Jean Béraud was fascinated by all aspects of la vie Parisienne and is recognized as its most devoted observer, and during the Belle Époque his reputation as the ‘painter of modern life’ was firmly established. The present work was commissioned directly from the artist by a Parisian family in order to commemorate an accident that they had on the boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle near the Porte Saint-Denis.
The accident took in place in an area of Paris where older monuments are juxtaposed with the new spaces created by Baron Haussmann’s reorganized boulevards which changed the face of the city. Here, the triumphal arch of the Porte Saint-Denis, which was built by Louis XIV in 1672, is set against the broad spaces of the boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle.
The accident, which appears to involve a broken carriage axle, becomes a spectacle where the workmen, dandies, baker’s apprentice and the élégante all join in as participants in this drama taking place on the streets of Paris. Béraud masterfully blends the elements of fin-de-siècle fashionable life seamlessly into other, less lofty, aspects of urban existence in the French capital. The artist deftly captures a cross-section of the city captured in a moment in time, with all its richness, diversity and movement.
To the modern eye, Béraud’s painting conveys a nostalgic view Paris in the Belle Époque with its horse-drawn carriages, gas lamps and crinoline dresses. Yet to Béraud’s fellow denizens, such a work was the epitome of modernity, a celebration of one moment in the daily life of the newly restored, remodeled and confident city. That an accident such as this could be the subject matter for a painting demonstrated to what degree Béraud, if not quite as radical in his formal expression, is nonetheless immersed in the same pursuit of spontaneity as the Impressionists.
Béraud took an active interest designing the frame that surrounds the present work. This is mentioned in a letter to a friend of the gentleman who commissioned the painting, explaining in detail the crenellated rosewood frame he made for the painting, much like the ones he used for his paintings at home (fig. 1): 'Mon cher Georges, ainsi que tu me l’a demandé de la part de ton ami, je me suis remis à l’accident de la Porte Saint-Denis; j’espère l’avoir fini plus tôt que je pensais d’abord. Si tu écris à ton ami, dis lui, je te pris 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’ (Letter of Jean Béraud to his friend Georges, Private collection, France).
We are grateful to Patrick Offenstadt for confirming the authenticity of this work. The work is accompanied by a certificate from Mr. Offenstadt.