The Kimbell Art Museum has become known for its blockbuster shows about Impressionism. But the one that opened this week in Fort Worth is different. It’s not another sweeping history of the famous movement; it concentrates on just a single painter and a rare one: Gustave Caillebotte. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Justin Martin to explain why this Impressionist painter is worth all the attention.
Jerome, you’re all excited about a major new exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum – an exhibition about a French Impressionist painter I’ve frankly never heard of.
You’re not the only one. Gustave Caillebotte is his name [pronounced KAI-eh-BOT]. Most people haven’t heard of him because among the Impressionists, he’s the odd man out. His name looks and sounds German, for one thing, and although it’s true the Impressionists included an American, Mary Cassatt, a Brit, Alfred Sisley, and a Dutchman, Johan Jonkgind, when we think of Impressionism, we generally think of French painters: Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Monet.
Also, unlike his fellow painters, who varied from the impoverished to the comfortably middle-class, Caillebotte was a very wealthy young man: His family had made a fortune providing canvas cots for the French Army. And Caillebotte became both a lawyer and an engineer. But his father died when he was only 24, which meant Caillebotte never had to practice either profession (although he did enjoy designing boats).
Instead, he started hanging out with painters. Caillebotte didn’t participate in the first Impressionists’ ‘break away’ protest exhibition in 1874, but he debuted in the second in 1876. Not only that, he made an instant name for himself with his first, large-scale masterpiece, ‘The Floor Scrapers.’ He also helped bankroll the show and would eventually underwrite some of the more cash-strapped Impressionists, notably Monet.
One simple way he did this: He bought their paintings. Caillebotte had a relatively brief, productive career — he died in 1894, eighteen years after his debut — but when he died, he deeded 68 of those paintings to the French government. A tremendous gift at the time — which the government refused.
The Impressionists were still scandalous. They weren’t real artists. Their paintings looked smudgy and careless. In fact, it took decades of bitter wrangling with Caillebotte’s executors before 40 of the paintings were eventually accepted by the Musee d’Orsay — making up the heart of that museum’s unmatched Impressionist and post-Impressionist collection. If they hadn’t been accepted, in all likelihood the paintings would have been bought up by wealthy Americans who, within a few decades, were snapping up French artworks.
But the upshot of this longstanding controversy was Caillebotte became far better known for this donation than anything else. His own art came to be seen as a rich patron’s hobby. It really wasn’t until the 1970s, almost a century after Caillebotte’s death, that critics and curators began to realize how fresh his paintings are.
But over that century, why didn’t they just look at the works and see their quality?
Partly because they couldn’t see them. Caillebotte was wealthy, so he didn’t have to sell his paintings. He often gave them away, sometimes to the people who sat for him. As a result, many are in private collections. And still are. The Kimbell owns one of the few major pieces in an American museum (‘On the Pont de l’Europe,’ 1876-’77, above). The fact is, most times, when you see any new exhibition at a museum, the great majority of the art is on loan from other museums. That’s not the case here. One of the real achievements of Kimbell curator George Shackleford and his co-curator Mary Morton from the National Gallery in D.C. (where the show ran this summer — the only other place it’ll be seen) was just finding and bringing together 55 of Caillebotte’s paintings for ‘The Painter’s Eye.’ It’s a real occasion. It may not happen again for decades.
I’m looking online at some of Caillbotte’s paintings right now –
And they don’t look like what you think Impressionists should look like, do they?
That’s another reason he’s not so well-known. The soft-focus colors of the Impressionists, the dappled light, the pretty flowers, the thick brushwork – all of that does appear in Caillebotte’s later works, some of which are, frankly, a letdown in their apparent surrender to his colleagues’ conventions. These were painted when the artist had more or less retired to the family estate at Yerre, about 12 miles south of Paris. He spent his time gardening and boating, two of his favorite activities — hence, all the images of flowers and water.
