Sunday, July 12, 2015

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye 

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C

June 28, 2015 - October 4, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Gustave Caillebotte is an enigmatic figure among the Impressionist painters. He is the exception who proves no rule.

Like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and the other members of the fabled Impressionists, Caillebotte, (1848–1894), helped redefine the course of European art during the 1870's and 1880's.  He was the principal organizer of the third Impressionist Salon in 1877, as well as an innovative artist in his own right. For a few, brief years, Caillebotte was a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, by the end of the 1880's, Caillebotte's role and reputation had begun to fade. By the time of his premature death in 1894, his art was dépassé. When the seminal History of Impressionism was published by John Rewald in 1946, Caillebotte was known to a limited circle as the rich "Sunday painter" who had supported the cash-strapped Monet and Renoir by purchasing their works.

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye is a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., later travelling to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The  National Gallery exhibition follows in the footsteps of the 1975 display of Caillebotte's paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Brooklyn Museum which marked the beginning of serious study of  Caillebotte in American art circles. This new exhibition is brilliantly curated by Mary Morton but leaves a number of questions about Caillebotte still unresolved.

After closely studying the impressive array of Caillebotte's paintings in the National Gallery exhibition, I found it hard to shake-off the feeling that these questions about Caillebotte remain unanswered because they are unanswerable.

Caillebotte was a man of contradiction, both personal and artistic. He embraced the ideal of Impressionism while remaining essentially a realist painter. Some of the other glaring anomalies that cluster about his reputation - or lack of one - are like metal filings attracted to a magnet. They just happened, drawn perhaps by the unforeseen pull of bad luck. 

Caillebotte was a devoted collector with the financial resources to match his exquisite taste. Caillebotte's collection of Impressionist works by his friends, Monet, Renoir and the rest, forms the core of the French national art collection. His world-class stamp collection is a treasure of the British Library in London. 

Gustave Caillebotte, The Boulevard Seen from Above, 1880

Caillebotte was also a major collector of photographs. Many of his greatest paintings feature novel viewpoints and unorthodox croppings. It is almost certain that he was influenced by  photography in choosing such vantage points and effects. Or was his vision so far ahead of his time, that it was due to his personal genius? 

We are unlikely to ever know because Caillebotte's photo collection has dropped out of sight. Caillebotte's brother, Martial, was an accomplished photographer and his work may offer some clues to his brother's artistic development. Whatever the case, a crucial component of Caillebotte's oeuvre is beyond recall.

Caillebotte's life of contradiction continued to the point of death - and beyond. A physical fitness enthusiast and brilliant designer of sailing yachts, Caillebotte, aged 45, suffered a fatal stroke in 1894. He died with stunning swiftness just as Impressionism was gaining world-wide acclaim. 

Caillebotte's family devoted themselves to preserving his art works en bloc among themselves. As a result, very few of his paintings made it into major museums. Scholars like Rewald had little to study in order to form a balanced appraisal and Caillebotte was banished to the footnotes of most books on Impressionism before the 1970's.

Nobody's luck is entirely bad. One of Caillebotte's greatest works was sold by his family  to the American collector, Walter P. Chrysler, in 1954. This was Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877), showing one of Baron Haussmann's new Parisian boulevards with rain-slicked cobble stones and umbrella-toting pedestrians. A decade later, the Art Institute of Chicago purchased Paris Street, Rainy Day and it swiftly became a favored work of art at that great museum.

The greatest contradictions in Caillebotte's life and art were not the result of blind chance. Instead, a complex heritage influenced his character and the world view that shaped his art. 

Gustave Caillebotte was born in 1848, the second son of a newly rich family.  Caillebotte's father, a textile magnate, had risen high in the dynamic, decadent society of Napoleon III's Second Empire. The world of Caillebotte's boyhood  brimmed with worldly goods and social stimuli. But it was poor in things of the spirit.

Caillebotte relentlessly explored personal fulfillment in an amazing variety of pursuits that included growing rare orchids. I think that this search for meaning was motivated by growing-up during the Second Empire, as it flaunted its tinsel glory.

There is a palpable sense of uneasiness and alienation in Caillebotte's handling of the characters in his paintings. People come and go on the picture plain of his works without engaging each other - or us, the viewers.

When Caillebotte positioned his protagonists in settings rich with drama or architectural detail, however, the situation could be very different.

