Some men paddle their skiffs along a wooded river: a study in rippled reflections, bright ochre paddles, and watery greens and blues. Caillebotte was not only a patron of Impressionism, but shows that he was one of its Masters too.
Painter Gustave Caillebotte
Painting Périssoires sur l’Yerres (Skiffs on the Yerres)
Media oil on canvas
Dimensions 88.9 x 116.2 cm (35 x 45.75 in)
Collection National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Three small one-man flat-bottomed skiffs being paddled in staggered line along a broad river, both its banks densely wooded.
The skiff in the foreground extends from the middle of the painting to the mid-right lower edge. As with the others, it is an open canoe-like boat just wide enough to accommodate the single occupant. He wears a straw-coloured cloche hat bearing a small red ribbon, a white smock top with its sleeves rolled to the elbows, and light blue trousers. His legs extend horizontally in front of him to brace against a cross-bar. Behind his shoulders is a near-black backrest extending from the back of his head down to the bottom of the skiff.
He holds with both hands a double-ended paddle, light ochre in colour, with a distinctive heart-shaped blade at each end. The blade on the left of the viewer is dipped into the water, the other consequently held high, where it meets the stern and another paddle blade of a fourth skiff, which is cropped off the right edge of the painting. The bows of the skiff make patterned ripples in the water, in which the bright ochre of the paddle and the man’s white top are seen in broken reflection.
Behind and to the viewer’s left of the foreground skiff is a second, identical craft with an occupant similarly dressed. The blade on the viewer’s right is dipped in the water, and there are similar broken rippled reflections of white and ochre. The third skiff is further back, appearing in vertical line with the frontmost, and appears identical.
The banks are heavily wooded. That on the right is lit by sunlight, with two tree trunks prominent towards the right edge of the canvas. The leafy branches overhang the edge of the river. The bank on the left is dark with shade, but just before it reaches the left edge of the canvas there are three bright windows through the foliage, giving glimpses of further lit vegetation beyond. The river itself reflects the rich greens of the trees, with occasional patches of brighter blue. In the far distance the water is more brightly lit as if by a clearing in the trees. Light appears to be cast from above and to the left of the viewer.
He was born on 19 August 1848, to an affluent Parisian family, his father a commercial court judge and owner of a flourishing textile business. The family owned a summer residence in Yerres, to the south of Paris, which was to be a focal point for his painting. He trained first as a lawyer with engineering knowledge, but shortly after starting to practise was sent to fight in the Franco-Prussian war, until 1871. After that he started to study painting, first in the studio of Léon Bonnat, then at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in 1873. He met Impressionists, at first through friendship with Edgar Degas, in 1874. Although he did not exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition that year, after his Floor Scrapers was rejected from the 1875 Salon, he showed eight paintings at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876.
An avid yachstman, he joined the board of the Paris Cercle de la Voile in 1880, and developed his own designs for sailing boats. He co-founded a large modern boatyard in 1884, and the following year his handicap rule was adopted for French national sailing races. Although he continued to paint, in the late 1880s he moved out of Paris to Petit-Gennevilliers near Argenteuil, where he entertained Renoir. He died suddenly on 21 February 1894.
Throughout his involvement with Impressionism from 1874, Caillebotte put money into the movement and supported his colleagues, both by purchasing their works and sometimes even paying their living expenses. His collection of 68 Impressionist paintings included many by Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir, and several by Sisley, Degas, Cézanne, and Manet. On his death he gave it to the French nation, but placed terms that the works must be displayed first in the Luxembourg Palace (then used for the work of living artists), and later in the Louvre. The will was executed by Renoir, and it took him two years to reach a compromise and get the French government to accept 40 of the paintings. These were put on display in the Luxembourg Palace, where they formed the first standing exhibition of Impressionist art in France.
The Impressionists were locked out of the Salon, and had no market for their works. Starved of recognition, income, food, and rent, only three of them had independent incomes: Degas, Cézanne, and Caillebotte. It was the last of those three who put his money, effort, and finally his bequest to ensure that many people today think first of Impressionist art when they think of painting.
Caillebotte was central to the organisation of all the Impressionist exhibitions after the first. His circumstances allowed him to invest both time and money in an enterprise which, judging by the reaction to their first exhibition, was doomed to failure. He provided direct financial support to most of the other painters in the group by buying their work, building a large and remarkable collection. But perhaps his most lasting benefit was to force the display of most of those works by leaving them to the French State.
Sadly his own work has been neglected as a result. Some of his paintings, even the finished version of Paris, a Rainy Day, now on display in the Art Institute of Chicago, lay hidden in store for decades after his colleagues achieved the recognition that they deserved.
Only in the last couple of decades have his works become recognised in their own right.
Some of this may result from his tendency to produce traditional realist works which lacked the characteristic facture of other Impressionists. However there is much more to Impressionism than mere brush strokes, and Caillebotte painted many more works with very visible brush strokes.
The limited number of his paintings in public collections can also give the impression that, apart from the couple of famous exceptions of his Floor Scrapers and Paris, A Rainy Day, he only painted aquatic scenes. In fact, as shown here, he painted a very wide range of subjects, including a male and female nudes, still lifes, portraits, and some typically Impressionist motifs including factories, drying washing, and scenes of Paris.
He was also markedly influenced by photography, and many of his works employ techniques which were becoming popular in photography at that time, particularly innovative viewpoints and fields of view.
Although painted just three years after he first became acquainted with the Impressionist movement, this work exemplifies Caillebotte’s personal take on the approach adopted by the movement.
Set on the Yerres of his childhood summers, it shows people enjoying their leisure in a novel way, a watersport in which he was innovative, expert, and accomplished. Its composition is well-balanced without symmetry or any regularity, and uses an unusually high viewpoint and cropping very effectively.
His brush strokes and vivid colours build a water surface – which covers most of the painting – rich in liquid detail, its depth reinforced by the changing size of the strokes. Technically this work is the match of the best of Monet, Pissarro, or Sisley’s aquatic scenes, but looks as only Caillebotte’s work can.
Given his commitment to the Impressionist movement and participation in all their exhibitions except the first, Caillebotte was not just a vital patron, but one of the core innovators whose effect continues in modern representative painting. It is time to reconsider his role in Impressionism, and his importance in the historical development of painting.
Having been neglected for so long, resources are still limited, but should continue to improve in the future.
Exhibition: Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (West Building Main Floor) 28 June to 4 October 2015, details here. This travels on to Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, for the period 8 November 2015 to 14 February 2016. A total of 45 paintings are promised, and should make this unmissable. Hopefully a suitable book will be published to accompany this.
Lloyd C, Charles D and Cate PD (2013) Impressionists on the Water, Skira. ISBN 978 0 8478 4025 0. (A superb collection of excellent reproductions of paintings of rivers and other marine subjects, from Vernet to Derain, with a special emphasis on Caillebotte. Good essays, and a detailed chronology for Caillebotte.)
Rubin JH (2013) How to Read an Impressionist Painting, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 97057 7. (Very broad coverage of Impressionist works, with 20 by Caillebotte. However the illustrations are small to medium sized.)