Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 29, 2019
Michael Marrinan Gustave Caillebotte: Painting the Paris of Naturalism, 1872–1887 Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2017. 400 pp.; 136 color ills.; 59 b/w ills. Hardcover $69.95 (9781606065075)

Gustave Caillebotte has long presented historians of nineteenth-century art with contradictions: here was a champion of and participant in the Impressionist movement who grew up with privilege and became, by dint of his father’s business acumen, a millionaire. Accounts of his artistic production (working from a scant archive) must always contend with how Caillebotte could produce paintings that look more naturalist than Impressionist and would seem to presage social critiques more common to later generations of artists, but that were executed from a position firmly ensconced in upper-class comfort. The desire to resolve these questions of the artist’s identity and critical motivation has been a twentieth- and twenty-first century hang-up (to his contemporary critics, he was much less of a cipher). Michael Marrinan’s thoughtful new monograph rightly allows Caillebotte these contradictions by finding the middle ground in, rather than the neat resolution of, the artist’s social and artistic identities. Marrinan argues that Caillebotte’s singular, ordered vision was structured by his rise in class status, by the city he saw being built up around him, and by the art that he collected and, importantly, learned from. Caillebotte emerges as an artist at a personal and professional crossroads whose desire to belong in both spaces, more so than to have any specific critical agenda, nevertheless resulted in one of the most unusual and striking visual records of his time.

One of Marrinan’s many important contributions to the artist’s biography is his excavation of the family’s accumulated wealth, which is well documented in the Paris notarial archives. Using that wealth’s material expression—property—he builds out the artist’s personal and social worlds. The liquidation of Martial Caillebotte Sr.’s government contract brought a windfall of cash that purchased land for the family in the newest section of Haussmann’s Paris and, just as Gustave was beginning to paint, built them a mansion fitted out with the latest amenities (among these a hot water heater and electric call buttons; the latter appear next to the mantelpiece in several of his interiors). While general knowledge of Caillebotte’s wealth is not new, the high degree of specificity that Marrinan uncovers emphasizes the artist’s myriad ties to real estate and the newly developing quartiers of Paris that, not coincidentally, were also the subjects of his earliest works.

Just as the rapidly urbanizing city in this account structures Caillebotte’s visual development, Paris’s network of streets makes for a compelling framing conceit. Half of the book’s chapters are named for addresses, including the family mansion, the intersections of the artist’s monumental street scenes, and the sites of the 1877 and 1879 Impressionist exhibitions that he co-organized, all of which link critical moments in Caillebotte’s career to specific locations in the city. In his urban scenes, Caillebotte positions himself as a pedestrian on the move, a “painter-flaneur” (111) who observes the city as closely as a literary naturalist, albeit from a critical remove, “tenaciously maintain[ing] an analytic distance from the crowd by reminding himself and his viewers that our collective street-level experience of the boulevard is determined by a force more ordered, pervasive, and cognitive than pure sensation” (55). Where his Impressionist colleagues aimed to capture the visual sensations of modern life, Caillebotte aspired to paint from an embodied viewpoint with seemingly totalizing knowledge and framed by a “visual logic” that he learned from the boulevards.

Applying this new, urban-minded vision to his painting practice did not produce a one-to-one visual correspondence, but rather a correlation that was much more idiosyncratic. In Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), for example, Caillebotte’s aim to impose uniformity on the facades (when in life they are inexactly scaled) meant he had to manipulate perspective and skew the buildings’ proportions, a move that Marrinan argues looks more radical now than was intended at the time. The painting’s tension is also personal, as its specific intersection near the Gare Saint-Lazare functioned for the artist as both actual and figurative crossroads. Not only did the streets of old and new Paris join here; this was also the space through which Caillebotte passed from his family’s haute bourgeois mansion to the social life he shared with his fellow painters. At the start of his career, this negotiation between classes was stylistic as well as geographic. Dutch realism was being championed by supporters of the radical new painting and also collected by the financier Péreire brothers; Caillebotte’s early stylistic affinity with it gave him the means to paint alongside the avant-garde while deferring to his family’s social position. This was a particular matter of concern until his mother’s death at the end of 1878 brought him financial independence and the space to reinvent his technique.

