Although it is tempting to identify this work as one of the canvases entitled Jardin and exhibited by Caillebotte in 1876, there is in fact no mention of this work in the contemporary criticism of the time and it is quite possible that it was not exhibited publicly during the artist's life. It was, however, given to the family's custodian and steward, Jean Baptiste Mathieu Daurelle (1839-1893), most likely by the artist himself. The man seen from the back is likely the artist himself, who would often wear a similiar straw hat. The young girl who accompanies him is Zoë Caillebotte. Born in 1868 and the youngest daughter of the artist's uncle Charles, she was a favorite subject for the artist between 1877 and 1878 (fig. 1).
While the contemporaneous work Portraits à la campagne (fig. 2) depicts a group of women intent on domestic pursuits close to the home, in the present work we are some distance from it, although its facade, elegant pediment, columns, and boxed orange trees, are still clearly visible. In this work, Caillebotte has treated the figures as accessories in a portrait of the park itself. Pierre Wittmer has identified the flowers in the round bed as impatiens and begonias, arranged by an experienced gardener into a perfectly geometric form. Although at first glance this view of the park might seem nondescript, it is in fact another example of Caillebotte's penchant for surprising compositions. He has populated the foreground with two figures, they are pushed dramatically to the canvas' edge and turn their back to the viewer. They are painted in grey tones, complemented by a few yellow highlights in their respective straw hats (the man's decorated with a barely discernible blue band, the girl's with a black ribbon).
The figures in the present composition gaze beyond the lawn, through an opening to the house in the background. The pink-gray brushstrokes of the path's foreground, which shade into a purplish blue, are horizontal, while those of the yellow-green grass are vertical. The vibrant carmine of the floral border is further animated by cross hatched strokes that lend it texture. The hues of the lawn in the middle ground are uniformly applied, but the details in the flower bed as well the foliage, suggest a variety of species which stand out against the clear gray sky and in turn introduce a certain vivacity into this otherwise intentionally restrained image.
The treatment of the surface in the present work can be compared to Monet's oeuvre prior to 1870, which featured the same clarity of contrast and economy of means. There is, however, a notable difference--at no time did Caillebotte allow his hand to take pleasure in free brushstrokes. Like Portraits à la campagne, this painting, which eschews easy sentimentality, also presents us with the image of an ordered world as seen by an amiable, indulgent eye not devoid of bemusement. The temptation to read the isolation of the figures in psychological terms should probably be resisted, for this spacing was most likely determined by compositional considerations. (in A. Distel, Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist, exh. cat., New York, 1995, p. 63.)
We would like to thank François Lorenceau for his assistance in the writing of this catalogue entry.
(fig. 1) Gustave Caillebotte, Les Orangers, 1878. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
(fig. 2) Gustave Caillebotte, Portraits à la campagne, 1876. Bayeux, Musie du Baron Gérard.