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Alfred Sisley (French, 1839 – 1899); The Seine at Billancourt (Detail), c. 1877 – 78

Today, the city of Paris is known for its wide, grand boulevards, its expansive public gardens, and its many impressive buildings. But prior to 1853, Paris was largely a cramped, medieval city with narrow, winding roads and without the grand architecture that distinguishes it today.

Emperor Napoleon III would forever change the face of Paris when he named Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann to serve as prefect of the Seine, a position roughly equivalent to the director of public works. Haussmann would serve in this role from 1853 to 1870, and during his tenure undertook the most ambitious urban planning project the modern world had ever seen. His new plan for the city of Paris prepared the city to enter the industrial age and resulted in the demolition of 12,000 buildings and the creation of 85 miles of new roadways to replace 333 miles of old, meandering roads. His tenure saw the construction of ambitious buildings such as the Paris Opera and was characterized by broad avenues full of light and lined by lush green trees. Many ordinary citizens bemoaned the destruction of their beloved neighborhoods to accommodate this new, modern vision. Others enjoyed the remade Paris created by Haussmann, with improved transportation, green spaces, and running water.

This new urban environment was the backdrop for the French Impressionists. They painted modern life in the avenues and parks of Paris, celebrated the marvels of modern engineering with their depictions of train stations, and availed themselves of the rapidly expanded French rail system to paint and explore rural areas beyond the bustle of the city.

The reality of this new urban environment can be seen in many of the works produced by the French Impressionists during the mid-19th century. Jean-François Raffaëlli’s 1877 canvas The Place d’Italie after the Rain showcases one of the broad new boulevards in Paris created as part of Haussmann’s plan. The fact that construction on the city was ongoing is indicated by the large mound of dirt on the left side of the composition. Alfred Sisley focuses on the growing industrialization of Paris and its environs in The Seine at Billancourt (about 1877-78), portraying a busy staging area for barges and boats as they prepared to bring products into the city.

The growth and industrialization of Paris caused many artists to retreat from the city to more bucolic settings. One popular escape for artists was the Forest of Fontainebleau, located just over 60 miles from Paris. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s The Paver of the Chailly Road, Fontainebleau (c. 1830-35) shows a man working to lay paving stones in the Forest of Fontainebleau, making the forest more accessible to leisure travelers who were newly able to utilize the expanded railway system to visit this rural and peaceful location. Another popular escape from city life was the Île de la Grande Jatte (Island of Grand Jatte), an island in the River Seine that was easily accessible to Parisian picnickers and bathers. Stanislas-Victor-Edouard Lépine portrayed the island as an idyllic and peaceful riverfront retreat in his The Island of Grand Jatte in Summer (about 1877-82). Georges Seurat used a bright, pointillist style to depict three children enjoying an outdoor lunch in The Picnic (about 1885). This work could well have been one of the many sketches created by Seurat as he planned the composition for his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, though this figural grouping does not appear in the final version.

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