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gustave caillebotte

2 june 2019

Big-ticket art exhibitions are not just crowd-pleasing events, I've come to learn. They can be decisive interventions in the course of art history. I don't just mean the ones that are now part of art history: the 1870s Impressionist shows, the 1913 Armory show, the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition where the Nazis maladroitly gave modernist German and Austrian art a canon of heroic dissenters. I mean the more workaday effect of shows that intervene in the thinking of academics and the general public alike, reorienting the way we understand artistic developments past and present.

Such a show, certainly, was "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye," which brought 50 of Caillebotte's paintings to Washington DC and Ft. Worth, TX in 2015. Many of the Caillebottes displayed in the show are still in private collections, and even those few scattered across the globe in museums are rarely seen in the context of the painter's work as a whole. Michael Marrinan's Gustave Caillebotte, which appeared in 2016, elaborates the impact of that show and adds a mountain of archival research and keen art criticism to the work done by its curators. Marrinan's work is in no way a catalogue of the 2015 show, but it took advantage of its impact to reassess Caillebotte's place in the history of art.

I was partly drawn to Marrinan's book because I'd seen the exhibit in Ft. Worth in 2015, but partly too because Caillebotte had long been one of my favorite artists. My preference was based on just two canvases: Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, and Sur le Pont de l'Europe, both painted in 1877. The former ("Paris Street, Rainy Weather") is one of the great crowd-pleasers at the Art Institute of Chicago. A popular attraction in Chicago is to take an umbrella, open it in front of Rue de Paris, and get somebody to take your picture. Maybe they've knocked this off of late, but people were still doing it a few years ago. I can imagine the headlines: $100M+ MASTERPIECE PUNCTURED BY TOURIST UMBRELLA.

The latter ("On the Pont de l'Europe") is part of the permanent collection at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth. People don't open umbrellas in front of it. People look at it, or perhaps try to look through it, and naturally enough: the painting shows a man looking through the ironwork of a bridge toward a train station in the distance. The station is the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, famous for Claude Monet's series of paintings depicting the station in various lights and moods. Marrinan suggests ingeniously that the man on the Pont de l'Europe in Caillebotte's painting is looking at Claude Monet looking out.

I eventually saw Caillebotte's great masterpiece Les raboteurs de parquet ("The Floor Scrapers," 1875) at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but by that point (15 or so years ago) I was already a fan, based on those two pictures in the U.S. The 2015 show, adding 47 others to the mix, was too much to take in. At the same time, I knew that I was (not) taking in something exceptional. And because I paid what attention I could, I had the unusual experience of coming to Michael Marrinan's book having seen nearly every artwork that he mentions.

Gustave Caillebotte was a rich young man in the 1870s. That's his place in received art history: wealthy (the heir to a French government contractor), with some artistic talent, perhaps essentially a dilettante (he would later go on to throw himself into gardening and yacht racing). Above all, a patron of the arts. Caillebotte spent lavishly to collect the works of his friends Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Renoir, Camille Pissarro. He helped to organize, and to bankroll, the early Impressionist shows that so changed the course of European art. And then his interest in painting seemed to fade, and he fell out with Degas, and the Impressionists broke up (faster than the Beatles, really), and Caillebotte eventually died young, even for a revolutionary artist.

Though it was Caillebotte's apparent lack of revolutionary impulse that ultimately kept him marginal for so long to studies of avant-garde art of the 1870s and '80s. He was a precise draughtsman. He didn't go in for plein-air painting: instead of taking his easel out to observe haystacks in different lights, Caillebotte mostly painted the contents of his studios and apartments. His pictures can strike one as curiously unemotional. He painted lots of people, but they are mostly at rest, unsmiling, almost enervated.

Yet though I call Caillebotte a precise draughtsman, that's a relative statement. He certainly didn't take up Monet's signature fuzziness (the hallmark of Impressionism). He never verged on pointillism, or on the stylized colors of Cézanne. But as Marrinan points out, there's something strange about the precision of Caillebotte's designs. Time and again, Caillebotte chooses weird vantage points, impossible perspectives, unsettling distortions of the visual field. 19th-century critics would look at his work and say it was simply incorrect; but it wouldn't be long before modernists would embrace the very distortions that earlier critics saw as mere error.

I learned about Caillebotte's liberties with perspective a year-and-a-half ago, in a true object lesson. I started off from the Gare Saint-Lazare to photograph the crossroads where Caillebotte set his Rue de Paris, temps de pluie. (I walked across the Pont de l'Europe on the way, oblivious, because the bridge that Caillebotte painted is long gone, replaced by a nondescript walkway.) I found the setting for Rue de Paris fairly easily, and it was even something of a drizzly, if not umbrellaworthy, day. But I could not get the proper angle on the shot. I naturally defaulted to my own incompetence. I wasn't standing in the right place. Or, as a consolation, perhaps the right place was no longer standable, at least if I wanted to avoid becoming a traffic casualty.

