One of the most influential but least recognized of the French Impressionists, Gustave Caillebotte exemplified Charles Baudelaire’s definition of a “flaneur.” In an article published in Le Figaro in 1863, Baudelaire rhapsodized about the flaneur as a symbol of urban modernity—a “passionate spectator” who immersed himself in the city’s “ebb and flow of movement” as modern life created a kaleidoscope of the “fugitive and the infinite.” The flaneur rejoiced in his “incognito” while he recorded “the flickering grace of all the elements of life.” xxxxxx
Wealthy enough not to have to depend on patrons, Caillebotte (kai-ya-BOT) painted what he wanted to paint. He was inextricably linked to the rise of modern Paris after Baron Haussmann’s massive transformations, but when he attempted to exhibit his modernist work in the 1875 Salon—the French government’s elite art exhibition—his submission, “The Floor Scrapers,” was turned down. Caillebotte then joined the Impressionists in 1876 for their second exhibition, where his work was displayed alongside that of Degas, Renoir, and Monet. He worked with the Impressionists for the next six years, exhibiting with them, helping them organize exhibitions, and purchasing their works. In fact, Caillebotte became a vital patron for the Impressionists.
Right: ‘The Floor Scrapers,’ 1875, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Gift of Caillebotte’s heirs through the intermediary of Auguste Renoir, 1894. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.
Why is he so little known? Perhaps because, however dynamically his works capture the visual drama of the new Paris, most have remained in private hands. Caillebotte didn’t need to sell any of his pictures, and few entered museum collections except in dribs and drabs: the Musee d’Orsay has four, while Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago each have two. Because there is no single major repository of his work, scholars rarely focused on his significance until the later twentieth century. He then became a popular figure of “rediscovery” in such exhibitions as Kirk Varnedoe’s 1976 retrospective, and the National Gallery’s 1986 exhibition on Impressionism.
Left: ‘A Boating Party,’ 1877–1878, oil on canvas, Private Collection. © Comité Caillebotte, Paris.
Continuing this rediscovery, Mary Morton of the National Gallery of Art and George Shackelford of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth have collaborated on a major exhibition—Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye–that showcases all periods of his career, beginning with the years 1875-1882 when he was closely associated with the Impressionists, then continuing chronologically with selections from his portraits, still lifes, and later landscapes. As they write in the exhibition catalogue, their objective is to display “The full impact of Caillebotte’s achievement in a focused way.”
Right: ‘Paris Street, Rainy Day,’ 1877, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.
Caillebotte’s portraits of Paris’s rising modernity are the exhibition’s most captivating. They rivet the eye with radically new perspectives, some from a sixth floor vantage point gazing down at boulevards below, some directly at eye-level depicting street scenes that flow back into a vanishing point. His “painter’s eye” was clearly influenced by the imprint of Baron Haussmann’s rationalization of the city itself, with boulevards wheeling out from such hubs as the Arc de Triomphe.
The centerpiece of the show is the large canvas, “Paris Street, Rainy Day” (1877), which has been gleamingly restored and was loaned to the exhibit by the Art Institute of Chicago. The perspective is fascinating, with wandering Parisians criss-crossing the streets seemingly oblivious to each other; the closest walkers are a couple whose legs disappear into the bottom of the canvas as they approach the front edge—a tactical framing that has been attributed to Caillebott’es fascination with photography. In her catalogue essay on “Photography and the Painter’s Eye,” Sarah Kennel suggests that Caillebotte adopted the camera’s strategic ability to better capture the complex frieze of street life in the “mobile, spontaneous, and improvised” world of modern Paris.
Two other striking depictions of Parisian street life focus on the iron and steel girders of the Pont de l’Europe. One is a close-up, painted from a perspective that looks past the backs of three men, through the bridge’s framework, and then beyond the girders to the rail yard below. The other is a longer, dramatically receding perspective of people of strolling across the bridge: they reflect the diversity of Paris’s population mixing together in a rising urban stew. There is even a dog. The industrial framework that Caillebotte recognized would be headlined in the next decade, when Eiffel’s tower provided the exclamation point for modernity at the 1889 Paris World Exposition.
