Nocturnal Scene | December 2020
Louis Anquetin, Avenue de Clichy (Street – Five O’Clock in the Evening), 1887
By Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art
Louis Anquetin’s Avenue de Clichy (Street – Five O’ Clock in the Evening) has been praised as “the” masterpiece by the French artist. Created in 1887, this painting introduced a new artistic language depicting contemporary Parisian street life.
Here, Anquetin has moved away from the grim realism and impressionistic experiments still favored by many of his contemporaries, to push the aesthetic norms and boundaries of the time. With few colors, simplified forms, and a cropped image reminiscent of photographic snapshots, Anquetin positioned himself at the artistic vanguard of this period.
Born in Étrépagny, a small town in Normandy, Anquetin moved to Paris in 1882 to receive an education in art. During his studies, he became a close friend of fellow students Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Émile Bernard. They discussed each other’s work, and new to the city, they explored the dazzling urban environment together.
This painting is of the artist’s own neighborhood, Montmartre, with a butcher shop in the foreground. In the background the Avenue de Clichy parts to the left, and the Avenue de Saint-Ouen to the right. This intersection is named La Fourche, “The Fork”. Identified today by its eponymous metro station, Anquetin’s apartment was just a few blocks further north. Perhaps he chose to feature this butcher shop because he passed by it every day, or because it reminded him of his home in Normandy where his parents owned a butcher shop.
Anquetin chose a setting typical of city life, positioning the crowd close to the viewer. The diverse group of people, most of them depicted as mere silhouettes, form an anonymous mass. The time of day is dusk, the so-called l’heure bleue, when offices close, people flock to the streets, and dinner is being prepared at home. Anquetin was particularly keen to portray the various sources of artificial light: compare the yellow gas light with the warmer orange emanating from within the butcher’s shop. The warm tones create a powerful contrast to the stark blue colors, thereby animating and unifying the scenery while the wet sidewalk adds an atmospheric element.
To coordinate the different elements of the picture, Anquetin minimized his palette of colors, flattened forms, and emphasized contours. Contemporaries acknowledged the wide array of Anquetin’s influences, most notably Japanese prints and French medieval enamels. His new approach to painting using a simplified color palette had a profound effect on fellow artists such as Van Gogh. Shortly after Anquetin finished Avenue de Clichy, Van Gogh included the painting in his seminal exhibition “Peintres du Petit Boulevard”, held at a nearby restaurant in 1887. It may have even inspired Van Gogh’s later work such as The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles at Night (1888) pictured above. With his original approach, Anquetin created a painting that transcends naturalism. Using abstracted ornamentalism, the artist successfully captured and elevated a distinctive, but transient moment of modern urban life.