(Art Institute of Chicago)

    French Impressionism is Western art’s great bourgeois revolution. If that last phrase sounds like an oxymoron, it’s only because 150 years of over-simplified Marxism and two centuries of bourgeois dominance have obscured the essentially revolutionary nature of the middle class. Marx and Engels, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, wax almost poetic when describing the revolutionary effects of bourgeois capitalism: "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind."1 Consider for a moment exactly what the bourgeoisie accomplished, and you will understand the awe of the founders of Communism. Over the period stretching from 1500 to 1850, and most dramatically during the English, American and French revolutions, the rising middle class overturned an entire social, economic and political order associated with monarchy and feudalism, replacing it with the very different hierarchies of capitalism and republican government. Likewise, Impressionism and its artistic successors ultimately supplanted the grand tradition of French art, with its canon of aristocratically-approved subjects from mythology, history and religion, replacing it with a new kind of painting, an art of, by and for the bourgeoisie. Middle class themselves–more or less: Cassatt more, Renoir less–the Impressionists painted scenes of bourgeois life and found their patrons among the new monied class rather than the old titled one.

    Gustave Caillebotte was in some ways the most bourgeois Impressionist of them all. His father made a fortune manufacturing beds and bedding for the French military and then made even more money when Napoleon III’s rebuilding of central Paris transformed his factory space into profitable rental property. This inherited wealth enabled Caillebotte to be both a member and a principal patron of the Impressionist group. He bought their paintings at a time when few others did, frequently gave them money for living expenses, helped organize their exhibitions, and ultimately ensured their immortality by bequeathing his personal collection to the French government (the Caillebotte bequest is the core of the great Impressionist collection now displayed at the Musée D’Orsay). More than just the sugar daddy of Impressionism, Caillebotte was a serious and talented painter who created a few of the movement’s most original images: Paris Street, Le Pont de L’Europe, Boulevard Seen from Above and Young Man at his Window among them. His ample leisure time was spent enjoying the very activities the Impressionists celebrated on canvas: sailing, rowing, gardening, walking the streets of Paris. The well-dressed, top-hatted man strolling briskly across the bridge in Caillebotte’s Pont de L’Europe may be a self-portrait of the artist as flaneur, a nineteenth-century Parisian type mentioned with ritualistic regularity in discussions of Impressionist art (this essay is obviously no exception). The flaneur is a man of fashion and leisure, a dandified, haut-bourgeois stroller who wanders the streets and boulevards of Paris, constantly taking mental notes, storing up visual impressions that he will later transform into stories, poems, drawings or paintings.

    Paris Street; Rainy Day, first exhibited along with Le Pont de L’Europe at the third Impressionist exhibition, is a flaneur’s-eye view of an ordinary slice of bourgeois life. In this monumentally large painting (about 9 feet wide and 7 feet high), Caillebotte places us on a rain-soaked sidewalk looking toward the Place de Dublin, an intersection of eight streets near the Gare St. Lazare–and just up the street from the Pont de l’Europe. Directly in front of us, a fashionably dressed bourgeois couple pointedly glance away from the half-cropped man walking into the picture at right. Apparently, a snub is in progress, but not for long. In less than a second, the couple will be forced to acknowledge the man’s presence after their umbrellas collide. So much for the foreground anecdote, and if that were the totality of the painting, this work would delay us no further. But we do keep looking, caught by the strangeness of this seemingly ordinary scene: how it appears balanced even though it’s obviously asymmetrical (three large figures in the right foreground versus a large patch of empty street to the left); how the foreground seems to tilt up toward us while the background rushes dramatically away. Most of all, we are drawn into the setting, this odd Parisian place named for the capital of Ireland. While this intersection may look quaint and typically ‘Parisian’ to our eyes, we must try to see the Place de Dublin through the eyes of 1877 when it was a new place–aggressively, shockingly new.