Right: ‘Fruit Displayed on a Stand,’ c. 1881–1882, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Fanny P. Mason Fund in memory of Alice Thevin. Photograph © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The exhibition evolves chronologically. There is a gallery filled with Caillebotte’s portraits—they are mainly of interest for delineating the life and fashion of his haute bourgeois friends. There is a gallery of his still lifes that was considered stunningly graphic in its time: he depicted the everyday foods sold at morning markets, with lovely displays of fruits cheek-by-jowl with eviscerated pigs and all manner of hanging fowl waiting to be sold. The final gallery reflects a radical shift in Caillebotte’s “eye”: rather than urban dynamism, he now paints bucolic fields filled with lavender and sunflowers, and water scenes of people sailing and rowing.
Left: ‘Nude on a Couch,’ 1880, oil on canvas, Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund.
Caillebotte moved to the country in 1888. He lived in Petit Gennevilliers and, though he continued to paint, also took up stamp collecting and yacht design. In 1894, he died suddenly of a stroke. He was forty-five.
Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye will be at the National Gallery of Art through October 4th; it will then travel to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, November 8, 2015-February 14, 2016.
Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael
The same day the National Gallery opened “Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” it opened “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638).” Like Caillebotte, Wtewael was a successful businessman who was not dependent on patronage. Because he painted for friends and family rather than the market, his significance has been overlooked. The objective of this exhibition—curated by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. and the first ever devoted to this master painter from Utrecht–is to rediscover him and secure his place in the pantheon of Dutch artists.
Wtewael’s paintings are visually arresting both for their brilliant coloration, and for their dedicated storytelling. His paintings are exuberant morality plays, using biblical stories and mythology to instruct his audience on the consequences of evil. They can also be filled with ribald humor and eroticism.
Right: ‘Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan,’ 1604–1608, oil on copper, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.
Sometimes he created scenes too risqué for display on museum walls: he was the Cecil B. De Mille of his age, creating graphic illustrations that convey man’s quest for moral existence. In Hollywood’s silent era, movie impresario De Mille relished using spectacle—a naked Gloria Swanson cavorting with a lion in Male and Female (1919)—to spark audience engagement. Wtewael similarly used controversy to attract viewers: one of his most famous paintings, “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan,” depicts Vulcan’s wife Venus romping with Mars; the painting is florid and fleshy, and the consequences promise to be dire.
Wtewael’s imagination was as colorful as his palette. He made his first impact as a painter in Utrecht in the mid-1590s with a large canvas, “The Deluge,” filled with tangled nude bodies trying escape cataclysm. But he also often worked in a much smaller—and more portable—scale, using copperplate. Copper was prized by painters for its smoothness, luminosity, and ability to hold almost infinite detail; importantly, it was not affected by changes in temperature or humidity.
Left: ‘Mars, Venus, and Cupid,’ c. 1610, oil on copper, P. & N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam.
Wtewael was a superb craftsman at creating works of precision and neatness, and as Anne Lowenthal explains in her catalogue essay, “The features afforded by copper clearly suited Wtewael’s talents.” Nearly one-third of his known paintings are on copper; another third are on panel, and the final third on canvas.
The exhibition has one of Wtewael’s finest copperplates, “The Apulian Shepherd” (c. 1600-1605). Here the artist draws on a dramatic story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, depicting a dramatic encounter between mortals and immortals—gods, goddesses, nymphs, satyrs, and lowly humans all flung together in a story of love, passion, deceit, pride, and revenge. Like “reality” culture today, Wtewael’s audience was captivated by the tabloid-like drama he created for their enjoyment-cum-edification.
Below: ‘The Apulian Shepherd,’ c. 1600–1605, oil on copper, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection.
In “The Apulian Shepherd,” Pan oversees the transformation of a shepherd into an olive tree: the shepherd has had the impertinence to gaze at nymphs dancing in a nearby waterfall, and he is paying the consequences. Tra-la, plays Pan.
This exhibition was organized by the Centraal Museum Utrecht; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael will be at the NGA through October 4th.