Gustave Caillebotte, A Boating Party, 1877-1878

A Boating Party, painted in 1877–1878, is an astonishing work of art. It pulses with vigor and vitality. In all of nineteenth century art, there was never a better depiction of the gentleman-amateur, a character-type much praised in Victorian England (and delightfully lampooned in the 1889 novel, Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome.) In the Third Republic, which came to power in 1870 following Napoleon III's fall, the competitive, athletic canotier was also hailed as a model citizen. But Caillebotte's top-hatted rower is a fully-realized, powerfully articulated human being - not a character type.

Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of Paul Hugot, 1878

Portrait of Paul Hugot, painted around the same time, is utterly, almost shockingly, different. Hugot, Caillebotte's devoted friend, is dressed to "the nines." Every accessory, each component of his boulevardier's attire is splendidly presented. Only his personality is missing. The blank, expressionless face reveals nothing of Hugot's psychological depths. And this work is so emphatically remote in spirit that the viewer is curtly dismissed to move on to the next picture in the exhibit.

Gustave Caillebotte, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, 1880

Caillebotte's studies of people often work best when these individuals are turned away from us. The men - and the few women he painted - look out the window and share their universe with us by extension. Or they are totally immersed in their work, like the wonderful Portrait of Henri Cordier, a brilliant Orientalist busy writing a scholarly essay. We, the viewers, are barely noticed but are not excluded either.

In most of the formal portraits done by Caillebotte, a psychological wall is created, barring any level of empathy or understanding.  These portraits are masks rather than likenesses. Even Caillebotte's self-portrait shields his inner being rather than opening his heart to the viewer.

Gustave Caillebotte, Self-Portrait, 1888-1889

Caillebotte's landscapes continue this theme.  These beautiful depictions of the French countryside are almost devoid of human presence, except for his boating, rowing and swimming scenes. 

Gustave Caillebotte, Sunflowers, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers, c.1885

Caillebotte's depictions of water sports have a parallel with those of his American contemporary, Thomas Eakins, who studied under the same teacher, Léon Bonnat, though at a different time than Caillebotte. Eakins could be unflattering to the people he painted, but there was nothing in his work approaching the austere, almost hostile, emotions of Caillebotte's portraits.

Gustave Caillebotte, Luncheon, 1876

The sense of unease and conflicted emotions extended to Caillebotte's own family. His 1876  painting, Luncheon, records a family meal following his father's death in 1874. Silence and gloom pervade the setting. His older brother, René, is shown totally absorbed in cutting a morsel of meat.  René died suddenly on November 1, 1876, aged 25. Caillebotte was devastated, becoming convinced that he would live but a short time. His presentiment proved correct.

Caillebotte painted himself into one of his greatest paintings, The Pont de l'Europe.  This is one of the indisputable  masterpieces of European art during the mid-1800's - and a very baffling one in keeping with Caillebotte's ambivalent nature.

The Pont de l'Europe and its companion On the Pont de l'Europe are brilliantly explored by the National Gallery exhibition and the authoritative catalog that accompanies it. 

Gustave Caillebotte, The Pont de l’Europe, 1876

Caillebotte did methodical preparatory studies for these paintings. In an early version, the man and woman walk side-by-side across the cast-iron pedestrian bridge over the railroad yards at Gare Saint-Lazare station. In its finished form, the man (Caillebotte) strides forward, separated by a couple of paces and a million emotional miles ahead of the woman. Was does this mean?

The Pont de l'Europe was a place of assignation during the 1870's. Has the man in the painting given the woman/prostitute (?) the brush-off? Were they instead a couple who has quarreled, the man stalking away from the glaring young woman with her frilly parasol? Could the dog ambling across the bridge supply the explanation? Nothing much is happening here - just a cast of disparate characters each going their separate way.

Gustave Caillebotte, On the Pont de l’Europe, 1876-1877

In Caillebotte's On the Pont de l'Europe, a similar group confront a different situation on the same bridge. Here the massive bridge itself, with its huge iron girders, is the main protagonist, blocking out the rest of the world from the sight of the people crossing over it.  

In the catalog essay on these paintings,  Alexandra Wettlaufer, perceptively writes:

Caillebotte portrayed the unknowability of modern experience in a pair of scenes that simultaneously frame and deny vision through the insistent Xs of the steel structure...

This "unknowability of modern experience" confuses the minds of people, in the case of the first painting,The Pont de l'Europe, and oppresses the human spirit in the second, On the Pont de l'Europe. Claude Monet, in his painting of the same subject, Le Pont de l'Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877, presents a third, terrifying version of the bridge as seen from the train yard below. It is a scene that looks like the pit of Hell.

