Maximilien Luce painted just over a dozen versions of the west façade of Notre-Dame de Paris during the 1890s and the early years of the new century. The present painting is the second largest in this group; Notre Dame, Vue du Quai Saint-Michel, completed last, in 1904, is wider in its dimensions (Bouin-Luce and Bazetoux, no. 150; fig. 1), while the present Notre-Dame de Paris gains from its imposing vertical format. In their commanding size, the depiction of detail in both architecture and people, the subtle coloring of late afternoon light as it tints the sides of buildings, and especially in Luce's carefully gauged, masterly application of the divisionist technique of Neo-Impressionism, these two paintings are the most important in the group. As befits this iconic subject, the Notre-Dame paintings are perhaps the most impressive works that Luce ever painted around a single motif. The first view in this series, painted in 1890, is panoramic, containing the entire square and the corner of the building opposite the west face of the cathedral, which houses the Préfecture de Police (Bouin-Luce and Bazetoux, no. 142). In 1894 Luce painted a small study of Notre-Dame which he dedicated as a keepsake to his companion and the future mother of his children, Ambroisine Bouin, whom he had met the previous year (Bouin-Luce and Bazetoux, no. 154). Five years later, at the turn of the century, Luce commenced work on the core works in his Notre-Dame series, including the present painting.
The painter Albert Dubois-Pillet, a close friend and fellow Neo-Impressionist, offered Luce the use of his studio at 19, quai Saint-Michel, which offered an excellent vantage point on the cathedral. From the studio windows Luce looked east across the Seine to the twin towers of front portals of Notre-Dame, with the south side receding in the distance, a slightly angled view that gives a magnificent impression of the cathedral's size and grandeur. Luce would moreover make interesting compositional use of the oblique lines of the quays that run along the channel in the foreground, and especially the brace-like angles created by the Petit Pont, which spans the river between the Left Bank and the Ile de la Cité. This has actually become a classic view of the cathedral, familiar from other modern paintings--both Henri Matisse and Albert Marquet later painted Notre-Dame from studios they occupied in the same building that Luce worked in for his series. Writing in late 1899 to Henri-Edmond Cross, who joined the Neo-Impressionists earlier in the decade, Luce remarked that from his vantage point Notre-Dame "is incredibly beautiful. I am doing piles of studies and will try to make use of them for some larger canvases" (quoted in B. de Verneilh, op. cit., p. 24).
Luce likely took as a precedent for undertaking his series of Notre-Dame paintings, to complement the single work he painted in 1890, Monet's now famous sequence depicting the facade of the Rouen Cathedral (Wildenstein, nos. 1319-1329 and 1345-1361). Monet included twenty of these paintings in his show at Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1895. In them he had taken a close-up point-of-view from ground level, limiting his field of vision to the façade only, which he cropped very close-in to the portals and rose window--it was his primary intention to catch the play of light on the complex Gothic faceting of the cathedral entrance. Luce, by contrast, was more interested in placing Notre-Dame in a broader societal context, pondering the significance of its august, time-honored and potently symbolic presence within the modern life of the city. In this respect Luce's conception of the cathedral within its urban context is closer to that of his friend Camille Pissarro, the only older, charter-member Impressionist to join the small circle of dedicated Neo-Impressionists, who in 1896 and 1898 painted the looming presence of the Rouen Cathedral towers in some of his views of that city and its streets (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 1114-1115 and 1221-1223). In 1901, while Luce was at work on his Notre-Dame pictures, Pissarro painted a series of canvases during his first stay in Dieppe, in which the Eglise Saint-Jacques figures prominently and, as in Luce's paintings, in conjunction with the daily activities of local townspeople (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 1384-1392; no. 1385, fig. 2).