    We are in the heart of the ultramodern Paris built during the Second Empire by order of Napoleon III and designed by his all-powerful Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann. Their stated goal was to facilitate the flow of people and commerce through Paris by creating a series of broad, straight boulevards linking the main rail stations and intersections. The wider streets would also bring light and air to the crowded city, improving the living conditions of residents. But of course there were also darker motivations. It was hardly a coincidence that some of Haussmann’s streets plowed through slum areas that were notorious hotbeds of urban radicalism. The Parisian popular revolts of 1830 and 1848 had brought down two successive French governments, so Napoleon III knew that if he wished to rule for more than a few years he would have to break up the urban lower class. Accordingly, he and Haussmann destroyed their streets, pulled down their houses and constructed uniform five- and six-story blocks of apartments (like those in Caillebotte’s painting) on both sides of the new streets. Rents were predictably increased and the former occupants forced into suburban exile. The proletariat was driven out and the bourgeoisie moved in. Today in American cities we call it ‘gentrification’; Napoleon III’s critics coined a more specific term: Haussmannization. The transformation of Parisian architecture and the creation of sites like the Place de Dublin went hand in hand with the bourgeois capitalist takeover of central Paris. (The process was also, we should not forget, one of the sources of Gustave Caillebotte’s wealth.) The city was changed forever, but Louis Napoleon didn’t survive long enough to enjoy it. His feeble regime collapsed after its disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the subsequent urban revolt known to history as the Paris Commune suggests that his efforts to destroy urban dissent were also abysmal failures. Indeed, in an irony that Karl Marx could have predicted, the workers imported to build Haussmann’s streets swelled the ranks of the rebels. Haussmann’s wide, straight streets probably did aid the government troops in their incredibly bloody suppression of the Commune, but by that point the Baron and his hapless Emperor were out of the picture, and the bourgeois Third Republic that would govern France until 1940 had begun.

    In Paris Street, painted just six years after the suppression of the Commune, the authoritarian architecture of Napoleon III has become a symbol of bourgeois conformity. Identically dressed people carrying identical umbrellas walk along identical streets lined with identical buildings. The numbing sameness of the architecture suggests the boring similarity of the lives within. Both the place and the people are products of industrial capitalism; they have all been machined, stamped from the same mold. When Monet and Renoir painted the streets of Haussmann’s Paris a few years earlier, they aestheticized the starkness, concealing the insistent lines of the buildings behind screens of trees and energizing their scenes with vibrant, colorful brushwork. In this painting Caillebotte has none of that. His more linear approach and somber palette is matched to the subject matter, and there is not a hint of nature here. The green and brown wall at the right side of the painting is an ironic mockery of forest colors, and in the place of trees we have a prominent metal lamppost painted green. In this neighborhood, near a busy railroad station, there can be no escape into urban pastoral; all is starkly utilitarian.

    My gaze is drawn to that huge building in the left background, a structure so massive that it anchors the entire left half of the painting and seems to balance the large figures in the foreground. This gigantic souvenir of the now-defunct Second Empire rises like an Egyptian pyramid into the cloudy sky–an impression furthered by the pyramidal shape outlined against the chimney at its apex. Like a pyramid, it is both monument and tomb: a symbol of Napoleon III’s rule as well as a reminder that his time has passed. It is also a reminder of the pharaonic pretensions that are characteristic of some French leaders, from the first Napoleon, whose invasion of Egypt launched an ‘Egyptian’ style in French decorative arts, to Mitterrand with his huge, dismal Bibliothèque and his wind tunnel Grand Arch at La Défense. Coincidentally, the most successful Mitterrand-era project is also a pyramid: the new entrance to the Louvre, both a suitably monumental prelude to one of the world’s great art collections and an admirable solution to the problem of devising a central entrance that connects all three of the palace’s enormous wings. But the pyramid in Caillebotte’s painting is considerably less aesthetically pleasing than I.M. Pei’s. It is also, importantly, a huge apartment house. The monuments of Napoleon III have become the homes of the triumphant bourgeoisie.

    We must note, however, that the world of Caillebotte’s painting is not entirely bourgeois. As in his Young Man at His Window, where closer examination reveals several figures and carriages in what looks at first like a scene of whitewashed urban desolation, a closer look at Paris Street reveals the presence of the working class. Without exception, these workers are in the background of the painting and they are umbrella-less, exposed to the weather. On the far left we see a top-hatted carriage driver; another driver is parked at the corner of the pyramid building. In the far distance to the left of the lamppost, a scaffold implies the presence of construction workers. In the right background, glimpsed between the shoulder and umbrella of the foreground bourgeois, a workman carries a ladder across the street. Significantly, none of the workers is completely visible; all are partly hidden by the umbrellas that function as class signs in this painting, badges of the bourgeoisie. Most dramatically, the man with the ladder is decapitated by the umbrella of the nearby woman preparing to step into the street. Even that distant scaffolding–a sign of proletarian presence–is intersected by two umbrellas. One of T.J. Clark’s criticisms of Impressionist painting in his influential book The Painting of Modern Life is that the Impressionists show industry (factory chimneys in the background of a landscape, for example) but not labor. We almost never see workers in Monet’s landscapes, and the paintings thus perpetuate the dominant ideology of their society, a discourse in which the messy facts of industrial labor are suppressed so that successful capitalists can masquerade as ‘self-made men’ and the affluent bourgeoisie can enjoy its leisure without considering the exploitation upon which affluence rests. The argument–and much of Clark’s excellent book–is too theory-driven for my Paterian tastes, and I bring it up here only to point out by contrast Caillebotte’s achievement. For in this painting he not only shows us capitalists and workers; he gives us multiple images of middle class people concealing the working class. His bourgeois strollers turn their backs on the workers and hide them with umbrellas, suggesting the strategies by which capitalist ideology conceals the reality of workers’ lives. The artist even implicates himself in this concealment by consistently placing the workers in the background, where they are overpowered by the comparatively huge foreground figures. Here we see Caillebotte the haut bourgeois casting a cold, analytical eye on his own class and catching them (and himself) in the act.

