When I was on the staff at the Art Institute of Chicago I spent a lot of time looking around the galleries. It was a wonderful way to clear my head and fortunately was encouraged by the boss. I always loved the Impressionists, of course. Most people seem to like them. Can't exactly explain why, but the dreaminess of the subjects - rowers on a lake, nature, haystacks, people lazing about in the warm sunshine, ballet dancers stretching - seem to allow the viewer to unfocus in a relaxing sort of way. These were the subjects of Degas, Monet, Cezanne. Not all French Impressionists had such dreamy, lovely notions of bourgeois life. I had many favorite paintings in the museum, but whenever I felt melancholy or the weather was inclement, I was always drawn back to one that has a very prominent place there.
Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877 by Gustave Caillabotte is a huge work of art - around 9 feet wide by 7 feet high, but the artist has made it large so the viewer can feel like she could walk right into that street herself. It has a sharpness and plunging perspective painted in such a way as to encourage an almost Twilight Zone-like feeling of entering the world of the well-dressed 19th century couple shielding themselves from the rain with a black umbrella. Gazing into the painting the feeling that they are walking directly towards you gives a chill so real that you can almost feel the raindrops starting to drop on your own head.
Many times I trekked up those stairs and stood and stared at Rainy Day. Caillabotte was a student of photography and I'm partial to the art form myself, so maybe that was why it appealed to me particularly; the sense that this was a real snapshot of the Gare St. Lazare on a typical, ordinary day in the life of some Parisians in 1877, where a moment of time has been captured forever. It mesmerizes and relaxes.
The first time I went inside the Art Institute of Chicago was as a patron, several years before I became a part of the staff, and it happened to be raining. That was the first time I encountered Rainy Day, and for me the painting will always be a memory of my own Chicago, Rainy Day, 1988.