PRINT November 1968

Gustave Caillebotte at Wildenstein

GUSTAVE CAILLEBOTTE WAS A SUCCESSFUL and athletic maritime designer (the theme of boating and water sports are central to his painting). His wealth and intelligence allowed him to patronize (as he pillaged) the Impressionists with whom he exhibited in five of eight manifestations. The scandal ignited by the Louvre’s refusal to accept in a single bequest (it entered in a truncated version) the Caillebotte gift of sixty-five Impressionist works at the time of the artist’s death provided yet another notorious insight into the still despotic resistance to modernist views among the academicians for, by 1894, Impressionism was a moribund vanguard superseded by several splinter activist solutions (among them the classicistic formulae of Seurat and Cézanne as well as the Symbolist proclivities of a large body of young painters in varying degrees of sympathy with Gauguin).

These issues, familiar to anyone who has read John Rewald’s History of Impressionism, have long piqued one’s curiosity about Caillebotte, known, at best, as a shadowy, second string painter who was instrumental in organizing the Third, Fourth and Seventh Impressionist exhibitions. The first comprehensive exhibition of Caillebotte’s work, presently at Wildenstein, shows Caillebotte to be, despite the buildup, a disappointing painter of markedly divided allegiances. His labored portraiture, for example, reveals an adherence to academic precepts—he was, after all, the student of Léon Bonnat who, with Gérôme, epitomized sclerotic Ingrism as his athletes and Parisian views indicate a sensibility at contentious variance with this very same tradition. What is especially striking about the conventionally trained Caillebotte—who, in his milieu, also personified much that was socially and economically “established”—are his curiously naïve and ingenuous responses (which, paradoxically, often led him into studied and pretentious efforts). One imagines that had Caillebotte lived a decade longer his Impressionist enthusiasms would have been replaced by amateur Kodak photography.

The Wildenstein retrospective covers Caillebotte’s production from 1872 until the Bequest. Among the memorable early works is a dark and tight Déjeuner. Luncheon is served by a liveried retainer of a Third Republic grande bourgeoise and her young heir. The tight sharpness and bird’s-flight entry into the canvas presents a startling amalgam of Bonnat and the Degas of the seventies. The picture’s space fans out from the arched rim of a luncheon plate and a near vertical knife blade, both of which are cropped at the lower edge of the painting. The glistening, prismatic crystal and silver service hint at an Intimist sensibility (apparently left unexplored) a generation before Bonnard and Vuillard and presumes even an unimagined model for Matisse’s divisionist Désserte.

Having met Monet (with whom he shared a common passion for sailing) and Renoir (ultimately the hard-pressed executor of the estate) in 1874, Caillebotte’s subservience to their Impressionist innovations is manifest at the end of three or four years. Hampered by an awkward manipulative faculty (less sensible in the smaller works), Caillebotte’s large and ambitious pictures—he had by then given up petit genre for compositions based on themes connected with modern urban life—tend to deflate in broad areas of cottony brushstrokes which do not sustain the intentions of the forms, as can often be ascertained by comparing the so-called finished work with the generally more winning smaller studies. For Caillebotte, not naturally a fluent painter, the technique of Impressionism itself often became the obsessive sustaining “subject” of the work.

He was an equally faulty draftsman, a failing also disguised in the smaller pieces and studies. There are fortuitous exceptions—fortuitous in that their appeal is amenable to contemporary sensibility though they were certainly laughably awkward in their day. In Le Baigneur s’apprêtant à plonger, for example, a cerulean foreground is punctuated by bold telegraphic pink foliage (an inadvertent Monet at Giverny) which allays the inept spatial ambiguities of the raised arms of the diving figure and the swimmer climbing back ashore.

Since Caillebotte’s command of drawing was poor, even by loose Impressionist standards—certainly Degas, Renoir and Monet could draw circles around him, and Pissarro too, who often aimed at a bulkiness emulated by Caillebotte, had a much surer feeling for scale and perspective—his pictures often result in disarmingly naïve compositions, such as in his painting of canoeists viewed from the rear. Their schematic necks, oval heads, leaf-like paddles and Jarryesque perspective suggest the safari of an Impressionistic Douanier Rousseau.

Still there are many agreeable and often major finds, particularly in the street scenes painted from the fourth floor balconies of substantial apartment blocks. These pictures deal with a theme that also inspired Pissarro, and they vie with his production in their results. Perhaps the most remarkable of all are the blunt views of circular traffic islands such as Un Refuge, Boulevard Haussmann with its simple tonal patches representing baggy, top-hatted people and gas street lamps. These oddly un-incidented pictures are among Caillebotte’s most satisfying and least pretentious. Although devoid of pictorial events, they are small enough to keep the tendency toward Impressionist amorphousness in check, a misapprehension of the Impressionist mechanic which existed as a possibility open to the great exponents of the style but which oddly never seemed to mar their production.

The Wildenstein survey is extremely important in this respect; it distinctly clarifies the dangers inherent in Impressionism, dangers about which one could only dimly guess. Our view of Impressionism, predicated on the work of Monet, Renoir, Degas and their like, makes something rather holy and unassailable out of the style. The first long look at Caillebotte’s oeuvre, many excellences notwithstanding, demonstrates that, like all fortresses, Impressionism too has some chinks.

Robert Pincus-Witten