10 things to know about Gustave Caillebotte
Once overshadowed by his peers, the Parisian painter is now rightly recognised as a key figure in the Impressionist movement
Born in 1848, Gustave Caillebotte grew up in a comfortable and bourgeoise Parisian family as the son of Martial Caillebotte, a judge for the Tribunal de commerce who was a founding partner in the company Chambry et Cie, which was responsible for supplying bedding materials to the military.
It was during his teen years, when his family enjoyed their summers on their large estate in Yerres, that a young Caillebotte began to paint and draw, igniting an artistic passion that would shape his life.
Initially, Caillebotte had not intended to pursue a career in art. Rather, he obtained a law degree. At the end of his studies, the Franco-Prussian war began and he was drafted to serve in the National Guard. It was upon his return that he decided to seriously pursue a career as an artist.
He began his studies at the studio of Léon Bonnat, a realist painter and teacher of the arts whose friends included the likes of Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Émile Zola. It was with Bonnat’s encouragement that he took his art more seriously and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Around 1874, he became acquainted with many of the artists involved in the First Impressionist Exhibition, forging close friendships with Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro, among others. Caillebotte soon began to explore new subjects in his art, focusing on modern life, a theme championed by the Impressionists.
On 5 February 1876, Caillebotte received a formal invitation signed by Renoir and his neighbour Henri Rouart to show his work at the Second Impressionist Exhibition, to be held that spring at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel. He chose eight recent compositions to include in the exhibition, including Jeune homme à sa fenêtre.
His work was well received. He was labelled as ‘a mature painter of great promise’ in the press, with one commentator noting that ‘Caillebotte is a newcomer to be welcomed’. ‘He was a modernist, a realist, a rule-breaker,’ explains Adrien Meyer, Global Head of Private Sales at Christie’s. ‘He was a daring artist and broke boundaries in his own way.’
When Caillebotte’s father, younger brother and mother died in tragically quick succession, he and his remaining brothers inherited the family’s wealth. With this money, Caillebotte became a great patron of the Impressionists, who were struggling to gain commercial success at the time.
From 1878, Caillebotte helped to finance, promote and organise a number of the Impressionist Exhibitions. He also directly supported a select few artists, most notably Monet and Pissarro, by providing funds to support living costs, renting studio spaces for them to work in and on occasion settling their debts.
Perhaps most importantly, Caillebotte used his wealth to purchase artworks directly from his peers and amassed a vast collection of paintings that included Monet’s Un coin d’appartement (1875), Paul Cézanne’s Cour de ferme (1879), Edgar Degas’ Femmes à la terrasse d’un café le soir (1877) and Édouard Manet’s Le balcon (1869), all of which are now in the Musée d’Orsay.
Paris was undergoing dramatic changes during Caillebotte’s lifetime. As Meyer says, ‘the streets were literally freshly built by Baron Haussmann.’ Haussmann’s remodelling of Paris, which took place between 1853 and 1870, was a vast act of urban regeneration and reformation. The newly designed cityscape replaced the old, medieval centre of Paris, bringing the capital into the modern world.
Haussmann’s Paris took centre stage in Caillebotte’s compositions — the artist painted people walking down the city’s broad boulevards from a variety of perspectives. Works of this kind include Rue de Paris, temps de pluie (1877), now at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée du Petit-Palais’s Pont de l’Europe (1876), which capture the hustle and bustle of the revitalised capital at street level.
Just as the city around Caillebotte was being transformed into a new world, so he was ‘modernising’ art by depicting contemporary street life in all its normality.
Caillebotte captured scenes and moments from his everyday life in his work, often portraying his friends, family and acquaintances in sumptuous interiors and familiar settings.
For example, between 1875 and 1876 Caillebotte painted no fewer than three paintings depicting his family. In Jeune homme à sa fenêtre, we see his younger brother René with his back to the viewer, gazing out of a window over the new Paris from the comfort of his stylish apartment.
Le déjeuner (1876), now in a private collection, shows his mother and René as they sit down to a midday meal, their butler hovering by Madame Caillebotte as he prepares to serve her from the platter he holds. Jeune homme au piano (1876), now in Artizon Museum, Tokyo, shows the artist’s youngest brother Martial practising at the family’s Érard piano.
Like many of the Impressionists, Caillebotte was familiar with photographic techniques, and the relatively new medium can be seen to have had a profound effect on his work. The unusual perspectives in Caillebotte’s paintings, drawings and more, and ways in which he would ‘crop’ the edges of his compositions, are all highly reminiscent of photography.
The artist’s brother, Martial, meanwhile, was an amateur photographer, and his photographs are understood to have been used as, at the least, reference points for some of Caillebotte’s own creations. It has also been argued that some of the photographic techniques seen in Caillebotte’s paintings were not seen in photography itself until later, making the artist a figure far ahead of his time.
In 1881, Caillebotte and his brother purchased a house in Petit-Gennevilliers, which he eventually moved to permanently in 1888. Here, he devoted much of his time to gardening and building and racing yachts, enjoying his time away from the city. These interests would greatly impact his output during this period.
He captured, for example, many scenes of boating on this stretch of the Seine, such as in Voiliers sur la Seine à Argenteuil (1893), which epitomises the light and airy feel of Impressionist painting.
He also documented the rich array of flora and fauna that he cultivated in his treasured gardens. Gardening and horticulture was a passion he shared with Monet, and the two often exchanged letters on the subject.
He often wrote to Monet about his appreciation of the countryside and the beauty of nature, which became the subject of many of his later works such as Chrysanthèmes blancs et jaunes (1893), which hangs in the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, and Tournesols dans le jardin du Petit Gennevilliers (1885), exhibited in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Following the death of his younger brother René in 1876, Caillebotte created a will in which he left the entirety of his collection to the French State. The artist’s posthumous donation, which came to be known as the Caillebotte Bequest, stipulated that all of the 68 works in his impressive collection were to be accepted together.
At the time, the French state had shown little interest in works by the Impressionists, who on the most part did not have academic training, and the donation went against its policy of exhibiting only three works by any artist in a public museum. Yet, upon Caillebotte’s premature death at the age of 45, Renoir as his executor — together with Martial Caillebotte — pushed forward with the artist’s wishes and negotiated a deal that saw the French State reluctantly take on 38 works from the collection.
Despite its reduced size, this donation saw masterworks by the Impressionists hung in public museums and was integral to securing the Impressionists’ reputation across the 20th century and beyond.
During his lifetime, Caillebotte’s secure financial status meant that he did not have to sell his works to earn an income, while the collection that he donated in his will did not include many of his own compositions, which were instead inherited by relatives. As a result, Caillebotte’s paintings remained largely unknown to the public for many years, and he was regarded primarily as a benefactor and collector of Impressionism.
The change in appreciation of Caillebotte’s work started in earnest 70 years following his death, with increasing displays of his paintings at galleries and museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1960s. The art historian Kirk Varnedoe, who was the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001, particularly helped to initiate a scholarly interest in the artist with his 1987 study, Gustave Caillebotte.
Caillebotte’s depictions of Paris life struck a chord with the public and he is now recognised as a key figure within the evolution and development of Impressionism.