But as Marrinan suggests, it may be impossible to stand in the right place. Most of Caillebotte's pictures of outdoor Paris are irreproducible as photographs – which is somewhat ironic, as he was at times accused of having too great a fidelity to photographic imaging. (Caillebotte's brother Martial was a distinguished photographer.) You can probably move around the Caillebotte intersection all day long and never see it as he painted it, because he painted it as it could never have been seen.

One thing becomes clear in Marrinan's sharp argument. Caillebotte was no critic of Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, the official who cut wide boulevards across old-timey Paris during the Second Empire, is one of the bad guys of the history of urban planning. In the history of Paris, Haussmann fills the role that Robert Moses plays in histories of New York City. Victor Hugo particularly had it in for Haussmann. But as Marrinan points out, Hugo was two generations older than Caillebotte; and as the heir to a good deal of the new Parisian real estate, Caillebotte had a personal stake in Haussmann's success.

Of course Caillebotte might have rebelled against his own class interests. We might conclude that he did and he didn't. Caillebotte's paintings do not critique Haussmann's Paris, but they don't celebrate it either, at least not in a boosterish sense. His work instead takes pleasure in Haussmann's perspectives, without promoting them. Paris of the boulevards is what it is – and would become a great source of inspiration to many a later artist. Caillebotte, Marriman suggests, was one of the first artists to realize the potentials of the redrawn city. Naturally, Caillebotte eventually lived on the Boulevard Haussman. His apartment building still stands, across from one of Paris' most opulent shopping centers; directly across a traffic island (that he once weirdly depicted from on high) is an luscious upscale food market. The man was no social-justice advocate, he was not a Goncourt or a Gissing or a Stephen Crane. But you have to say that he painted what he saw.

Almost all of Caillebotte's greatest and most ambitious paintings were achieved when he was very young, mid-30s at the oldest. His masterpieces are recorded, in the contemporary criticism that Marrinan documents, as those of a very young, almost apprentice, artist. There is a greater version of Le Pont de l'Europe, from another improbable perspective, in a museum in Geneva. Les peintres en bâtiment ("The House Painters"), with its view down a Haussmannian avenue, further than one can really see on any extant street in Paris, is in a private collection. L'Yerres, pluie – the stream at the Caillebotte family estate southeast of Paris, in the rain – is in Bloomington, Indiana. Dans un café, the great enigmatic portait of … some guy, even Marrinan can't quite say who or what he is … is in Rouen. Many other images of people looking out across, or into, the Boulevard Haussmann (from Caillebotte's apartment) are in private collections, as are a few weird and intense images of the artist's family at lunch, at the piano. All were complete before the artist was 33 years old.

So perhaps instead of a dilettante, we should be talking of Caillebotte as a prodigy. I can't take as great an interest in the pictures that Caillebotte painted after 1882 or so. In 1882, he broke definitively with the Impressionists (who were in any case not long for the world as a cohesive unit). At the heart of the Impressionist breakup was a dispute between Degas and Caillebotte that is oddly elided in Marrinan's text, as if we should know about it already. I cannot even manage to Google many of the details. Impressionism ceded to post-Impressionism, it now seems almost overnight, and Caillebotte went his own way as an artist, doing some claustrophobic portraits, some odd still-lifes, a couple of striking nudes, some characteristically odd perspectives of places on the Channel coast or the banks of the Seine where he went on to live. He lived largely near the water for the last third of his life, because of his penchant for yacht races, but he painted little of his sporting world.

Marrinan soldiers on chronologically through work that even he has to say is less than distinguished. His criticism is always perceptive and often daring in its relations of Caillebotte's work to context. Gustave Caillebotte is not really a biography; it's largely about painting. But it does seem to close the case, quietly and undogmatically, about Caillebotte's sexuality. The painter's lifelong bachelorhood and his extravagant involvement with his circle of male friends has fueled quite-warranted hypotheses that Caillebotte was gay and closeted. But the reality, or one of them (because he could also have had gay relationships, of course), is that Caillebotte lived rather prosaically for decades with a woman named Charlotte Berthier. He did not want to marry her because she was of a lower social class, and any legitimate children they had would have siphoned off part of the family fortune. Marrinan wonders if an 1881 picture of a couple in suburban comfort, Chemin montant, may be of Gustave and Charlotte at home. It is a nice image to think of.

Caillebote would die at the age of 46: like so many 19th-century celebrities, we're not exactly sure what of. His art collection would form the nucleus of the magnificent holdings of Impressionism now at the Musée d'Orsay. And increasingly, the greatest of all those canvases is being seen as Les raboteurs de parquet.

Marrinan, Michael. Gustave Caillebotte: Painting the Paris of Naturalism, 1872-1887. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2016. ND 553 .C243M37