During the Belle Epoque, Jean Béraud's reputation as the quintessential painter of Paris and it's Boulevards lined with its fashionable theatres, cafes, parks and playgrounds filled with the dandies and élégantes, was already well established. The present work was commissioned directly from the artist by an ancestor of the current owners, in order to commemorate an accident that they had on the boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle near the Porte Saint-Denis.
This painting captures an area of Paris where the older monuments are juxtaposed with the new spaces created by Baron Haussmann's remodeled boulevards, which with their grandiose appearance, changed the face of the city. Here the triumphal Porte Saint Denis on the left, built in 1672 under Louis XIV by the architect François Blondel, is set against the plunging perspective of the boulevard Bonne Nouvelle.
The almost photographic realism with which Béraud captures the Parisian Boulevard is matched only by the mastery with which he conveys an atmospheric effect, both in the sky as well as on light reflecting off of water puddles on the pavement from a recent downpour. Béraud painted another version of this intersection, but at a different time of day, and without the accident in the foreground (see P. Offenstadt, Jean Béraud: Catalogue Raisonné, Wildenstein, p. 100, no. 27). Also, in this other version, the wall below the elevated walkway on the right is shown covered with advertising posters, which in L'Accident he has chosen to remove in order to concentrate the viewer's eye specifically on the accident and the plunging perspective of the boulevard.
The accident, which seems to involve a broken carriage axel, becomes a spectacle where the workmen, the dandies, the baker's apprentice and the élégante all join as improvised participants in what becomes a quintessentially modern spectacle. He masterfully blends the pageant of fin-de-siècle fashionable life, of which he indeed was the choice painter, as well as other aspects of urban experience. This allows him to reveal a cross section of the city while capturing a moment in time with all its richness, vitality and flux. The accident, in fact, was part and parcel of Hausmann's new Paris and a common aspect of a bustling, metropolitan existence. Even the most academic of painters, Jean-Léon Gérôme, treated this mundane subject in his Les badauds of 1901 (fig. 1). He too shows a crowd of onlookers gathered on the boulevard around some unfortunate event (see G. Ackerman, J.L. Gérôme, Paris, 2000, p. 359, no. 483).
To the 21st Century viewer, Béraud's painting certainly conveys a nostalgic sense of fin-de-siècle Paris with its horse drawn carriages, gas lamps and crinoline dresses. Yet to Béraud's contemporaries, such a work was the epitome of modernity, a celebration of a moment in the daily life of the newly restored, remodeled and confident city, the self-proclaimed capital of the XIXth Century. That an accident could be deemed a worthy subject for painting, shows to what degree Béraud, if not radical in his formal explorations, is nonetheless immersed in the same pursuit as the Impressionists. Béraud embodies the 'Painter of Modern Life' that Baudelaire called for and described in his Figaro articles of 1863. Béraud, therefore, can truly be counted among those artists and writers who saw the city as an endlessly exciting and inspiring place of intoxication, contrasts and elegance. Béraud clearly has contributed to the development what has been called the 'urban aesthetic'.
It is interesting to note that Béraud took an active interest in designing the frame that surrounds the present work. He mentions this fact in a letter to a friend of the collector, explaining in detail the crenellated rosewood frame he made for this painting. A frame, he adds, much like the ones that he used at home: "Mon cher Georges, Ainsi que tu me l'as demandé de la part de ton ami, je me suis remis à +L'accident de la porte St Denis; et j'espère l'avoir fini plus tôt que je pensais d'abord. Si tu écris à ton ami, dis lui, je te prie que je fais faire un cadre en palissandre comme celui qu'il a vu chez moi; s'il préfère un cadre doré je lui en ferai faire un mais le palissandre orné comme l'autre convient mieux je crois. A Lundi cher ami et bien cordialement. Jean Béraud (Letter of Jean Béraud to his friend George, Private Collection, France).
Patrick Offenstadt has confirmed the authenticity of this work and will be including it his forthcoming supplement of his Béraud catalogue raisonné.