In 1880 and 1881, at the urging of his friend, Edgar Degas, Raffaëlli exhibited in the Impressionist exhibition despite having little affinity with the movement. Even though his work was for the most part either overlooked or not understood within the context of the exhibition, not everyone found Raffaëlli’s singularity within the Impressionist exhibitions undesirable. In reviewing the 1881 Impressionist exhibition, Le Petit Parisien noted, ‘M. Raffaëlli seems to us to differ noticeably from the artists known as Impressionists: he paints with an extreme meticulousness, leaves out no detail…’, while the reviewer for L’Art commented that the artist ‘does not content himself with the approximate. He pursues to the very end what he undertakes’ (quoted in M. Young, ‘Heroic Indolence: Realism and the Politics of Time in Raffaëlli’s Absinthe Drinkers,’ Art Bulletin, June 2008, vol. XC, no. 2, pp. 237-238). It is in fact this distinction which so startled participants, viewers and critics of the Impressionist exhibitions that in time led to Raffaëlli’s enduring appeal.
In the early 1890s, Raffaëlli produced countless street scenes of the French capital and many of them were exhibited at the Salon between 1870 and 1909. Each is painted with verve and finesse, providing a showcase for his confident brushwork and sophisticated palette and the present work is no exception. Allée d’arbres aux Champs-Elysées depicts a tree-lined promenade adjacent to the Champs Elysees, its shaded pathway frequented by well-dressed Parisians out for an afternoon stroll. The allée serves as an outdoor stage for the artist, upon which the city’s elite and fashionable play out a timeless pantomime. The vivacity of the boulevards of Paris also attracted the attention of the Impressionists Camille Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte, both of whom painted panoramic bird’s eye view of the bustling city landscape (figs 1 and 2). By contrast, Raffaëlli presents the viewer with an intimate view at street level. On the boulevard itself, fashionable carriages roll by under the summer sun. The scene is painted with rapid brushstrokes, and becomes a showcase for Raffaëlli’s confident brushwork and sophisticated palette. The work is a study of the shimmering effects of sunlight dappled through trees. Raffaëlli captures the intensity of the noontime sun and the viewer can almost feel its warmth.
The figure of the little girl, running away with her back toward the viewer draws the eye into the picture plane and then up through the allée. The figures on the promenade, however, do not interact with each other, and it is this psychological isolation, careful attention to fashion and the sense of capturing a private moment in a public space that is all reminiscent of the style of Edgar Degas. Most importantly, Allée d’arbres aux Champs-Elysées demonstrates Raffaëlli’s central belief that the artist’s duty was to render the essence of the contemporary society in which he lived.
We are grateful to Galerie Brame & Lorenceau for confirming the authenticity of this work on the basis of digital images. The work will be included in their computerized Raffaëlli Catalogue critique, now in preparation.
(fig. 1) C. Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre in Paris, 1897. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. © De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images.
(fig. 2) G. Caillebotte, Boulevard des Italiens, 1880. Private collection.