Gustave Caillebotte

Gustave Caillebotte
Born Aug. 19, 1848
Died Feb. 21, 1894
Nationality French
Movement Impressionism
Field Painting
Works View Complete Works

The French artist Gustave Caillebotte was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as they say, but despite his rich family and wealth, Caillebotte was a hard-working, ambitious man who excelled in a number of fields in addition to painting.

His art is fascinating in that its composition straddles two distinctly different schools of art, that of the Impressionists and Realists. Cailllbotte’s work was far more in the realm of Realist style, but he was a strong advocate of Impressionism, and that school influenced his own work.

Early Life

Caillebotte was born in 1848 in Paris. His father, Martial Caillebotte, was the wealthy owner of a textile mill which supplied military needs. Gustave was Martial Caillebotte’s son by his third wife, Céleste Daufresne.

By age 20 Gustave had completed a law degree. He was also trained as an engineer. At age 22 he served in the Franco-Prussian War, which in France was called the War of 1870. It was a disaster for France and a victory for Germany – this was the year when the modern German Empire was formed.

The period following the war was one of turmoil for France, and some historians think the after effects of the war and the uncertainty it created pushed Caillebotte toward the study of art, and away from his more practical training as a lawyer and engineer. He began hanging out in the studio of the accomplished painter Léon Bonnat, which prompted him to make his own jump into a life of art.

Training & Development

Caillebotte’s talent came naturally to him. Even though he began his training later in life than most artists, and had little in the way of formal art instruction, he quickly developed his own style. Caillebotte had the advantage of wealth, so he was free to paint all day, and not worry about selling his work. He did not need to take on students or the perform the other various side-jobs artists of the day did to support their work.

As a painter working in the School of Realism, Caillebotte’s works are life as he saw it, as if he were painting photographs of scenes around France. It is said he was influenced by the developing art/science of photography at the time – yet his work remains solidly in the realm of recreating what his organic eyes observed in the world around him.

Early Works

Many of Caillebotte’s paintings show urban scenes in and around Paris. People are very much present and often take center stage in his creations, and curiously, we often see the backsides of people. His most famous painting is arguably “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” completed in 1877. This painting depicts well-dressed, upper class Parisians strolling along a spacious downtown Paris street. Just about everyone in the photo carries a gray umbrella. The scene is relaxed – it may be raining in Paris, but warmly clad and umbrella-protected pedestrians appear to be going about their day with a casual serenity. The men sport tall stove-pipe hats.

Caillebotte also painted domestic scenes, portraits, still life studies, interior scenes and a number of works featuring the indoor activity of families, including his own family.

Mixed Reviews

Even so, Caillebotte was not a prolific painter, and art historians have mixed views on his body of work as a whole. His output has been called “uneven” and the duration of his production was brief. His landscapes are called “competent” and some say his still life works could “inspire.” Again, much of his work is compared to photographic art, and some say his style seemed to anticipate the development of cinema in terms of how it portrayed the world.

It is likely that Caillebotte’s most lasting influence and contribution to art was the energy he poured into developing the School of Impressionism. Caillebotte was able to use his wealth to support the early impressionists in developing their style in the France of the mid-to-late 1800s. But he also used the force of his personality to keep the Impressionists organized and on track. It was a difficult time to be an Impressionist because this form was widely loathed and looked down upon by the art community.

From the vantage point of today, historians say that Caillebotte’s work was “not as good” as those many Impressionists he sponsored, encouraged and supported. At the same time, many art experts will admit that a handful of Caillebotte’s best works, such as Paris Street, Rainy Day, rise above even anything done by some of the masters of the day, including Pierre Auguste Renoir.

An Art Collector

It must be remembered, however, that Caillebotte was a man of many interests. For example, he was passionate about orchid horticulture. He was an excellent builder of yachts, and loved to race them. He was extremely absorbed by stamp collecting and dabbled considerably in textile design.

Not only was Gustave Caillebotte an artist and renaissance man of multiple gifts and talents, he was an avid art collector. Because he had the wealth to support other artists, it was natural that many of the great works of the day ended up in his hands. His incredible assemblage of works was donated to the French government after his death.

To get an idea of the astounding inventory of Caillebotte’s collection, consider that it contained 10 works by Claude Monet, 10 by Renoir, seven works of Edgar Degas, five of Paul Cézanne and four by Édouard Manet. Such a hoard today would be worth millions of dollars. Of course, at the time, the Impressionists were still largely looked down upon by the art community. Few could have predicted that Caillebotte’s collection was among the greatest art collections ever assembled.

Death & Legacy

Ironically, because of the politics of the day, the French government ended up refusing many of these masterpieces, and did so repeatedly. The result was that Caillebotte’s collection were scattered across a variety of venues. Some ended up in Luxemburg and many others found their way to Barnes Collection in the United States.

Gustave Caillebotte died at the relatively young age of 46 from heart disease. An autopsy showed that his heart was heavily congested. Because of his personal wealth, Caillebotte rarely sold his own works, and so most of his paintings became part of his estate upon his death. His works passed into the possession of his brother, who willed them to the French state upon his death.

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