44th Annual Meeting – Research and Technical Studies, May 17, "Out of the rain: Uncovering artistic process in Gustave Caillebotte’s 'Paris Street; Rainy Day'"

“Paris Street; Rainy Day” 1877
“Paris Street; Rainy Day” 1877

From 2013 to 2014, Kelly Keegan, John Delaney, and Pablo Garcia from the Art Institute of Chicago closely examined Gustave Caillebotte’s 1877 painting, Paris Street; Rainy Day along with multiple preparatory drawings also in the institute’s collection. Kelly Keegan, the assistant paintings conservator at the Art Institute presented their findings Tuesday at AIC’s annual meeting.
The first important revelation came when x-ray and infrared images revealed that the under-drawing outlining the perspective done by Caillebotte extends passed the tacking margins with no interference from the stretcher bars. This led conservators to believe that Caillebotte originally painted Paris Street; Rainy Day un-stretched and tacked to a wall. Okay, so the painting started off its stretcher, but how exactly was the under-drawing constructed?
Study for “Paris Street; Rainy Day” 1877
Study for “Paris Street; Rainy Day”

Caillebotte’s preparatory drawing, Study for “Paris Street; Rainy Day” proved to be an invaluable resource for understanding how the final painting was made. Most viewers of 19th century paintings are aware of the connection between impressionism and photography. It was a widely held belief that many painters traced from photographs, but conservators at the Art Institute were skeptical that Paris Street; Rainy Day was based on a photograph. Photography would have caused lens distortion that should have been visible around the perimeter of the drawing but wasn’t. In addition, the paper was very thick which would have made tracing nearly impossible.
Could Caillebotte have projected the city scene onto his paper to create the drawing? A camera obscura is the projection device most well known to art historians and conservators, but this too would have caused lens distortions and bowing edges. Conservators did some digging and eventually discovered the camera lucida. At this point in the lecture, Kelly Keegan played us a video of Pable Garcia, the Assistant Professor of Contemporary Practices at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The video showed Garcia in Paris standing in the exact intersection Paris Street; Rainy Day was based on. He explained that a camera lucida is made of a small prism connected to a rod that was most likely attached to a portable table. When someone looks through the prism, a ghost image of the scene in front of the view is projected onto the page. Garcia used his own camera lucida to reconstruct Caillebotte’s drawing exactly.
NeoLucida - modern version of a camera lucida
NeoLucida – modern version of a camera lucida

Garcia brought his version back to the lab where he worked with the research team to figure out the next steps in reconstructing this 9-foot wide masterpiece. The painting was about seven times the scale of Caillebotte’s original drawing. Conservators noticed small indentations on the horizon where the vanishing points would be, and pinholes were visible in the infared image denoting where he could have placed tacks. They guessed that Caillebotte probably used calipers or a proportional compass to scale up his drawing. Garcia and the team tacked a large, primed canvas to the wall, and got to work reconstructing Paris Street; Rainy Day from his own drawing.
Kelly Keegan gave a great talk presenting how the team uncovered secrets of impressionist painters and reconstructed Caillebotte’s painting accurately. A much more detailed account of the analysis can be found on the art institute’s website. I also highly recommend checking out Garcia’s website where him and a other professors sell a contemporary version of the cameral lucida which I plan on getting as soon as I submit this blog post.