Caillebotte was born to a wealthy family in 1848 and spent his childhood among the Parisian elite, enjoying the financial benefits of the textile business which his father had inherited. Though he attended the Lycée Louis Le Grand and obtained a law degree at his father's urging in 1870, Caillebotte shifted his focus almost immediately thereafter to embark on a serious study of the visual arts. Joining the studio of the Academic painter Léon Bonnat (who later trained such noted painters as Georges Braque and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Caillebotte experienced lifelong financial security which allowed him the freedom to paint without the necessity of selling his work, as well as to serve as an important patron for his contemporaries in the Impressionist group. Caillebotte enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1873, however records indicate that his attendance there was rather sporadic as his interest in a more avant-garde manner of painting developed. Like many of his contemporaries, Caillebotte was classically trained but ultimately rejected Academic conventions, preferring instead to create more daring compositions with fresher, brighter palettes and unconventional perspectival modes.
In 1860, Caillebotte's father Martial had purchased a large property in the Parisian suburb of Yerres, and the family began spending summers in the countryside. During his childhood and early adolescence, Caillebotte developed his interest in painting and draughtsmanship, executing his first informal plein air studies of the surrounding countryside. This affinity for painting spontaneous studies executed in situ, whether in urban or pastoral environments, would ultimately align him with his colleagues in the Impressionist group.
In its dramatic perspective and as a classic example of plein air painting, the present work may be viewed as an important precursor to Caillebotte's mature oeuvre. In 1872, one year prior to his enrollment in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and his involvement with Léon Bonnat's studio, Caillebotte embarked with his father on a trip to Italy. The present canvas is presumed to date from this journey. During the course of his travel, Caillebotte befriended the painter Giuseppe de Nittis, a former student of the Academic painter Jean-Leon Gérôme, who had returned to his native Italy to apply his training and who would later exhibit with the Impressionist group in Paris. During his journey, Caillebotte was captivated by the flat southern Italian landscape which stretched out before him, so disparate from the Parisian environs in which he had executed his initial plein air studies, and by the warm light which bathed this arid environment.
Upon returning to Paris, Caillebotte befriended Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Henri Rouart, painters who would all participate in the first Impressionist exhibition, along with his new friend Giuseppe de Nittis, at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1874. Though Caillebotte was not invited to participate in this exhibition, he attended it with interest, taking note of the Impressionists' rejection of traditionally Academic historical subjects and their looser, less restrained painting techniques. These painters became some of Caillebotte's closest friends, and he began to buy works by Renoir, Claude Monet, and Degas soon after they were created. In this way, he became an important patron for his struggling counterparts, and his collection would ultimately become the foundation of the collection of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
In 1875, three years following the presumed execution date of the present work, Caillebotte submitted several canvases to the jury for the Paris Salon. His work was rejected by the jury on the basis of its starkly Realist subject matter--one of the canvases submitted, Les raboteurs de parquet (Berhaut, 1994, no. 34; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), depicted three shirtless men engaged in the backbreaking task of stripping a wooden floor in an ornate Parisian interior. With a restrained palette and dramatically foreshortened perspective, Les raboteurs de parquet was subsequently exhibited, along with other works by the artist rejected by the Salon jury, at the Galerie Durand-Ruel on Rue Laffitte the following year.
In the early years of his formal artistic production, Caillebotte became a catalyst for the Impressionists' representation of contemporary life, and for the reduction of the inherent theatricality of painting. In Bord d'un canal, près de Naples, Caillebotte demonstrates an early experimentation with perspective--the canal and its accompanying road jut dramatically through the foreground at a vertiginous angle, swooping through the canvas to a horizon line in the far distance. As would be the case in his later works, the painter has also presented us with a vantage point slightly above eye level, as though we are gazing down on the landscape below. The painting employs the simplified palette which characterizes many of Caillebotte's paintings from this early period--light blues, yellows, browns, and greens convey a sense of tranquility yet do not attempt to flatter the arid environment in which he was working. Though Caillebotte is perhaps best remembered for his treatment of urban subjects in the late 1870s, the present work provides deep insight into the artist's career-spanning exploration of perspective, his appreciation for in situ painting, and his adamant refusal to glamorize the environments he portrayed.