The evolution of Caillebotte’s singular—if at times uneven—style connects to more than the maintenance of social respectability: his professional relationships and collecting practice also form key components to understanding the arc of his artistic production. Caillebotte did not record much about this himself, but Marrinan reconstructs his place in the movement by reading across the correspondence of the larger circle, down to calculating on what date he had colleagues to dinner to resolve matters around their 1877 show. As with the trove of real estate documents Marrinan uncovered in the notarial archives, here too he teases out details from letters exchanged among Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and others that firmly place Caillebotte within the artistic community and make clear that he was important to it for reasons beyond his financial backing. The second component to Caillebotte’s adoption of Impressionist technique is his collection itself, which he began in 1876 after his first exhibition. As a means of canon formation, the collection ensured the inclusion of key artists in future Impressionist exhibitions and prioritized works aligned with Monet (who was emerging as the critical gold standard). By choosing works complementary to his own, he also used it to make a place for himself.

Most interestingly, Marrinan argues that the collection afforded Caillebotte the opportunity to learn from and paint in conversation with his colleagues even before he felt comfortable fully embracing their radical visual style. This casts the collection as having been much more than acquisitively prescient (although it was this too, as Caillebotte decided at the outset to bequeath the works to the French state). Soon after buying early pastels of Degas’s, for example, Caillebotte began experimenting with the medium himself. After he fell out with Degas—whose work was the most visually and thematically consonant with his own—Caillebotte took to emulating the still lifes of Monet, one of which he bought at the time. There is a moment near the end of the book when Marrinan aligns a rare Caillebotte still life of yellow roses as not only compositionally indebted to one of his Monets but also an emotional response to his irreparable disagreements with Degas in the early 1880s, after which he distanced himself from the movement. It is bittersweet to learn that Degas purchased these same yellow roses at a posthumous sale as if in recognition of, or perhaps in recompense for, the two artists’ tumultuous history. Not mere bankroller of the Impressionists nor organizing gadfly, Caillebotte was a full member of that artistic community whose work responded to and had meaning for the group’s other members.

The other stylistic connection Marrinan makes is to literary naturalism, in which a totalizing narrative point of view can be achieved in prose through free indirect discourse. Caillebotte cared about the same kind of vision, but painting can represent narrative only by revisiting the same scene from a different perspective and in a different canvas (or, as in In a Café, 1880, through the clever use of mirrors). Marrinan argues that the artist’s “proto-modernist” aerial balcony views (a source of some jealousy on Degas’s part, for his not having thought of them first) enabled Caillebotte to show the vista seen, but blocked, by his series of back-turned bourgeois men looking out the windows of his penthouse apartment (228).

Perhaps the most provocative visual narrative that Marrinan discusses, albeit separately from his discussion of naturalism, occurs in the large-scale Pont de l’Europe (1876), set on the pedestrian bridge above the Gare Saint-Lazare train tracks. Caillebotte’s top-hatted avatar strides past a woman in black, half turned as if saying something to her or perhaps looking at a worker leaning over the bridge’s edge. Much has been written elsewhere about the picture’s obfuscation of gender, and it should be noted that analysis of this in future studies of the artist will only enhance the point Marrinan makes about the extent to which Caillebotte is a figure perpetually in the middle, whether in terms of his class and professional standing or, as here, as a bachelor who finds social respectability somewhere between being a bourgeois and a flaneur. Regarding this painting, however, Marrinan approaches the central interaction from the same perspective as he does the balcony scenes—what if the bourgeois figure is trying to glimpse through the trusses whatever it is that the worker sees? (This point is further borne out by a later version of the picture at the Kimbell Art Museum, in which a bourgeois man does stop at the side of the bridge.) What is more, these are the same tracks from whose platforms Monet was painting his own Gare Saint-Lazare series. Even before Caillebotte had fully embraced Impressionist technique, he positioned his bourgeois figure, who in the large-scale version was then and is now understood to be a self-portrait, as a painter-flaneur taking in the city of the Impressionists on foot. 

Elizabeth Benjamin
Associate Editor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York