Impressionist Paintings as Documents of Paris Capital of Modernity
Impressionist paintings can be considered documents of Paris capital of modernity to a great extent. This can be seen in their subjects, style of painting, and juxtaposition of the transitive and the eternal.
The phrase Paris capital of modernity refers to the time in the second half of the nineteenth century when Paris was considered one of the most innovative cities in the world. This was largely a result of Haussmann’s renovation of the city between 1851 and 1869. A Prefect of Paris under Napoleon III, he transformed Paris into a city with wide streets, new shops and cafes, and a unified architecture.
The visual appeal of the renovated city, along with other factors such as the high quality of the art schools, caused Impressionism to take off in Paris around this time (Thomson 2000: 19-20). Impressionist painters wanted to capture the present, not historical or idealistic scenes. For this reason, they painted boulevards, parks, train stations, and other places that were important to modern Paris life. Human figures were important subjects in their paintings, since one of the most effective ways to depict modern life is to show the people living in it.
Beyond what they painted, Impressionists conveyed the modern city through their style of painting. They used techniques that emphasized that the scene was a moment in time. Many of their paintings were sketch-like, using thin but visible brushstrokes. They depicted light and shadows accurately, which often set the painting at a certain time of day. Also, they conveyed a sense of movement in their paintings, especially in human figures. These factors allow viewers to believe that the subjects of a painting were indeed real at the time the artist painted them, making the painting a document of modernity.
In order for Impressionist painters to effectively depict a moment in time, they often juxtaposed transitive and eternal elements in their paintings. As Baudelaire wrote in Le peintre de la vie moderne, “La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable.” When artists were able to successfully incorporate this idea into their paintings, they more effectively conveyed a picture of Paris capital of modernity.
One of the sights most commonly associated with modern Paris was its wide boulevards. This is shown in Pissarro Boulevard des Italiens, Morning, Sunlight (1897). The painting depicts a street filled with strollers and carriages. Grand buildings rise in the background, the new architecture obscuring the sky.
The composition of the painting allows the viewer to see a lot at once. Diagonal lines create perspective, drawing the viewer into the painting, down the street. However, it is hard to make out fine details in the painting. It is impossible to make out people’s faces, and very difficult to see what they are wearing. This mirrors the...