Images of a Capital – The Impressionists in Paris

Essen, Flokwang Museum, from 2 october 2010 to 30 january 2011

1. Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
Rue Lafayette, 1891
Oil on canvas - 92 x 73 cm
Oslo, National Museum of Art, Architecture
and Design
Photo : The Munch Museum

Between 1860 and 1900, Paris underwent transformations no other major European metropolis has known. Whole areas were totally demolished, disembowelled and rebuilt in the name of public health and ease of circulation. The controversial undertaking, begun by of Napoleon III’s Paris Prefect, Georges-Eugène Haussman, continued during the Third Republic, and left us with the Paris we know today : the banks of the Seine, the broad boulevards, the spacious squares, the parks and a host of monuments that were still novelties at the time. This is the era of the metro, the Gare St Lazare, the Pont de l’Europe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sacré Coeur. Further out, in the suburbs, industrial sites were mushrooming. If Asnières remained rural, Genevilliers was already under a cloud of smoke.

The transformation of Paris into an attractive city drew several generations of painters. Often living and working in proximity, they captured the spirit of Paris at the time, Paris at work, Paris at leisure, Paris demonstrating. The artistic representation of the French capital may spell Manet, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Caillebotte, but hosts of lesser-known artists or young artists just starting out came here for shorter periods, all eager to study and succeed in the capital.

2. Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905)
Paris in the snow, 1887
Oil on canvas - 46 x 37 cm
Helsinki, Ateneum Art Museum
Photo : Service de presse

One of the major successes of this exhibition is that it has gone out of its way to include unexpected artists, who quite often furnish a different vision of the city. There is, for example, La rue Lafayette (ill.1) by Edvard Munch, café scenes by Spanish artists Santiago Rusiñol and Ramón Casas on loan from Barcelona and Montserrat collections ; Paris in the snow (ill.2) by Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt and even Anniversary gathering in Père Lachaise to commemorate victims of the Commune, (1883), by Russian Ilya Repin, from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Adolph Menzel brings his dark Berlin palette to bear on a busy Paris street in Parisian working day. Maximilien Luce has five paintings on show, including the sparkling The Louvre and the Pont du Carrousel by Night (ill.3) from a private American collection.

3. Maximilien Luce (1858-1941)
The Louvre and the Pont du Carrousel at Night, 1890
Oil on canvas - 65 x 32 cm
Private collection
Photo : Service de presse

But in their portrayal of a city, artists now had competition. Photographers were out probing into the gaping interiors of half-demolished houses and the gleaming underbellies of bridges. They were clambering up major monuments under construction, and capturing the poverty of the city’s backstreets and its sprawling shantytowns. Photographers like Charles Marville were doing all of that, as well as encroaching on the painter’s more poetic ground by taking romantic shots of the city’s lamp-posts.

The exhibition in Essen presents Paris from these two perspectives : over 80 canvasses by Manet, Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Caillebotte, Luce and Goeneutte and many more, alongside 120 photographs by, among others, Gustave le Gray, Edouard Baldus, Charles Marville, Louis-Emile Durandelle and Henri Rivière. While quite a few paintings, including Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette, come from the Musée d’Orsay’s currently closed floors, and photographs are on loan principally from the Musée Carnavalet and the collections of the Hotel de Ville de Paris, there are as many from the major American and European museums as well as from French provincial and private collections. This is a real occasion to see lesser-known artists and lesser-known paintings. It is also an occasion to learn from both photographers and painters about the Paris of Emile Zola and Charles Baudelaire, both of whom are quoted frequently in the exhibition catalogue.

In the introductory room, Corot’s Quai des Orfèvres and August-Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Cadolle’s panoramic View of Paris from the Etoile de l’Arc de Triomphe (1843) (both Musée Carnavalet) allow us an early view of smoke-free Paris. That will be short-lived. In the succeeding rooms, smoke becomes a major element in the paintings.

4. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894)
Pont de l’Europe, 1876
Oil on canvas - 125 x 181 cm
Geneva, Petit Palais
Photo : Studio Monique Bernaz

In the centre of the exhibition, the section devoted to the railway has only four paintings on show, but their juxtaposition allows us to compare and contrast them. First, there’s Caillebotte’s large canvas, Pont de l’Europe (ill.4) with its massive metal diagonal bearing down on the pedestrians and a small cloud of smoke rising in the background through the metal criss-cross structure. This is by far the most explicit on the theme. In the same room, the two canvasses by Norbert Goeneutte, both painted in 1887, Pont de l’Europe, effet de nuit (Sofaer Collection, London) and Le Pont de l’Europe et la Gare St Lazare, whispy white smoke occupies the foreground. The railway bridge and the roofs of Paris in the background seem secondary. The fourth painting, Manet’s The Railway (ill.5), also of the Gare St Lazare, is in fact a portrait of an elegant young woman seated with her back to the clouds of smoke emanating from the station, interrupted in her reading to look up at us, while a young girl gazes at the scene through railings. The main action in the railway station is almost out of sight.

5. Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
Tailway, 1873
Oil on canvas - 93.3 x 111.5 cm
Washington, National Gallery
Photo : Press

Nearby, in the section devoted to photos of the railways, Louis-Emile Durandelle’s Gare St Lazare, Cour de Rome, 2 mars 1885 or his Gare St Lazare, Grande Salle des pas perdus, March 1885, shows not a whisp of smoke, no sign of a train. The photographer’s interest is in architecture, construction, point of view and light. People, very small for the most part, are mere accessories.

Other rooms are devoted to Montmartre, to the banks of the Seine, the boulevards and the suburbs, to the cafés and the theatre, as well as to the capital during the troubled years of the Commune. There are exciting discoveries in each : a suburban Paris view signed Van Gogh – Usines à Clichy, vues depuis Asnières, with smoking chimneys beyond wheatfields, curling up into the sky like his Provençal clouds were soon to do. Alongside the Musée d’Orsay Signac, La route de Gennevilliers, in which vacant plots of land look ready to be snatched up by factories, like those on the horizon, hangs another much less familiar work by the same artist, The Gasometers of Clichy, on loan from the national Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Another discovery : a sombre Bonnard of a faceless coachman and equally faceless horses struggling against the elements in a Paris street, L’omnibus Panthéon-Courcelles, circa 1890 and an atmospheric Place de la Bastille by American Frank Myers Boggs, a pupil of Gérôme, that’s rarely visible – it usually hangs somewhere in the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.

The excellent exhibition catalogue, for the moment only in German, though a shorter English fascicule is underway, contains essays on the transformation of Paris, on Paris and its painters, on Manet in particular, on Emile Zola and his relationship with the Parisian artists, and an account by Virginie Chardin of Parisian photographic collections. The index of works exposed is accompanied by detailed information locating the scenes and buildings depicted or photographed, as well as where artists studios were situated. Paintings and photographs are grouped together by theme, as in the exhibition.

One thing present in the catalogue, but which might have been useful while visiting the exhibition : explanatory maps of Paris at the time, but then this is, thankfully, an exhibition where you look rather than read, with written explanations kept to a brief but very helpful accompanying leaflet.

Sandra Gianfreda, Bilder einer Metropole – Die Impressionisten in Paris, Edition Folkwang , 2010, 320 p., 38 €, ISBN : 9783869301839

Visitor Information : Museum Folkwang, Museumsplatz 1, 45128 Essen. Open daily except Monday from 10 to 8, until 10.30 Fridays. Rates : 5.00 €, 3.50 € (reducted).

Jacqueline Karp, dimanche 5 décembre 2010

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