Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines
At the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines was both praised and reviled as an exemplar of the new style. However, it has never been clear which of his two 1873-74 views of the street – one now in Moscow, the other in Kansas City – was shown.reveals the answer.
Kansas City or Moscow?, Thursday, 1st March 2007
In 1873-74, Monet painted two views of the Boulevard des Capucines, both taken from the balcony of his friend Nadar’s photography studio. One is now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the other in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. A painting of this subject was included as no. 97 in the first Impressionist exhibition, also held in Nadar’s studio, which opened on 15 April 1874. There is no documentary proof of which version went on show, but recently the candidature of the Moscow picture has been generally favoured.1 This view is supported by two frequently cited contemporary texts, whose relevance, however, still needs to be spelled out more exactly.2
The first is a review by Ernest Chesnaux in Paris-Journal on 7 May 1874:
The extraordinary animation of the public street, the crowd swarming on the sidewalks, the carriages on the pavement, and the boulevard’s trees waving in the dust and light – never has movement’s elusive, fugitive, instantaneous quality been captured and fixed in all its tremendous fluidity as it has in this extraordinary, marvellous sketch that Monet has listed as Boulevard des Capucines. At a distance, one hails a masterpiece in this stream of life, this trembling of great shadow and light, sparkling with even darker shadows and brighter lights. But come closer, and all it vanishes. There remains only an indecipherable chaos of palette scrapings. Obviously, this is not the last word in art, nor even of this art. It is necessary to go on and to transform the sketch into a finished work. But what a bugle call for those who listen carefully, how it resounds far into the future!
The second is a more sarcastic commentary by Louis Leroy from Le Charivari on 25 April 1874:
Unfortunately, I was imprudent enough to leave him too long in front of the Boulevard des Capucines, by the same painter. ‘Ah-ha!’ he sneered in Mephistophelian manner. ‘Is that brilliant enough, now! There’s impression, or I don’t now what it means. Only, be so good as to tell me what those innumerable black tongue-lickings in the lower part of the picture represent?’
‘Why, those are people walking along,’ I replied.
‘Then do I look like that when I’m walking along the boulevard des Capucines? Blood and thunder! So you’re making fun of me at last?’
‘I assure you, M. Vincent…’
‘But those spots were obtained by the same method as that used to imitate marble: a bit here, a bit there, slap-dash, any old way. It’s unheard-of, appalling! I’ll get a stroke from it, for sure.’
It has been suggested Chesnaux’s observations could apply to both versions, but this is not entirely supported by the texts.3 The Kansas City picture (Fig. 1), which is undated, shows the boulevard under snow. The layer on the ground seems thin, and there is no snow on the branches of the trees, although it has begun to pile up on the roofs of the cabs. Chesnaux’s reference to the boulevard’s trees ‘waving in the dust and light,’ fails to match up with any kind of snowfall, which would have kept the dust down. Neither does his reference to ‘this trembling of great shadow and light, sparkling with even darker shadows and brighter lights’ correspond any better with the wintry climate. The contrasts of light are muted, and although the snowy weather casts a benign and protective mantle over the street and its denizens, there is little sparkle in the damp air. In the snowless Pushkin version (Fig. 2), which is dated 1873, the weather has been called autumnal,4 but the crisp light and bare branches also suggest a winter scene.5 Chesnaux’s ‘great shadow and light’ seems entirely compatible with the strong contrast between the broad, shadowed pavement crowded with pedestrians, and the brightly lit roadway and façades beyond the trees. His sparkle ‘with even darker shadows and brighter lights’ fits well with the glittering dots of impasto on the tree branches and with the pronounced silhouette of the figures on the balcony to the far right. As far as ‘dust’ is concerned, the pale golden tones of the sunlit area seem a good deal dustier than the slate-grey blues and whites of the Kansas City version.
Chesnaux’s criticism of Monet’s sketchy technique as ‘an indecipherable chaos of palette scraping’ does indeed apply to both pictures, as does Leroy’s lampooning of the figures as ‘black tongue-lickings’, since many are rendered by no more than a few vertical strokes of the brush. However, the evident astonishment of both critics at Monet’s shorthand is even more understandable when confronted with the version in Moscow. This is executed with a raw savagery not fully apparent in reproduction and was arguably painted first. Monet assaults his canvas with astringent splintery brushwork, thickly applied in the brighter areas, suggesting an outpouring of aggressive energy in response to a new idea. The Kansas City view, although no less spontaneous and atmospheric, is more relaxed, more fluidly and thinly painted, with more of the canvas ground allowed to show through. Combined with the lack of a date, this might suggest a reprise rather than a first attempt. As Rick Brettell points out, the Moscow picture was quickly sold through the good offices of Manet to the celebrated tenor and collector Jean-Baptiste Faure, while the Kansas City version went into a provincial collection.6 Possibly, the Pushkin canvas had a higher profile at the time as a result of its being included in the exhibition, where Faure would have seen it.
The horizontal format of the Pushkin view has permitted a wider angle of vision but there is less foreground and sky. This gives a more compressed effect, complementing the more combative technique. To the lower right of both versions, there is a slightly perplexing motif indicated by a cluster of dabs of pink paint.7 They have been thought to represent balloons, perhaps mounted on a pole or stick.8 This would account for their buoyancy, though their fluffy contours suggest some kind of decorative additions. In the Pushkin’s canvas, they are less clear and merge with the crowd, but in Kansas City’s they stand out and float like the butterfly monogram of a Whistler or the title cartouche on a Japanese print.
In line with the more obvious Japanese influence in the latter version and the tilted-up perspective, this sudden patch of bright colour, by stressing the surface, flattens the recession of the pavement.8 It also draws attention to the roomier foreground and the more vertiginous viewpoint allowed by the vertical format. In the Pushkin picture, by contrast, the prospect is more detached and distant owing to the foreground’s truncation. The illusion of a high vantage point is nevertheless maintained by the figures on the balcony. Unlike the Kansas City canvas, where they are merely sketched, in the Pushkin painting they are starkly defined, thus appearing nearer the spectator and suspended over the street, as if in the basket of a hot-air balloon or a box at the theatre.
For many years, thanks to political vicissitudes, the Boulevard in Kansas City remained the better-known version and so was more readily identified with the exhibition of 1874. It is perhaps with some regret on this author’s part that the honour must finally be ceded to Moscow, but the evidence of the two principal texts makes such a concession both inevitable and appropriate.
Ian Kennedy is the Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
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