Picturing the shimmering, rain-soaked streets of Paris, filled with a riotous array of bustling pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, carts, and overflowing omnibuses, La Place du Havre, effet de pluie of 1897 is one of Camille Pissarro’s great, valedictory series of urban cityscapes; works which crowned him as the most prolific Impressionist chronicler of fin-de-siècle Paris. Unlike his former Impressionist comrades who had by this time turned inwards, away from the spectacle of modern life—Degas to the hallowed inner sanctum of his studio, Monet to his horticultural paradise in Giverny, or Renoir to an arcadian world of classical bathers—in the final decades of his life, Pissarro, the pre-eminent landscape painter of rural France, made a radical volte-face, embracing the urban tumult and architectural beauty of Paris, as well as the Norman harbor towns of Rouen, Dieppe, and Le Havre.
La Place du Havre, effet de pluie is one of a small series of six views, all painted in the opening weeks of 1897, that marked the inception of Pissarro’s work in series, an extraordinary moment of artistic rejuvenation and innovation in the artist’s career (Pissarro & Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 1153-1158). Pissarro had arrived in Paris in January to give his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, a group of gouaches he had commissioned. Unfortunately for the artist however, the deal fell through: “Durand turned down the gouaches he had commissioned”, Pissarro wrote to his son, “not because he doesn’t like them, but because the sale he was counting on has gone up in smoke… It’s cost me a month’s work and three thousand five hundred francs that I was counting on” (Pissarro, quoted in J. Pissarro & C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Pissarro: Catalogue critique des peintures, Paris, 2005, vol. I, p. 272). Though dejected, Pissarro decided to stay on in the city, taking a room at the Hôtel Garnier, which was set on the corner of the rue Saint-Lazare and the place du Havre in the Eighth Arrondissement, with views of the surrounding rue d’Amsterdam, as well as the Gare Saint Lazare itself—the station that Pissarro used to travel to and from his home in Éragny-sur-Epte. La Place du Havre, effet de pluie sees Pissarro looking directly downwards from his window onto the square below.
Pissarro was already familiar with the Hôtel Garnier, having stayed there a few years earlier in the winter of 1892 and spring of 1893. This first extended stay in the capital had been precipitated by eye troubles. His doctor had advised him to stay off the dusty streets of the city, and so instead, Pissarro worked from his hotel room, painting the scenes of daily life that were spread before him. He only painted four works on this occasion rather than a series as such, but, on immediately selling all of these paintings to Durand-Ruel, he clearly realized the artistic as well as financial potential of these novel cityscapes.
The Gare Saint-Lazare and the immediate vicinity were already hallowed ground within the Impressionist canon, the station and its environs acting as a symbolic embodiment of Second Empire Paris and the city’s rising status as a modern metropolis. In 1877, Claude Monet had famously painted twelve scenes of the interior of the station, transforming this new beacon of industrial growth into triumphant visions of evanescent color and light. In his Le Pont de l’Europe (1876, Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva), Gustave Caillebotte had pictured the newly constructed bridge that traversed the ever-multiplying railway tracks, peopled by a carefully considered cross-section of the city’s inhabitants, while Édouard Manet had also chosen the station as the backdrop for his enigmatic Le Chemin de fer (1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Even the early Impressionist supporter and critic, the writer, Émile Zola, had immortalized the station in his La Bête humaine, which was published in 1890.
Nearly two decades on however, Pissarro took a very different approach to the depiction of this corner of late 19th Century Paris. With La Place du Havre, effet de pluie and the other works of this inaugural Paris series, it is the splendid cacophony of modern life as a whole, rather than the architecture and its symbolic social implications, that the artist focused on. Pissarro captured the intersection of streets in this quarter under different weather conditions: contrasting shadow and sunlight in one, capturing the frigid winter gloom in another, as well as picturing the scene dusted with snow, or as in the present work, the streets rendered silvery and luminescent during a downpour of rain.
Yet, while for Monet—of whom this serial approach and subject matter is immediately reminiscent—the ephemeral effects of weather and light on the surrounding architecture or landscape were his primary focus, for Pissarro, the presence of the city’s inhabitants, and their integration with these atmospheric conditions, was of the greatest import within these scenes. This is particularly evident in La Place du Havre, effet de pluie, in which Pissarro has dramatically cropped his consistently elevated viewpoint, leaving no sky visible, and instead focused almost entirely on the teeming activity of daily life taking place in the square amidst the rain shower. Striped awnings of shop fronts and café terraces intersect with the chaotic frenzy of vehicles and black-coated pedestrians huddling from the rain. Filled with a pulsating sense of energy, heightened by the myriad strokes and dashes of paint, this work quivers with life: a poetic, vital symphony of color, light, movement, and atmosphere, and a dazzling snapshot of Belle Époque Paris.