“Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye”
Mary Morton, George TM Shackelford, and others
University of Chicago Press, June 2015
Hardback, 26 x 31.3 cm (10.2 x 12.3 in), 284 pp., £42.00/$60.00
ISBN 978 0 226 26355 7
Not available for Kindle nor in the iTunes Store.
Was Caillebotte a patron, collector, or painter in his own right?
The major exhibition of his work now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, moving in the autumn to the Kimbell in Fort Worth, should be vindication that he is again being recognised as an Impressionist painter of considerable importance. This is the book to accompany that exhibition, as I had wished for in my previous article in the Favourite Paintings series.
The book is structured fairly conventionally. Its first 121 pages are devoted to a series of essays, and are followed by the catalogue for the exhibition, which is divided into seven themed sections.
End matter includes an outline chronology illustrated with contemporary photos, a chronology of his posthumous reputation and critical reception with summaries of three leading makers of taste, copious notes, a good bibliography, a checklist of works in the exhibition, and a single index covering only artists and titles. There is, unfortunately, no more general index.
The book is large format and printed on a heavyweight paper which does justice to the 57 paintings included, and its many other illustrations. Although this makes the book quite hefty, it is a delight to read.
The essays are of very high quality, and explore some fascinating topics.
Michael Marrinan writes a broad overview of Caillebotte’s personal life and painting, leading to a presentation of his concept of the “viewer’s eye” in the context of some of Caillebotte’s most visually striking works, and cinematic vision. George Shackelford then develops this further in the context of the work of other Impressionists, his support and collecting, and the “genius of his eye”.
Mary Morton starts her chapter with the startling sentence, that “over the five impressionist exhibitions in which he participated, Gustave Caillebotte was recognized by contemporary critics as a dominant, at times the dominant, member of the avant-garde group.” She then proceeds to detail that early critical reception, attributing his loss of “distinctive edge” after the early 1880s to his schism with Degas and his shift in direction to landscape painting, although as this volume and the exhibition show only too clearly, some of those later works were remarkable by any standards.
Alexandra Wettlaufer explains contemporary representations of modernity in the writings of Baudelaire, Balzac, and Zola, and how these are reflected in Caillebotte’s paintings, a valuable insight into the complex cultural context. Elizabeth Benjamin writes about the context of Caillebotte’s interiors and furnishings, stressing the continuing contradiction between the cosy and the uncomfortable.
Stéphane Guégan gives a dissection of The Floor Scrapers (1875) and the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, in the context of contemporary criticism, the influence of Bonnat, and taste for Millet. Finally, Sarah Kennel covers Caillebotte’s fascination for photography and its impact on his earlier paintings, the subject of a previous exhibition and book.
In spite of expressed reservations about many of Caillebotte’s later works, the choice for the catalogue is broadly representative, with almost half (28 of 57) paintings being completed after 1880, and two from the 1890s (he died in 1894). They include his most famous visionary views of Paris, views from windows and balconies, urban interiors, portraits, one female nude (1880) and one male (Man at His Bath, 1884), a dozen still lifes, five of small boats on the Yerres, and nine late works at Gennevilliers. Every one is a joy to see.
Given the dire shortage of exhibitions featuring Caillebotte’s paintings, and of books about his work, even inferior offerings would have been very welcome. With just one reservation, discussed next, this book is an excellent and innovative approach to his work, and should be read by everyone who is interested in Impressionism. It is also recognition that Caillebotte was first and foremost one of the core Impressionists.
However Morton & Shackelford’s introduction is perhaps the most controversial part of this book. It identifies some of the difficulties in assessing Caillebotte’s work, given that it has largely been dispersed around the world and not concentrated in any particular gallery, and its relative lack of analysis.
They outline the series of shocking mistreatments afforded Caillebotte after his death: the 1929 Salon d’Automne which ranked him “an amateur with talent”, and worse. The snag is that, in setting the themes of the exhibition I cannot help but think that Morton & Shackelford are still struggling to shake off this unfounded prejudice. For whilst they repeatedly stress how unique is his vision, and the remarkably idiosyncratic visual effects in many of his paintings, they too (however inadvertently) damn with faint praise.
For example, in the very first paragraph of their introduction, they assert that Caillebotte “never achieved the kind of mastery of painting that Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Cézanne did. His painting was rarely fluid or easy, but often rather laboured, built up, and self-conscious.”
Given all that has been written by and about Cézanne’s ponderous and complex painting method of achieving ‘colour harmonies’, the many months during which Monet laboured over getting his major Grainstacks series to look right, the hardships which Degas’ models were forced to endure whilst he held them in strained positions, and the almost complete lack of documentation of Caillebotte at work, I would be interested to know of the evidence behind those two sentences. Indeed it would have been helpful to have had an essay analysing Caillebotte’s materials, methods, and technique.
They are also ambivalent to say the least with respect to Caillebotte’s innovation. For many, particularly in more modern painting, experimentation and innovation is key to the importance of an artist. Yet Morton & Shackelford appear almost condemnatory in writing “he was highly experimental, and frequently followed dead ends.”
They are also somewhat dismissive of his later works, writing “from the mid-1880s until his death in 1894, he painted some extraordinary works, and many more that are frankly rather ordinary. Of the some 500 paintings in his known oeuvre, only a fraction warrant the attention of a major exhibition.”
One way and another, I think the last sentence could be applied pro rata to many of the currently rated Impressionists, and to a large number of other artists. In any case, they have managed to assemble more than 10% of his total output for this exhibition, even though several notable and important paintings (such as Laundry Drying on the Banks of the Seine, c 1892) are not included.
There is also throughout the essays various plays on the theme of Caillebotte’s wealth, as if Cézanne’s father had never been an affluent banker and Cézanne himself had had to sell paintings to feed his family, in neglect of the financial background and motivations of Degas, and (until his change in fortunes in the Franco-Prussian War) that of Sisley.
Professionalism and dependence on commercial success have very complex effects on individual artists. If Cézanne had relied on sales to pay his bills, I wonder whether he would have remained so experimental throughout his career. On the other hand, I still see strong arguments that Monet, for example, painted much more radically when he was struggling to sell his works, than after he became rich at Giverny.
I feel that there is the danger that, whilst rightly criticising the peremptory treatment that earlier critics had afforded Caillebotte, his work has still not been tackled with quite the open mind that it deserves. But this is a huge step forward in the right direction, and I thoroughly recommend both this book and the exhibition.
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 57 paintings are listed in its catalogue, making it unmissable.