Gustave Caillebotte at the Brooklyn Museum | Review by Jill Conner
The need to break free, into new visual territory began in the 1840s with paintings by Gustave Courbet, whose Realist work strongly juxtaposed the austere Neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Dominique Ingres. Although David and Ingres championed the rigor of French academic painting during the first half of the 19th-century, the Neoclassical style crumbled as the French sought independence and freedom during the Paris Commune of 1871. The early work of Gustave Caillebotte reflects an early fascination with traditional, symmetrical juxtapositions, but his attempt to incorporate movement and action within the painted framework appears to have fallen short of his goal to render an extension of the lived experience.
Floor Scrapers (1876) depending on which painting one looks at, captures two to three men renovating a wooden floor in an otherwise empty apartment. Caillebotte created a number of studies for this piece which indicated that the human model for painting was no longer that of a nude woman standing in a secluded artist's studio, but instead the working-class men who toiled daily in physical labor. In 1877 House Painters skewed the extended viewpoint off to the left side of the canvas while the center portrayed a small group of painters standing outside of a shop window. One contractor maintains a distant view on the sidewalk, standing behind the other two who are closer to the building, standing on ladders. This painting reveals Caillebotte's development of a loose, blurry line that responds to the feeling of the moment. Light is not modeled in paint, but instead various shades are layered between the back, middle and foreground rendering depth and a sense of realistic space.
The new angular city of Paris, as designed by Baron George-Eugene Haussmann, becomes the artist's muse in The Pont de l'Europe (1876) and Boulevard des Italiens. (1880) As seen in Man on a Balcony (1880) and Boulevard Haussmann, Snow (1879-81) the individual remains anonymous while the buildings, street and long stretch of green trees swamp the rest of the canvas. However the dichotomy between the city and country dominates much of Caillebotte's subject matter. As an artist, he was just as content with life in the city as he was with the rural landscape. The Yerres, