Executed in 1881, the present painting numbers among the undisputed masterpieces of Caillebotte's career. Depicting a fashionable bourgeois couple strolling along a verdant country path, the picture represents a complex synthesis -- at once bold and appealing -- of two main components in Caillebotte's oeuvre: his urban figure paintings from the 1870s and his landscapes and garden scenes from the following decade. The work is also a very rare example of a major Impressionist canvas to have disappeared from the public eye for more than a century.
In 1994, on the occasion of the international retrospective Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist, the picture was seen publicly for the first time since 1882, when it was displayed in the 7th Exposition des Artistes Indépendants. Discreetly preserved in a French private collection, the painting's existence was known to art historians only from a checklist of works included in the 1882 exhibition (fig. 1) and from the brief comments of several contemporary critics. Until 1994, moreover, the sole recorded likeness of the canvas was a caricature published in the Parisian journal Le Charivari more than a century earlier (fig. 2). The re-discovery of this important painting, with its enticing freshness and generous dimensions, marks a critical event in the study of Caillebotte's oeuvre and of the history of the Impressionist movement.
Caillebotte did not identify the location of this country scene, titling it simply Chemin montant. Although the artist purchased a house at Petit Gennevilliers in the spring of 1881, the painting does not appear to illustrate a motif on the outskirts of Paris. The brilliantly colored villa at the left instead suggests a seaside resort on the Normandy coast, where Caillebotte spent several weeks each summer between 1880 and 1884 in connection with his participation in local regattas. During this period, he painted an extraordinarily original group of landscapes that depict the opulent villas lining the coast between Villers and Villerville. That the present picture forms part of this watershed series is confirmed by the appearance of the identical house in another canvas from 1881, Villas au bord de la mer, en Normandie (fig. 3). The two views show the same low garden wall and arched gateway, distinctive dentil moldings, and triangular pediments above the windows. Indeed, recent research has identified the house in both paintings as the "Villa Italienne" at Trouville, the architecture and landscaping of which remain largely unchanged (fig. 4).
By Caillebotte's day, the summer sojourn in Normandy had become an obligatory ritual for wealthy city-dwellers. During the 1850s and 1860s, the traditional fishing villages and larger ports along the English Channel had been rapidly transformed into seaside resorts catering to crowds of Parisian vacationers. Entrepreneurs built lavish hotels, casinos, inns, and villas; municipal governments organized everything from horse races and cafés-concerts to magicians' shows and children's theater. As one contemporary visitor explained, "It is not so much to bathe that we come here, as because...the world of fashion and delight has made its summer home; because here we can combine the refinements, pleasures and distractions of Paris with northern breezes, and indulge without restraint in those rampant follies that only a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman understands. It is a pretty, graceful, and rational idea, no doubt, to combine the ball-room with the sanitorium, and the opera with any amount of ozone" (quoted in R. Brettell et al., exh. cat., A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984, pp. 275-276).
Trouville was widely known during this period as the "jewel" or the "queen" of the Channel coast. Prosperous and cosmopolitan visitors flocked to the prestigious hotels that crowded the boardwalk (fig. 5) -- in particular, the grand Hôtel des Roches Noires, which boasted a fashionable restaurant, cardplaying and billiard rooms, an indoor pool, and a concert hall complete with Paris orchestra. The summer season at Trouville was widely regarded as an extension of bourgeois life in the capital. Society gossip columns referred to the boardwalk as "the summer boulevard of Paris", while a popular vaudeville song proclaimed, "Let us take the air on the beach, and contemplate the Ocean so tranquil. Ah! If Paris only had the sea, it would be a little Trouville" (quoted in R.L. Herbert, Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886, New Haven, 1994, p. 34). With its stunning seascape and picturesque architecture, Trouville also attracted a significant coterie of painters. Courbet worked there in 1865, Monet in 1870, and Boudin intermittently for nearly a decade. Indeed, in Manette Salomon, the Goncourts' novel about contemporary artistic life, one of the protagonists proved his modernity by painting resort society at Trouville. And in 1874, the British travel writer Katherine Macquoid could confidently proclaim that the town seemed to have "sprung out of the sea at the fiat of artists" (quoted in R.L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 270).
The summers that Caillebotte spent in Normandy were enormously fruitful. Between 1880 and 1884 he painted no fewer than fifty canvases of Trouville and the surrounding region. Unlike Boudin and Monet, whose views of Trouville focus largely upon the fashionable society of urban holiday-makers, Caillebotte was captivated above all by the landscape. Only five of his paintings from Normandy include figures, of which the present canvas is the only one that he chose to exhibit during his lifetime (cf. Berhaut 306-308, 322). Moreover, although the sea is omnipresent in Boudin and Monet's views of Normandy, Caillebotte painted several large and impressive inland views, including the present picture. In its choice of motif, therefore, Chemin montant constitutes a critical transition between Caillebotte's urban figure paintings of the 1870s and the landscapes and garden scenes that dominate his Petit Gennevilliers period. On the one hand, the fashionably dressed duo clearly recalls the strolling Parisian couples that Caillebotte depicted in some of his most celebrated canvases, such as Le Pont de l'Europe (Berhaut 49; Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva) and Rue de Paris, temps de pluie (fig. 6). At the same time, the sun-dappled vegetation that surrounds Caillebotte's vacationers anticipates paintings such as Les roses. Le jardin au Petit Gennevilliers (fig. 7), which pay homage to the luxuriant flower beds that the artist faithfully cultivated during the final decade of his career.
In its composition and handling, Chemin montant also forms a bridge between Caillebotte's work of the 1870s and 1880s. The plunging perspective, articulated by the sharp diagonal of the garden wall, is indebted to the dynamic spatial wedges of the artist's trademark Parisian street scenes (e.g. fig. 6). Notably, Caillebotte has altered the contours of the present landscape in order to accentuate this effect of convergence, flattening the steep angle of the path that lent the picture its title. In Villas au bord de la mer (fig. 3), by contrast, the same road is correctly seen to be rising. As Anne Distel has noted, the modified perspective of Chemin montant represents a reprise of the bold experimentation that informed many of Caillebotte's views of Paris, such as Vue prise à travers un balcon and Boulevard vu d'en haut (Berhaut 147, 154; Private Collections) -- pictures that led one contemporary critic to dub the artist "the friend of curious perspectives" (quoted in A. Distel et al., exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 172). The flattening of the path in the present picture also emphasizes the division of space into two clearly defined halves: the architectonic villa at the left and the untamed vegetation at the right, rendered in opposed complementaries of pink and green. The stark juxtaposition of these contrasting parts produces an unsettling effect reminiscent of Caillebotte's vision of the modern city, as well as recalling the rapid development of towns like Trouville from rural fishing villages to bourgeois resorts. Not coincidentally, the focal point of the picture is the pair of urbane vacationers, the man dressed for seaside leisure, the woman in clothing equally suitable for an afternoon in the city.
If the dynamic perspective and compositional ingenuity of the present picture are closely linked to Caillebotte's work of the 1870s, the free and animated handling is characteristic instead of the latter half of his career. Abandoning the crisp contours and finished accents of paintings such as Rue de Paris (fig. 6), Caillebotte here embraces a fully Impressionist idiom, comparable to that of Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro. The visible brush strokes suggest the movement of a gentle wind across the lush foliage, while the play of light and shade in the foreground evokes the seeming vibration of the landscape under the summer sun. The intensity of the palette is also striking. The deep violet-blue of the woman's dress forms a dramatic contrast with the beiges, greens, and bluish-grays of the landscape, while a series of brilliant pink accents heightens the overall key of the color composition.
