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 could capture the modernization of Paris through the actions, dress and appearances of its inhabitants.
Although trained as an Academic artist, Béraud’s mature style is categorized by the quick brushstrokes favored by the Impressionists artists. Béraud was close friends with Edouard Manet and frequented the same cafes 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 brush and choice of subject matter is imbued with the spirit of Impressionism, Béraud combines 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 boulevard of Paris in a mobile studio, a converted carriage designed especially so that he might observe firsthand the everyday life if the city. Belle Époque journalist Paul Hourie described the pains the artist took: ‘When you paint scenes from everyday life, you have to place them in their context and give them their authentic setting. This means that, in order to be sincere, you have to photograph them on the spot and forget about the conventions of the studio. As a result, Jean Béraud has the strangest life imaginable. He spends all his time in carriages. It is not unusual to see a cab parked at the corner of a street for hours on end, with an artist sitting inside, firing off rapid sketches. That’s Jean Béraud in search of a scene, drawing a small fragment of Paris. Almost all the cab drivers in the city know him. He’s one of their favorite passengers, because he at least doesn’t wear their horses out’ (P. Hourie, ‘Jean Beraud’, L’Estafette, 13 September 1880).
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).
Béraud executed eleven paintings of women on the Place de la Concorde in rapid succession and from a different angle than the usual representations. Many of these depict the two palaces designed by Gabriel for ambassadors, the rue Royale and the Madeleine in the distance. Here, Béraud is depicting the south side of the Place de la Concorde, with one of the twenty rostral columns, the Pont de la Concorde, the Assemblée nationale and the opening section of the Boulevarde St. Germain (fig. 1). This forms the backdrop for the present painting, one of the more narrative of these eleven paintings. Béraud was fascinated with the modistes of Paris, and in many of his paintings they take center stage. The same is true in Sur la Place de la Concorde. We see a young woman dressed head to toe in electric blue trimmed in brilliant white. She steps out onto the Place de la Concorde with her skirts slightly lifted and gazes directly at the viewer. In the background, two flaneurs look on with appreciation at her well-turned ankle.
These are images for which Béraud is best remembered, and for which he achieved his reputation as the ‘painter of modern life’. He discussed his views on his unique kind of art, writing humorously that ‘You have to vanquish your feelings of artistic modesty so you can work among people who take the most irritating kind of interest in what you are doing. If you cannot overcome your disgust, you will end up locking yourself away in your house, and painting a woman or a still life, like all your colleagues. For some artists, that was all they needed to produce of masterpiece. But I believe that today we need something different (il faut autre chose)’ (Jean Béraud, L. 20, Fondation Custodia (coll. F. Lugt) Institute néerlandais, Paris, inv. No 1972-A).