What Caillebotte Is All About
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Even the curators of the Gustave Caillebotte retrospective, currently on view at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., concede that Caillebotte “never achieved the kind of mastery of painting that Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Cézanne did.” Though he did not develop a comprehensive artistic vision, the body of work here suggests a complicated personality with a deep sense of pathos, leaving museum visitors imagining what might have been had the artist lived a longer life.
The creator of “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” 1877—among Impressionism’s most magnificent canvases, now gleaming after a recent restoration job—died of a stroke when he was only 45. Monet hypothesized that, with more time, Caillebotte “would have benefited from the same turn of fortune as us … he was still only at the beginning of his career.” But Monet’s assessment should be taken with a grain of salt; Caillebotte, from an affluent Parisian family, bought Monet’s paintings and sometimes paid Monet’s rent.
Exhibition organizers surmise Caillebotte’s inherited wealth worked against him creatively. Freed from the need to earn a living, they say, he “did not paint to sell in the way that his contemporaries Monet, Renoir or Degas did.” And he had other interests that pressed upon his time, including yachting, horticulture and philately.
Caillebotte willed his collection of Impressionist canvases to the state, leaving an important gift of over sixty works by his colleagues that overshadowed his own artistic legacy and cast him as more an art patron than an artist after his death.
He first exhibited his paintings at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1876. Among those early canvases, “The Floor Scrapers,” 1875, was widely admired. The three shirtless men in this composition, an early indication of the artist’s preference for male subjects, are hard at work on hands and knees amid scattered wood shavings.
Cool Parisian light pours in from a window, reflecting softly off floorboards. Gold-colored moldings on the grey plaster walls along the top edge of the picture convey bourgeois good taste. Exhibition curators speculate the laborers in this scene were preparing Caillebotte’s own studio floor.
In “Luncheon,” 1876, a somber canvas, Caillebotte’s mother wears a black mourning dress as a butler serves her at a large mahogany table. The painter’s brother, René, focuses on cutting himself a bite of food. Just as the plays of Harold Pinter often suggest a feeling of menace conveyed by pregnant silences, the subject of this quiet painting is what is not there. Seen from the artist’s own seat at table, Caillebotte’s family members are isolated in the aftermath of loss; Martial Caillebotte, the artist’s father, had recently died and, though there is emptiness around the table, signs of his presence are everywhere. Martial Caillebotte made a fortune in the textile industry and the opulence of this lunch is a painful reminder of his life’s work.
Though Caillebotte painted numerous views of Haussmann’s Paris, “Paris Street, Rainy Day” is the showstopper. In a letter to Monet, Caillebotte wrote “the very great artists attach you even more to life.” And in this work he seems to achieve that ambition. The thoughtfully composed street scene of umbrella-holding Parisians seems naturally cropped, as though an umbrella is framing our viewpoint, too. A vivid green lamppost creates a strong vertical axis in the center of the canvas. Chimneys receding into the distance look like musical notes against the sky, adding a silent score to the rainy day picture.
Gathered together in a gallery here are flattering portraits of Caillebotte’s male friends. Because of his wealth, the painter did not need to accept portrait commissions. As a result, these are works of affection, born of the desire to convey the best attributes of their subjects.
Caillebotte’s admiration for the male form can be seen in “Man at His Bath,” 1884, where a muscular standing nude, back turned, towels off, showing off his gluteus maximus. In nearby canvas, “Nude on a Couch,” 1880, a limp female figure reclines on an upholstered sofa, a picture the curator describes as “decidedly antierotic.” It is difficult not to draw a comparison between these two nudes. Going one step further, exhibition organizers also posit that paintings of figures on the Pont de l’Europe could be depicting subtle signals between men at one of Paris’s cruising spots.
Humdrum landscapes done in the last years of his life suggest that Caillebotte had not yet found his voice as an artist when he died. Yet in this uneven exhibition, his talent and depth of feeling come through loud and clear.
Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, on view through October 4, 2015, National Gallery of Art, 4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 202-737-4215, www.nga.gov
More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at xicogreenwald.com