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The greats outdoors: paradoxical painter Gustave Caillebotte

The artist who extolled the talent of his impressionist friends at the expense of his own.

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Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94) was a paradoxical figure: he was a major patron who was also a major painter, an impressionist who wasn’t an impressionist, a modest man who thrived among noisy spirits, an innovator who was also a traditionalist, an urban figure lured by the out-of-town, and a significant artist who for decades was lost in semi-obscurity.

Paradoxically, too, it was his wealth that enabled him to paint but also, after his early death at just 45, led to his work being largely forgotten. Although he painted some 500 pictures Caillebotte could afford not to sell them, so the bulk remained in his family rather than being dispersed in the wider market. His focus was not on getting his own pictures on to the walls of museums but those of his impressionist friends, whose work he avidly collected. It was not until the 1960s that his paintings, and his reputation, began to emerge.

The Caillebottes were long-established manufacturers of textiles who had risen to prominence during the Napoleonic Wars, when the family company supplied the army with uniforms and bedding. When Gustave’s father died he inherited a substantial sum. By this point, at 26, Caillebotte was already a well-rounded figure who had a degree in law and had been drafted into the army during the Franco-Prussian War. The money freed him to turn to art.

He studied first with the academic painter Léon Bonnat and then at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but his friendships were with the most radical young painters of the time, then yet to be categorised – and vilified – as the impressionists. He became this awkward squad’s most significant early champion. He bought their pictures when no one else would and eventually built a collection of 68 important works, which included multiple paintings by, among others, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Manet. For good measure he also paid the struggling Monet’s studio rent for a while.

Although Caillebotte did not show works at the infamous 1874 exhibition that announced the impressionists to a bemused and outraged public, he did contribute eight paintings to their second show in 1876. Chief among them was The Floor Scrapers, 1875, a remarkable picture of three shirtless labourers removing the floor varnish in a Parisian apartment. The Salon, the official showcase for French art, rejected the picture as ignoble and although it was painted in a realist manner contrary to the informal style pioneered by his impressionist friends, he threw in his lot with them.

Caillebotte went on to paint a succession of monumental (he could easily afford the paint and canvas) urban scenes that showed life in Baron Haussmann’s remodelled Paris – a couple strolling in a rainy street, passers-by crossing an iron-girder bridge, roofscapes seen from a high window. All were marked by the startling perspective, strong diagonals and unusual viewpoints learned from Japanese woodblock prints. He also had a keen interest in photography, sparked by his brother Martial, and added through-the-lens cropping to the mix: some of his preparatory studies are on paper exactly the same size as photographic plates and show that he traced structural outlines from them.

This picture, The Yerres: Effect of Rain, now in the Indiana University Art Museum in the United States, was painted in 1875 and is Caillebotte’s first pure landscape, but it nevertheless shares all the traits of his city art. The river Yerres flows some 20 kilometres south-east of Paris and the Caillebotte family owned a large, white-stucco villa on its banks; it was a place where Gustave liked to row and swim.

Water was a favoured impressionist subject and in this at least he shared his friends’ tastes; rowers, kayakers and river bathers became regular subjects. This modestly-sized painting, however, is an elegiac rather than a sun-filled work. His pictures often showed figures who stand alone, even when in company, giving them a sense of isolation that can border on the melancholy. Here, though, is the melancholy without the people – just summer rain, an empty river, an empty path and an empty skiff.

The mournful atmosphere can perhaps be explained by the fact that Caillebotte’s father had died only the previous year. On his return to the family’s holiday home Gustave was confronted with his absence and a cherished place that was not as it had been; the dead man is present, however, in the rowerless boat, the fallen leaves and the transient ripples. This is a landscape that is also a faithful portrait of a mood.

In 1881, Caillebotte changed houses and rivers, buying a property at Petit-Gennevilliers, on the Seine near Argenteuil. There he largely gave up painting and devoted himself to other pursuits – orchid growing, yacht designing and stamp collecting (his albums are now in the British Library). He had planned, too, for the continuance of his friends’ legacies: he bequeathed his collection of impressionist works to the state and stipulated that it should not be dispersed to provincial museums but displayed first in the Luxembourg Palace – then reserved for living artists – and later the Louvre. He named Renoir his executor.

The Yerres: Effect of Rain is therefore a memento of a place – the broken reflections, the screen of trees keeping the world at bay, the sprinkling of leaves and the raindrop circles all carefully observed – and a memorial both to a former life over which his father presided and, poignantly, to his own brief and unheralded career as a painter. 

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 03 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis