In 1876 and 1877, at the second and third impressionist exhibitions in Paris, Gustave Caillebotte stole other artists thunder. He was the painter everyone noticed; Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were also-rans.
Then, just as quickly as he rose, he fell from view. Not because he quit painting; quite the contrary, he kept producing art for the next 18 years.
Caillebotte (pronounced kai-ya-BUHT) was independently wealthy. He was born in 1848 to a family that held the contract to supply the French army with cots and bed linens. This lucrative business allowed Gustave and his younger brothers, René and Martial, lives of luxury.
Caillebotte studied to be a lawyer, obtained undergraduate and masters degrees, then enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
His painting The Floor Scrapers was rejected by the Salon exhibition, and, dejected, he turned to the impressionists, who welcomed him warmly. He participated in the second impressionist exhibition in 1876 and then financed the third, contributing six of his own paintings and eight by Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir that he bought at auction.
He was one of their greatest champions. He kept Monet afloat for years, loaning him money and accepting paintings in lieu of payment. Eventually he was known as more a patron than a participant in the impressionist movement.
But all the while, he was painting.
A rare gathering
Caillebottes heirs own most of his works, and very few are in museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York obtained its first Caillebotte last year; it was a bequest.
There are two Caillebotte paintings in Houston, Chicago, Boston and Cologne; Paris has three, and the Kimbell Art Museum has one. Almost all of the others are in private collections.
If you want to see Caillebottes paintings, you have to go to a retrospective, says George Shackelford, the Kimbells deputy director and co-curator of, coincidentally, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painters Eye, a retrospective that will be on view in Fort Worth through Feb. 14.
Caillebottes most famous work in the U.S., Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), is owned by the Chicago Art Institute. People recognize it but rarely know who painted it.
He is the great unknown artist that everyone knows one work by, Shackelford says.
Which is quite a shame, as Caillebotte embraced subject matter contemporary to his times and with a prescience for the world to come. He recorded the newly industrialized Paris with magnificent steel structures, such as the bridge seen in The Pont de lEurope (1876-77), with impressive arched spans and huge rivets.
He painted the intersections of wide boulevards of the newly redesigned and rebuilt Paris.
Streets of Paris
In the 1870s and 80s, the citys squalid tenements had been razed, and the streets had been widened. It was a city planners maneuver of style, commerce and defensive strategy for more shopping opportunities and better crowd control.
Caillebotte accentuated the dramatic perspective of these large buildings and wide streets as a sort of rain-cleansed utopia.
He painted numerous versions of the view out his window on the Rue Halevy from an upper-floor window. The intersection in Paris Street; Rainy Day, and the apartments on Rue Halevy still exist in a neighborhood known as Place de Dublin.
Caillebotte often looked down on the street from his studio balcony and painted from this vantage point. This was a new perspective afforded by the multi-storied buildings. He even leaned out over the balcony to paint a birds-eye view in Boulevard Seen From Above (1880).
Caillebotte painted domestic scenes but not the ones of sweet memories. In Luncheon, a long, dark dining table capable of seating a dozen or more is set for three.
The viewpoint is from the head of the table, where the plate is still empty; at the other end is his aged mother, being served by a manservant. Seated mid-table is Caillebottes younger brother, slouched over his plate, already tucking into his food. Bad posture, bad manners wait until Mom sees that.
Its a familiar family scene. And it is one of the most extreme examples of something Caillebotte does often putting the viewer right at the front edge of the scene. He doesnt give a safe distance from the subject but forcefully wraps the viewer into the action.
One of Caillebottes earliest paintings, The Floor Scrapers (1875), is both a comment on the nobility of work and not a small amount of homoeroticism. It is also one of his most well-known paintings in Europe, as it was an early gift from the family to the state.
Caillebottes world was full of men and few women. He never married, although he did have a long relationship with Charlotte Berthier.
But the few paintings of women are not particularly flattering. Nude on a Couch (1880), shows a pale woman in a not-tonight-I-have-a-headache pose. Compare this to the Man at His Bath (1884), of a robust young man toweling himself off. This one is charged with appreciation.
In one gallery hangs paintings of edibles, although they are presented in such a way that they look completely foreign to us. The butcher shops of Paris in the late 1800s decorated whole calf carcasses with flower leis and hung ox tongues and calfs heads from their meat hooks, along with ducks and rabbits.
Probably mouth-watering at the time, they evoke a squeamish euuuwwww now. They were, for their time, the equivalent of the Instagram photos of the gourmet meal about to be consumed.
Shackelford says that of the hundreds of paintings known to be by Caillebotte, 50 of them are worthy of a retrospective, and that is stretching it a bit, as there are some in the exhibition that look as if they were squeezed in to round out the number.
Hobbies and passions
A quick flip through an online source of all his paintings shows that when he was good, he was very, very good. He could also be average, slapdash or downright awful. He did recognize his best works and those of others; he had a good eye.
His painting of fabrics, the iron work on bridges and balconies, the perspective of the street scenes, and light as it plays off the rain-watered cobblestones or freshly scraped floors is spectacular.
As he became more interested in other endeavors, his street scenes and paintings of regattas reflect a fascination with the engineering of buildings and boats rather than the manipulation of paint.
This unevenness to his output is most likely because he was a man of many interests. When he was most interested in painting, from 1875 to 1882, he was at his best. Then he began growing roses at his country estate in Petit Gennevilliers, and collecting stamps. He and his brother Martial created a stamp collection that is now in the British Museum.
Next, he began designing sailboats; he had been an avid sailor for years. He built a shipyard at his country home, financed regattas and wrote rule books for the sport.
His painting became more of a hobby than a passion. And when he did paint, he painted the new passions, his roses and sailboats.
Some of his last paintings are the ones most like the impressionists, with looser brush work and pastel colors. Linen Out to Dry, Petit Gennevilliers (1888) is of sheets on a clothesline buffeted by the wind; they look like white handkerchiefs waving goodbye or a sail spilling the wind. Either way, it is a poignant farewell.
An early death
When he died in 1894, he was 45 years old, and he left his significant collection of impressionist artworks to France, something the state failed to appreciate or buy when they were affordable. Caillebottes collection became the foundation of what was to become the Musée dOrsay. His house and gardens became an auto shop and then an airplane factory.
Years after Caillebottes death, Monet wrote, If he had lived instead of dying prematurely, he would have benefited from the same turn of fortune as us, because he was full of talent as naturally gifted as he was conscientious, and when we lost him, he was still only at the beginning of his career.
Caillebottes paintings were left to the family, and they have kept a tight hold on them, releasing them to the art market only occasionally. As Shackeleford noted, Cailbotte retrospectives come along only occasionally. They are almost generational. The first was in 1921; then in 1951. Caillebottes appeared in U.S. museums in 1966 and 1976; the last Caillebotte exhibition was in 1994.
So this is a rarity. Many of the paintings are absolutely stunning, and those that arent make the ones that are all the more interesting.