Analysis: Caillebotte's Modern Aesthetic
An introduction to Caillebotte's contribution as an artist and art collector and a study of his monumental painting Paris Street; Rainy Day and its likely influence on Georges Seurat.
Book: French Impressionists
Brettell, Richard. French Impressionists. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987, p. 45-46.
Gustave Caillebotte’s masterpiece was begun in 1876 and finished early in 1877. It shared the spotlight with Auguste Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and Claude Monet’s series of the Saint-Lazare train station at the Impressionist exhibition of 1877. While the reputations of Renoir and Monet grew rapidly in their own lifetimes, Caillebotte never attained greater fame than when he exhibited this, and other immense canvases at that extraordinary exhibition. There are several reasons for his neglect; the most obvious has to do with Caillebotte’s own wealth and social status. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he lived comfortably insulated from the rocky economic times of the Third French Republic (1871-1940). Perhaps, for that reason, he rarely sold his work and devoted himself, instead, to forming the single most important collection of Impressionist paintings by his colleagues. He gave these paintings to the French nation at his death, and they form the core of the world’s greatest collection of Impressionism, now housed in Paris in the Musée d’Orsay.
Paradoxically, it was not until the Art Institute purchased Paris Street; Rainy Day in 1964 that his best painting became accessible to a wide, international public. It is easy to see just why Caillebotte’s work was appealing in 1877 and remains so today. His carefully crafted surfaces, well-conceived perspectival space, and monumental scale were easily accepted by Parisian audiences accustomed to a similar Salon aesthetic. His asymmetrical compositions, cropping, and uncompromisingly modern subjects were exciting to a more radical sensibility. When standing in front of a Caillebotte, a Parisian viewer could, in a sense, eat his cake and have it too. His aesthetic was undeniably modern, but never strayed from the conservative French Academy of Fine Arts. In the words of an anonymous reviewer of the 1877 exhibition: "Caillebotte is an Impressionist in name only. He knows how to draw and paints more seriously than his friends." In Paris Street; Rainy Day, life-sized figures walk toward us on the sidewalk of the rue de Turin just before it crosses the rue de Moscou. This complex intersection, part of the new city plan of Paris designed by Baron Georges Haussmann, was located just minutes from the Saint-Lazare train station and the cast-iron Place de l’Europe, from which one could view the trains rushing back and forth from the countryside. Caillebotte himself owned property in this neighborhood, and Edouard Manet’s studio was less than a five-minute walk from this intersection.
The correctly dressed, prosperous couple who are the major figures in the painting politely avert their eyes from the viewer, seemingly unaware of what will soon be a collision of umbrellas with the man entering from the right of Caillebotte’s composition. The other figures and two carriages negotiate their way through the grand spaces of this rather stark urban landscape, avoiding each other as well as the beautifully painted puddles in the cobbled streets. Caillebotte greatly enlarged the illusion of space in what is, in fact, a considerably smaller street corner. The figures are scaled down with respect to the buildings, which are also placed at greater distances from each other than they are in reality. Surely, this was done to give a modern, anonymous grandeur to this utterly bourgeois quarter. succinct in his condemnation: "The subject lacks interest, as do the figures, as does the painting. Caillebotte sees a gray, confused world. Nothing is more emptied of character and expression than these faces." Yet, on balance, Caillebotte’s painting was very seriously reviewed, probably because it was so large, so ambitious, and so thought provoking. Emile Zola praised the artist for his "courage" and for his desire to "treat modern subjects on a life-sized scale." Georges Riviére, Renoir’s friend and "house" critic for the Impressionists in 1877, took on Caillebotte’s detractors by reminding them of the artist’s efforts to produce the picture. "Those who criticize this painting," he said, "had no idea how difficult it was and what technique was needed to bring off a canvas of this size."
If the 1877 Impressionist exhibition was physically dominated by Caillebotte’s immense canvas, the painter played an equally large role in creating the exhibition that was considered the finest of all eight group exhibitions presented by this informal collective of artists. Never a willing democrat, Caillebotte took over the organization and a good deal of the financing, and his taste was so exemplary, his diplomatic abilities so great, that his only failure was his inability to convince Manet to join the struggling band. In every other way, he succeeded.
In fact, one wonders whether Georges Seurat, then only eighteen years old and already deeply committed to becoming an artist, went to the Impressionist exhibition of 1877. He was a careful student and would have surely been moved by the deliberate pictorial strategies of Paris Street; Rainy Day. Its combination of order and casualness, its application of contrived structures to the depiction of everyday life—all of this would have appealed to Seurat. And is it folly to ask whether Seurat remembered Caillebotte’s masterpiece when he started his own immense painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte seven years later? Seurat’s masterpiece seems almost too related to Paris Street; Rainy Day not to be in some form an homage to Caillebotte’s earlier masterpiece. Caillebotte’s rain becomes Seurat’s sun. His parapluies (umbrellas) become Seurat’s parasols. His urban street becomes Seurat’s suburban park. His confrontational composition, Seurat’s decorous, planar surface. Yet, all these opposites are resolved when one realizes that each composition is anchored at the right by a couple going for an eternal walk in Paris.