Painted in 1880, L'Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann is, in figural scale, size and force of construction, the most important of Caillebotte's treatments of the men on balconies. Representing a considerable leap forward since Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (fig. 1), its undisputed archetype, the present oil captures the view from the artist's Parisian apartment at the corner of the rue Gluck and the boulevard Haussmann, in the 9th arrondissement. In a departure from the earlier interpretation of his favourite subject, Caillebotte eliminated any reference to the bourgeois interior in the background--still present in Jeune homme à sa fenêtre--by perfecting a compositional scheme in which the window embrasure is parallel to the picture plane. The artist was no longer interested in the depiction of the street, nor in the confrontation between interior and exterior, focusing instead on the perspective of the boulevard and the light effects, rendered with a freer, atmospheric brushstroke.
Caillebotte was clearly aware of the maturity of his achievement, since he included L'Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann in the Septième Exposition des Artistes Indépendants (fig. 2), which took place in the rooms of the Panorama de Reischoffen on rue Saint Honoré in March 1882. Exhibited alongside Pissarro's Bergère (Musée d'Orsay, Paris; P&V. 540), Renoir's Une loge à l'Opéra (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown; D. 329) and most famous Un déjeuner à Bougival (The Phillips collection, Washington D.C.; D. 379), the present oil was at the core of Caillebotte's section, which included seventeen of his most recent pictures and which represented the artist's return to the public scene after 1880. A faithful adherent since joining the group at the second exhibition in 1876, where he presented Jeune Homme à sa fenêtre, Caillebotte had chosen to withdraw in 1881 rather than accept the friends of Degas, whom he considered to be mediocre painters. Caillebotte's choices for the Seventh Exhibition were thus extremely significant, and he showed a daring mixture of traditional and experimental exercises. Although landscapes dominated the exhibition, all the critical attention was focused on the figure pictures presented by Renoir and Caillebotte, and L'Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann was singled out both for its extraordinary drawing of the figure and the careful attention to color. It epitomized the balance between Caillebotte's solid knowledge of academic principles and his audacious attraction to the newest trends in Impressionism.
Caillebotte's evolution from 1875 to 1880 is exemplified by the comparison between Jeune homme à sa fenêtre and L'Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann. While in 1875 he was trying to capture the psychological complexity of his brother René's état d'âme, his boredom, loneliness, and sense of distance from the deserted street, here the artist is entranced by the depiction of the metropolis, and the frenzy of a modern boulevard. The painter's stylistic and iconographic transition was influenced by the contemporary experiments of his fellow Indépendants, who in the mid 1870s started inserting the human figure into their plein air investigations. Monet's example was pivotal: between 1875 and 1880, Caillebotte analyzed his treatment of space and color, incorporating his friend's formal solution into his representations of the family summers in Yerres. This research into Monet's études en plein air (fig. 3) was wedded to a lucid awareness of Degas' avant-garde paginations and Manet's controversial interior and urban snap-shots (fig. 4), leading to a new compositional rhythm and a fresh use of colour, applied with fragmented, quick, vigorous brushstrokes. The capital became the focus of his inspiration, as is mirrored by the works he submitted to the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, amongst which were the masterpieces Rue de Paris, Temps de Pluie (The Art Institute of Chicago; B. 57), Le pont de l'Europe (Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva; B. 49), and Peintres en bâtiments (Private collection; B. 53), odes to the modernity of the new Paris Haussmannien.
His focus on urban themes intensified after 1879, when, after his mother's death, the artist left the family house at the corner of the rue de Miromesnil and the rue de Lisbonne--the stage for Jeune homme à sa fenêtre--and moved to the sixth floor apartment on the boulevard Haussmann featured in the present picture. The almost deserted square of his 1875 portrait of René, bathed in the stark Atlantic light, was thus superseded by the large, shadowed boulevard of his 1880 balcony series. The discovery of the grands boulevards, with the Opéra appearing in the distance, had a great impact on his art. Above all, he was seduced by the representation of the city captured from the balconies of the new bourgeois buildings in the 9th and 10th arrondissements. As Laurence Madeline observed,
In Haussmann's Paris balconies were fashionable in general because they revealed of the metamorphoses of the daily life of the buildings in relation to the street. Life is no longer centered around a courtyard but on the streets of the city. The desire for air and light led architects to create balconies where Parisians could not only watch pedestrians on the street but be watched by them as well. The balcony became from then on a pictorial motif for the painters of modern life, a sort of observatory for the privileged" (op. cit., p. 36).
