Gustave Caillebotte

Caillebotte c. 1787.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894)

Gustave Caillebotte was trained by celebrated French painter Leon Bonnat. He was three years out of Bonnat’s studio when he first exhibited with the Impressionists, and over the years his style did not stray much from the teachings of Bonnat, whose works generally contain a serious, Velasquezesque air.

Caillebotte, The Floor-scrapers, 1875

Caillebotte debuted his works at the Impressionists’ second exhibition in 1876. He  was the star of the show. His series The Floor-scrapers received numerous excited reviews. One of the most commonly used words to describe Caillebotte’s series was “original.”  was one such critic. In the 8 April 1876 issue of La Gazette, Marius Chaumelin, an art critic who had never heard of Caillebotte, implored:

“Who knows Caillebotte? Where does he come from? In what school was he trained? No one has been able to tell me. All I know is that Caillebotte is one of the most original painters to have come forward in some time…”

For The Academy, a London periodical, Philippe Burty wrote on 15 April 1876  that The Floor-scrapers was “energetic,” calling to mind Florentine art. And, in a separate, earlier review of 1 April 1876, in La Republique Francaise, Burty exclaimed that Caillebotte was “a beginner whose beginnings will create a sensation”—a prediction that came into fruition quickly. Caillebotte was the critic favorite from the time he first exhibited in 1876 until the seventh Impressionist (and his last) exhibition in 1882.

At the exhibition of 1882, Caillebotte’s paintings were unhappily received by many critics (and some paintings at prior exhibits were also negatively reviewed, though not to nearly the same extent). Jean de Nivelle, writing for Le Soleil on the 4 March 1882, commented “One of the most relentless Independents, Caillebotte, is showing around twenty hilarious paintings.” On 2 March 1882, the infamous art critic Albert Wolff noted that “[w]hen Caillebotte is not demented, he has as much talent as anyone.” As satirical or amusing as these comments might be, they are part of a consistent whole that recognized the fall of Caillebotte, once welcomed for his refreshing “non-Impressionist” style. As true taches Impressionism became more popular, Caillebotte became an outsider and was, in a way, betrayed by his own style. Caillebotte was 34 at the time. He never exhibited his work again.

Like art historian Richard R. Brettell, I am skeptical about just how “Impressionist”  Caillebotte’s paintings are—and were, in their late 19th century context. Even though the Impressionists’ styles varied from artist to artist, Caillebotte’s varied to a degree of complete difference. Critics must have noticed this difference, even if they didn’t write about it, especially since Caillebotte’s works were in the same room as Monet’s and their stylistic differences would have been impossible to overlook. Also noticeable across these exhibits would have been the different focus that Caillebotte’s art had when contrasted with his contemporaries’ art.

As a whole, Caillebotte does not focus on celebrating the fleeting moments of joy and livelihood in French life as his contemporaries so often displayed; nor on capturing the “special characteristics of the modern individual.” His exhibited works vary in theme and are “ordinary,” as critics sometimes called his work. His art was caught between the solemn, austere mood he was trained in and the glorious, excited style that he exhibited alongside. Caillebotte captured the vibrant nature of Parisian life and merged it with the desire for a renewed sense of national pride that much of France was feeling at this time as they recovered from the humiliating defeat of the Franco-Prussian war.

Art must produce virile and grand works, worthy of the task in front of us, styles worthy of the terrible times we have come through and of the future that awaits us.” — Louis Emile Edmond Duranty, 1876

The above was modified from an honors paper I wrote while at UCLA.