The Kimbell Art Museum has become known for its blockbuster shows about Impressionism. But the one that opened this week in Fort Worth is different. It’s not another sweeping history of the famous movement; it concentrates on just a single painter and a rare one: Gustave Caillebotte. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Justin Martin to explain why this Impressionist painter is worth all the attention.
Jerome, you’re all excited about a major new exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum – an exhibition about a French Impressionist painter I’ve frankly never heard of.
Instead, he started hanging out with painters. Caillebotte didn’t participate in the first Impressionists’ ‘break away’ protest exhibition in 1874, but he debuted in the second in 1876. Not only that, he made an instant name for himself with his first, large-scale masterpiece, ‘The Floor Scrapers.’ He also helped bankroll the show and would eventually underwrite some of the more cash-strapped Impressionists, notably Monet.
One simple way he did this: He bought their paintings. Caillebotte had a relatively brief, productive career — he died in 1894, eighteen years after his debut — but when he died, he deeded 68 of those paintings to the French government. A tremendous gift at the time — which the government refused.
But the upshot of this longstanding controversy was Caillebotte became far better known for this donation than anything else. His own art came to be seen as a rich patron’s hobby. It really wasn’t until the 1970s, almost a century after Caillebotte’s death, that critics and curators began to realize how fresh his paintings are.
But over that century, why didn’t they just look at the works and see their quality?
I’m looking online at some of Caillbotte’s paintings right now –
But Caillebotte’s most distinctive works, his greatest paintings, are his city paintings. These are time capsules from the new Paris recently hacked out of the city’s old medieval tangle by Baron Haussmann in one of the grandest (and some argued, one of the more relentlessly political) feats of urban development-by-government-fiat.
In capturing this freshly minted cityscape and the stylish life that had sprouted there, Caillebotte’s artistry is, at times, more old-fashionedly realistic than his radical colleagues among the Impressionists.
In the most extreme cases of the Impressionists’ art — like Monet’s sunrises or water lilies — everything gets de-materialized into light and color. Caillebotte’s paintings are more solid, patently geometric in their planning but also psychologically sharp. And the cool, almost abstract way he handles his subjects make his work feel strikingly ahead of its time. Instead of Renoir’s picnics and Degas’ gimlet-eyed backstage glimpses, Caillebotte’s portraits and cityscapes are notably quiet, even somber. They’re often suffused in shades of blue and grey, offset by just a bit of creamy flesh or dark red upholstery. Most prominently, they’re inhabited by solitary figures. Caillebotte’s people sit or stand at windows, often just staring at something outside. In one instance (‘Interior,’ above), there’s even a rather haunting ‘Rear Window’ moment, when his female subject finds another woman looking back. I’ve never seen so many backs of portrait heads in a single exhibition. It’s like Caillebotte is actually trying to paint the invisible — the act of looking and thinking.
If people know Caillebotte at all, they know his giant, marvelous masterwork, ‘Paris Street, Rainy Day’ from 1877 (above, top) with all its umbrellas and glistening cobblestones (it was at the Kimbell as recently as 2008, so, welcome back). But even among this painting’s strolling crowd, it quickly becomes apparent no one is saying a word. They’re lost in thought, barely acknowledging anyone else. They’re essentially alone in public — with Haussmann’s architecture isolating them even more in the painting’s layout. Caillebotte is like the Edward Hopper of French painting.
The guy who painted ‘Nighthawks at the Diner‘?
Honestly, Jerome, you make the show sound morbid, even depressing.
But there’s one street scene at sunset — owned by a private Dallas collector – and I defy anyone not to find it luscious, possibly even worth all my gushing. Haussmann’s new apartment blocks look like rows of icing-bedecked wedding cakes in a bakery shop window (a comparison neatly echoed by ‘Pastry Cakes’ from 1881, one of Caillebotte’s foodie spreads). The curators’ choice of purple for some of the walls, especially in the central, splendid gallery, only augments the way Caillebotte uses dark blues or reddish purples for his rich shadows. The painter also repeatedly employs a deep, deep focus. He gives you these streets or rooms stretching into the distance, and they just draw you in. They fascinate. Soon, you’re like one of Caillebotte’s figures, standing and staring, lost in wonder.