I would be quite happy to own a painting by French painter Gustave Caillebotte, born August 19, 1848. Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting an exhibit dedicated to Gustave and his brother Martial at the musée Jacquemart-André. The Caillebotte family represented the comfortably moneyed class in Paris at during the Belle Époque. They owned a summer home on the Yerre River, where Caillebotte probably began to paint. He didn’t start off as a professional painter, however; he qualified as both a lawyer and an engineer until military service during the Franco-Prussian war sidetracked his career.
After the war, he began to seriously study painting and entered the École des Beaux Arts. However, his inheritance of his father’s fortune led him to abandon the formal study of art and plunge himself head-long into that world, both as a painter and patron (for example, he paid Monet’s rent). Caillebotte’s style was Realism influenced by Impressionism. The painting that he submitted to the official Salon of 1876, Les rabatteurs de parquet (The Floor Scrapers) was rejected because the subject matter of working class men was considered vulgar by the officials. Today, that painting with the big R for refusé stamped in red on the back hangs in the musée d’Orsay, refused no longer.
Caillebotte’s style shows great variety from one painting to the next, at times appearing to mimic the style of his friend Degas, at others, to be much more similar to his buddy Renoir. His subject matter is also highly varied, from calm domestic scenes, to tranquil boating outings, to nudes, to still lifes, to paintings of the birth of modern Paris. One of those paintings, Rue de Paris: temps de pluie (Paris Street; Rainy Day), made a big impression on me when I saw it at Chicago’s Art Institute many years ago.
Caillebotte’s inherited wealth meant that he didn’t need to focus on painting; in fact, he produced few canvases after his mid-30s and concentrated on gardening, cultivating rare orchids, and stamp collecting. (His collection of stamps is in the British Library.) Apparently, he developed a lung problem due to so much time in the garden, which led to his death at age 45.
He left his collection of 68 Impressionist paintings to the French government and stipulated that they be displayed in the Luxembourg museum (at the time, dedicated to living artists). Frankly, the government only reluctantly accepted 38 of the paintings at the insistence of his executor, Renoir. The government even refused the remaining paintings on two subsequent occasions. Happily for me, the remaining paintings were purchased by Albert Barnes of Philadelphia, so I can enjoy them near where I live.
It was only when his descendants began to sell off his canvases in the 1950s that serious attention began to be paid to Caillebotte’s own works. The musée d’Orsay now owns 40 of his paintings and Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussman (um owe balkohn) (Man on a Balcony) sold for over 14 million in 2000. This painting is considered remarkable as one of a series in which Caillebotte played with perspective. His figurative ability with perspective is also very impressive; he recognized and supported the value of the Impressionists when few others did. That painting of a man on a balcony may actually be of someone else, but the title of it applies equally well to Caillebotte – a man on the balcony of a new age with the perspective to see its value and beauty.