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Co-organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye presents fifty canvases produced during the period when the artist was most directly engaged with the Impressionist group, between 1875 and the early 1880s. These were the years, according to curators Mary Morton and George Shackelford, when Gustave Caillebotte was at his best—when he was still living in Paris and closely connected with artists like Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas. Yet, notably, the exhibition does not include the word “Impressionist” in its title. By contrast, in previous Caillebotte shows, the term has played an important role, enticing audiences unfamiliar with the artist’s name while providing immediate art-historical context. (The best example is the multi-venue retrospective Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist, from 1994.) Such shows attached “Impressionism” to the artist’s name in an effort to bring the relatively unknown Caillebotte into the canon, a project begun by the dealer Daniel Wildenstein in the 1950s and pushed forward by Kirk Varnedoe’s pioneering show from 1976 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Gustave Caillebotte: A Retrospective Exhibition). A decade later, in 1986, Caillebotte’s significance was further cemented with the exhibition The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886, which re-created the original eight Impressionist shows. Included in the presentation were fifteen works by Caillebotte, putting audiences face to face with what the writing of history had left out.
The absence of the word “Impressionist,” then, from the title of this most recent project certainly speaks to the rise in Caillebotte’s status over the past few decades: evidently he can draw visitors without that descriptor. But it also speaks to a different approach to the artist—one that frees up Caillebotte’s own achievement from the limiting framework of Impressionism, even as it focuses on the works most closely connected with the movement.
One reason to hold “Impressionism” to the side in considering Caillebotte is that the reception of his work has often suffered under comparison to that of his colleagues: his finished strokes and careful compositions do not fit the general understanding of what Impressionism should look like. At the same time, his absorption of the group’s strategies is unmistakable, as the works in this exhibition attest. His Portrait of Henri Cordier (1883), for example, presents the subject turned away from the viewer and in the midst of writing, his desk crowded with papers. It brings to mind Degas’s portrait of Edmond Duranty (1879) or Édouard Manet’s of Émile Zola (1867), in which sitters are not so much posing but presented simply doing what they do. Man at the Window (1875) seems to emulate Degas’s ability to reveal character in a person’s back—her or his “temperament, age, and social condition,” as Duranty put it. (Indeed a catalogue essay by Shackelford illuminates the extent to which Caillebotte absorbed—but ultimately turned away from—Degas’s influence.) There are other moments when Caillebotte seems to be channeling Claude Monet, as in his scenes of Rue Halévy in which buildings are immersed in atmosphere, their hard edges blunted.
Yet the exhibition does not get bogged down with these kinds of comparisons. The aim, rather, is to present Caillebotte as a painter with his own particular vision, who captured the physical and social transformations to the city of Paris in ways that were both original and unsettling. “Some critics found him to be the most intransigent and provocative of them all,” writes Morton (57). Plunging perspective lines convey the ruler-straight boulevards of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s new design; crisply applied paint captures the cold smoothness of steel and other modern materials. (Ironically, his anti-modern technique was often well-suited to chronicling change.) In terms of composition, Caillebotte often pushed experimentation further than did his colleagues—even Degas. About Boulevard Seen from Above (1880), Shackelford asserts that “the painting is more radical by far than any view down onto the ballet stage” (53).
Standing before Caillebotte’s canvases, especially the large scenes of Parisian street life, one realizes how much resides in the details. Strong perspective lines may announce an ordered visual experience, but one’s eye continually gets pulled away by tiny figures, each of whom is doing something interesting. So much goes on behind the arresting life-size figures in Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877): one man carries a ladder while another hunches over with the body language of someone who has forgotten his umbrella. Such details are crucially important because it is here that Caillebotte reveals his attention to the various classes dwelling in modern Paris. Throughout his work, upper and lower classes are continually juxtaposed—for example, the mix of workman and top-hatted men on the bridge in The Pont de l’Europe (1876); the laborers with a top-hatted man right behind them in House Painters (1877); the nicely dressed rower in The Boating Party (1877), who contrasts with the more casually attired figures farther back. These identifiable types share the canvas the way they shared urban social space in the new Paris. Caillebotte’s is an eye on the move: it traverses the city, studying its spaces, scrutinizing its inhabitants, and reflecting it all back to itself with exaggerated legibility.
