It is pouring with rain in the Nation’s Capital today, and I very stupidly wore my Gucci loafers to work. Thank goodness for the comparably common-sense idea of always keeping a spare pair of dress shoes that go with everything and some cedar shoe stretchers at the office. Under the circumstances it struck me as rather appropriate, when perusing the news this morning, that among a listing of today’s historic events there was a note that on this date, the first folding, waterproof umbrella debuted for sale to the public in Paris in 1714.
Parasols and similar devices had been known in Europe for centuries, and even appeared in paintings by Old Masters such as Van Dyck’s celebrated 1623 portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo. However the ancestor of the modern-day umbrella as we understand it was designed by Jean Marius, a purse and accessories manufacturer in the then-as-now fashionable Paris shopping street of Faubourg Saint-Honoré. His was not quite the sturdy item we rely upon today, but it was certainly an improvement on getting soaked, particularly for all of those courtiers wearing heavy wigs and pancake make-up.
Because they were made for the court, and not for the average Frenchman however, they were quite expensive. In the mid-18th century Benjamin Franklin noted in a letter to a friend that all of the fashionable people in Paris carried one, but that a single umbrella cost between $750-$1000 (in today’s money), depending on the choice of materials. It was only during the 19th century, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution as well as design improvements made by both French and English manufacturers, that umbrellas eventually became both more reliable and less expensive.
Once they were a more commonly-seen accessory, umbrellas began to appear more regularly in Western art. Take a look at two famous examples from the Impressionist period, Gustav Caillebotte’s “Paris Street, Rainy Day” of 1877 now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Renoir’s “The Umbrellas” of circa 1883 now in the National Gallery in London, and you will see what I mean with respect to the world of private painting. Yet although it was not portrayed nearly as frequently, the umbrella also began to make an appearance in public art at about the same time.
For the Universal Exposition, a kind of World’s Fair event, held throughout the year 1888, the city of Barcelona commissioned a number of projects for the Parc de la Ciutadella, where many of the events were to be staged. Among these were exhibition halls and restaurants by a number of important Catalan architects, a fountain-waterfall which marks one of the earliest collaborative works of a very young Gaudí, and a fountain topped with a statue known as “The Lady with an Umbrella”. This last piece quickly became one of the emblematic symbols of the city, and it is unquestionably one of my favorite works of public art.
Sculptor Joan Roig i Solé (1835-1918) who, like Gaudí, came from the industrial town of Reus, south of Barcelona, was already a popular artist at the time of this work. His sculptures were commissioned from those filling the new streets of 19th century Barcelona with luxury apartment buildings, churches, theatres, and parks. He was particularly well-regarded for his religious sculptures, but overall for his delicate appreciation of feminine beauty.
For this particular commission, Roig i Solé carved the marble figure of an elegantly dressed, bourgeois lady of Barcelona, putting out her hand from underneath her umbrella to check whether it is still raining heavily or whether she can now fold up her umbrella. It is a split-second observation of a moment which all of us can recognize. In his collaboration with the fountain’s designer Josep Fontseré, a pipe was sent up through the center of the statue and the handle of the umbrella, so that water would come out the top of the umbrella and run down its panels.
The end result is both utterly charming and whimsical, yet still has a solidness to it. It strikes a lighter, almost Rococo note among the often heavy and overwrought pieces that characterize much of High Victorian sculpture in this period both in Barcelona and throughout much of Europe, and its immediate popularity was well-deserved. Following the “The Lady with an Umbrella”, Roig i Solé turned to more serious projects, i.e. the completion of sculptures of angels and saints for the city Cathedral, but this justly remains his most famous piece. In this work Roig i Solé also shows us that human ingenuity and industrial design can be celebrated in a work of art, without having to go with a strictly industrial design aesthetic, nor take the attitude that manufacturing is always a bad thing.
Is this something of a kitsch sculpture? Perhaps so. Yet even on a sunny day without a cloud in the sky, the “Lady” reminds us that it is a very good thing to be able to carry an umbrella.