A French painter and an art patron, Gustave Caillebotte is closely associated with the impressionist movement. Although he was a strong advocate of impressionism and adopted impressionist techniques, his work retained a style more akin to Realism.
Thus, his artwork portrays a unique composition of two different schools of art, that is of impressionists and Realists while truly belonging to neither of the two. Caillebotte played an important role in the history of French art with his paintings depicting the changing urban landscape of Paris shown in bold perspectives and truncated angles.
His artwork provided an insight into the contemporary life of the Parisian bourgeoisie that inspired several romantic overtones associated with late 19th century Paris.
Early life and career
Born in the year 1848, Gustave Caillebotte belonged to a wealthy Parisian family. He began sketching from an early age but pursued the law as a career and was also trained as an engineer until he was departed to serve in the Franco-Prussian war.
It is believed that the devastating effects of war and the uncertainty that laid ahead, are what pushed him towards art. He often visited the studio of artist Leon Bonnat who encouraged him to pursue a career in art. He entered Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Baus, where he met and became acquainted with several artists including Edgar Degas and Giuseppe Nittis who persuaded him to visit the first impressionist exhibition in 1874.
After his father’s death, Gustave acquired a lot of wealth and had the privilege to practice and sell art at his own pace. This fortune also helped him play a major role as a source of patronage for impressionist artists like Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro to name a few.
Apart from financially supporting his artist friends, he also organized and financed impressionist exhibitions. He also enthusiastically participated by exhibiting his works in the impressionist exhibitions between 1876 and 1882. Thus, Gustave was not just a painter but also a collector of art and influenced the impressionist movement by virtue of his interest.
The unique style of work
As a painter, Caillebotte’s work portrayed life as he saw it and recreated it on a canvas with distinct use of light and colour. He was influenced by the advancing art of photography and thus was considered more of a realist painter than an impressionist.
Most of his works showed the urban landscape in and around Paris where people often formed the most prominent element of the painting. Whether it was the depiction of a street capturing the nature of Parisian life, portraits of his family in domestic settings, or even representation of proletariats in the city, Caillebotte had the ability to capture the essence of humanity within each of his figures.
In his first masterpiece, ‘The floor scrapers’, three workers are seen on their hands and knees, from a skewed perspective, dragging planes along the wooden floor of a bourgeoisie apartment. This vertiginous perspective view from above the subjects of the painting is a common characteristic seen in his earlier works. The painting also portrayed the urban upheaval that was already underway and foreshadowed Paris in light of modernism.
His most famous work is Paris: A Rainy Day that depicts upper-class Parisians strolling across a spacious boulevard in Paris on a rainy day. It reflected urban Paris that went through a radical transformation from the narrow streets to a newer system of grand avenues. The composition captures the fleeting moment of life on the street, in an impressionist manner while the foreground continued to remain realistic in style.
The most distinguishing factor of Caillebotte’s paintings was his shift of perspective and change in subject from wavering nightclubs to Parisian street life and domestic settings; on the brink of modernization. This set him apart from other impressionist artists of his time.
His output of work declined significantly in the 1880s when he moved to the suburb of Petit Gennevilliers, on the banks of river Seine. He developed new interests like collecting sailboats, building yachts, gardening, and collecting stamps. Thus, Caillebotte’s interests in collecting extended beyond the field of art. His stamp collection is now a permanent display at the British Library in London.
Gustave’s style of work changed notably in this period to more of an impressionist style, the perspective was moderated and brushstrokes became more vivid and loose. He gave up painting large canvases and began painting rivers, boat scenes, and landscapes from his garden. It is said that the beautiful paintings of sailboats were influenced by the works of Monet.
Recognition after death
While painters like Renoir, Monet, Edgar Degas were more known as impressionist artists, Gustave remained in the backlight. He was more reputed as a patron of art rather than an artist.
After he died in the year 1894, his role as an artist in the impressionist movement was completely forgotten for decades. His main contribution was paintings of impressionists namely Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, and Degas, to the French government. These works were displayed at the Luxembourg Palace, many of which were sold to the Barnes Foundation in the United States.
His own artistic heritage gained recognition in the late 1950s when his family began to sell off his work; Particularly when the Art Institute of Chicago acquired his painting, ‘Paris: A rainy day’ in 1964, which was later displayed in prominent public galleries across the globe. This awakened interest amongst people regarding his work as it portrayed life in 19th century Paris in its true nature. Since then, his paintings grew popular and reached iconic status for exemplifying the era to which he belonged.