate brush lines by Morisot seems to be lost in Caillebotte’s stern, heartless attempts at documentation. The damp ashlar, the Hausmann buildings in the background, the lifeless interactions between the inhabitants of the space all seem to weave a materialistic image of urbanization. All things considered, the painter seems to be a simple by-stander, perpetually untethered and yet connected to that moment in space and time.
Another aspect of the population analysis is the purposeful intricacies we can find in the painting. The characters, despite their social class are having to mix in common spaces. The stark differences in the dressing can be easily noticed. While the upper middle class boast top coats and frock coats, the peasantry (one of them can be seen carrying a ladder) dressed more modestly, as was the fashion of the time.
What is also interesting is the umbrellas that seems to be in almost everyone’s possession. All the umbrellas in the painting seem to be of the same kind, which may be indicative of the mass production that arose with the growth in industrialization.
Although the art of photography was slowly beginning to take the mantle of documentation, Caillbotte somehow manages to capture, like many Impressionist painters, the sedated mood of one particular rainy day on the newly paved streets on the east side of Rue de Tourin.
Caillebotte didn’t simply give us a masterpiece, he managed to ingrain a memory of a time which, like now, waited for none.