April showers bring May flowers is a familiar observation of nature, but it has a much longer history than one might expect. Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) began his famous Canterbury Tales with this prologue: “When in April the sweet showers fall/ And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all/The veins are bathed in liquor of such power/As brings about the engendering of the flower…” A 1610 poem began with “Sweet April showers/Do Spring May flowers,” and an 1886 proverb observed “March winds and April Showers bring forth May Flowers.” Paintings of rain and showers, although not numerous, have some outstanding examples.
A famous depictions of rain showers is by Japanese artist Hiroshigi, “White rain at Shono” (1833-34) from his series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Highway. Five figures walk along a mountain path; some have umbrellas which they share, and others use their robes or simply make do with their hats as the Spring rain falls. Hiroshigi is one of the great Ukiyo-e printmakers. Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world” and the wood cut prints depict the Zen Buddhist concept that humans experience intellectual enlightenment through bursts of insight, not through a gradual revelation. In Ukiyo-e prints, things are not connected in the way one would experience in nature. In this print the figures are not literally walking on a mountain path since the mountains are disconnected and shown below them. A design of graceful leafy tree branches can be viewed in close up. The design is slowly repeated as gray-green shadows as the rain and mist intervene. The angled light gray lines from top to bottom of the print create the rain and hold the image together.
Ukiyo-e woodcuts were bought into Paris by the thousands after the Meiji restoration of 1868 that opened Japan to the west. Their impact on Nineteenth Century French art was immediate and significant. The art of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others was significantly challenged and changed by this new way of depicting nature.
Gustave Caillebotte’s “Rainy Day in the Place del Europe” (1876-77) (84’’x108’’) is another famous painting of a rainy day. Once again umbrellas protect the figures as they stroll along the sidewalk of a wide Paris boulevard. In the right foreground a fashionably dressed couple sharing a large umbrella catch our attention and appear to be walking forward out of the painting. Next to them a man with his back to us walks into the painting. These three figures are life-sized; viewers experience the sensation that they are invited to walk on the street and into the scene. Caillebotte also was an avid photographer, as were many of his colleagues. He took advantage of this new tool. Photography was developed in Paris by Daguerre and in England by Talbot in 1839. In a photograph, images of figures and objects are cut-off by the size of the camera lens. The effect is a snap-shot. Note in Caillebotte’s painting that the feet and of the couple and half the gentleman at the right are cut off. In the fa left middle ground, a horse drawn carriage is seen, minus the horse.
The couple walk forward, their gaze directed to the left draws the viewer’s eye into the rest of the scene. The wet cobble stone street and the sidewalk shimmer in the rain. There is ample room for the viewer to walk down the boulevard and soak up the atmosphere of this recently renovated Nineteenth Century Paris street. The broad avenue Caillebotte depicts is a result of the commission of Napoleon III in 1859 to Baron Haussmann to tear down the narrow, over-crowded, and crime-filled streets in the center of Paris, and create wide avenues, parks, fountains and new sewers to make the City beautiful and safe. Caillebotte grew up near this part of Paris, knew the old Paris and witnessed the construction of the new Paris. The composition is centered and stabilized by a green street lamp. Various figures in the middle and background scurry around in a scene of normal street life. The new avant-garde artists of Paris, the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist, wanted to depict the reality of modern Paris and its people. A stickler for details, Caillebotte captures the scene impeccably.
“Place del Europe on a Rainy Day” was shown in the third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, and was a great success. It is considered one of Caillebotte’s best paintings. Many of Caillebotte’s paintings remained in his family until the middle of the Twentieth Century. In 1955, Walter P. Chrysler Jr purchased this painting and sold it to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is now on display.
Renoir’s “The Umbrellas” (1881-86) (70.9’’ x 45’’) represents a different view of rain showers. Viewers can easily identify with the hustle and bustle of the crowded street in a rain shower with people maneuvering their umbrellas to stay dry. The beautiful red-head holding the basket and looking at the viewer with a sweet smile is Suzanne Valadon. She was one of Renoir’s favorite models and at this time his mistress. In a chivalrous gesture a young man to her right appears to want to offer his umbrella. Their clothing and that of the majority of the other figures are what the working class would wear. In contrast the two little girls and their mother at the right wear dresses with ruffles, feathers and lace. The youngest girl engages the viewer with a slightly hesitant gaze. She had been rolling her hoop when the shower began. Their clothing is painted with a variety of blues while the general public’s clothing has been rendered in the duller colors of gray, tan and blues and are in keeping with the current style of the time.
“The Umbrellas” presents an artistic dilemma until it is understood that Renoir started the painting in 1881 and did not return to it until five years later. The three figures at the lower right are painted in Renoir’s Impressionist style, however, in the 1880’s he reconsidered his style and returned to what he considered to be a more realistic image. Apparently, he decided not to rework the Impressionist style of the three right hand figures. Examination by experts revealed the prominent young woman originally wore a lacy white dress. Renoir transformed her from upper class to a charming young working girl, and the rest of the figures wear the current fashion of the 1886. The influence of photography also is apparent as every edge of the canvas shows a snapshot effect.
American painter Childe Hassam’s “Rainy Day in Boston” (1885) (26×48’’) also depicts umbrellas and horse drawn carriages on a wide rain-soaked avenue, but this time in Boston. The similarities between Caillebotte’s painting and Hassam’s are not a coincidence. Hassam received his art training in both Boston and Paris. Hassam traveled to Europe in 1883 to see and learn from the masters. He was impressed by Barbizon and Impressionist landscape paintings, and began painting cityscapes while in Paris. On returning to America in 1885, he advised artists to “Look around you and paint what you see. Forget the Beaux Arts and the models and render the intense life which surrounds you and be assured that the Brooklyn Bridge is worth the Colosseum of Rome and that modern America is as fine as the bric-a-brac of antiquity.”
Hassam and his wife, returned to Paris in 1886, and they lived in an apartment in the Pigalle, at the foot of Montmartre. Although they lived in the artist’s quarter, there is no evidence Hassam met the Impressionist. An interesting note reports that Hassam rented Renoir’s former studio and found a few of Renoir’s oil sketches. Hassam wrote “I looked at these experiments in pure color and saw it was what I was trying to do myself.” When the Hassam’s returned to American in 1889, they settled in New York City where he continued to paint cityscapes at various times of the day and in various seasons. He was a member of “The Ten”, the American Impressionists.
Hassam absorbed the contemporary art of Paris but was determined to find his own style, an American style. Observing the work of his fellow American artists who were in Paris he wrote: “The American Section has convinced me forever of the capability of Americans to claim a school. Inness, Whistler, Sargent and plenty of Americans are just as well able to cope in their own chosen line with anything done over here. An artist should paint his own time and treat nature as he feels it, not repeat the same stupidities of his predecessors. The men who have made success today are the men who have got out of the rut.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.