“He watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling. He admires the eternal beauty and the astonishing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained in the tumult of human liberty. He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone, now swathed in the mist, now struck in full face by the sun. He enjoys handsome equipages, proud horses, the spit and polish of the grooms, the skillful handling by the page boys, the smooth rhythmical gait of the women, the beauty of the children, full of the joy of life and proud as peacocks of their pretty clothes; in short, life universal” (C. Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 1863; trans. P.E. Charvet, Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature, London, 1993, pp. 400-401).
During the final decade of his life, Pissarro—like Baudelaire’s quintessentially modern artist-hero—made the spectacle of contemporary urban life into his abiding, valedictory theme. Between 1893 and 1903, he painted eleven distinct series—some three hundred views overall—of four different French cities: Paris, Rouen, Dieppe, and Le Havre. The present Rue Saint-Lazare, filled to glorious, kaleidoscopic surfeit with color, light, and movement, is one of the two largest paintings from the very first of these serial endeavors; the pendant canvas, of identical dimensions, is in The Art Institute of Chicago. Dated to 1893 and numbering four paintings in total, this inaugural sequence of cityscapes signals, with no hesitation or uncertainty, Pissarro’s unexpected transformation from a painter of rural France into the foremost chronicler of the fin-de-siècle metropolis as a visual emblem of modernity.
Pissarro had many and varied reasons for turning to urban subjects at this moment. After nearly three decades as a painter of agrarian life, he found himself “drawn to town subjects,” craving a new type of vista. “I toil away,” he lamented, “without finding what I’m looking for. Manifestly, meadow motifs lack that distance which gives so much charm to a landscape; it’s too much of a fragment, too closed!” (quoted in cat. rais., op. cit., 2005, p. 270). His intensive study of anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin had also awakened his interest in the gulf between city and country, particularly with respect to the growing tide of agrarian mechanization. From a practical standpoint, Pissarro was eager to assemble sufficient, convincingly modern material to offer the dealer Durand-Ruel, as his financial worries were even more acute than usual—he had taken a loan from Monet in 1892 to buy his long-time home at Éragny, and his eldest son Lucien, recently wed, needed cash for housing. The artist’s health was an issue too, as persistent eye problems increasingly restricted him to painting from his window, away from dust, wind, and direct sun.
Pissarro’s first sustained foray into urban view painting may also have been prompted by a fortuitous change of scene. In October 1892, the artist gave up the pied-à-terre that he had rented previously at 12, rue de l’Abreuvoir in Montmartre, finding it too small and too far from the Gare Saint-Lazare, where the train from Éragny arrived. For the next seven months, through May 1893, whenever Pissarro was in Paris, he put up at the Hôtel-Restaurant de Rome—known colloquially as the Hôtel Garnier after its proprietress—directly across the rue Saint-Lazare from the train station. His new lodgings, on an elevated floor, boasted a panoramic view over the bustling neighborhood, the pictorial possibilities of which impressed him immediately. When business with Durand-Ruel kept him town longer than he had anticipated, he wrote with a plan to his wife Julie, back home in Éragny: “I am going to begin, while I wait, a study of the place du Havre, it is very beautiful” (27 February 1893; J. Bailly-Herzberg, op. cit., 1988, p. 317).
The four paintings that Pissarro completed from this vantage point in early 1893 represent a sequence of interlocking vistas, anticipating the serial format that he would pursue during future campaigns in Paris and the Norman port cities. For the two smaller canvases in the group, both 46 x 38 cm, he looked directly down from his window onto the place du Havre, depicting the pedestrians, carriages, carts, and trams that swarmed freely over the pavement; no sky is visible in either, and no streets structure the composition (cat. rais., nos. 985 and 987; Christie’s London, 24 June 2008, lot 19). For the two large (60 x 73 cm) canvases, by contrast, Pissarro raised his gaze, painting the place du Havre in the foreground and then, receding into depth, the wide, straight avenues that branch off from the busy square. The present painting depicts the rue Saint-Lazare, running eastward beyond the eponymous train station, while the pendant canvas, formatted horizontally, shows the rue d’Amsterdam heading toward the north (no. 986; The Art Institute of Chicago).
Painted on a bright winter’s day, Rue Saint-Lazare focuses on the human spectacle of the modern city, circumscribed within the broad, plunging space of the street. The continuous architectural façade functions as a light-struck canyon wall that provides the backdrop for all manner of human affairs—work, motion, traffic, transport, exchange, unloading, loading, moving, buying, selling, walking, and riding. This splendid multiplicity of activity, which generates a high level of pictorial energy, is echoed in the widely varied palette that Pissarro employed. Hundreds of hues have been mixed on the palette and separately applied in short, comma-like strokes or linear dashes, reminiscent of Pissarro’s brief phase of experimentation with divisionist technique in the late 1880s.