Manet was the first artist to explore this subject, in his famous Le Balcon (fig. 4), which Caillebotte acquired in 1884. Whilst Manet, deeply indebted to Goya's interiors, allowed the spectator into an elegant Parisian apartment with an original portrait of its inhabitants, Monet in his Le boulevard des Capucines (fig. 3) made the crowded street, seen from Nadar's studio, the absolute protagonist of the canvas.
Caillebotte was intrigued by the idea of capturing the plunging view of the rue Halévy, which he depicted in two of his most celebrated canvases of the late 1870s, La Rue Halévy, vue d'un balcon (Private collection; B. 99) and La rue Halévy, vue du sixiéme étage (fig. 5), where he accentuated the perspective effect and moved the viewpoint in coincidence with the central axis of the street. In these 1878 experiments of views from balconies, "He was interested above all in the precipitous recession of the street, which he treated in a horizontal format, depicting the recently erected buildings of the quartier with its characteristic precision" (R. Rapetti, op. cit., p. 156). In 1880, Monet inspired Caillebotte's new treatment of the subject: Monet's first version of Le boulevard des Capucines (Pushkin Museum, Moscow; W. 292) was the springboard for Caillebotte's Un balcon, boulevard Haussmann (fig. 6), where the human figure made a significant re-appearance on the balcony for the first time since the early Jeune homme à la fenêtre. Whereas in Monet's pictures the two figures depicted on Nadar's balcony are accessories of secondary importance, Caillebotte made the two men observing the boulevard the focus of his painting. As in the present oil, the view was taken from Caillebotte's own apartment at 31, boulevard Haussmann; likewise, "the use of small thick dabs for the foliage, their contrasting tones evoking the play of light and shadow, is a typical example of Impressionist virtuosity" (ibid., p.164). In both paintings, the artist created a tension between the exactitude of his observation and his quick mode of handling the brushstroke that betrays no hint of precise elaboration: the result is outstandingly atmospheric. Together with the more austere L'Homme au balcon (1880, Private Collection, B. 145), Un balcon, boulevard Haussmann is an important step in the crescendo towards the mastered complexity of the present picture. In a departure from his early experiments, the artist freed the men and women portrayed in his works, allowing them outdoors. The figures became one with the vibrant plein air of the boulevard.
Caillebotte's interest in this subject matter was indeed fired by the intense debate preoccupying the protagonists of the artistic circle that met at the café La Nouvelle Athènes, and that took part in the famous dîners du samedi in Giuseppe de Nittis' Parisian apartment. The prestigious group included artists, novelists and art-critics, namely Edmond de Goncourt, Degas, Desboutins, Manet, Caillebotte, Daudet, Claretie and, in particular, Edmond Duranty, whose writings are closest to Caillebotte's balcony pictures. In 1876, with his La Nouvelle Peinture, Duranty was amongst the first critics to salute the Impressionist movement, and to celebrate an art that could "bring the artist back down from the clouds into reality" (E. Duranty, La Nouvelle Peinture, 1876, p. 27). Caillebotte met Duranty in 1876, around the time of de Nittis' dinners, and intensified his friendship with the writer who became in the late 1870s a pivotal source of inspiration for his stylistic research. In a letter to Monet dated 10 April 1879, Caillebotte wrote:
Duranty states that there should be no more academic drawing, but that the individual qualities of the modern man should be communicated through one's brushstroke, his clothes, his mannerisms, his behavior at home, those traits that distinguish his profession and make him the person he is. We should never separate the person from the background because it is his surroundings, the furniture, the mantle, decoration of the walls that are part of his fortune, his social standing, his family background. But while inside, it is through a window that we communicate with the outside world. Either standing or sitting, from each changing point of view, the spectacle outside is framed differently each time (quoted in M. Berhaut, op. cit., 1978, p. 30).
