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Equipage dans un parc

Prints and Drawings
19th century

Author(s):
Goarin Véronique

Constantin Guys became a war correspondent when he was forty and developed his talent for observation over the next twenty years. Back in Paris, he put his experience to good use, acutely describing Paris society and becoming the historiographer of his times. The public were particularly fond of his drawings of carriages, like this watercolor showing two elegant women in a barouche. The poetic treatment of their pale gowns contrasts with the austere stiffness of the valets in their black livery.

An adventurous reporter

At twenty, Constantin Guys fought alongside Lord Byron in the war of Greek independence; he enlisted in a regiment of dragoons, then tutored the grandchildren of the English watercolor artist Thomas Girtin. From 1842 to 1860, he was a war correspondent with the Illustrated London News, dispatching drawings to illustrate current events in the East and in Europe. He depicted episodes in the Crimean War and the 1848 Revolution in France through precise drawings with annotations for the engravers who would turn them into woodcuts. This experience sharpened his powers of observation, and he learned to catch the essence of a scene in a few minutes. Thus, when he settled in Paris at the age of sixty, he used the same techniques to observe and sketch people from all social classes. With a few strokes of his pen or brush, and astonishing assurance, he drew the elegant ladies of the Second Empire along with the low life of the capital.

The painter of modern life

"The Painter of Modern Life" was the title of a important study that Baudelaire made of Constantin Guys, published in Le Figaro in 1863. The writer considered the artist to be an acute observer, whose bemused eye was riveted on society and whose drawings were "precious records of civilized life." He portrayed Guys as the "historian" of his times, documenting contemporary life and treating its everyday activities as a subject worthy of art. He scrutinized all aspects of Paris life. But, after 1860, fashionable women became the central figures in his work and eventually his only subject. He paid equal attention to society women or the idle rich, street women or prostitutes. His sensitive view of social foibles conferred on Guys's drawings a special atmosphere, also found in Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, which presents a similar vision of women and their powers of seduction.

A purely graphic oeuvre

Constantin Guys's work seems to have been restricted to drawings. In Paris he did not work from nature, but drew from memory, at home. He observed his subjects closely, then pared away all but the essential features, bringing out the singularity of a scene or character. He worked with broad planes and the play of light, and over the years tended towards simplification and unity. Some of Guys's drawings focus on equipages. This drawing of a barouche is an example of that theme; it has been swiftly rendered and heightened with watercolor to accentuate light and color. Showing an disregard of classical tradition, Guys's work is uniquely innovative in the history of drawing in the 19th century.

Bibliography

Baudelaire Ch., "Le Peintre de la vie moderne", in Le Figaro, novembre et décembre 1863.
Piersanti G., Constantin Guys : il pittore della vita moderna, Exposition Rome, Palazzo Braschi, septembre-octobre, 1980, n 44.
Marchesseau D., Chazal G., Pichois Cl., Dufilho J., Lancha Ch., Richardson J. et Godeau J., Constantin Guys, Fleurs du mal, Exposition Paris, Musée de la Vie Romantique, 8 octobre 2002-5 janvier 2003.

Technical description

  • Constantin Guys (Flessingue, 1802-Paris, 1892)

    Equipage in a Park

    Last third of the nineteenth century

    Carl Dreyfus donation, 1952

  • Watercolor over pencil lines, pen, and brown ink

    H. 18.8 cm; W. 30.8 cm

  • Donation Carle Dreyfus, 1952

    4030064

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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