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An Impressionistic Outlier

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Gustavee Caillebotte: the Painter’s Eye

National Gallery, Washington DC
June 28–October 4, 2015 
West Building Main Floor


The Floor Scrapers, 1875

I caught gustavee Caillebotte’s first major retrospective in this country after having strolled the National Mall – which was fair and sunny – and was looking forward to the sun coming back to me after I went inside. I won’t, for fear of taking a cheap shot so early on, say: “No such luck.” Caillebotte’s paintings are, at a glance, as likeable as a bouquet of flowers that haven’t been put in a vase and are losing their color. Yet we know that, when they are, they’ll perk right up and make us want to smell – or paint – them. Caillebotte’s paintings can be as elementally appealing as newly mown grass. And they often exude the bourgeois prosperity to which Caillebotte was introduced as a young man and never quite got over it. What we see in Caillebotte we love in Monet and Sisley; in Pissarro and Manet. As with Monet and Sisley, Caillebotte was attracted to rural subjects, peopled by boaters, strollers, and flaneurs who have very likely escaped the big city boulevards that were also Impressionist strongholds. Pissarro devoted his final years to such places. Manet – who liked to watch from a windowsill – was caught up in dramatic moments that, because they were so fleeting, were rarely noticed by the participants. You could say that he was a sort of imitator, but that wouldn’t be fair. Impressionism came out of a rebellious streak that was bound to take root sometime . And when it did, it attracted a mess of painters, all of whom were dedicated to an optical aesthetic in which the value structure of reality was rendered in the sort of color we now call “photographic” – though, as a cursory analysis of any color photograph would tell you, photographic color and optical color are as different as, to borrow from Mark Twain, a shaft of lighting and a lightning-bug. The Impressionists were a rag-tag bunch on which respectability was conferred much (as it so often happens in art) too late. Yet their sincerity, both as individuals and as a group, cannot be gainsaid. Caillebotte – who almost lived till the end of the 19th-century – saw a dawning acceptability. It would take the likes of Monet to see it completely done.

As a rule, the paintings commanded my attention – though also my scrutiny, which ruined many of them for me. Some were fairly large, in the old Salon style, and they too were, at a glance, appealing. Yet a second glance yielded their many flaws, which neither memory nor intellectual sympathy could revoke. Caillebotte’s incurable mediocrity was so completely reliable, it caused reflections to tilt up instead of down; people to seem too large or small; and natural light to go cattywampus. The scale of some of his paintings, including Paris Street, Rainy Day, whose pudgy-looking bureaucrat and his female companion tramp through a Parisian mist, is most agreeable. (In this painting, the space is managed pretty well. The elegant-looking apartment buildings recede, the cobblestones glisten somewhat, and the overall mood – in spite of the drizzle – is one of prosperous cheerfulness.) Another nearly famous painting, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, shows its subject in the finest possible fettle. He lives in a fashionable apartment on Paris’ most fashionable boulevard and he’s taking his ease, just as any haute-bourgeois character ought to be doing. (Over time, I have come to believe that he has just relieved himself on the boulevardiers beneath him. In a similar painting, another man is in the act of doing that very thing. However, the fancy ironwork is smartly rendered – better than Manet in this case – and the sunlight bounces off the blondish limestone very convincingly. In these paintings, Caillebotte is pretty good – though not if you study the fabric-folds and other “details.” A better artist would have seen them more clearly and delineated them, not as clunky-looking bulges, but as a painterly mass punctuated with knowing accents. For all of his occasional “hits”, Caillebotte was never the sort of artist Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley were. And it depresses me to think that he is lumped in with the rest of them – even as a lesser light.

Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877

Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877

On that sunny day at the National Gallery, Caillebotte’s strongest efforts were not so rare they were absent entirely, but they seemed happy accidents – the home run a journeyman hitter will smash and proceed to go into a 0-37 slump.