This sense of Caillebotte as an embodied “eye” wandering through the private and public arenas of the city was underlined by the show’s clever installation in Washington. Canvases were not organized by theme or chronology; instead, the exhibition unfolded according to the various vantage points from which Caillebotte approached his subjects, creating a sense of the artist as a body moving through space. The first room contained small interiors showing figures presented close up, as if directly across from the artist. The second gallery presented a shift in the artist’s perspective. Here, Caillebotte positions the viewer in front of a window, looking outside, in works like Man on a Balcony and The Boulevard Seen from Above (both 1880). In the third room, the perspective is taken down to ground level with the recently restored Paris Street, Rainy Day and The Pont de l’Europe. The gallery spaces themselves corresponded to these varied vantage points, changing in size, color, and feel as the viewpoints shifted. For example, Caillebotte’s intimate, sometimes claustrophobic interiors were presented in small rooms with dark walls; the more expansive views were housed in larger, airier galleries. Even an unusually shaped hexagonal gallery seemed to correspond to the paintings within it: a series of birds-eye views of Rue Halévy, depicting a section of the city that, from above, looks like a sharp-edged geometric shape.
The Washington installation also foregrounded Caillebotte’s preoccupation with class difference. One moment came in the first room, which presented a group of upper-bourgeois interiors. There was Luncheon (1876), which shows Caillebotte’s family sitting down at a table overflowing with sparkling glassware lined up like boulevards. Another presented Caillebotte’s brother, Martial, at the piano in a similarly plush room; other scenes showed figures reading and playing cards. Smack in the middle of all of these was the monumental Floor Scrapers (1875). Surrounded by lounging upper-bourgeois figures, the work and indeed the partial nudity of the crouching men appeared even more unsettling—here were labor and capital side by side. The placement of the two fully nude bodies in the exhibition, Nude on a Couch (1880) and Man at His Bath (1884), had a similarly jarring effect. As in the first room, sitters in bourgeois interiors surrounded the unclothed figures, reminding us that these are effectively paintings of working-class people. The reclining woman is not active, yet her work (most likely as a prostitute) infuses the picture. She rests on an ugly couch in a sparse room, her clothes and boots strewn about, her finger lingering absently on a nipple. Despite this detail and her complete openness to the voyeuristic gaze, the picture lacks an erotic charge; rather, she just seems tired. Like the female nude, the male bather occupies a setting that appears modest, especially relative to other domestic spaces pictured in surrounding canvases. Rumpled boots in the background suggest that his bath is occurring at the end of a day spent out of doors, engaged in some sort of physical or manual labor. These are pictures of work just completed.
The exhibition and its catalogue therefore build on revisions to the Caillebotte narrative begun by Varnedoe several decades ago. The catalogue essays deepen an understanding of Caillebotte as an edgy modern painter whose work was intimately bound up in the socio-historical circumstances of the time. Elizabeth Benjamin, for example, addresses class issues, revealing how the artist’s bourgeois interiors are often constructed to read as actively uncomfortable spaces. Alexandra Wettlaufer inserts Caillebotte’s city views into the critical discourse of modernity, examining their overlaps with the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac, and Zola. Essays by Sarah Kennel and Michael Marrinan address aspects of Caillebotte’s vision—the former exploring the way he seemed to emulate the visual distortions produced by the photographic image, the latter suggesting that Caillebotte’s project is about trying to capture vision in motion. While the exhibition is not as complete a presentation as the 1994 show—there are only half the number of works and no preparatory studies—it certainly helps to further tease out the unusual terms of Caillebotte’s modernity and, perhaps in spite of the title, his relation to the thorny concept of “Impressionism.”
Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs and Curator, The Barnes Foundation
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