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This week, we framed and hung a new print to liven up a blank wall in our house: an enigmatic painting from Marc Chagall that subtly plunges you into the artist’s own dreamscape version of Paris. It got me thinking about the paintings that are the most successful at capturing a particular mood, scene from daily life, or moment in Parisian history.
It also served as a kind of balm for my travel-hungry heart, given that I miss the city and can’t get there physically at the moment. In that spirit, I decided to spotlight 5 of my favorite French paintings depicting Paris– 6 if you count the mesmerizing Pissarro scene above– and including the aforementioned Chagall.
This list will likely grow with time, perhaps on the strength of your suggestions and input. What are some of the paintings that instantly transport you to the capital? Let me know in the comments field below.
1. Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877)
Perhaps more than any French Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte succeeded in capturing moments of Parisian life with startling, immediate realism. A sort not generally attributed to Impressionists, by the way.
This 1877 oil painting from Caillebotte, held at the Art Institute of Chicago, functions as a virtual portal to Paris of the early Belle-Epoque period. Gloria Groom, a curator at the Art Institute, called Caillebotte’s most famous painting “the great picture of urban life in the late 19th century.”
I share her assessment. While other paintings also strikingly convey both the excitement and potential alienation of a bracingly modern new era in Paris (I notably think of Renoir’s 1875 painting “The Grands Boulevards”), Caillebotte’s does so on a more visceral, human level.
While in Renoir’s tableau of two years earlier, the urban “flaneurs” and “flaneuses” are blurry, depersonalized figures that blend into the teeming boulevard they navigate, Caillebotte’s painting offers us more direct, personal “encounters” with these cosmopolitan Parisians.
A bourgeois couple clutching a black umbrella heads “toward” us, their eyes fixed on an unknown object to the left. Meanwhile, another denizen passes by them, seeming to nearly brush them as he hurries in the opposite direction– capturing the rush and push of Belle-Epoque life.
They and other umbrella-yielding figures– a man smoking a cigarette, someone driving a horse-drawn carriage, move in other directions down what is now the Place de Dublin in Paris’ 9th arrondissement (close to the Gare Saint-Lazare train station). At the time, it was called the Carrefour de Moscou.
Caillebotte displayed the painting in 1877 at the Third Impressionist Exhibit in Paris. Many critics note that it’s remarkable among impressionist works of the same period for its reliance on classical techniques that render a scene in more realistic terms.
At the same time, it shows the painter’s interest in the new medium of photography: the way he uses perspective and “crops” the hurried figure to the right of the couple in the foreground certainly seems to borrow from photographic techniques. (Silly aside: I couldn’t help but think “he’s not respecting social-distancing rules!“)
2. Auguste Chabaud, Gare du Nord (1907)
Unfortunately, I know very little about this intriguing painting in oil from early-20th century artist Auguste Chabaud. Painted in 1907, it depicts shadowy figures traversing a bridge that connects to the busy Gare du Nord train station (now home to the Eurostar train line).
Unnaturally bright billows of steam emerge from behind the bridge, suggesting a train that had just pulled into the station. Points of yellow and red denote lights in surrounding buildings and perhaps on the station platforms.
The sky is rendered in inky, purply hues of blue with streaks of soft yellow, perhaps reproducing the Parisian lights that block out the stars.
This painting strikes me for precisely the opposite reasons that Caillebotte’s does. Here, an almost primitivist aesthetic works to plunge you into the scene. The brushstrokes are harried and rough, almost as if Chabaud painted this as a study. The figures are anonymous and unrealistically rendered; little more than suggestions.
Yet I immediately recognized the bridge and background it depicts. I’ve traversed the area countless times, often on my way home from devouring hand-tossed parathas and generous thalis at some of my favorite Sri-Lankan restaurants in the nearby La Chapelle district.
In short? Chabaud’s “Fauvist” rendering of this wholly un-pretty but somehow memorable site in the capital takes me right there. Also see another of his paintings depicting the station from the platform level.
3. Vincent Van Gogh, “View From Vincent’s Room in Rue Lepic”, (1887)
Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh lived for many years outside Paris in the small, bucolic town of Arles, where he famously painted wheat fields, wildflowers, gleaners and other countryside scenes.
But for a time, he lived in Paris– and elected their rooftops as a subject. As such, I’ve admittedly cheated a bit and included his work in the present list of French paintings that alluringly imagine the capital. In my defense, many in France would claim him as of one of their own, rightfully or not.
