(1) Gustave Caillebotte, "Floor Scrapers", o/c
(2) Gustave Caillebotte, "Paris Street: Rainy Day", o/c
(3) Gustave Caillebotte, "Portrait of Madame Martial Caillebotte", o/c, 32 5/8 x 28 3/8", 1877
(4) Gustave Caillebotte, "The Kitchen Garden", o/c
by Elenore Welles
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
West Hollywood) For many years, Gustave Caillebotte was considered a minor
Impressionist by art historians. Although he participated in many Impressionist
exhibitions, he was noted mainly for his largess as a collector and as a
patron of Impressionist artists. He not only financed Impressionist exhibitions,
he introduced Impressionism to French museums by bequeathing 40 masterpieces
from his collection. However, as historians are wont to do, artists are
often reevaluated according to prevailing principles. Such is the case with
Caillebotte. His dramatic views of modern Paris reveal his contributions
to the art of his time. Between 1789 and 1852, France experienced a series
of upheavals and governments. At the same time, the onset of the Industrial
Revolution created new urban concentrations that contributed to economic
and social transformations. As a result of a burgeoning bourgeoisie, Baron
Georges Haussmann changed the face of the city by tearing up old Parisian
quarters and installing new thoroughfares, buildings, bridges and railroads.
Paralleling Realist writers, mid- 19th century artists took their cues from
the influential poet Baudelaire who urged them to embrace the modern aesthetic
by opening their eyes to the contemporary scene. It meant breaking with
the French Academic School whose formal traditions were dedicated to glorifying
the noble and the ideal in classical styles.
Modern artists, also influenced by new scientific theories of color, by contemporary photography and by the dramatic perspectives of Japanese prints, set about to destroy Renaissance canons of composition and space. One such method consisted of cropping the pictorial surface to evoke fragments of reality. When Caillebotte presented Floor Scrapers at an Impressionist exhibition, his bold perspective and virtuoso tonal control was considered vulgar and was greeted with scorn by the traditionalists. Painted in shades of brown, beige and gray, it's ocher-based golden highlights heightened the intensity of the workers. Today, the painting is considered a major work of the period and the depiction of interior day laborers maintains its relevancy in our own time.
Remaining true to modern Realist principles, Caillebotte incorporated into his works the psychological effects of new environments on individual lives, particularly the sense of isolation and the effects of idleness on a new economic class. Paris Street: Rainy Day evokes the orderly rectangles and star-burst intersections that epitomized Paris' new quarters. In the foreground, a couple sharing an umbrella do not relate to each other, but look off into the distance. Executed in muted shades of gray and beige, the street is sparsely populated and the areas of empty space add to a sense of detachment. Street scenes, viewed from Caillebotte's apartment on Boulevard Haussmann, have daring plunging views and often appear empty and silent, as if drained of the reality of an urban metropolis. In opposition to works by Monet or Renoir who cloak the harshness of the street in foliage and sparkling light, Caillebotte's exaggerated perspectives and bleached light expose a harsher new city. Balcony views, incorporating interiors and exteriors, were also favored by the artists of this period. Impressionists, for the most part, used it as a device to depict the penetration of light in a room. Caillebotte's balcony views, however, emphasized the psychological contrasts between the interior and the exterior world. In The Man at the Window, he once again confronts us with a sense of urban isolation. The lush red chair and colorful carpet of the interior is in sharp contrast to the muted grays and whites of the street below. His brother Rene, sheltered in his interior space as he gazes at a strangely empty street, is the dispassionate observer.
The effects of idle lives on a new economic class is a recurrent theme in Caillebotte's works. Depicted either contemplating the external urban scene or casually posed amongst luxurious surroundings, fashionably dressed men and women read books and newspapers, played the piano, wrote in their studies or engaged in needlework. Their homes were the symbol of stability and acquired wealth and Caillebotte highlighted the lush textures and designs of their interiors. In Luncheon, a table laden with gleaming crystal and silver treats objects valued by the new bourgeoisie.
Like many of his colleagues, Caillebotte not only depicted urban scenes, portraits and interior views, he painted still lifes, landscapes and seascapes as well. He produced countless country scenes, often working together with his fellow artists. Even in the country, however, nature competed with industrialization. Caillebotte emphasizes the dire effects in Factories at Aregenteuil, where his austere image is at odds with the Impres-sionist's lyrical view of nature. Here, the blue of the Seine has turned shades of grey and black, deadened by the reflections of factories and smokestacks. Kirk Varnedoe in the accompanying catalogue states "Caillebotte had neither Degas' skills as a draftsman nor Monet's as a colorist. . .yet comparing picture for picture. . .I would value any of his best works as a more important, original and rewarding painting than any Pissarro, all but a handful of Renoirs, and a fair number of Monets. . .''