Le soldat, a striking image of a French infantryman, dates from the height of Caillebotte's participation in the Impressionist movement. In Le soldat, Caillebotte deliberately manipulated a portrait format reminiscent of Velázquez (fig. 1), especially in the use of the indistinct background, enshrining this simple infantryman in a context usually reserved for the exalted heroes of the age, emphasizing the new place in art for everyday subjects and everyday people. This treatment pushed back the boundaries of art in a manner explicitly linked to politics.
In one of Caillebotte's most famous paintings, Raboteurs de parquet (fig. 2), he depicted workmen shaving the varnish from floorboards, a commonplace theme deemed by the conservative critics of the day as unworthy of such grandiose artistic treatment. The soldier is from the same ilk as the Raboteurs, not so much an officer as a soldier. He is detached from any pastoral idyll, indeed from any pictorial idyll, instead imbued only with a truth and honesty. The viewers' expectations of a grand and impressive subject are assaulted by Caillebotte's soldier, increasing the political dialogue inherent in the work. The Impressionists, wherever their politics lay, were pioneers of the representation of the worker, enshrining proletarian themes considered aesthetically taboo by the academies in their works. Le soldat combines the controversial Impressionist style of painting with an even more controversial image. Paris, more than any other European city at the time, had a real understanding of Marxism as, during the 'Commune' of 1871, a direct reaction against the weak French government accepting defeat during the Franco-Prussian war, Marxists had been one of the groups comprising the anti-Napoleonic government. They had a real political impact unseen anywhere else.
The Franco-Prussian war had a profound effect on France as a whole, and on a more personal level on the lives of many French painters. Caillebotte, like his contemporary Gauguin, served during the conflict. Whereas Gauguin returned to find only the ashes of his family's house and wealth, Caillebotte's father had managed to vastly increase his fortune as the main supplier of blankets to the French military. It is interesting to note that both men became artists immediately after demobilization, Gauguin beginning to sketch profusely, Caillebotte enlisting in the studio of Léon Bonnat. This Damascene conversion was a part of a larger national trend. The entire country, until so recently one of the major world powers, had been humiliatingly crushed in decisive battles against Germany. Until then, France had been considered a superpower, upholding balances of power and stability in Europe.
Their disillusionment came not only from outside, but more bitterly from within. The over-hasty capitulation of the Imperial government under Napoleon III led to the establishment of the 'Commune' in Paris as well as other cities. The brutality of the suppression in Paris, however, was on a scale fortunately unseen in the Provinces. Tens of thousands of deaths followed in the bloody retribution, and popular disgust and furor precipitated the final exile and overturn of Napoleon and his government. The image of the soldier was immortalized by many other artists, not least by Manet, whose iconic Le fifre presented a completely unorthodox image of the military (fig. 3). In an age of epic paintings of grandiose generals, Manet presented a simple piper, a young boy looking doe-eyed at the viewer, completely ignorant of the enormity and potential fatality of the world he inhabits.
Caillebotte's soldier, painted between 1879-1881, is as unconventional as Manet's. He stands, smoking a cigarette, a pensive figure retiring from the world of the viewer precisely, one feels, because he is aware of the dangers he faces. Here, the image of the swashbuckling superior has been replaced with the more recognisable portrayal of an infantryman smoking, thrust into a format associated with more noble gestures and postures.
There has been great debate over the execution date of Le soldat. In 1879, a series of caricatures published by Draner appeared in Le Charivari (23 April 1879) on the occasion of the Salon of 1879. Among other spoofs of Caillebotte's boating and diving scenes appears a man in a nearly identical uniform to that of Le soldat transformed into a bored guard at the exhibition itself (fig. 4). Caillebotte was represented at the Salon in abundance, and it is plausible that Le soldat was not included in the catalogue yet still exhibited, for otherwise the presence of the caricature is difficult to assess. As noted by the contemporary critic Henry Havard in Le Siècle, "He [Caillebotte] is everywhere, covering entire walls. It is he who furnishes the happy note". Another contemporary critic, Diego Martelli, reviewed the 1879 Salon in Roma Artistica and had this to say of Caillebotte's works, "...he gives us almost forty canvases dominated by a palette of bluish tones ranging through all its shadows, and on which color no longer can contain itself..." The assertion of an 1879 exhibition date has also been supported by the curators of The New Painting, Impressionism 1874-1886, held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1986. In 1881, Caillebotte participated in the actions of the 19th Regiment of Territorial Infantry and it is on this basis that Marie Berhaut, author of the catalogue raisonné, has suggested an execution date of 1881.
The casual pose, the cigarette, the normality and lack of grandeur of this character contained in a discordantly impressive background all combine to make it a painting of extraordinary power. Caillebotte, especially when painting people as subjects, distilled not only the style of the Impressionists as here, but more importantly the subject matter, taking the everyday, the real, and enshrining it, placing it on a pedestal in its own right.
Caillebotte's participation in the Impressionist movement during the period Le soldat was painted was intense. He was one of the key financiers and supporters, as well as an organizer of the Impressionist exhibitions, in addition to sponsoring many of the artists himself, lending money and renting studios for his friends, especially Monet and Renoir. The latter was even absolved of any debts in Caillebotte's will.
Le soldat demonstrates Caillebotte's artistic mastery. The flaming red trousers, so famous in the French army, bring out the red of the hat and the flush in the soldier's cheeks. In the rendering itself, Caillebotte used Impressionist brushstrokes to capture an immediacy despite the stillness of the scene. Le soldat formed a part of the posthumous Caillebotte retrospective exhibition held the year of his death, and has also hung for many years in The Metropolitan Museum in New York, underlining the painting's importance both as a work in the artist's oeuvre and in the history of Impressionism.
(fig. 1) Diego Velázquez, The Buffoon, Pablo di Velladolid, circa 1636-1637.
Museo Prado, Madrid.
(fig. 2) Gustave Caillebotte, Raboteurs des parquets, 1875.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 3) Edouard Manet, Le fifre, 1866.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 4) Chez MM. Les Peintres Indépendants, by Draner
Le Charivari, 23 April 1879.