This 1887 painting was completed during a year when Vincent lived with his brother in an apartment on Rue Lepic, in Montmartre. It reflects a technique close to pointilism to render the typical Haussmannian buildings, with their top-floor chambres de bonnes (maid’s rooms) sloped rooftops and chimneys.
As in so many of Van Gogh’s other paintings, color is injected into what was very likely a much drearier scene, with the usual grey of Parisian buildings endowed with cheerful greenish-yellow cladding and red shutters.
And the soft but insistent blue line on the horizon almost makes one think a sea has appeared to border Vincent’s imagined version of the capital.
Yet as you may notice, the colors in this oil are more subdued than those in many of Van Gogh’s later, and more famous, works. He was experimenting at this stage with Impressionist techniques, using color and quasi-pointilist strokes more akin to those used by Monet and Manet.
Also see Van Gogh’s other paintings depicting Montmartre, including one rendering the Moulin de la Vierge windmill and restaurant.
4. Georges Stein, Evening, Porte Saint-Denis (1900)
The early 20th century artist Georges Stein remains a bit of a puzzle. Stein is variously described with the pronouns “he” and “she”, and few biographical details are available. But the Impressionist painter continues to intrigue for their vivid, energetic and highly detailed scenes from the Parisian streets and boulevards.
This watercolor-on-paper painting, entitled “Evening, Porte Saint-Denis”, dates to 1900 and consists in another alluring nocturnal scene. There’s perhaps a reason why Paris, stereotyped as “city of light”, gets painted so often at night: a certain magic emerges in things under the glow of streetlamps and brasserie windows. During the day, the city is beautiful. At night, it’s sublime.
Stein’s scene above depicts what is often referred to as “la foule parisienne“– a chaotic, vibrant, harried intermingling of people from different social classes, professions and backgrounds. Edith Piaf evokes it in her song “La Foule”.
On the busy intersection around the traditionally working-class Porte Saint-Denis, numerous figures make their way down the wintery streets.
Men on bicycles likely depict working-class ouvriers, while some travel in horse-drawn carriages. Crowds can be seen huddled in light-filled restaurants and bars and socializing on the sidewalks.
Related & Nearby: The Montorgueil District, a Parisian Pedestrian “Village”
Meanwhile, a vague figure standing alone near a streetlamp towards the center of the tableau may allude to the longstanding reality of prostitution in the area (the nearby Rue Saint-Denis and its red-light district has had prostitution activity for centuries).
An interesting additional note: The arched structure shown on the left side depicts the only remaining trace of a fortified wall that once stood here– giving the area the name “Porte Saint-Denis”.
The Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, a street that continues from the arch or Porte to the east, was once outside the official Parisian city walls, although it was still considered part of the city.
Travel tip: You can get there today and survey the scene in the present day by taking Metro line 4 to Strasbourg Saint-Denis.
5. Marc Chagall, “The Concert”, 1957
We finally arrive at the painting I mentioned at the outset: a late-stage work from Franco-Russian (today Belarusian) artist March Chagall called “The Concert”.
In a radical departure from other paintings that make up this list, this dreamy, surrealist piece makes you work hard to situate the scene in Paris. The eye is initially drawn to the almost childlike use of primary colors in the swirling composition– blue, green, yellow, reds– and the angelic, winged figure holding what looks like a violin, toward the top of the tableau.
A bright, insistent, haloed moon lets us know that this is yet another night scene, but also perhaps alludes to reverie and dreams, a common theme in Chagall’s work.
Yet unlike the occult image of the moon in the Tarot card of the same name– generally seen to denote fear, bewilderment and even subconscious demons– Chagall’s moonlit scene is gentle, nostalgic and full of tenderness.
Two embracing couples occupy the painting, including one in a gondola-style boat floating through deep blue water. The couple appears to be serenaded by various musicians occupying the corners of the tableau.
It’s only when carefully studying what first appear to be abstracted shapes to the right of the gondola that Paris finally emerges as the setting. You can discern three familiar monuments within the deep blue brushstrokes to the right of the haloed moon: The Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the Arc de Triomphe.
Some critics see this late piece as a culminating and synergistic one in Chagall’s oeuvre, bringing together many of his enduring themes and techniques.
Love, music, allusions to spirituality and heaven, hybrid figures that appear to be both animal and human, and a bold, frank use of primary colors are among some of these.
On a more personal note, this piece has quickly acquired an enchanted quality in my eyes. Why? When we chose it, I had no idea it took Paris at its subject.
It was only after framing, hanging it, and carefully surveying the painting that its reverie-like rendering of the capital jumped out at me.