Though he was not the draughtsman Degas was (few were), or as facile with brush and color as Monet or Pissarro, Caillebotte nonetheless epitomized many of the characteristics we associate with French Impressionism, the bright strokes and dabs of pure color, optically blended into luxuriously beautiful images of gardens, rivers and brightly dressed members of the leisure class enjoying the sun.
It is in his differences from the other Impressionist painters, though, that he resonates most strongly for me. I think it’s in his subtle appreciation for shadow, soft light, rain, fog and snow that he displays his greatest visual poetry.
He also differs form the other French Impressionists in that his approach often leaned more toward realism; putting him, perhaps, in the company of the American Impressionists and others who adopted the Impressionist palette and free brushwork, but without abandoning the realist underpinnings from Academic painting that Monet and Pissaro rejected. He was also one of the first painters to be fascinated with and influenced by then new art of photography.
Caillebotte was an engineer by training, but also studied at the Ecole des beaux-Arts, and became acquainted with Degas, Renoir and Monet early on. He became a supporter and patron of his friends’ work, using his considerable family resources to purchase paintings for himself (often at prices well above their market value, basically to help them survive and keep painting) and to organize the Impressionist exhibitions in Paris.
It was Caillebotte’s eventual donation of his collection of Impressionist works to the French government, which at first was refused at the urging of the conservative Academy, and only later accepted in part (40 of the 60 offered), which now forms the core of the Impressionist collections in the Musée d’Orsay.
Many of the remainder (lesser in terms of quality) were sold to American physician and art collector Albert Barnes, and are here in Philadelphia in the collection of the Barnes Foundation. Others are in museums and collections around the world.
His own work received less respect after his death than the works he collected, but his reputation is being restored as public appreciation for his work gains ground.
Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea is an exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum (until July 5, 2009). It features about 40 paintings showing a range of Caillebotte’s work and subjects, though it focuses in large part on paintings of activities on and around the Yerres and Petit Gennevillers rivers near his family’s estates, like Skiffs (above, top, sometimes called The Oarsmen).
Much to my delight, the exhibit includes one of my favorite paintings, Yerres Riverbank in the Rain (above, bottom, larger version here, unfortunately not well reproduced; smaller but a little better here).
This is not a dramatic Impressionist painting, busting with sunlight and brilliant color; quite the opposite, in fact — subtle, quiet; a gentle suggestion of a painting, with the soft light and subtle colors of a summer shower, but so evocative you can smell the rain.