Although Luce's Notre-Dame canvases comprise a distinctive group, they are not serial, a term which has been applied to Monet's Rouen Cathedral facades, in which that artist focused on the changing appearance of a single motif within a relatively constant pictorial format. Luce's approach was neither methodical nor analytical; he instead derived his strong qualities as a painter from his varied, all-encompassing outlook and interests. True to his social conscience as a committed anarchist (as was Pissarro), Luce sought to arrive at a synthesis of elements that would convey the totality of the experience of modern urban living. Luce's method was similar to that of Paul Signac, who since the death of Seurat in 1891 had been the leading exponent and theoretician of Neo-Impressionism. Both painters preferred to initially explore a motif through studies done on site, from which they subsequently developed and realized in the studio one or more key paintings on a large easel scale. For the present Notre-Dame de Paris, Luce painted a small study of the dredging barges seen in the foreground of the present painting (Bouin-Luce and Bazetoux, no. 159). There is a Notre-Dame painting in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts which is very similar in its composition to the present version; it was done on a smaller canvas and shows a broader, more impressionist manner of handling (Bouin-Luce and Bazetoux, no. 144). The Minneapolis version may well have served as a preliminary study for the present painting, insofar that Luce established in it the parameters of his content, while also approximating the overall effect that he was seeking in the quality of light and the relations between tonal values. When the artist began the present painting in 1900, using a substantially larger canvas, he availed himself of his most refined and consistently applied divisionist technique--in its current version, now more flexible and vigorous than it had been even a decade earlier.
As his older Impressionist colleagues had done in their pictures, and as was standard Neo-Impressionist practice, Luce was extremely attentive in his Notre-Dame series to the state of weather conditions and the time of day. Indeed, the excellence of these pictures stems from Luce's success at conveying with convincing precision the tonal qualities and atmospheric effects that pertain to varying kinds of light--according to the time of day, and also stemming from the famously variable and rapidly changeable weather over Paris--and showing how these conditions make their presence felt on the city and its people (Bouin-Luce and Bazetoux, no. 146; fig. 3). The present painting shows Notre-Dame and its surroundings catching the lowering rays of light during the late afternoon hours of an autumn day. A passing rain shower has blown in from the English Channel and caused some pedestrians to open their umbrellas, as patches of reflected yellow sunlight gleam on the wet pavements of the streets and square.
Scores of pedestrians, and a half-dozen types of horse-drawn conveyances are observable in the traffic that crosses the Petit Pont and circulates within the cathedral square. Luce wrote in a letter from late January or early February, 1900: "I am still slaving away on Notre-Dame... I would like to depict ceremonies, marriages, people coming and going, the crowds, in short, Paris" (ibid., pp. 25-26). Luce was the consummate urban Neo-Impressionist--while Seurat and Signac were drawn to landscapes and marines in which people are rarely present, Luce shared with Pissarro a love for the boulevards and buildings of Paris, and the great mass of people from all walks of life who moved among them. Indeed, no painter of his generation, or even among the Impressionists, could match Luce in the range and diversity of his subjects, from picturesque scenes along the Seine at Herblay to sun-drenched landscapes at Saint-Tropez, while being best-known for his views of Paris both by day and by night. He also painted among the grimly colorless mining towns of the Pays noir, he recreated scenes from the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune, and with great fascination recorded the rebuilding of rue Réaumur, the final act in Baron Haussmann's plan to modernize Paris. Luce always demonstrated great compassion and respect for people, and was a keen observer of the nature and quality of their lives. He was equally skilled at painting the figure, whether in single portraits, as teams of workmen, or passing crowds of anonymous city-dwellers, seen up close or from far away. People gave life to the city, they animated its bridges and squares--and indeed they are as important to overall impact of the painting Notre-Dame de Paris as the great cathedral itself.
(fig. 1) Maximilien Luce, Notre-Dame, Vue du Quai Saint-Michel, 1901-1904. Private collection.
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, L'Eglise Saint-Jacques à Dieppe, matin, soleil, 1901. Sold, Christie's, New York, 15 November 1988, lot 25.
(fig. 3) Maximilien Luce, Notre-Dame, circa 1900. Sold, Christie's, New York, 15 May 1979, lot 20.