This letter to Monet can be seen as the theoretical manifesto at the basis of Caillebotte's compositions between 1875 and 1880. But unlike Béraud and Jean-François Raffaëlli, who indulged in the urban picturesque, Caillebotte gave "these images a peculiar evocative power, rooted in their emphatic juxtapositions of interior and exterior - a recurrent theme in the history of Western painting, but one that here possesses a rare force" (R. Rapetti, op. cit., p. 143). He overcame the simple description of the city, not only by evoking its atmosphere whilst celebrating its modernity, but also by pushing his pictorial experiments to a new revolutionary type of iconography, betraying his awareness of the most recent discoveries in photography. In his quest for unconventional images of the city, Caillebotte reached a pre-abstract simplification of the forms: the daring Un réfuge boulevard Haussmann (fig. 7), where the vertiginous viewpoint entails a complete elimination of the horizon line, is "an eerie evocation of urban emptiness without parallel in his time" (ibid., p. 171).
Foreign to the avant-garde innovations of Un réfuge boulevard Haussmann, the present painting is deeply rooted in tradition. It represents the culmination of a series of reflections on a beloved theme, enriched by an interest in abstract decorative motifs typical of Caillebotte's work around 1880. The artist described with passionate attention the arabesques of the balcony grille, and chose a rather extravagant scalloped outline for the lower edge of the canopy. This emphasis on decorative motifs was immediately remarked on by his contemporaries, as witnessed by the sketch of the painting that the famous caricaturist Draner (a pseudonym for Jules Renard) drew for Le Charivari on 9 March 1882, on the occasion of the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition (fig. 8). In his cartoon, Draner focused on the "invasion of the canvas by the repetitive motifs of the balcony and the canopy" (ibid.), a stylistic device which was to have a tremendous impact on his colleagues. L'Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann particularly impressed the community of Scandinavian artists sojourning in Paris in the 1880s. In 1881, Hans Heyerdahl, a Norwegian painter studying at the Académie of Léon Bonnat, used a very similar construction for his At the Window (National Gallery, Oslo). In 1882, Christian Krohg, also Norwegian, saw Caillebotte's work at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition, and re-elaborated the composition for his own Portrait of Karl Nordström (1882, National Gallery, Oslo). Finally, the young Edvard Munch, who came to Paris to perfect his studies during several stays from 1889, adopted the motif of the plunging perspective for his Rue Lafayette (National Gallery, Oslo), clearly indebted to Caillebotte's balcony series.
The provenance of L'Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann is very prestigious. As Marie Berhaut pointed out (op. cit., 1994, p. 132), immediately after Caillebotte completed it in 1880, he gave it to Albert Courtier, the family notary, who is most probably the gentleman portrayed in the painting. It was then part of the collection of M. Metthey, the Parisian collector who also owned Jeune homme à la fenêtre. Presented at auction at Drouot in 1946, the oil was acquired by the Parisian collector, M. Georges Couturat, and has remained in his family ever since.
(fig. 1) The frontispiece of the catalogue of the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition.
(fig. 2) Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme à sa fenêtre, 1875, Private collection.
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Le boulevard des Capucines, 1873, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
(fig. 4) Edouard Manet, Le Balcon, 1868-1869, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 5) Gustave Caillebotte, La rue Halévy, vue du sixième étage, 1878, Private collection, Dallas.
(fig. 6) Gustave Caillebotte, Un balcon, boulevard Haussmann, 1880, Private collection.
(fig. 7) Gustave Caillebotte, Un réfuge boulevard Haussmann, 1880, Private collection.
(fig. 8) Draner (pseud. for Jules Renard), detail from 'Une visite aux impressionistes', Le Charivari, 9 March 1882.