    If we look long at Paris Street we begin to notice that this painting that seems as big and solid as a Haussmann building is actually riddled with glaring instabilities, carefully created gaps, multiple opportunities for deconstruction. Take the play of umbrellas across the painting. It seems at first to follow a strong diagonal that passes from the right foreground through the umbrella of the man crossing the street near the lamppost and continues down the street at left, but in fact when we come to the central man near the lamppost the scheme becomes very complex. The angle of his umbrella rhymes with that of the foreground man at far right, but the umbrella’s profile rhymes more closely with that at the far left edge of the painting. The central man’s stance rhymes both with that of the background worker with the ladder and (most comically) with the pair of legs visible in the background below the edge of the man’s own umbrella. Additionally, this central man’s form is echoed by the man without an umbrella making his way across the street in the left distance. So rather than following the expected diagonal, the composition radiates outward in several different directions, just as the eight streets radiate out from the central Place de Dublin. Haussmann’s obsessive architecture is inescapable.

    Further evidence of instability lies in the central lamppost itself. The composition’s longest and most powerful vertical element, it is cropped at the top edge of the canvas and extends in reflection off the bottom, strongly dividing the painting into two remarkably different halves. What could be more solid, more stable? But even this lamppost is broken, sliced by the couple’s umbrella. Farther down, the man’s arm and coat hide the lamp’s contour, and at the bottom of the painting the reflection dissolves into a pattern of loose, visible brushstrokes (the work of the painter, like all work in the painting, is here both revealed (as paint) and partly concealed (as representation)). Remember Marx and Engels on life under bourgeois rule: "All that is solid melts into air..."

    The work’s unusual perspective structure is yet another destabilizing factor. Drawing our eye in at least two different directions at once (down the two streets on either side of the pyramid building), this seem to owe more to the complex perspectives of painted panoramas–a major nineteenth-century popular art form–than to anything Caillebotte learned at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Overall, the work’s perspective creates an unsettling push-pull effect, the foreground seeming to tilt upward toward the viewer while the background recedes quickly away into the misty distance. The pyramid building embodies both these tendencies in itself: as the walls of the block draw us deeply back into space, the massive form also appears to push out toward the viewer, culminating in the flat plane of its corner facade lying parallel to the picture plane. Simultaneously approaching and retreating, the building is a metaphor for the barely concealed instability of Caillebotte’s entire construction, and thus it also suggests the social instabilities just below the surface of this oh-so-orderly bourgeois world.

    A more emphatic image of these hidden social forces can be found in the left foreground, where the bourgeois figures on the right are contrasted with a large patch of empty paving stones. This passage was especially important to Caillebotte–he went so far as to make a separate oil study of the stones in preparation for the final work–so we should spend awhile questioning its significance. Predictably, the paving stones are yet another site of irregularity within apparent order. All are similarly shaped, but their placement is staggered, creating a series of irregular, step-like lines that curve toward the left. More importantly, paving stones–especially ones as prominently and elaborately displayed as these–would have had a very specific historical connotation to Parisians in 1877. They are a symbol of the Commune, when leftist revolutionaries ripped the paving stones out of Haussmann’s streets and used them to build barricades against the invading government troops. The carefully constructed opposition between paving stones and bourgeoisie in the painting’s foreground suggests a power and a threat. The stones, like the lower classes, are now back in their proper place. But they are like a volcano that only appears dormant. An explosion could come at any time. The workers could revolt; the stones over which these citizens stroll obliviously could be torn up again. This is the frightening possibility that must have lurked in the mind of every thoughtful bourgeois in the years after the Commune. Under their cool, businesslike demeanor they must have been wondering, When will the next explosion come?

