Picturing Impressionism: Gustave Caillebotte’s trace on art

Monet, Pissarro, Renoir… the brushstrokes of these famous painters reflected –indeed– the winds of change that blew France away in the mid 19th century. The exhibitionGustave Caillebotte: an Impressionist and Photography”, held in the Gemeente Museum in The Hague (The Netherlands) gives an impression of Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), a not so well known contributor of Impressionism who financed –and also painted– it.

Born in an economically well-positioned family, Caillebotte is not easy to label as an Impressionist. He didn’t have to choose between being loyal to his feelings and dying of starvation, or following his patron’s conventions and betraying himself, as author E. H. Gombrich would put it. The fact his family was wealthy left room for him to explore freely the possibilities of art.

Caillebotte’s own footprint in art came right after he joined, and left, the École des Beaux-Arts, around 1870. Despite not participating in the first Impressionist exhibition held in Paris, he got in contact with its group of painters. Monet stood out as a friend and his target of funding as well. The second exhibition, in 1876, did include some of his paintings, namely “Les raboteurs de parquet”.

“Les raboteurs de parquet” catches the eye of the visitor as he enters the first room of the exhibition. Expecting, probably, an Impressionist-styled set of paintings, this masterpiece can be deceiving. Caillebotte captures the light that enters through the window and the shadows in the room where three men are sanding a wooden floor. It feels as realistic as a photograph because the figures are outlined, with the exception that the men’s faces are blurred. It is a quotidian scene, totally exempt of glamour, in opposition to the paintings that follow, where one can find some bourgeois people posing.

The iconography of their clothing, the decoration, and the fact that some of them are depicted reading, become a source of information about their social status. This, also, makes the visitor question again the belonging of Caillebotte to the Impressionists: he was close to the bourgeois, whereas the rest of the movement’s painters lived in a mutual distrust of the middle-class. Besides, Caillebotte’s brushstrokes are careful and the outlines clear. But later, coinciding with the painter’s time spent in the countryside, his outlines become less defined. Still, next to Monet’s flower painting “Glycinis”, which is presiding one of the exhibition rooms, Caillebotte’s flowers don’t achieve such illusion of reality and movement.

As well as the nature, and like the other Impressionists in general, the city was among Caillebotte’s subjects-matter. His crowded streets of Paris contrast with photographer Baldus’ pictures that are hanging in the walls: Baldus used a photography technique that took long and erased people from the streets of the French capital.

The urban renewal of the city, which was adapting to the rise of the middle class, inspired him to capture scenes where new urban elements can be seen. Some paintings show metal structures that remind of Victor Horta’s nouveau artwork, and the different paintings of the Boulevard Haussman show for instance lamps, cemented streets and higher buildings. In these, the angle is distant like in a photograph, but the brushstrokes of complementary colours give a feeling of bustling city life, with movement. His unconventional angles, and figures going out or inside his compositions, note the influence that photography and Japanese prints had on him.

Caillebotte experimented with art like his contemporaries did, but from my point of view he cannot be considered pure Impressionist. His technique changes through the whole exposition, as well as his themes, even though he painted the city and achieved capturing movement and light in some paintings. However, if the exhibition’s aim, regarding its title, was to highlight the relationship between Caillebotte’s singular artwork and photography, it could be said that the aim has been satisfied.

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