But Caillebotte’s most distinctive works, his greatest paintings, are his city paintings. These are time capsules from the new Paris recently hacked out of the city’s old medieval tangle by Baron Haussmann in one of the grandest (and some argued, one of the more relentlessly political) feats of urban development-by-government-fiat.
In capturing this freshly minted cityscape and the stylish life that had sprouted there, Caillebotte’s artistry is, at times, more old-fashionedly realistic than his radical colleagues among the Impressionists.
In the most extreme cases of the Impressionists’ art — like Monet’s sunrises or water lilies — everything gets de-materialized into light and color. Caillebotte’s paintings are more solid, patently geometric in their planning but also psychologically sharp. And the cool, almost abstract way he handles his subjects make his work feel strikingly ahead of its time. Instead of Renoir’s picnics and Degas’ gimlet-eyed backstage glimpses, Caillebotte’s portraits and cityscapes are notably quiet, even somber. They’re often suffused in shades of blue and grey, offset by just a bit of creamy flesh or dark red upholstery. Most prominently, they’re inhabited by solitary figures. Caillebotte’s people sit or stand at windows, often just staring at something outside. In one instance (‘Interior,’ above), there’s even a rather haunting ‘Rear Window’ moment, when his female subject finds another woman looking back. I’ve never seen so many backs of portrait heads in a single exhibition. It’s like Caillebotte is actually trying to paint the invisible — the act of looking and thinking.
If people know Caillebotte at all, they know his giant, marvelous masterwork, ‘Paris Street, Rainy Day’ from 1877 (up top) with all its umbrellas and glistening cobblestones (it was at the Kimbell as recently as 2008, so, welcome back). But even among this painting’s strolling crowd, it quickly becomes apparent no one is saying a word. They’re lost in thought, barely acknowledging anyone else. They’re essentially alone in public — with Haussmann’s architecture isolating them even more in the painting’s layout. Caillebotte is like the Edward Hopper of French painting.
The guy who painted ‘Nighthawks at the Diner‘?
Exactly. If the late-night loners in Hopper’s work were in a Paris café, you’d have a Caillebotte painting: the moody atmosphere, the treatment of people as distinct components in a city scene. We can get fancy and call this whole vision ‘modern alienation,’ and Caillebotte was way ahead of anyone in capturing it — even in his still-lifes. Caillebotte doesn’t paint beautiful fruit or the carefully arranged trophies from a hunt. He paints dead meat on a hook. So did Rembrandt, more or less, but Caillebotte seems interested not just in the colors and almost abstract shapes of a gutted calf or plucked chicken. He gives new life, as it were, to the French term for still life, nature morte. These are contemplations of mortality — processed, modern, mercantile mortality.
Honestly, Jerome, you make the show sound morbid, even depressing.
It’s not. Really, it’s not — because the paintings are gorgeous. I confess, Caillebotte’s one of my favorite 19th-century artists. I was fully prepared to enjoy the show, but it’s also true that, after all these years of the Kimbell bringing in crowd-pleasing Impressionist show after crowd-pleasing Impressionist show — the latest was only last year — this time, the museum goes deep into a single artist, and one of the most unusual of the lot. And they do it in the Renzo Piano Pavillion, whose blue-grey light seems perfect for Caillebotte’s palette.
But there’s one street scene at sunset — owned by a private Dallas collector – and I defy anyone not to find it luscious, possibly even worth all my gushing. Haussmann’s new apartment blocks look like rows of icing-bedecked wedding cakes in a bakery shop window (a comparison neatly echoed by ‘Pastry Cakes’ from 1881, one of Caillebotte’s foodie spreads). The curators’ choice of purple for some of the walls, especially in the central, splendid gallery, only augments the way Caillebotte uses dark blues or reddish purples for his rich shadows. The painter also repeatedly employs a deep, deep focus. He gives you these streets or rooms stretching into the distance, and they just draw you in. They fascinate. Soon, you’re like one of Caillebotte’s figures, standing and staring, lost in wonder.