Confronted with the "unknowability of modern experience," people find a creative outlet or comfort food (or drink or drug) to help them cope. We all have our appetites. The National Gallery exhibit concludes with a group of unsettling still life paintings by Caillebotte of food stuffs and animal carcasses on their way to the dinner table.

These still lifes may be Caillebotte's way of reflecting on the brevity of life, which oppressed his spirit as we have seen. In one case, the rose pinned to the loins of Calf in a Butcher's Shop, painted around 1882, may refer to the nightly "meat trade" on Paris street corners. If so, it should be recalled that allegorical themes such as these were present in the Dutch still life painting from the 1600's that was given an honored place on the gallery walls of the Louvre.

These repellent images - even the Pastry Cakes from 1881 set's my teeth on edge - are hard to "digest." What was Caillebotte attempting to convey here?  Was he extolling the need for hyper-realism? Were these paintings a reworking of themes from the Dutch Golden Age?

Gustave Caillebotte, Chicken, Game Birds, and Hares, c. 1882

Might these paintings, at least the dangling animal carcasses, have been a cunning riposte against the official Salon? Every year, this august body hung "dead" paintings with classical themes on the exhibition walls while rejecting the "living" work of the Impressionists. 

It's a subversive thought. Caillebotte's first great work, The Floor Scrapers, had been rejected in 1875 by the Salon. It was not a "beautiful nude" some contended. Amazingly, the left-wing critic, Emil Zola, panned ThFloor Scrapers for being "so accurate that it makes it bourgeois."

With his revolutionary works being assailed from every side, perhaps Caillebotte created pictures of dead meat to keep his critics "happy."

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875

We do know that Renoir and Martial Caillebotte had to struggle to get The Floor Scrapers accepted by the French state when the Gustave Caillebotte bequest of Impressionist paintings was begrudgingly placed in the Musée du Luxembourg in 1896.

Given the artistic "carcasses" that bedecked the walls of the annual Salon during the 1800's, it's no wonder that Caillebotte charted his own course. He paddled and sailed his boats, grew his orchids, collected stamps and painted pictures the way he wanted to. In short, Caillebotte dealt with the contradictions and challenges of his life in unique and self-reliant ways.

Over a century later, art lovers are still grappling to find the measure of this enigmatic Impressionist. We are just now beginning to appreciate and understand Caillebotte's off-beat "take" on life. 

There are still more questions to answer, however. Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye  at the National Gallery of Art is a good place to start. 


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image: 
Gustave Caillebotte  Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877  oil on canvas overall: 212.2 × 276.2 cm (83 9/16 × 108 3/4 in.)  The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, The Boulevard Seen from Above, 1880, Oil on canvas, overall: 65 × 54 cm (25 9/16 × 21 1/4 in.) Private Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, A Boating Party, 1877-1878,  Oil on canvas overall: 90 × 117 cm (35 7/16 × 46 1/16 in.) Private Collection © Comité Caillebotte

Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of Paul Hugot, 1878, Oil on canvas, overall: 228.6 × 101.6 cm (90 × 40 in.) The Lewis Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, 1880, Oil on canvas, overall: 116.5 × 89.5 cm (45 7/8 × 35 1/4 in.) Private Collection Courtesy of Christie’s, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Gustave Caillebotte, Self-Portrait, 1888-1889, Oil on canvas overall: 55 × 46 cm (21 5/8 × 18 1/8 in.) Private Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, Sunflowers, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers, c. 1885, Oil on canvas, overall: 131 × 105 cm (51 9/16 × 41 5/16 in.) framed: 161 × 120 cm (63 3/8 × 47 1/4 in.) Private Collection © Comité Caillebotte, Paris

Gustave Caillebotte, Luncheon, 1876, Oil on canvas overall: 52 × 75 cm (20 1/2 × 29 1/2 in.) Private Collection © Comité Caillebotte, Paris

Gustave Caillebotte, The Pont de l’Europe, 1876, Oil on canvas, overall: 124.8 × 180.7 cm (49 1/8 × 71 1/8 in.) Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Gustave Caillebotte, On the Pont de l’Europe, 1876-1877, Oil on canvas, overall: 105.7 × 130.8 cm (41 5/8 × 51 1/2 in.) Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Gustave Caillebotte, Chicken, Game Birds, and Hares, c. 1882, Oil on canvas, overall: 76 × 105 cm (29 15/16 × 41 5/16 in.) framed: 101.5 × 131 × 10 cm (39 15/16 × 51 9/16 × 3 15/16 in.) Private Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875, Oil on canvas, overall: 102 × 147 cm (40 3/16 × 57 7/8 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Gift of Caillebotte's heirs through the intermediary of Auguste Renoir, 1894

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