Of the painters normally associated with the French Impressionists, two appear to be rather different: Edgar Degas, about whom I wrote at length last autumn, and Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894).
With the recent ‘rediscovery’ of Naturalism, or social realism, Caillebotte is now being associated with accepted Naturalist artists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, in many respects more strongly than with the core French Impressionists such as Monet and Pissarro. In this and the next article, I am going to look at a small selection of Caillebotte’s paintings across the breadth of his career, considering how Naturalist they might be, and how that fits in with their appreciation.
Caillebotte started painting seriously quite late: he had already completed his law degree and obtaining a licence to practice law before the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. After that, he started to visit Léon Bonnat’s studio, where he very rapidly became an accomplished painter. Among Bonnat’s better-known pupils were John Singer Sargent, Laurits Tuxen, PS Krøyer, Alfred Philippe Roll, Thomas Eakins, Jean Béraud, and Louis Béroud. Roll, Béraud, and Béroud all painted in Naturalist style during its heyday.
Among his early works, his pastel painting of a Nude Woman Lying on a Couch (1873) demonstrates his skills so early in his career. This is one of the few nude figures which he painted, and exquisitely detailed, particularly for a work in pastel. He does make marks, but even traces the fine detail of the distant cushions, and the pattern on the couch at the upper left. The figure is carefully finished to a delicate skin texture.
Painted within less than five years of starting to visit Bonnat’s studio, Les Raboteurs de parquet or The Floor Scrapers (1875) is a breath-taking masterpiece by any standards, and one of the major works of European art in the nineteenth century. It has been subjected to intensive analysis and speculation, so I will add little here except that of relevance to the issue of Naturalism.
It shows three men at work, undertaking a task which is both physically demanding, and skilled – the combination which was popular among Naturalist painters when they depicted motifs from industry. It was not, though, a technological or novel activity. Caillebotte combines three figure studies in a composition which is unconventional and possibly ‘photographic’ in character, and unusually lit.
As The Floor Scrapers is an essay in linear perspective, so Caillebotte’s Rain on the Yerres (1875) is a study of the construction of a reflective water surface using projected circles. It has much in common with the landscape paintings of Frits Thaulow.
The Gardeners (1875) is a painstakingly realist depiction of a modern motif, intensive cultivation within a walled vegetable garden. Caillebotte was an obsessed and obsessive gardener, whose gardening eventually took precedence over his painting. He forms each plant and tree individually, and carefully textures the whole of the wall.
The Pont de l’Europe (1876) doesn’t show one of the popular bridges over the River Seine in Paris, but a roadbridge over the railway yards at Gare Saint-Lazare, a large plaza formed at the confluence of six avenues. Although there are several readings of the figures present, the scene is highly contemporary and dominated by the heavy trusses forming the bridge, and steam from a passing train. As with The Floor Scrapers, its perspective projection is unusual, and potentially ‘photographic’.
Young Man at the Window (1875) is the first of a substantial series of paintings in which Caillebotte showed figures in the foreground above the streets of Paris. In this, his younger brother René was his model, and the window is in their home on the rue de Miromesnil. With their unusual perspective, view, and combination of interior dark, silhouette, and exterior brightness, these inspired Christian Krohg.
Mademoiselle Boissière Knitting (1877) is a smaller and more sketchy work, one of the first in which Caillebotte might be said to be painting in Impressionist style. The furniture is formed from organised brushstrokes, although it and the east Asian inspired wallpaper still retain quite a lot of detail. Caillebotte’s setting is not the cold, clinical background of Krohg’s paintings at Skagen, though.
Périssoires sur l’Yerres, or Skiffs on the Yerres, (1877) is one of a series of paintings which Caillebotte made of contemporary watersports, in which he actively engaged. His style is quite loose, with gestural marks for the reflections on the water, for instance. Despite those, this was clearly not painted quickly out of doors.
Paris, a Rainy Day (1877, above) is a study for Caillebotte’s masterpiece below, Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877). Although the study could be interpreted as being painted quickly, in the context of the finished work below, it is unlikely that the artist intended it to be seen as a work of art in its own right.
The finished Paris Street, Rainy Day develops from The Pont de l’Europe into a low-key optically-precise semi-photographic style, which wasn’t really seen again until the realist paintings of the late twentieth century.
Oarsman in a Top Hat (1877-78) is another relatively loosely-painted motif of leisuretime watersport, which inspired Christian Krohg.
Vue de toits (effet de neige), or Rooftops in the Snow (snow effect), from 1878, is perhaps one of Caillebotte’s closest paintings to core Impressionism, with its atmospheric greyness and sketchy forms. Even here, though, he feels obliged to brush in each of the louvres in the foreground, chimneys and trees into the distance.
The winter snow of early 1878 is a marked contrast to The Orange Trees of later that year, with its carefully-formed foreground details. Caillebotte’s style is here looser than that of Bastien-Lepage, for example, but the optical trick of providing fine foreground detail against a sketchier distance is the same.
The next article looks at Caillebotte’s paintings from 1880 on, as Naturalism came to dominate the Salon.
Favourite Paintings, 15 – Gustave Caillebotte, Skiffs on the Yerres, 1877
Book Review: Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, Morton and Shackelford
Marriman, Michael (2016) Gustave Caillebotte, Painting the Paris of Naturalism, 1872-1887, Getty Research Institute. ISBN 978 1 60606 507 5.