The least known of all Impressionist painters, Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) was only 27 when he joined the “independents”, the group of painters soon to be labeled the “impressionists.”

These fellow painters, who included Degas, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro, and Cezanne, rejected the religious, historical and mythological subject matter championed by traditionalists.  Not surprisingly, their submissions were rejected by the 1875 Paris Salon, the annual exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts.  After Caillebotte’s painting, The Floor Scrapers , was not accepted, Renoir and Degas encouraged the young painter to exhibit the following year in the second show of impressionist paintings.

The Floor Scrapers, 1875.  Oil on canvas, 40 3/16″ x 57 7/8″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Now one of the most famous paintings by Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers represents a fairly common undertaking in mid-19th century Paris: men preparing floors in one of the newly-designed buildings by Baron Haussmann (1809-1892), the architect retained by Napoleon III in 1853 to “modernize” Paris (and to make its avenues so wide as to be barricade-proof, a deterrent to further revolutionary acts).

While Floor Scrapers nods to the academic tradition of painting the male nude, the work was attacked for depicting lean, shirtless, unidealized men engaged in the mundane activity of planing a floor.  The workers (actually all the same model) grab our attention with their muscled arms, while the unusual perspective projects the men into the viewer’s space.

The House Painters, 1877.  Oil on canvas, 34 1/4″ x 45 11/16″.  Private Collection.

Floor Scrapers was well received at the second exhibition of Impressionist paintings in 1876, the first public showing of any Caillebotte paintings.

Not only was Caillebotte nearly a decade younger than his fellow Impressionists, but he was also the only artist who was independently wealthy; his family operated a thriving textile business which enabled Caillebotte to underwrite much of the Impressionism movement.  He became the driving force behind the third impressionist exhibition held in 1877, even orchestrating installation.

Pont de l’Europe, 1876.  Oil on canvas, 49 1/8″ x 71 1/8″.  Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneva.

Concurrently, he was also amassing a sizable collection of Impressionist paintings created by his less affluent peers.

Three Caillebotte paintings were included in the 1877 exhibition, all tracking Haussmann’s transformation of Paris:

1. The House Painters.  19th century viewers of this work would have immediately recognized the newly erected Haussmann-designed buildings.  The strong vanishing point nearly overwhelms the work, almost making the painters themselves secondary.

Many impressionist paintings had such loose brushwork that critics deemed them “unfinished” or considered them mere preparatory paintings for later more finished works.  Gustave Caillebotte, however, had a tighter handling of paint and a more muted palette than many of his contemporaries.

2. The Pont de l’Europe.  Parisians viewers would have immediately recognized this cast iron bridge spanning the Gare Saint-Lazare train yards, the busiest in Paris.  This marvel of engineering accommodated six converging avenues and had an open air plaza over the tracks.  Its presence is hinted by the white, billowing clouds in the upper left.

The preliminary sketch for Pont de l’Europe depicted the man and woman walking side by side, but in the final painting, he has walked ahead to stare at the younger workman on the right.  Careful inspection shows that this youth’s face is deep red and flushed, with his hand awkwardly held at his cheek.

Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877.  Oil on canvas, 83 9/16″ x 108 3/4″.  Art Institute of Chicago.

This unusual triangle of characters fostered speculation about the unfolding narrative and the roles of the young man and woman.  Haussmann’s sweeping wide boulevards had proven ideal for walking – and as venues for solicitation of prostitution.

This seeming tribute to the marvels of modern Paris is awash in ambiguity.

3. Paris Street, Rainy Day.  Like the other two Caillebotte paintings in the 1877 show, Paris Street, Rainy Day depicted the very neighborhood in which the exhibition was being held.  Rainy Day was deemed the masterpiece of the entire show.

Its nearly monochromatic palette captures the atmosphere of a rainy city day – and the uniform male attire of top hat, black redingote, and modern steel-framed English umbrella.  The vantage point places the viewer on the street, about to nearly collide with the couple or the cropped man on the right.

The dramatic vanishing point pulls the viewer in, and draws attention to the lack of interaction: the couple isn’t conversing; the other strollers are blank-faced and alone.

Is the artist hinting that Haussmann’s vast renovations have not been uniformly beneficial?

While Caillebotte continued to paint, his wealth made him indifferent to the marketability of his work – and perhaps more willing to experiment.

His Fruit Displayed on a Stand was an original interpretation of the still life genre: the traditional subjects of fruits and vegetables become sumptuous and sensuous objects.  The figs, plums, apples and pears are swaddled and cradled in white paper, rendering them luxurious and perfect.

Fruit Displayed on a Stand, c. 1881-1882. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8″ x 39 5/8″. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Caillebotte showed with the Impressionists until 1882, when he stopped painting regularly and intensely pursued interest in stamp collecting, in gardening, and in sailboat design and racing.

After he died from a stroke in 1894, his impact on Impressionism was generally unrecognized for three reasons:

1. his entire oeuvre consists of 500 paintings, a paltry number compared with other impressionist painters;

2. there is no single art museum or institution with a collection of Caillebotte paintings (no U.S. museum holds more than two); and

3. upon his death, he bequeathed his extensive collection of Impressionist paintings to the Louvre, elevating his renown as a patron rather than as a painter.  Caillebotte’s bequest was of such high quality that it formed the foundation of the Louvre’s Impressionism collection.

Among these famous paintings are Manet’s The Balcony (right): Renoir’s Ball at the Moullin de la Galette; Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare; and Cezanne’s The Bay of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque.

An exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, examines this painter’s career through an exhibition of 50 Caillebotte paintings.  This insightful show, on view until October 4, 2015, elevates Caillebotte to the realm of famous painters in Impressionism.

And let there be no doubt that Gustave Caillebotte had an impact on his peers: is there any doubt who was influenced by A Game of Bezique?

A Game of Bezique, 1881.  Oil on canvas, 47 5/8″ x 63 3/8″.  Private Collection.

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