Boilly’s Passez Payez (Pass and Pay)
This is another Paris street scene by our friend Louis-Leopold Boilly. As always, the artist has much to tell us beyond the depiction of an everyday incident. This takes place in 1803, when the streets of Paris were still mostly unpaved. Any rain shower turned them into torrents of mud.
But there the poorest of the poor, the gagne-deniers, “penny earners” saw a business opportunity, like the man to the left of the painting. He owns the wheeled plank that will allow this well-to-do family to cross while keeping their dainty shoes and white silk stockings immaculate. Of course, the man, in his patched jacket, brogues and leather leggings (his clothing at least has nothing to fear from the rain) expects a tip for providing this convenience.
This is the moment seized by Boilly. The maid is entrusted with the payment, for the elegant bourgeois does not want to get his fingers dirty by putting a coin in the pauper’s palm. However the payment must be deemed insufficient, for the proprietor of the plank extends a supplicating hand towards the other man, who makes a gesture of refusal.
Even within the family the power relationships are clear: the little boy, switch in hand, casts a look of utter contempt at the penny-earner while leading the way. His little sister, her wrist held firmly by their father, looks down, her other fist clenched, as though the scene were painful to her. Next comes the lady of the family, her pink shoes and white clothing at odds with the weather. She can only be bothered to take care of her pet spaniel and nonchalantly shows quite a bit of ankle, along with the hem of her embroidered chemise. A lower ranking woman, no doubt the governess or some poor relation, follows, less finely but more sensibly attired. She manages to both carry the youngest child and hold a large umbrella. One can guess that this woman’s life is not one of leisure. Last comes the maid, her face ruddy from the glow of her orange umbrella. She is the only one to look with some sympathy at the penny-earner.
Finally, in the background, secondary characters are oblivious to this little drama: the woman to the right simply piggybacks onto her companion, and in the middle another man, his back turned, has resorted to sturdy boots. They manage without the plank. The lower classes are back where they belong, order reigns in Paris, Bonaparte has consolidated his power to the point where he will soon crown himself Emperor of the French. Boilly takes advantage of a rain shower to tell us that the French Revolution is over.