Caillebotte’s upbringing was typical of his Impressionist colleagues: professional training, in his case as a lawyer and engineer, a not-very-swift, but comfortably rebellious left turn followed by study at a fashionable painter’s (in this case Leon Bonnat) atelier, where he attempted to acquire the firm and steady graces that guaranteed a painter’s acceptability with the Salon. He was apparently dissatisfied with the academic treadmill by which one activated a promising career and began associating with Degas – who had aligned himself with other academically trained artists for whom classical drapery and “licked” surfaces had little charm – and Guiseppe di Nittis, an underrated artist who specialized in somewhat monochromatic, but irresistibly moody, daylight pictures that looked suspiciously like nocturnes. Caillebotte didn’t show with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but was included in the second with The Floor Scrapers, his most famous, and possibly most successful, Salon-style painting. In it, he shows a pair of squatting laborers buffing down the floorboards in an empty, haute bourgeois-style apartment. The color is moody, as befits an indoor scene; the laborers are well below the horizon line, which dramatizes the back-and-forth quality of what they’re doing while silvery highlights find floorboards that are not yet buffed down. Actual floor-scrapings punctuate an otherwise unblemished surface. It has some of Caillebotte’s ungainly drawing, but it is a successful picture and was a fine little shot, for a man who had never exhibited before, across the bow. Its over-the-mantel scale complements a subject that might be – if it were not so confined – ever-expanding. These laborers know their work and they are getting down to it. Yet there’s a disturbing dichotomy: their exacting craftsmanship will stay where they left it. In a few weeks or even days, they’ll be buffing down a similar place with the patient vigor they lavish here. I don’t think Caillebotte was attempting to reflect on the soul-killing anonymity of physical labor, but one’s thoughts go there anyway. In this way artists set the stage, not only for their subjects, but for our ruminations.

I’m glad he did this painting. There are a great many pictures of buildings being taken down. Or finished on the outside. Or being raised from a spidery superstructure of iron and steel. But few painters have thought to show how a floor – which will eventually get covered up – can acquire an occasionally unearthly sheen. Or might at least get it started. I’ve never felt that an artist was only as good as his or her last painting. Sometimes the gods smile, the sky opens up, and there’s your masterpiece. If you can’t duplicate it, what’s the worry? You’ve been to the Promised Land; you’ve supped on milk and honey; and you’ve heard a thousand virgins speaking your name. In The Floor Scrapers, Caillebotte saw The Promised Land. He just didn’t have a return ticket.

The working-class was not new to painting. It was merely, or mostly, rural. When Millet’s peasantry was introduced, it seemed (to quote Shaw’s Henry Higgins) less “deliciously dirty” than ready to overthrow the government – which it was not. It is hard for us to imagine the political overtones that colored perceptions of labor – which was as highly politicized in the 1870’s as it has ever been. Were these men and women symbols of revolt? Or were they merely tired-out from a dawn-to-dusk regime which had dogged them from the cradle and would stick with them for the rest of their lives? (It is no accident that so many of Millet’s paintings were done at twilight.) The Impressionists were mostly concerned with leisure activities. Small wonder that Renoir’s Boating Party is one of the most beloved paintings in the world. Who in this picture is worried about the rent? Caillebotte, along with Courbet and a small assortment of academic painters, wanted to represent labor as it was and will always be: a job of work that had to be done with clenched teeth and rippling muscles. It wasn’t necessarily undignified, but it wasn’t very rewarding either. Whenever grit appeared in an Impressionists painting, it was so high-keyed that nobody identified it as such. It was – as it had never been before – an instrument of pleasure.

It is a pity that Caillebotte set aside his attraction to subjects in which some sort of physical labor was either peripheral to a painting’s message or a preoccupying force. He might have gone someplace far more interesting than where he did.

