History has treated painter Gustave Caillebotte unkindly. Caillebotte’s art has been underappreciated ever since his death from a stroke in 1894, at the age of 45. For almost eight decades, he was mostly known as a perspicacious art collector who bequeathed a treasure trove of Impressionist masterpieces to the French state. Then, he was relegated to the B team, a group of 19th-century artists comprised of Frederic Bazille, Eva Gonzales, Berthe Morisot, and James Tissot.
Now more than 50 amply sized Parisian street scenes, urban interiors, portraits, nudes, foods on display, and country views, from 1875 to 1893, have been brought together by curators Mary Morton and George Shackelford. Featured in “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” on view at the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas, through February 14, following a summer run at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., these impressive works suggest the artist’s reputation deserves to be rebooted.
Unlike his friends and colleagues, Caillebotte inherited wealth. Though he briefly studied to become a lawyer, he was financially secure without a job. While other Impressionists scrimped on living expenses, he could afford costly art supplies. That’s partly why his works are larger than, say, more familiar views of Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet or scenes of ballerinas rehearsing by Edgar Degas. Caillebotte’s comfortable surroundings, moreover, offered wonderful settings for intriguing subjects. Who wouldn’t want to reside in these rooms, among these furnishings, and with such wonderful views outside the windows?
While American museums have been slow to acquire paintings by Caillebotte, his works have turned out to be crowd pleasers. Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago congregate in front of Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), fascinated by the well-heeled, fashionable men and women with open umbrellas crossing the Place de Dublin, where several streets converge. The Kimbell’s popular On the Pont de l’Europe (1876–77) could not be more different. Only three men appear—and in the foreground, to boot—where the girders of the bridge fill the picture plane and the facade of the nearby train station peeks through. Far from being a Johnny-one-note, Caillebotte also made some terrific pictures outdoors. In the National Gallery’s Skiffs (1877), another fan favorite, trees, not the facades of buildings, hug the shore as behatted oarsmen row on rippling, light-reflecting water. In a fourth greatest-hits painting, Man at His Bath (1884), owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a practically life-size male nude seen from behind dries himself off with a towel as light filters into his bathroom from a curtained window.
Though he exhibited with the Impressionists—and even underwrote some of their most important group exhibitions—it was the modernity of Caillebotte’s compositions, not sketchy stylistic traits, that qualified him for inclusion in this movement. His propensity for rendering select details is better appreciated today. The scores of cobblestones and dozens of windows he depicted in Paris Street; Rainy Day and the rivets that you can count that hold the Pont de l’Europe together certainly set him apart from, say, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, all of whom he collected. But these elements also make Caillebotte something of a proto-Minimalist. Take another look at On the Pont de l’Europe. The geometry of the bridge is a cross between Anthony Caro and Chris Burden. Caillebotte was ahead of his time, not lagging behind. It’s we who are finally catching up with him.
The paintings currently at the Kimbell are filled with objects viewed from unusual angles. It could not be more fun figuring out what’s reflected—and what’s not—in the mirrors of At a Café (1880). Caillebotte seems to have enjoyed cropping his figures any which way. And then there’s the matter of his creating spaces that are near and far in the same paintings. In several works, we look down vertiginously from a balcony or balustrade at the street below. These are all stylistic elements that were adopted by both photographers and movie directors long after Caillebotte’s reputation fell into decline. Indeed, Caillebotte’s mastery reminds me of the opening sequence of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), in which Paris awakens. Both the painter and the filmmaker transformed the everyday into high art.
It’s taken a long time to become familiar with Caillebotte’s art. As it is, many of his paintings still belong to family members. “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye” is only the third major American survey show devoted to his work during the past 40 years (Houston and Brooklyn, 1976–77; Chicago, 1994). This round, I became intrigued by the portraits of seated men as well as the group gathered around cardplayers. The concentration they projected was amazing; the decor, magnificent. I’d love to see these works installed alongside paintings by Mary Cassatt—or Thomas Eakins, who studied with Léon Bonnat, the future director of the École des Beaux-Arts, shortly before his French contemporary.
Being displayed in the elegant new Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell underscored the modernity of Gustave Caillebotte’s paintings. It also made clear that Caillebotte was an Impressionist the same way Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressionist.