Self Portrait, Gustave Caillebotte, circa 1892, Public Domain
Maybe it is really best for an artist to be poor, at least at the beginning of a promising career. It seems to me that inherited riches stopped the artistic career of a potentially great French painter, Gustave Caillebotte.
Caillebotte, 1848-1894, was born to an upper-class Parisian family; most of their large fortune came from textiles used for military uniforms. I can almost hear the family arguments that resulted in Caillebotte going to law school. He was licensed as a lawyer in 1870 and was also trained as an engineer. (“Painting will never get you anywhere, son. Besides, why don’t you just run the family business? We need you.” This is all speculation on my part, of course). Anyway, Caillebotte was drafted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War for almost a year, 1870-1871.
He returned home safely, but rather than working in the family business or practicing law, he began serious study of art at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. I’d speculate that after seeing the horrors of war, he was determined to spend the rest of his life doing exactly what he wanted to do. And being the heir to a very wealthy family gave him the means.
Last year while in Paris I made a trek by train about 12 miles south of the city to the country mansion of the Caillebotte family in the posh suburb of Yerres. There was a special exhibit of the artist’s work. The champions of his work billed Yerres as “Caillebotte’s Giverny”–the tourist magnet that is the beautiful home and garden of Claude Monet. That was wishful thinking, at least for now. I doubt that Yerres will ever have the hordes of tourists that descent daily on Giverny. But that is not a bad thing. No photos were allowed inside the exhibit; that was just as well, because it was easy to give each wonderful painting the close attention it deserved.
Caillebotte painted in a much more realistic style than many of his Impressionist friends, and often from unusual perspectives.
The Yerres, Effect of Rain, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, GNU Free Documentation License
The property was much larger when the family occupied it. But the house and grounds are still beautiful, and beautifully placed on the banks of the River Yerre. I especially loved the virtuoso painting above, depicting a moment of time as rain falls on the still surface of the river. I loved the play of light and shadow. It was on loan from the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington.
Les Perissoires, Gustave Caillebotte, 1878, Public Domain
The exhibit had many other water scenes, like this one with its unusual vantage point just behind a pair of men paddling canoes on the river. It was on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes.
Gustave Caillebotte, “A Boating Party,” 1877-78, private collection
I stood for a long time in front of this painting of a gentleman rowing in a top hat and bow tie, and bought a large postcard of it. If I could carve out the time, I would travel to Washington, D.C. just to see this one painting again. The image above is from the website article from the National Gallery exhibit, cited below. What if the moments of our lives could be captured in a few thoughtful paintings, rather than a never-ending stream of selfies and forgotten party snapshots?
Young Man at a Window, Gustave Caillebotte,1875, Public Domain
From his family’s Paris city home, Caillebotte also found unusual perspectives. The painting above shows Caillebotte’s younger brother looking out over the street from the Paris family home. The painting is from a private collection.
The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, Public Domain, Musee d’Orsay
Caillebotte’s most famous painting, The Floor Scrapers, was controversial in his day. This masterpiece was actually rejected by the Salon of 1875. But the Impressionists loved it, and it appeared in their second Impressionist exhibit, where people stood in front of it and argued. Why? There was already a time-honored tradition of painting peasants at work in the countryside, but almost no one had honored urban laborers by painting them. The scene is believed to show a moment of refurbishment of the artist’s own studio in Paris. I love the play of soft light from the open window, the delicate curls of the planed wood, and the sweating shirtless laborers. Did Caillebotte gain an appreciation of the work of ordinary people during his wartime service?
Sadly, Caillebotte mostly stopped painting at age 34; he was more interested in photography. The exhibit I saw had a number of his photos, but in my mind they paled beside his paintings. I wish he had stayed with his brushes and canvases.
For many years, Caillebotte was neglected as an artist and more well known as a patron of other artists, notably his Impressionist friends Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Camille Pisarro. He bought their canvases, funded and curated their exhibits, and sometimes paid their rent.
Did Caillebotte believe he had reached the limit of his abilities and it was better to be a patron of more talented artists? Or was painting just too much hard work? He had the means to do anything he wanted to do. What he wanted was to hobnob with artists, grow orchids, build yachts, collect stamps, and generally enjoy himself. Who can blame him? And yet I wish he’d had a bit more of a work ethic.
Caillebotte died while gardening in 1894, aged only 45. He owned a collection of over 70 mostly Impressionist paintings, which he bequeathed to the French state on his death. They formed the core of the state’s Impressionist collection. Modestly, he only included two of his own paintings in the bequest. The rest remained mostly with his family, since he had no need for money and rarely sold a painting.
Gustave Caillebotte, “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” 1877, Public Domain, Art Institute of Chicago
Some of these paintings are part of an exhibit, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, running through October at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The website is at http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2015/gustave-caillebotte.html