    The unbelievably brutal suppression of the Commune, during which approximately 17,000 Communards and their supporters were butchered by government troops on the streets of Paris–the French still remember it as la semaine sanglante, ‘the bloody week’–ensured that such an explosion would not come soon. But these atrocities, along with thousands of subsequent arrests and deportations, tore vast holes in the fabric of the Parisian population. The bourgeoisie won their city, but they also made it an emptier place. I think this is the significance both of the unoccupied patch of foreground street and of the much larger empty space at the center of this painting. This latter space is difficult to see because Caillebotte and his bourgeois walkers hide it well, but if we look closely we notice that there’s a huge unoccupied space in the middle of this work. It stretches from the foreground couple back to the two women crossing the street in the background, from the stroller near the gaslight back to the other man whose legs are visible beneath the stroller’s umbrella, from the couple with their backs to us in the middle of the street at left all the way to the right side of the painting. Like the workers, this empty space is partly hidden but still noticeable. In conjunction with the emptiness in the foreground, I read this central gap as Caillebotte’s acknowledgment that something crucial, something literally central, has been lost in the Paris of the Third Republic. Whether it’s the working class, the spirit of revolution, or simply all those dead Communards, something has gone out of Caillebotte’s Paris. There is an emptiness at the center of things that the bourgeoisie can neither fill nor conceal. It is a nothingness to match the sameness of the architecture, the gray-green blandness of the palette and the rainy, overcast gloom of the day.

    Why did Caillebotte choose this intersection over all the others in Haussmann’s Paris? The answer may lie in those ubiquitous umbrellas, those products middle class people purchase to protect themselves from reality. Each of the umbrellas consists of eight steel ribs arranged around a central pole. The Place de Dublin is likewise a spot where eight streets radiate out from a single intersection. There is an obsessive hub-and-spoke geometry to this painting, made explicit in the carriage wheel prominently featured at left. It is the conformist geometry of consumer capitalism. Art historians inform us that the steel frame umbrellas shown here were invented only three years earlier, so we are witnessing a very early example of the mass production / mass consumption uniformity that is now a fact of life in much of the world. (Today these fashionable Parisians would all be driving the same model car.) The shape of the factory-made umbrella is the shape of the Haussmann-made place. There is an overpowering sense here of capitalism stamping all of its products from the same mold, a sense that the bourgeoisie’s most important creation is a bland, seemingly inescapable conformity. But the enclosure is actually far from complete; there are gaps in capitalism’s structures. As we have seen, the center of the Place de Dublin is a vast empty space. In the words of Gertrude Stein: there isn’t any there there. It’s a center that cannot hold. It represents everything the bourgeoisie must turn its back upon and try studiously to ignore–most of all, perhaps, the meaninglessness at the centers of their lives. They can turn away from it, as the foreground couple does from the approaching man, but a collision is unavoidable. The structure of this painting is the structure of Paris in the 1870's, with all of its display and all of its concealment, its monumentality and its emptiness. In order to understand the painting we must look past the bourgeois surface and collide with that emptiness. We too must bump our way past the foreground couple and see the reality beyond.

    A PERSONAL POSTSCRIPT: Playing the flaneur 125 years after Caillebotte, I walk out of the Gare St. Lazare (still recognizably the station Monet painted), stroll around back to the Pont de l’Europe (no longer Caillebotte’s bridge; that steel-girdered monstrosity was demolished decades ago) and continue on to the Place de Dublin. It’s a sunny Saturday morning in April, and the intersection is quiet, almost deserted. The buildings in Caillebotte’s painting are still recognizable, though the Place itself is smaller than it appears in the artist’s perspective. Today, it’s just another Parisian intersection, punctuated with traffic lights. As elsewhere in the city, the streets are lined with parked cars; one corner boasts benches and a Wallace Fountain; a few trees are sprouting leaves that by summer will partly conceal the buildings, giving the Place a flavor more Monet or Renoir than Caillebotte. All in all, it looks as bourgeois as the Boulevard Haussmann. Caillebotte’s paving stones were never pulled up in revolt; they were paved over to facilitate the flow of automobile traffic. Standing on a corner, I take a few snapshots, trying to remember the exact angle of Caillebotte’s view. The final result is slightly off, but I do capture most of the buildings. Only upon returning to America and comparing the photo with the painting do I notice that the shop at the corner of the pyramid building, clearly labeled "Pharmacie" by Caillebotte, remains a pharmacy today. Now, however, the sign is an eye-catching electric green. Plus ça change...for better or worse.

1. Marx and Engels, Basic Writings, 10. The Communist Manifesto is an essential document for the understanding of Impressionist painting. The best extended commentary upon this connection (one that I believe never mentions Impressionism explicitly) is Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.