Much like his friend, Edgar Degas, Jean Francois Raffaëlli embodied what the French critic Charles Baudelaire famously described as ‘the painter of modern life’. A detached observer amidst the crowds on the grand boulevards of the newly ‘Haussmann-ized’ Paris, Raffaëlli captured the spectacle of fin-de-siècle society in the French capital.
A true Renaissance man, Rafaëlli was an accomplished actor, musician, printmaker, draftsman, sculptor and author as well as an innovative painter. Though Rafaëlli did not consider himself a part of any one movement and rejected all attempts to classify his art, he was above all a realist whose central belief was that an artist’s duty was to render the essence of the contemporary society in which he lived. ‘My subject is all Paris, I aim to paint the beauty of Paris as well as its wretchedness’ ('A Talk by Mr. Rafaëlli,’ The Art Amateur, April 1895, p. 135).
In 1880 and 1881, at the urging of Edgar Degas, Raffaëlli exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions 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 artist 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. Indeed, Raffaëlli’s inclusion in the 1881 exhibition upstaged the works of those artists who had helped found the new movement and regarded themselves as bona fide Impressionists.
In the early 1890s, Rafaëlli produced numerous views and street scenes of the French capital, many of which were exhibited at the Salon. The present painting depicts the quai de la Tournelle and Raffaëlli has used the bridge crossing the Seine as a metaphor for the divisions and intersections of the social strata of Parisian life. The composition is essentially cut in half by the bridge itself; above, an omnibus passes, elegant people walk and fashionable carriages drive, while below, a mother and two children scour the riverbank while bargemen ready their vessel for the day’s work. Dominating the composition are the imposing towers and buttresses of Notre Dame and the elegant façade of the palace of the Louvre, which draw the viewer into the scene and place it squarely in context. With Raffaëlli, the viewer always knows exactly where he is in Paris. Unlike Pissarro’s views from above, with a plunging perspective and high horizon line, Raffaëlli choses a vantage point at ground level to focus on the specific landmarks and to remain involved in the spirit and mood of all aspects of city life.
We are grateful to Galerie Brame & Lorenceau and the Comité Raffaëlli for confirming the authenticity of this work. The work will be included in their digital Raffaëlli Catalogue critique, now in preparation.