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Paris: The Thrill of the Modern

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Art Institute of Chicago
Édouard Manet: Woman Reading, 24 1/8 x 20 inches, 1879–1880

Manet loved audacious women. He preferred them to be independent like Nina de Callias (Lady with Fans), who left her husband and attracted to her salon a diverse array of talents. He liked them to be gifted like his friends and fellow painters Eva Gonzalès (Eva Gonzalès at the Piano, by Alfred Stevens) and Berthe Morisot, whose portrait he painted eleven times, or even unclassifiable, like the pretty Méry Laurent, muse to Mallarmé and mistress of the American Thomas Evans, who was Napoléon III’s dentist (At the Milliner’s).

Still, I find that, of all the modern women he painted, the most deeply moving one remains anonymous. She is the subject of Woman Reading. Sitting on the terrace of a café, with a stein of beer in front of her, she holds an illustrated newspaper in her hands; she’s tastefully dressed, her tulle collar evidence of a certain personal flair, while her gloves are an infallible mark of bourgeois respectability. Neither provocative nor shy, she is clearly at her ease. Balzac would have been tempted to frame a whole novel around her. For a Parisian flaneur, she represented the Nouvelle Femme, an active and curious person who refused to let herself be confined to her parlor but who was certainly not drawn to tawdry escapades.

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Art Institute of Chicago
Edgar Degas: Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery, 12 1/16 x 5 inches, 1885

Equally modern is Mary Cassatt, depicted from behind by Degas in a room of the Louvre. She has a neat, unfettered allure, verging on the androgynous: in a word, she exudes independence. She is leaning not on the arm of a man, but on an umbrella that could easily be taken for a walking stick (Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery). Another of Degas’s women, the one on the right in the series of three figures in Portraits in a Frieze, is dressed in a fanciful, easy-going style. In her ill-fitting jacket with its oversized sleeves and her completely unpretentious hat you might well take her for a streetwalker if it weren’t that her dainty pink-hued umbrella and the book she carries make it clear that even the daughter of a respectable family has the right to put on the airs of a bluestocking or a bohemian. She looks very much like a hippie before her time.

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Musée d'Orsay, Paris
James Tissot: Portrait of Mademoiselle L.L., 48 13/16 x 39 3/8 inches, 1864

Tissot presents yet another view of the modern woman, at once elegant, soignée, and entirely original, in his Portrait of Mademoiselle L.L. As usual for him, Tissot paints with great precision, as detailed as anything by Ingres, and yet his model was oddly far from conventional. Mademoiselle L.L. is perched on the corner of a table covered with books and papers. On a chair sits a portfolio of sketches. A small vase with a bouquet of violets softens a studious atmosphere. This young person has dispensed with the crinoline, and has chosen instead a red bolero jacket that matches the ribbon in her hair, a red so red that it is shocking. It is impossible to assign to this powerfully attractive young woman a profession or a social standing. It is the curious amalgam of this ambiguity and the freedom of her level and slightly provocative gaze that makes her so modern.

Last of all, the final and essential element of this period’s modernity, recognized then and there by the Impressionists, was the transformation of Paris as it was demolished and rebuilt by Baron Haussmann. A modern city crisscrossed by broad boulevards rose from the rubble of the capital’s medieval heart. New neighborhoods took shape, in particular the Quartier de l’Europe surrounding the Gare Saint-Lazare, the most important train station in the Paris of that time. Caillebotte lived not far away. He therefore witnessed the construction of the immense metal viaduct that crossed all the station’s tracks and exemplified the miraculous power of the Industrial Revolution. The huge X-shapes of the bridge’s massive iron trusses fill the foreground of his Pont de l’Europe. With the Haussmannian buildings visible in the distance, Caillebotte’s canvas is a snapshot of the new city where the bourgeois brushes past the artisan without noticing his existence.

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Art Institute of Chicago
Gustave Caillebotte: Paris Street; Rainy Day, 83 1/2 x 108 3/4 inches, 1877

This is not a tableau of Parisian charm, such as Jean Béraud’s delightful depictions of a crowd leaving church after Mass (The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule) or strollers crossing the Pont des Arts (A Windy Day on the Pont des Arts), any more than was Caillebotte’s wonderful Paris Street; Rainy Day. Set in the middle of the wall in the last room in the exhibition, this monumental painting (more than seven feet by nine), seems a fitting conclusion to the exhibition as a whole, one that encapsulates its importance.

Here we have not fashion but the city in the foreground, an austere city beneath gray skies, a new city with clean, straight, uncluttered streets, long lines of identical buildings, properly dressed pedestrians, indifferent to each other’s existence, isolated under the umbrellas that serve as their portable cocoons. The couple walking toward us hardly gives off a feeling of warmth and intimacy. The gentleman about to pass them lacks the basic courtesy to get out of the way: the two umbrellas are about to collide. Thus, the exhibition concludes with a gloomier, sadder vision of the city and its inhabitants, quite different from that of the painters seen in the earlier galleries. And yet it fits well with the aspect that is most deeply interesting: capturing the fleeting moment in which an artist depicts on canvas his contemporaries exactly as they are, with their clothing, their gestures, their way of life, and their “modernity.”

—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar

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