Most of his subjects, as well as his technical orientation, are in the Impressionist mold. One might appoint Manet as his Interior Secretary. Here is a man sitting or standing amidst his worldly goods, which look pretty swell. Here is a woman reading or dressing. These are not sentimental representations or overly pretty ones. They’re just not very skillful – as I said earlier and will say again. The most ridiculous involves a seated woman (Interior, a Woman Reading) and what appears to be her pet, who is reading on a faraway couch. Look at it. The woman, who is plopped down in a chair, seems to tower over a bobble-headed miniature of a man. Whose existence or dignity should we credit? I don’t know. I’m very nearly satisfied with a notion of a little-bitty person and a big one. Even before Hobbits stalked the earth, Caillebotte seems to have had an inside track. No other Impressionist had ever attempted one – for which we should be nervously grateful.

Sunflowers, Garden Petit Gennevilliers c.1885Monet and Sisley are his Godfathers-in-Nature. Behold the sunflower (Sunflowers, Garden Petit Gennevilliers), which, in Caillebotte’s hands is wonderfully supple, as is the garden that contains it. Monet’s garden terraces have a rough decorum. As he painted his sunflowers, Caillebotte had a fair number of floor-scraper moments. These roughnecks of the floral brotherhood are buoyant, they are brilliant, and they are true. On the other hand, Caillebotte’s dahlias have all of the suppleness of drywall. Without the plaster.

Caillebotte-as-Pissarro – he of the hotel balcony and sitting room – is, by almost any yardstick, the most successful. When Caillebotte paints a street-scene in the Pissarroian mode, his seems spiritually comfortable. His celebration of Haussmannesque clarity, The Rue Halevy, Seen from a Balcony – which he did twice – is not only an essential Impressionist subject, it is a creditable Impressionist painting as well.. His palette takes on the textbook complementaries for which Monet and Pissarro were justly celebrated and Sisley (mostly) unsung. He seems to understand that envelope of light through which Impressionism sways and glides; flickers to life and keeps going. He likes diminishing views and sideward perspectives. And, when there isn’t a figure to reckon with or a flowing river to harness, Caillebotte seems perfectly at home and serenely accomplished. Gone are his lock-jawed human creations. With a sense of loving humility, Caillebotte sets his grandiose visions aside. And with a corresponding attraction, he creates luscious color, a pleasurable moodiness, spatial magic. As with The Floor Scrapers, I wish he’d gone to this place a little more often. It is nearly dusk in a brand-new city and Caillebotte inhabits it completely.

The Boulevard, Seen from Above, 1880Another fairly remarkable painting anticipates an image Andre Kertesz made of a very different sort of Paris fifty years later. It is The Boulevard, Seen from above. What appears to be a ginkgo grows from a circular tree-well. Yet the perspective is such that we are bending over, as if we might jump down on to the branches and hold on for dear life. The painting’s effectiveness consists not only in its shallow space, but in isolating a fine little vignette and exposing it to our initially resistant consciousness. Where space is so compressed, we often feel claustrophobic. Yet, because of the Caillebotte’s ability to stage-manage a park bench, a slow-moving fellow on his way to a similar area, and some unruly branches, we’ve got a passing moment we are likely to remember.

Caillebotte’s attempts at bridge-building were, however, no more successful than his large lady and little man. These are big pictures, but they are also – in spite of their presence in textbooks and other Impressionist literature, not very good ones. Even the frisky little dog in The Pont de l’Europe, with his wagging tail and nose to the cobblestones, is not very lively. And his figures, which appear to have had a bigger lunch than they had bargained for, slouch along an iron bridge that has none of the texture and tension that’s slammed together with rivets and hoisted into place with hydraulic booms.

skiffs1877Depending on where you look (the exhibit is comprehensive), Caillebotte’s painterly skills deteriorate monstrously, or are helped out by a sympathetic subject, good day, or a native talent that was never sufficiently brought out. Skiffs is possibly the worst painting an avowed or unofficial Impressionist ever did. As oar strikes water, water doesn’t seem to want it very much and repels it. Additionally, there is a suspicious-looking wake and, at long last, a ripple that looks like it was derived from some other substance. A curbstone perhaps. Or a sash-weight that has acquired a sudden buoyancy. Caillebotte’s rower fares no better. He seems to share anatomical failures with any of Caillebotte’s figures, who are unnecessarily hard-edged, stretched to breaking-points for which God never prepared them, and as stiff as a stuffed shirt. Caillebotte liked to whip up some action, but he was rarely up to the challenge of creating action figures. This is vintage Caillebotte, which is never as good as it needs to be, but convincing enough for us to come closer to the water’s edge and have a swimmer or rower suddenly lunge out at you and break themselves in two.

