The Paris Salon ran into problems over its many rejected paintings in 1863, but the early years of the Third Republic, after the Franco-Prussian War, were no easier.
Even reliable crowd-pleasers like Jean-Léon Gérôme had become a little difficult. His Pollice Verso from 1872 had become controversial when viewers and critics noticed its group of Vestal Virgins relishing cold-blooded murder in the gladiatorial arena.
Social realism as painted by the likes of Jules Breton seemed more acceptable, as it was provincial, and far-removed from the battered city of Paris. Breton’s Young Woman Spinning (1872) was surely a safe image for him to be awarded the Salon’s Médaille d’Honneur that year.
Among the younger and more progressive painters to find success at the Salon was the Italian Giuseppe De Nittis. He had two paintings hung in the Salon of 1874, including Che freddo! (Freezing!) (1874).
The following year, De Nittis exhibited again in the Salon. His paintings submitted remained quite tightly realist, although most of his other paintings show abundant free brushstrokes.
It was against this background that Gustave Caillebotte submitted his first masterpiece to the Salon in 1875. Caillebotte was decidedly upper class, his father being a commercial court judge and owner of a flourishing textile business. Gustave had already trained as a lawyer and started practice shortly before the Franco-Prussian War. It was after that, in 1871, that he started to train to paint. He began in Léon Bonnat’s studio, then won a place at the École des Beaux-Arts for 1873.
Among his early works, Caillebotte’s 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 is 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.
In 1875, he painted intensively, working on several challenging ideas.
He painted the large vegetable gardens which fed the estates of the rich, as in The Gardeners (1875). But these too were within more acceptable bounds, a sort of domesticated rural poor.
Young Man at the Window (1875) was to be 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. Their unusual perspective, view, and combination of interior dark, silhouette, and exterior brightness were innovative, but on fairly safe ground.
Caillebotte’s photographic influence extended to compositional techniques which were becoming popular in photography at that time, particularly innovative viewpoints and fields of view. His Rain on the Yerres from 1875 took on the optics of raindrops striking a mirror-flat water surface.
His major painting of that year shows three workmen preparing a wooden floor in the artist’s studio at 77 rue de Miromesnil. Each is stripped to the waist, and they’re talking to one another as they work kneeling down. It’s thoroughly detailed, Realist, and despite its innovative view and unusual subject, it conformed to the highest standards of the Salon at the time.
Caillebotte was hurt and angry when he was informed that this painting had been rejected by the Salon jury. The grounds given seem extraordinary now: apparently the jury was shocked at this depiction of the working class at work, and not even fully-clothed. It was deemed to have a ‘vulgar subject matter’ unsuitable for the public to view.
The following year, Caillebotte exhibited this masterpiece at the Second Impressionist Exhibition. There it was damned by faint praise, for being ‘the least bad of the exhibition’, but was repeatedly deemed ‘vulgar’ by critics. Others considered that its rejection by the Salon jury was a very poor decision, and gave it the praise that it deserved.
For Caillebotte it brought great change. He had already been invited by Edgar Degas to become involved with the French Impressionists, and this rejection drove him away from realism and the Salon to Impressionism.
The Pont de l’Europe, painted the following year, 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’.
Caillebotte continued to look deeper into more photographic projections with his Skiffs on the Yerres (1877).
Perhaps the Salon jury would have found the theme of Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) less vulgar and more acceptable. But by that time, he was a committed Impressionist. His style soon loosened, and he painted more masterpieces, freed of the need to worry about what might be deemed vulgar, and not fit for the public.