A final noteworthy feature of the present picture is the enigmatic relationship between the two figures, which lends the scene a strong psychological charge. The man is clad in casual boating attire, the woman in stylish Parisian dress; she holds a parasol, the indispensable attribute of well-bred women under the Second Empire. As he often did when depicting bourgeois couples at leisure, Caillebotte presents the pair from the back, anonymously, with no apparent interaction (fig. 8). The figures stand well away from one another, the distance between them accentuated by the axis of the garden path. When Chemin montant was exhibited in 1994, Distel made the intriguing suggestion that the painting might represent Caillebotte himself and Charlotte Berthier, the artist's long-term companion. An avid yachter and vice-president of the Cercle de la Voile, Caillebotte represented himself in boating apparel on at least one other occasion, in a canvas from 1875 depicting his family's estate at Yerres (Berhaut 25; Private Collection). The figure could likewise be a depiction of Martial Caillebotte, the artist's brother, whose build more closely resembles that of the gentleman depicted in the painting.
Moreover, he frequently portrayed Charlotte Berthier with her face hidden from view, as in Les roses. Le jardin au Petit Gennevilliers (fig. 7). And here she is depicted wearing a dress convincingly like that of the one in the present painting. Unfortunately, we know little about the artist's relationship with his young companion, who was only eighteen when the present picture was executed. Although the pair never married, Caillebotte bequeathed to Charlotte a small property at Petit Gennevilliers and a substantial annuity upon his death. Her likeness is preserved in a portrait by Renoir from 1883, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Chemin montant attracted considerable attention -- both positive and negative -- when it was unveiled at the 7th Exposition des Artistes Indépendants in March of 1882. Unlike previous Impressionist exhibitions, the 1882 show received a relatively favorable response from critics, who lauded its renewed emphasis on landscape and en plein air painting. As Pissarro wrote to his niece shortly after the opening, "We are very pleased with the result, our reputation is affirmed more and more, we are taking our definitive place in the great movement of modern art" (quoted in C.S. Moffett et al., exh. cat., The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, p. 379). Caillebotte contributed seventeen canvases to the exhibition: nine landscapes, two still-lifes, and six figure paintings. Of these, the three pictures judged most important and controversial at the time were Chemin montant, L'homme au balcon (Berhaut 149; Christie's New York, 8 May 2000), and Fruits à l'étalage (Berhaut 193; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), all of which were reproduced as caricatures in the infamous Le Charivari. The reviewer Fichtre poked fun at Chemin montant, deriding the "conjugal couple it represents, again seen from the back, and emerging from a pond, truly painful to look at" (quoted in A. Distel et al., op. cit., p. 258). Paul de Charry, by contrast, was charmed by the work: "Chemin montant is a road that does not rise but that's quite pretty, quite natural, and sunlit without the customary fantasy. A few years from now M. Caillebotte will see and render nature like all artists of talent, and he will be satisfied with it" (quoted in ibid., p. 258).
The early provenance of Chemin montant remains uncertain. After the 1882 exhibition the painting is not documented again until 1930, when it resurfaced in the collection of Jeanne Schultz in Paris. In the interim, it is likely that it belonged to Schultz's mother, Doris Schultz (1856-1927), who frequented Parisian artistic circles in the 1880s. An élégante whose portrait was painted by Carolus Duran, Doris Schultz hosted lavish receptions at her apartment on the Rue des Mathurins, not far from Caillebotte's own residence. We know that Chemin montant must have been gifted or sold during the artist's lifetime, as it was not recorded in the inventory of his estate. A document has not been found, however, to confirm this aspect of the provenance.
(fig. 1) Catalogue of the 7th Exposition des Artistes Indépendants, 1882.
(fig. 2) Draner, "Chemin montant...pas de têtes," from Le Charivari, 9 March 1882.
(fig. 3) Gustave Caillebotte, Villas au bord de la mer, en Normandie, 1881.
(fig. 4) Villa Italienne, Trouville.
(photo: Thomas Seydoux, Christie's)
(fig. 5) Claude Monet, La plage à Trouville, 1870.
Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford. (The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund).
©2003 The Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris.
(fig. 6) Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street: Rainy Day, 1877.
The Art Institute of Chicago (Charles H. and Mary F.S. Worcester). (fig. 7) Gustave Caillebotte, Le jardin au Petit Gennevilliers, circa 1881-1883.
(fig. 8) Gustave Caillebotte, Les orangers, 1878.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.