Gustave Caillebotte's intersection with greatness

An exhibition of Gustave Caillebotte's works reflects the artist's divergence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm

You see it from the moment you enter the exhibition, Gustave Caillebotte's masterpiece and one of the most famous paintings of the past 150 years. Paris Street, Rainy Day, borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago, is placed at the end of a short enfilade of three galleries, documenting the impressionist painter's best work, most of it made while he was an urban animal, a wealthy dandy, a self-styled flaneur, and an impressionist impresario with the means and the energy to shape a movement.

When you are standing in front of it, admiring the glistening wet cobblestones, the severe geometry of Parisian streets and the cheerful bustle of its gloomy weather, you may think that the rest of Caillebotte's work will be more of the same. But the layout of the galleries follows the strange progress of his career.

From Paris Street, Rainy Day, the show continues with a sharp right turn to other subjects, including nudes, still lifes and brightly painted scenes of gracious suburban living. This second tranche of Caillebotte may seem a bit of a disappointment.

The curators of the National Gallery of Art's "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye", a satisfying and enlightening exhibition that brings together some 50 of the artist's best paintings, won't mind that. They acknowledge it in the catalogue and have arranged the exhibition to place Caillebotte's later work in a satellite relation to a handful of great paintings, most of them made in the 1870s or early 1880s.

"We would not have done the show without that," says Mary Morton, head of French paintings at the NGA, pointing to Paris Street, Rainy Day.

Morton, the exhibition's co-curator (with the Kimbell Art Museum's George Shackelford), wants this show to transform our sense of the artist. Caillebotte, whose work is mainly in private hands and sparsely represented in American museums, was foundational to the early impressionist movement, yet mostly forgotten for a century after its heyday. Even today, his exquisitely painted city scenes don't ring the mental impressionist bell in most people's heads: They don't have the seemingly rapid and approximate brushwork of impressionism, nor are they steeped in the flowers, water and lush landscapes of painters such as Monet.

Caillebotte continues to frustrate interpretation … the routes to understanding him are tangential

When Caillebotte was invited to join the second impressionist exhibition in 1876, however, he was recognised as one of its most bold and powerful talents, with a polished, almost academic style that connected him more strongly to the past than his more radical colleagues.

One critic divided the painters into the landscape artists and the "draftsmen", a category that included Caillebotte and Degas, whose work was more preoccupied with the individual, the human and the social. Had Caillebotte not died young, had he not been rich, had he not drifted later in life towards the preoccupations and painterly manner of Monet, had he not been remembered more as a collector than as a maker of art, he might have changed our sense of the whole movement, shifting its centre of gravity to the "draftsmen" and away from the haystacks, sea scenes, gardens and sun-dappled ripples of the sleepy Seine.

The exhibition is the first major US show devoted to Caillebotte since a 1994 exhibition seen in Los Angeles and Chicago. Its slightly vague and elastic subtitle, "The Painter's Eye", is a good indication that Caillebotte continues to frustrate interpretation and easy assimilation. Rather like the network of avenues that diverge from the viewer in Paris Street, Rainy Day, the routes to understanding Caillebotte are several and tangential.

The first three rooms of the exhibition are beautifully organised, proceeding from interior views to views through a window to the gallery that includes Paris Street, Rainy Day, along with three other magisterial works, the two views of the Pont de l'Europe and the 1877 House Painters.

These all seem of a piece, connected not just to each other, but also to a deeply internalised sense of Paris fashioned, disseminated and sustained by the painters of this period. The billowing gales of steam rising mysteriously from beyond the girders of the 1876 Pont de l'Europe may well be from the same train in the background of Manet's The Railway or the black behemoth that comes belching into the Gare Saint Lazare painted by Monet a few years later. The power of these three galleries carries over into the next galleries, devoted to portraits, still life, suburban and garden scenes, and two rare nudes. The viewer's eye has been shocked into awareness of the painter's eye, and Caillebotte's forays into other territory seem almost equally strange and disorienting.

A large male nude drying himself after a bath inverts the usual gender of the impressionist bathing scene; a naked woman lies exhausted and probably oblivious on a sofa that dwarfs her; a roomful of food presents the Parisian shop window as a Grand Guignol fantasy of horror, humour and artifice; and drying linen obscures the view of a sunny landscape with a strangely corporeal sense of flayed skin flapping in the wind.

Is it a letdown? A bit, but although no single work seems as great as what has come before, most of them are at least equally idiosyncratic and even perverse. The figures in Caillebotte's portraits are not wearing the approved masks of standard portraiture, but seem smug, or annoyed or even menacing. The well-dressed man rowing a boat in Boating Party is captured with disturbing intimacy and exudes all the pleasure of a celebrity under the gaze of the paparazzi.

And then there's the still life Calf's Head and Ox Tongue, probably painted in 1882. Throughout the exhibition, the visitor will have developed little if any sense of who Caillebotte was, and no sense of his emotional life. Some critics see alienation and isolation in his cityscapes; others thought Caillebotte ensorcelled by the newness of Haussmann's Paris. His view remains an enigma.

If you want to force meaning on the work beyond its visual innovation and experimentation, the ghastly tongue and severed calf's head are a tempting place to start. They are seen in a room of dead animals and fruit and cakes, near other images that often pair carcasses as if the inanimate foodstuffs of Paris went like the animals of Noah's aquatic menagerie: two-by-two. But the pairings are odd.

A long, red tongue, capped by a blood-red bundle of flesh, hangs inert beside a calf that might be sleeping but for the obvious evidence of its decapitation. A metal butcher's rack and chain cross the image horizontally. It is a gory image, but a calm one, too.

One might see this as a natural extension of the painter's more elegant cityscapes, or a Balzac-like digression into the manners of the marketplace and thus related to Caillebotte's paintings of the suburban fields of Gennevilliers Plain, an enticing artificial landscape that was fertilised with the effluvia of the Parisian sewers. The painter is giving us the high and low of Paris, the in and out, and both ends of an enormous, urban alimentary canal.

The Washington Post