PRINT May 2015


Gustave Caillebotte

Gustave Caillebotte, Luncheon, 1876, oil on canvas, 20 1⁄/2 × 29 1/2". © Comité Caillebotte

AS LIFE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY sped up, so did the century’s art. Paintings created in “fifteen minutes,” as the poet and critic Jules Laforgue described Impressionism in 1883, characterized a novel kind of picture built of hectic signs: Freewheeling brushstrokes encoded both the materiality of paint and the abruptness with which it seemed to have been applied. A lack of focus, coupled with odd angles and viewpoints, became the new pictorial norm, and constantly changing social protocols became painting’s primary theme. Impressionism thus chronicled the profound cultural shifts of its era; its blurs and unfinished appearance made movement and a particularly modern sense of time its chief subject. No longer allegorical, time in Impressionism was now literal, which is to say it could be measured in the terms industry and capital both furnished and understood.

Gustave Caillebotte only partly subscribed to this “new painting,” and his case permits us to put into perspective the tense equilibrium held in an Impressionist picture between willfulness and chance, composition and decomposition, finish and unfinish, painting and sketch, hour and instant. Indeed, Caillebotte monumentalized the “moment” in painting like no other Impressionist. He trapped images of seeming happenstance—of chance urban interactions and oblique positions—into large formats that had the weighty feel of the panoramic. He prepared each of his major exhibition pieces with numerous studies and drawings calculated to arrive at the polished appearance of fleetingness. His carefully finished canvases nevertheless always positioned the instant as painting’s new center of gravity. Detailed chronicles of high-bourgeois life, Caillebotte’s works are startlingly beautiful and original pictures as well as archives of the birth pains of the modern visual order. It is for this paradoxical combination of assiduousness and velocity that he became a favorite of Impressionist scholarship only belatedly, after 1970, with the rise of sociocultural analysis and the parallel retreat of high-modernist aesthetics, and many of his paintings remain today in private hands.

All the more reason, then, to bring out Caillebotte’s major achievements—some fifty-odd paintings—to address anew the complex aesthetics of Impressionism and the modern world from which it emerged. Last attempted some twenty years ago, when the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris) organized the first grand Caillebotte retrospective in the United States, Caillebotte looks even more compelling and contemporary this time around. “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” a collaboration between the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, brings together the painter’s highest achievements in his most productive ten years (1875–85) for the first and likely only occasion in a generation, if not a lifetime. An in-depth catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with contributions by the two curators, Mary Morton, head of the Department of French Paintings at the National Gallery, and George T. M. Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell, as well as Sarah Kennel, Michael Marrinan, Stéphane Guégan, Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, and Elizabeth Benjamin.

Aspects of Caillebotte’s career have recently been examined in various exhibitions in Europe, and the fact that the artist, who inherited family wealth, was himself one of the first collectors of Impressionism—and bequeathed part of his collection to the French state, where it forms the backbone of the Orsay—is well known and frequently mentioned. The present show, by contrast, shines light on Caillebotte’s greatest accomplishments as an ambitious painter in his own right, allowing us to see him afresh as a highly deliberate Impressionist, carefully drawing and redrawing what a picture could be and what aspects of the modern world it could reveal. His arguably most famous painting—a glancing moment in a Paris intersection dotted with umbrellas on a rainy day—will be on view, but so will a quieter, unpeopled landscape of rain beginning to fall on a riverbank. There will be some more unusual themes on display as well: the reflective surfaces of a bourgeois luncheon table, midmeal; family and colleagues, depicted in Caillebotte’s own home; workers, from housepainters to floor scrapers; Parisian streets and bridges; views from balconies; still lifes; and—surprising for this most patriarchal of epochs—a male nude drying off after a bath. Like few other Impressionists, Caillebotte was sensitive to the many strange encounters the modern world made possible, encounters cutting across class lines and the conventions of heteroerotic desire. He delighted in the weird perspectives and intense croppings that contemporary life tends to foist on the observer, at times erasing horizon lines completely from his paintings to show nothing but stretches of pavement. Caillebotte’s paintings declare that daring and abrupt formal choices can go hand in hand not only with the unexpected and haphazard within urban life, but also with the established traditions and hierarchies that trigger them. The results are often magisterial works more layered and complex than any mere moment could contain.

“Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye” is on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, June 28–Oct. 4; travels to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Nov. 8, 2015–Feb. 14, 2016.

André Dombrowski is an associate professor of the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania.