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Vive la révolution impressionniste

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Le pont de l'Europe by Gustave Caillebotte (Wikimedia Common photo)

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s current exhibition, Impressionism in the Age of Industry, affords a view of masterpieces from private collections that we would not otherwise get to see. The most impressive example is Gustave Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe.

Caillebotte, though not well known, was a major impressionist. Pierre-Auguste Renoir invited him to participate in the second impressionist exhibition in Paris, he almost single-handedly organized and financed the third (Caillebotte was filthy rich, his father having made a fortune providing beds and linens for the French army from 1842-65; given how much French soldiers apparently slept, as seen by their abysmal performance in the Franco-Prussian War, this was a very valuable monopoly) and, next to Camille Pissarro, did the most to push the exhibitions, participating in five of the eight. He supported some of his colleagues when they were starving by loaning money or paying rent, and bought or received as loan repayments more than 60 of their paintings, which he bequeathed to France. These are the core of the collection now in Le Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

From age 27 to 29, he created many great paintings. But three, of which two have derivatives, are arrestingly original: Floor Scrapers (1875), Le Pont de l’Europe (1876) and Paris Street; Rainy Weather (1877). The actual bridge featured in Le Pont de l’Europe was the centrepiece of the 1852-70 renovation of Paris by Baron Georges Haussmann, prefect under Napoleon III, who set out to deracinate the underclass from their medieval, squalid but vibrant quartiers, in favour of wide boulevards that would be harder to barricade by an insurrectionary citizenry and permit the speedy deployment of troops to trouble spots. The long-suffering rich would enjoy the luxury buildings that now lined the newly created Parisian streets. Caillebotte built his mansion close to the bridge.

The painting dazzles through bold movement. The slanting girders of the bridge, the shadows, a dog, a worker and a distant carriage all propel our sight toward the vanishing point. But two well-dressed people, a man and a woman, each with one foot forward, approach the viewer. The shadows tell us it must be at least 10 a.m., but the roadway, which is sanitarily clean and painted in a blanched, sterile colour, is nearly deserted.

The dog and two workers are alone. One looks out over the bridge, one hand supporting his head as if he is in reverie. What is he thinking about? The pre-Haussmann days when he could live in Paris? Or is he merely a train watcher? The canine flaneur trotting with a determined gait passes judgement on the project by means of a tail raised like a human index finger. It is a vision of isolation, and anomie (a term coined at that time by Emile Durkheim, the French-Jewish founder of sociology), a city bereft of social fabric, as described by Zola in The Belly of Paris: “The avenue seemed unending.… Only the gas lights, upright and regularly spaced, inserted the life of their short yellow flames into this desert of death.”

The really interesting thing is the two people walking toward us, she slightly behind him. The man is Caillebotte himself. The woman is recognizable as Anne- Marie Hagen, from his 1877 Portrait of a Young Woman (Madame Hagen). There are many possibilities of interpretation. She may be a prostitute Caillebotte has passed and turned back slightly to inspect. Or is he is looking at the same thing as the worker, and she at something unknown to her right? Perhaps they are together and he has said something to upset her, causing her to fall behind.

Because they could not agree on who would be allowed to participate and otherwise squabbled, the impressionists stopped exhibiting collectively after their 1886 show. Thereupon, Caillebotte moved to the country, to garden, race and design yachts, paint less, exhibit almost never and die at age 45 of a brain aneurysm.

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Haussmann reappears in the exhibition in Pissarro’s Place du Theatre Francais, Paris: Rain. Pissarro totally rejected Judaism and the bourgeoisie. He became an avid reader of Joseph Proudhon, the intellectual father of anarchism who’s best known for coining the phrase “property is theft.” Proudhon wrote in his diary in 1847: “The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated.” That Pissarro blamed Jews for capitalism can be seen in a book of etchings and quotations he made for his nieces called Les Turpitudes Sociales, in which he or his son, Lucien, drew vile caricatures of capitalists easily recognized as Jews with thick lips, big noses and large stomachs.

French anarchists have a bad rap for assassinating President Sadi Carnot and throwing a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies. They believed in a non-hierarchical world in which men and women could be happy and not exploited in work. Pissarro expressed this ideal in pictures like Hay Harvest Eragny, in which women and men are seen co-operatively working together. They appear proud, not at all downtrodden, taking satisfaction from their work.

By contrast, Pisarro’s Place du Theatre, depicts ant-sized people, each on his own, moving in straight lines down a Paris street walled in by the baron’s uniform, five-storey apartment buildings for the rich. It was 1898, the year of Alfred Dreyfus’ second court martial. Anti-Jewish mobs were rioting in the streets. Obviously, however, not below Pissarro’s hotel window.