The figures in Boating on the Yerres are much more animated. Yet the swirls and eddies they agitate are generalized. They’re all right, but, according to the movement patterns in the water, the boat should have capsized and the people in them. . .well, let’s hope Caillebotte has endowed them with swimming capabilities.

At c Cafe 1880I like At a Cafe, with its plush-covered banquettes and a long mirror in which other patrons can be dimly seen. The man who faces us could be a gilded-age scoundrel – which he very likely is: slightly overweight and straining toward the viewer as if he wants to add to a story that didn’t go so well – or was so ripping that he’s got to tell us a little more. He seems to be walking into a de Maupassant story. Or a Balzac yarn. At their best, Caillebotte’s figures are robustious, in which case such minor flaws as might dog them don’t matter as much as they ordinarily and, very often, do in other pictures. This fellow will live on. We would all like to hear him say something and hope, this time, that he will.

There is a whole room of still-life paintings which aren’t very good. They are spatially and texturally flat and do absolutely nothing, as Chaim Soutine’s flayed oxen would, to shock us into a sense of reality. Caillebotte’s fruit and game look not so much as if they’re posing; they would prefer, I think, for somebody to eat them on the spot.

Caillebotte was probably aware of his limitations, but he did attempt to challenge and subvert them. His best alla prima painting, Linen out to Dry, Petit Gennevilliers, is admirably agitated, though the big-bellied nigh-shirts that are being buffeted about resemble nothing so much as pigs-in-blankets. Caillebotte understood, however, what he was doing and pulled the thing off. His skewed sense of the third dimension, which generally hobbled him, did not show up that day. And we are the richer for it. I’d never seen that panting and I was glad I did.

Caillebotte’s generosity to other painters was legend. Like Corot, he preferred to disguise his munificence – or not take credit for it at all. It was as if he realized that the artistic gap between him and his more impoverished cohorts – which he would rarely bridge on the picture plane – he could manage with a little (or lot of) money. Unlike his colleagues, he did not have to exhibit and may have enjoyed the act and process of picture-making as much as – or even more than – the whole lot of them. If you read Monet’s letters, they can become monotonously money-oriented. It seems paradoxical that great artists are often preoccupied with practical matters while their less talented contemporaries, who have some cash in their pockets, can revel in a shallow river’s flower-scented breezes and choppy waves (such as Monet and Sisley painted with a stunning authenticity) completely.

Gustave Caillebotte is the sort of painter we can occasionally admire; ridicule now and then, but commiserate with completely. He never quite found himself, but we see glimmers of a genuine personality. Throughout an exhibit that showcases his most famous work, but does not seem to recognize its flaws or care anything about setting the record straight about them, the “real” Caillebotte – for whom Caillebotte often looked in vain – is undeniably present. I have no idea what his fellow Impressionists thought of him. Perhaps they were so compulsively absorbed in their own work that they didn’t bother to appraise him as a writer or critic might. Perhaps he was a consortable fellow (as it seems he was) who could ingratiate himself with his peers. Most likely, when a new art form is in its brawling phases, it cannot be appraised with the ferocious objectivity one might bring to a tradition that is well on its way. The Impressionists knew what they were rejecting, but, each in his or her separate ways, they were re-inventing the picture-plane and everything that was supposed to happen there. Why nitpick in the midst of a revolution?

Well, now we can split hairs and poor Gustave does not, except in those occasional glimmers, get the best of it.

Brett Busang, Art Correspondent for Open Letters Monthly, has contributed articles, reviews, and profiles to such publications as New York Press, The Bloomsbury Review, Footnotes, Loch Raven Review and numerous others. He is also a painter whose work has been widely, if haphazardly, collected.