‘A Matchless Recorder of the Parisian Scene’: John Russell on Gustave Caillebotte, in 1966

Gustave Caillebotte, A Game of Bezique, 1881, oil on canvas. LOUVRE ABU DHABI

Gustave Caillebotte, A Game of Bezique, 1881, oil on canvas.


Below, in honor of the Kimbell Art Museum’s show “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” which Phyllis Tuchman reviewed for these pages last week, is a review of a 1966 show of Caillebotte’s work at Wildenstein Art Gallery, in London. Written by the famed art critic John Russell, the review is excerpted from a larger letter from London in the Summer 1966 issue of ARTnews

“The Perception of Caillebotte”
By John Russell

As a painter of light, Caillebotte was hot and hard and heavy. In any mixed exhibition of Impressionism he is, in fact, the man who leaves us wondering if Impressionism was such a good idea after all. When Fénéon in 1888 described Caillebotte’s paintings at Durand-Ruel’s as “work of a weary and bleated Impressionist” he was sharp, but not unjust.

This being so, the Caillebotte show at Wildenstein’s was not expected to be much of a treat. On the way there I wondered, not for the first time, why the resources of this great house and the energies of Denys Sutton should be employed in trying to make fourth-class French painters look second-class. But I had to admit my mistake when the Caillebotte of the 1870s turned out to be not only a man of golden good nature and unlimited financial generosity, but a matchless recorder of the Parisian scene. The recording of that scene was not, in his case, a pretext for the study of fugitive effects of light. Each picture was built as firmly as he girders of the new Pont de l’Europe (itself the subject of a painting in 1876), and behind many of them an emotional involvement with that new phenomenon, the boulevard. Anyone who has read The Ambassadors will remember forever the scenes in which one or another of James’s characters stands on a narrow balcony above the boulevard and gazes down at the life below. This situation recurs repeatedly in Caillebotte’s paintings of the 1870s, together with the implication that a human life is somewhat in suspense, and that minute or two the fate of the man up above will be decided. Caillebotte conveyed this not by an instantaneous shaft of genius but by the patient accumulation of detail: he was, in fact, one of the true realists of the period. A painting like his Le Déjeuner (1876) looks forward to the Signac of Le Petite Déjeuner (1886-7) and the Matisse of La Desserte. But whereas in those two masterpieces it is the dialectic of painting itself that finally holds our attention, Caillebotte remains the novelist who happens to paint an not to write. As I have in effect, very much blown up Caillebotte’s powers of formal invention I must add also that in 1880 he made some views of boulevards, seen from above, in which the placing of street-lamps, passers-by, horsed cabs and trees in flower has a Japanese nicety that looks forward to a decade and more to the experiments of the Nabis. Altogether, Caillebotte turned out to have deserved a better name than most of us had been willing to give him.

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