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by N.F. Karlins
"Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea," Mar. 27-July 5, 2005, at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York 11238

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) is perhaps the least well-known of the Impressionists, but he produced exhilarating paintings that plunge the eye into deep space as effectively as a zoom lens.

Caillebotte’s Oarsmen Rowing on the Yerres (1877), for instance, hurtles the viewer towards the bow of a skiff, but only after dodging a straw-hatted rower who calmly smokes a pipe, despite the distinct possibility that he might butt heads with any virtual passengers. He’s that close to the picture plane.

Light and color flickers across the water, and bright sun glints on polished blonde wood. The scene’s textures are pitch perfect -- you can almost hear the sounds of creaking oars as the boat skims across the surface. Like the majority of Caillebotte’s works, the painting is from a private collection, which means that they’re not seen in public that often -- one of many good reasons to head to the Brooklyn Museum for the first major Caillebotte show in the New York area in more than 30 years.  

Caillebotte was born into a wealthy family, inherited money early in his career, and never married. Some of Caillebotte’s earliest paintings limn interiors of the family’s home in Paris and show just how well-to-do he was. The dark and lavishly appointed dining room of his family’s house is the setting for The Luncheon (1876). His interest in plunging space and reflections of light can already be seen in this early work.

His mother is being served at the end of a very long dining room table that recedes into space, while his brother sits carving meat on the right. The artist (and the viewer) is incorporated into the scene, as if at a place setting at the end of the table opposite Caillebotte’s mother. Glass decanters and serving dishes, even the silver on the distant sideboard, provide sparks of light in the darkened room.

A certain class-consciousness often lurks within Caillebotte’s paintings. In Oarsman in a Top Hat (1877-78), the central figure has neatly folded his topcoat in order to row, but cuts a very different figure from the distant pair of rowers, more dressed for the occasion.

By the time Caillebotte turned to art in the 1870s, he had already studied engineering and taken a law degree. While admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he became aware of the Impressionists and gravitated toward their art-making, but he retained some ties to academic techniques like making studies for his works, some of which for his The House Painters are on display.

In fact, because Caillebotte’s works blend Realism with Impressionism, some critics don’t regard him as a true Impressionist at all. But his constant interest in depicting modern life certainly made him one, as does his interest in reflected light, broken brushwork, and a light palette, even if some of his early works are darker and more smoothly painted.

Caillebotte’s The House Painters (1877) is a fascinating study of a group of tradesmen-painters assessing their work. The eye then bowls up one of Haussmann’s boulevards to take in tiny upper-class figures. The windows of the wine store, where the painters are on the job, hold reflections of the passersby superimposed over the wine bottles seen through the window. It’s a virtuoso performance.

The exhibition has other gems like A Traffic Island, Boulevard Haussmann (1880). The placement of the dissociated figures made me think immediately of Alberto Giacometti’s City Square (1948) at the Museum of Modern Art, which is imbued with a similar sort of anomie. Caillebotte often used a high vantage point with a single figure looking at the streets below to show urban alienation. Here, there’s not even a figure. The viewer is on his or her own.

Caillebotte was interested in more than painting. He amassed a major collection of stamps with one of his brothers and was an avid gardener. His late paintings often feature his extensive gardens. Garden Path with Dahlias in Petit-Gennevilliers (1890-1891) with its surreally large-headed flowers is one lovely example.

But Caillebotte turned out fewer and fewer paintings over time for another reason: he was becoming enamored of sailing. He already excelled at rowing in canoes or skiffs when Monet and Renoir took him sailing, though it was Sisley who first taught him how to sail. At the time of his death, he was the most famous yachtsman in France.

Caillebotte raced boats and won regattas, set up his own shipyard, and designed many prize-winning boats. The current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum includes models of his designs and of boats, arguably giving a fuller picture of Caillebotte the man than his last retrospective, which was held in 1977, also at the Brooklyn Museum, and with fewer works as well.

That show, the first devoted to Caillebotte in the United States, concentrated on his urban paintings. It contained one of Caillebotte’s two most commonly acknowledged masterpieces, The Floor Scrapers (1876), from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. This show has a smaller variant from the same year that’s a terrific picture, too. Raking light falls through Beaux-Arts windows, while two workmen, one young and bare-chested and one older and clothed, do their jobs. Light gleams on the slanting floor illuminating a moment, magically stilled for the viewers’ pleasure.

Caillebotte’s other most famous painting, Paris Street, Rainy Day, which is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, also didn’t make the journey for this exhibition. (To these two masterpieces, I would add the Houston Museum of Fine Art’s 1878 The Orange Trees, one of my favorite paintings, which I was told was unable to travel because of restrictions in the terms of its bequest.)

But the Brooklyn owns two solid paintings by Caillebotte, both included of course, the large unfinished The Seine and the Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil and Apple Tree in Bloom (ca. 1885). Surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art owned not one scrap of Caillebotte’s work until recently. Iris Cantor generously decided to donate an early pastel, more naturalistic than Impressionistic really, of a sexy nude in honor of Philippe de Montebello.

Come on, Met! Caillebotte works don’t come to market that often, but one of his preferred high-vantage point urban scenes, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (1875) sold in 2000 for $14.3 million.

Just last year, his Le pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine (ca. 1883) was sold in November at Christie’s for $8,482,500, including buyer’s premium. It’s in the exhibition and looks great. The bridge is seen from below with stripes of various shades of blue in the water leading into the distance. Maybe next time?

Caillebotte supported the Impressionist cause by organizing and funding their shows as well as appearing in several. He bought works from Monet and paid the rent for his indigent friend for years.

The artist’s own superb collection of Impressionist paintings is hinted at in Self-Portrait at the Easel (1879), in which some of the paintings that he amassed and kept in his studio can be seen.

Caillebotte died suddenly of a stroke at age 45, leaving most of his own paintings to his family. His executors, his brother and Renoir, offered Caillebotte’s collection of Impressionist paintings to the state several times, in accordance with his will. Infamously, it was initially rejected. Then it was partially accepted, and now forms the core of the Musée d’Orsay’s Impressionist holdings. Dr. Barnes acquired the rejects, less one painting that Renoir received.

Although Caillebotte was not as complex a technician nor as varied an artist as Degas or his friend Monet, he created an exciting, original, too-little seen and too-little appreciated body of work. I left the exhibition, as I always do in seeing Caillebotte’s paintings, wishing that he had painted many more.

"Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea," has already been presented at the Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany, and Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen, Denmark, which jointly organized the exhibition.

N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.