Jean Béraud was fascinated by all aspects of la vie parisienne and is recognized as its most devoted observer. At the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Béraud abandoned his plans to become a lawyer and instead studied portraiture with one of the leading artists of the Third Republic, Léon Bonnat. Béraud began to move away from strict portraiture around 1875 and instead turned to representing modern life in the French capital. The spectacle of public spaces was a popular subject for French artists in the last quarter of the 19th century. Haussmannisation, the urban planning commissioned by Napoleon III and lead by Baron George Eugène Haussmann, introduced a public element to private life through the creation of wide boulevards for transportation and strolling, green spaces and large parks for carriage rides and overall better street conditions which led to improved health. In depicting the comingling of members of different social strata in these newly accessible social settings, Béraud was able to capture the modernization of Paris through the actions, dress and appearances of its inhabitants.
Although trained as an Academic artist, Béraud favored the quick brushstrokes of the Impressionists. He was close friends with Édouard Manet and frequented the same cafés as Edgar Degas, Pierre Renoir and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Like them, he concentrated on urban themes in his art, while other Impressionist artists fled Paris and painted landscapes of the surrounding areas. Although his brushwork and choice of subject matter was imbued with the spirit of Impressionism, Béraud combined this with the more classically accepted styles of the day to create works of a unique character.
In order to create his finished paintings, Béraud traveled the boulevards of Paris in a mobile studio, a converted carriage designed especially so that he might observe firsthand the everyday life of the city. The journalist Henry Bacon wrote about his own experience in Béraud’s studio on wheels: ‘A cab, with the green blind next to the street down, attracted our attention, showing that someone was paying two francs an hour for the privilege of maintaining stationary. Presently up went the curtain and the familiar head of Béraud appeared. At his invitation, we thrust a head into the miniature studio to see his latest picture. His canvas was perched upon the seat in front, his color-box beside him, and with the curtain down on one side to keep out the reflection and shield himself from the prying eyes of the passers-by, he could at ease paint through the opposite window a view of the avenue as a background to a group of figures’ (H. Bacon, Glimpses of Parisian Art, p. 425).
By the late 19th century, the wealthy and fashionable had mostly abandoned the narrow street of the center of Paris for the open boulevards of the post-Haussmann era. The expansive and orderly streets were flanked by the neat, plastered façades of grand hôtels with interiors that held all the comforts of modern living. Despite the luxuries of home, the social opportunities waiting out-of-doors were too tempting, and the beau monde spent much of their day, especially Sunday afternoons, riding and promenading on the boulevards and avenues, essentially transforming them into plein-air receiving rooms. Of all the streets, the Champs-Élysées afforded perhaps the best opportunities to see and be seen; on horseback, in an expensive carriage, or strolling in the newest cut of dress or frock coat, and a circuit was made from one end of the avenue to the other, often finishing with a picnic at the Bois du Boulogne. Overall, the new shops, cafés, and entertainments of Belle Époque Paris inspired an entirely new culture: life was now lived in public. Just as Béraud depicts in the present work, a conversation between two ladies in different carriages could be as commonplace as it was in the privacy of a salon.
In Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées, Béraud combines all the elements that made him so popular with audiences in Europe and abroad. He has captured through the lens of his brush a moment on the Champs-Élysees. And what a uniquely ‘modern’ moment it is. It was perhaps not unusual for two carriages to draw alongside each other in order for their passengers to exchange pleasantries, but the fact that one of the drivers is a young, fashionable woman, well turned out in her vested bodice, bright red tie and jaunty bowler hat, puts a unique twist on the scene. She is driving a cabriolet, a light, two-wheeled carriage that can easily be drawn by one horse, and she is clearly in control of her vehicle, managing with apparent ease to bring the horse and carriage into such close proximity of another moving carriage. Her passenger, an elegantly dressed gentleman in bright red gloves, is seated with his arms crossed, his expression difficult to read. Is it fear or resignation?
These are images for which Béraud is best remembered, and for which he achieved his reputation as the ‘painter of modern life’.
We are grateful to Patrick Offenstadt for confirming the authenticity of this work. The work is also accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from Patrick Offenstadt.