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The Streets of Paris

The Milliner on the Champs Elysées

A lesser-known painter from the Belle Époque era, Jean Béraud was born in Russia on January 12, 1849 but spent all of his career in Paris. Béraud mainly painted street scenes of Paris with a style that ranged from realistic to impressionist, and it is his unique charm and astute observation that merits recognition. What makes Béraud so interesting is his ability to chronicle modern Parisian life while experimenting with color temperatures and lighting conditions, his use of contrast as well as being an observer of fashion and human nature. Moments that we take for granted...crossing the street, sitting on a bench, going for a walk, reading an giving presence to everyday life Béraud makes the insignificant timeless and real.

The woman walking down the street above in The Milliner on the Champs Elysées is a hatmaker, and Béraud depicts her with a confidence and verve typical of the Belle Époque. Note how Béraud divides the painting from cool to warm, and the casual strokes of the street somehow convey a believable busy road reflecting an overcast sky from above. I like how the street-sweeper is brushing the road of debris (horse manure) amongst this well-dressed bourgeois famous street. Although this street would be painted by many other French artists such as Antoine Blanchard and Edouard Cortes, Béraud still focuses on people and body language, even in distant figures.

After the Misdeed ('Après la Faute'), 1890

Beautiful color harmony in this painting. The combination of dark blue accents on the light blue of her dress against a burgandy wall and couch is visually sumptuous. In fact, the color of that deep violet red is like wine, and the way she covers her face with her hands deep in the pillow implies a 'drowning of her sorrows' in a wine-like atmosphere without suggesting alchohol. Béraud creates an emotional setting that raises questions without answering them, and despite its simplicity it is the way Béraud uses color itself as drama heightens the underlying story.

Jean Béraud - Avenue Parisienne
Avenue Parisienne

A beautiful moment. Béraud has captured the late 1800's on a warm summer day of a busy street in Paris. We are instantly transported back in drawn carriages, people sitting on a bench, gentlemen crossing the street...everyday life is itself the subject. Note Béraud's warm highlights dappled across the road amidst the cool shadows. By leaving the foreground open and spacious yet filling the background with figures Béraud creates a real sense of depth and perspective. Many streetscene artists today are reluctant to include figures at all in their paintings, yet Béraud added character to his by making people and their natural actions a key ingredient of the story.

Le Mont-de-Piété (The Pawn Shop) or Chez Ma Tante

Béraud conjures a scene here that looks right out of a film, even though we are still not quite sure what has transpired. The light here is soft, almost in shadow, and Béraud uses clever use of green, orange and yellow to keep this scene from appearing dull and uninteresting. I like the way he scumbled the green on the tiled floor over a yellow underpainting. Béraud's characters are always doing something, even when doing nothing, advice that Da Vinci himself wrote about centuries before and still holds true today.

Jean Béraud, The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris
The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris, 1877

Overcast light is not easy to paint, and here Béraud makes it look effortless. This is quite an intricate balance of a warm and cool palette, with color temperatures changing within the same buildings and in Béraud's use of atmospheric perspective. Béraud contrasts the dirty streets with the Sunday morning bourgeois of Paris. Once again, look how everyone is doing something. The two main foreground figures, a woman with her daughter with veils over their faces, are waiting to cross the street. Béraud uses facial expression on every single figure in this painting, and it works. The people here are in front of the church after mass to be seen as much as anything else, and yet it is another day, another moment. Béraud is telling us that drama is not inherently necessary to tell a story, only mood and setting...and people going about their lives.

Le Boulevard St. Denis, Paris, 1890's

This painting has an unusual quality to the light, highlighting Paris' uniqueness as a city. Béraud contrasts architecture with society, another moment in time gone forever but preserved here for us to experience. While a photograph could have easily done the same, here Béraud creates life and color and light in way that makes us want to participate and breathe the air, something a photograph is incapable of doing.

Paris Kiosk, 1884

Overcast light on a busy street corner in Paris, here Béraud contrasts the loud colors of the advertisement posters on the kiosk against the muted tones of the street behind them. Look closely in the far distance behind the tree and you can see see Béraud uses a tint of purple in the air to create a sense of atmospheric perspective, yet the sky above has traces of yellow, muted greens and heavy greys. Béraud also contrasts texture well by juxtaposing the cobblestone street with the smooth sidewalk and the refined clothing of the bourgeois. In spite of the beauty here he still manages to include the urine and horse droppings on the curb.

Boulevard des capucines

A more lively street scene than his other works, Béraud uses a multitude of textures while contrasting architecture with nature. The use of a slightly higher vantage point is interesting here, possibly to enhance the perspective. Béraud is also commenting on the social classes here that make up Paris. Once again, his attention to even the furthermost background figures is a testament to his art, and to the creation of a scene, a moment...where everyone is a subject and the entire scene is the subject at the same time. Our society needs to appreciate artists like this for their incredible insight into the world, not merely their current monetary value at auction houses.

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