The greatest spectacle in fin de siècle Paris was the crowd passing by on the boulevards.
In his famous poem A une passante, the poet Charles Baudelaire described how he suddenly caught sight like ‘a lightning flash’ of that one woman in the crowd ‘by whose glance I was suddenly reborn’.
Artists followed in his footsteps, intensely observing passers-by and incorporating them in their cityscapes.
Printmakers like Pierre Bonnard focused primarily on the visual spectacle of the passing crowd.
They set out to capture the movements of passers-by in shadows and silhouettes.
Bonnard presented a strolling Parisienne in Woman with Umbrella as a lively and elegant, but sharply delineated expanse of black, and in doing so created an icon of modern urban life.
More engaged artists presented the street as a place of encounter for different social types. While the lives of the social classes — and the sexes — generally remained strictly separate, everyone mixed when walking in the street.
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen depicted this quite literally in his monumental poster La rue, where the proletarian and the capitalist, the Parisienne and the laundress, mingle on the same street.
Charles Baudelaire, A une passante, in Les Fleurs du mal, 1857 and Le Peintre de la vie moderne, 1863
Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities. Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, Berkeley 1998
Ursula Perucchi-Petri, Die Nabis und das moderne Paris. Bonnard, Vuillard, Vallotton und Toulouse-Lautrec, aus der Sammlung Arthur und Hedy Hahnloser-Bühler und aus Schweizer Museums- und Privatbesitz, Bern 2011