French Impressionism: The Secret of Gustave Caillebotte

Linda Y. Peng
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Brooklyn Museum, NY, through July 5, 2009


Gustave Caillebotte, patron, painter, 'The Unknown Impressionist', 1848-94

When Impressionism is mentioned, Monet, Renoir, Degas come to mind, but less frequently among the names is that of Gustave Caillebotte (French 1848–1894). Yet, he was very much their equal and a skilled and prolific painter. Wealthy, he had no need to sell his art. He supported his friends by buying their art, financing the Impressionist shows –considered radical in his day– and in the case of Monet, frequently paying his rent. Moreover, Caillebotte was a lawyer; a philatelist whose stamp collection is in the British Museum; a town councilman; a nautical engineer and famed yachtsman. Rarely seen together, the Brooklyn Museum re-acquaints us with Caillebotte’s work after a 30-year absence from its galleries. An intellectual and a modern man, with the means to support his focused passions, he bequeathed his substantial collection to his country—presciently saving much of Impressionist art for France.

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Caillebotte, Man on the Balcony 2, 1880

Caillebotte was born eldest of three sons of a twice-widowed father and his third wife, into the grand bourgeoisie, whose family fortune stemmed from cloth supplied to the French military. He began drawing and painting at age twelve, served in the National Guard and was released in 1871, right before the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune ended. He turned to art, passing the exam for L’Ecole des Beaux Art in 1873. He soon became a member of a fringe art circle, the works of which were textured, loose and colorful in style, earning them the critically derisive term, Impressionism.

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Caillebotte, The Oarsmen, 1877

The Brooklyn Museum has assembled a number of his works for the exhibit, drawn from private and museum collections in Europe and the U.S. Technically brilliant works like, “Floor Scrapers” and “House Painters” were rejected by tradition-bound venues of the day as “vulgar” and “too working class.” His renderings of Paris street scenes, the moods of the rivers, rowing shells and the muscular men who powered them, all done en plein air, reveal his mastery of light and the human form. His clever use of the perspective in his compositions, such as placing the Parisian streets at an angle while coming directly towards the viewer in works like “The Pont de l’Europe ” and “Man on the Balcony” ( left), creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy—as if we are standing there on the bridge or at the balcony overlooking the boulevard in 19th Century Paris—sharing the drama to the moment in the scene. Likewise, in the “Oarsmen Rowing on the Yerres” (above), Caillebotte’s perspective puts us there in the same boat, sitting on our side of canvas, being transported by the oarsmen and basking in the same sun whose light rests on their out-stretched muscular arms.

Despite his other ardent pursuits, Caillebotte continued to paint, even after the Impressionists dispersed and up to his sudden death at 45. The “Unknown Impressionist” has secured a place in the pantheon of great painters of his day.

(At the Brooklyn Museum, through July 5, 2009)

by Linda Y. Peng, Contributing Writer- The Artful Traveler


For more about Gustave Caillebotte and to see more of his work go to:

Visit the Brooklyn Museum at:

200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238 (718) 638-5000

Learn about the Paris Commune and why it mattered to the Impressionists at:

Google Search – “Paris Commune and Impressionism”

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