The Arrival of the Stagecoach, by Louis-Léopold Boilly
This will be the second post in a probably long series dedicated to Louis-Léopold Boilly. After specializing in interior genre scenes such as The Sorrows of Love, Boilly felt the need to switch to depictions of urban life. Apart from the artistic merit of his compositions, he offers us a direct, candid view of Paris at the turn of the 19th century.
This Arrival of the Stagecoach is one of the most complex and ambitious of such scenes. It shows us a cross-section of French society in 1803. The focal point of the scene is the group of arriving travelers and the loved ones greeting them. A husband and wife embrace with loving abandon, a kneeling lady affectionately pats the cheek of a child. But there’s more: note the older woman still seated inside the coach. She is in no hurry to leave because no one waiting for her. She seems removed from the general rejoicing, widowed maybe, lonely certainly. The sight of the happy reunited family must cause her pain.
Around these well-dressed bourgeois are more popular types, like the two men who unload the luggage from the roof of the vehicle, and the portefaix who carries a huge pile of bags and parcels on his back. Here too there is pain, physical this time. These men are the gagne-deniers, the penny-earners, often fresh arrivals from the countryside, who eke out a precarious existence in the great city.
Then you have the gawking street urchins, the woman nursing her infant, all perhaps waiting for the handout of a copper coin. To the left one can distinguish two military men. One, a private, shows much interest in a maid carrying a basket of linen. She is probably a servant at the inn where the stagecoaches stop, and she turns away from her unwanted suitor. She seems more attracted to the dashing officer with the plumed hat, who pays her no heed.
Now look at the characters on the far right. The man is elegant to the point of foppishness. The lady has a pug, the height of fashion then, on a leash. Her little girl has turned her back on this exchange. The man and woman exchange a few words, each ready to go his or her own way, and yet there is some regret in the way they part, as though they would like to linger a moment. At their feet, a couple of mutts engage in a lively romp. I can’t help feeling this hints at an illicit affair between the elegant pair. Maybe they are arranging an assignation right then.
And of course the dun-colored façade of the inn, the chickens pecking at the dirt on the unpaved street. In this fairly small canvas (around 4 feet wide), now part of the Louvre collections, Boilly manages to bring an entire world to life. The contrast between the different classes of Parisians, the relationships between men and women. Now you have been to 1803 Paris!