To see the Paris of the 1870ies, there is no need to travel back in time; all that it takes is to see Caillebotte‘s Paris Street: Rainy Day. In fact, the picture itself looks as if it was taken with the help of a camera completely by chance and, thus, allowing the viewer to sneak a peek at the life of a typical Parisian.
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The sharp focus on the distant end of the street and the “smudge effect” used to depict the character in question makes the picture look even more similar to photography than ever.
Considering that Caillebotte devoted a great chunk of his life to studying the means to have a photographic effect in his paintings, one must admit that the painter not simply mastered the art of depicting the elements of reality with incredible precision. Caillebotte also managed to take the most peculiar aspects of photography, like a focus on specific elements and the blur effect in the background, and incorporate these elements into his unique style.
Speaking of the gentleman in the right side of the picture, he seems an integral part of the huge Parisian universe. Taking a quick look at him is enough to understand that he owns a small business, has a wife and two kids and starts his morning with a cup of coffee and a morning newspaper.
He is yet unaware of the changes that he is going to face soon, yet the recent announcements about the companies that have suddenly closed worry him. However, he does not want these worries to take the best of him, which is why he still tries to enjoy his life as a father of the family and a successful part of the Parisian elite.
The character in the picture can also be characterized not only as a businessman, but also as a connoisseur of art in its various forms. When he has some time to spare, he might feel like going to the opera theater or to an art exhibition; and, even though he displays sheer indignation when he sees or hears an example of Belle Époque art, a challenge to the French artistic culture, he is truly interested in the weird new forms that art takes.
Contributing to the artistic universe, however, never occurred to him; his younger daughter, Annette, studies painting, but her father considers it a “fad” and treats this fad in a good-natured yet condescending way, encouraging her to learn classic art. The character that Caillebotte depicted feels that great changes are ahead, which is why he clings to everything that feels “traditional” and “solid.”
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Depicting the France of 1877 and its unsuspecting middle-class dwellers, Gaustave Caillebotte managed to capture the innocent loftiness and certainty of Parisians. Even though the choice of color in the background shows that the gloomy days are yet to come, the picture seems weirdly soothing, and the character in the focus of the painting appears to be very dignified and prosperous.
Representing a stereotypical Parisian dweller in the 1870ies, the character in the picture does not play the leading part; on the contrary, he is shifted into the background and turned into another tiny element of a much greater world that was at the time on the verge of grandeur changes.
Caillebotte, Gaustave. Paris Street: Rainy Day. 1876-1877.