“The two larger of his four attempts quiver with life,” Richard Brettell has written about the present canvas and the Art Institute’s Rue d’Amsterdam. “All of his experience with what might be called the mechanics of ‘optical mixing’ proves to have been invaluable in making these palpitating paintings. In each, the wintry city is alive with a warm light that dances across the façades, is picked up by the shiny paint on the spokes and wheels, and glints on the silk top hats worn by male members of the bourgeoisie” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. xxii).
When Pissarro set up his easel above the Paris streets for the first time in 1893, he surely had in mind the panoramic boulevard paintings of the 1870s by Monet and Caillebotte. His own vision of the contemporary metropolis, however, differed markedly from that of his Impressionist confrères. Caillebotte was fascinated with the immensity of modern urban space; his Paris is vast and impersonal, with few figures, chiefly bourgeois, each relatively isolated. Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines teems with life, but the manifold individual figures are subsumed within a grand visual unity, which takes precedence over the particularity of human or architectural forms. In Pissarro’s cityscapes, by contrast—beginning with Rue Saint-Lazare and continuing throughout the subsequent urban series—each figure is separately observed and described, creating a delicate balance between the individual and the crowd that has its roots in the political theories of his friends and colleagues in the anarchist movement.
“The mêlée of social classes, sexes, and ages in Pissarro’s urban paintings forms a sort of visual/political manifesto in which the city can be interpreted as a vast setting for social and economic interaction,” Brettell has written. “The figures, when they are not massed in large crowds, are socially specific—workers with their blue shirts, soldiers in uniform, bourgeois men in caped overcoats and hats, middle-class women in drab, close-fitting dresses, female workers in white aprons and caps, and wealthier women in tailored jackets. Indeed, describing each figure in a Pissarro urban painting could easily fill several pages, so concentrated and specific are his distillations of urban experience” (ibid., pp. xxvi and xxvii).
Durand-Ruel presciently recognized the singular importance of Pissarro’s interpretation of the modern urban experience. He purchased the two largest canvases from the 1893 sequence—the present Rue Saint-Lazare and the Rue d’Amsterdam—in mid-March, just weeks after their completion, and immediately hung them in a one-man exhibition of Pissarro’s work at his rue Laffitte gallery. The canvases were exhibited together again at the Galerie Durand-Ruel the following spring, the third year running that the dealer gave Pissarro a solo show. On both occasions, critics singled out the two urban vistas for glowing praise. The anonymous reviewer for L’Intransigeant observed in 1893 that they displayed “stunning movement and light.” The next year, Paul Dupray wrote in the Journal des Artistes, “In the Parisian physiognomies (Cour du Havre – Place Saint-Lazare) the viewer will find vignettes expressing life in the streets with a keen intelligence of the urban hustle and bustle” (quoted in cat. rais., op. cit., 2005, pp. 640-641).
Pissarro brought the two smaller paintings from the 1893 campaign back to Éragny with him when he left the Hôtel Garnier in May. “I am working on my Rue Saint-Lazare,” he had written earlier in the year to his wife Julie. “I have not arranged anything with Durand yet, but I probably won’t give him everything that I’ve done; I shall keep some” (3 March 1893; J. Bailly-Herzberg, op. cit., 1988, p. 318). He did not paint in Paris again until January 1897, when he rented a room for a month at the same hotel and reprised his earlier motifs in a new sequence of six canvases. Three of these depict the rue Saint-Lazare under varying weather conditions of sun, haze, and snow (cat. rais., nos. 1153-1155); all are much smaller than the present, exhibition-scaled painting—less than half the size—and more loosely worked, inverting the traditional order of small to large and sketch to finish. Durand-Ruel purchased all six paintings from the 1897 campaign on 3 February, covering Pissarro’s expenses in the capital for the preceding month.
During the ensuing six years, Pissarro stayed in two more hotels and three different apartments in Paris, each of which provided the basis for an extended series of cityscapes. In October 1903, aged 73 and in fragile health, he considered circling back to the site of his earliest experiments in urban view painting. “He temporarily took lodgings at the Hôtel Garnier on the rue Saint-Lazare,” recounted the journalist Robert de la Villehervé, who interviewed the artist at this time, “thinking that from there he could execute a new series of this Place du Havre, which kept him entertained with its continual hubbub of carriages and people, and to which he was already indebted for some delightful canvases” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. 52). Pissarro passed away, however, in mid-November, before he could begin this work. “Thus—and this is the main paradox of this series,” Brettell and Joachim Pissarro have written, “Pissarro’s first Paris paintings remain more than any others, unfinished, open, incapable of completion. The series manifests at its core the transience of everyday reality in its urban context” (ibid., p. 51).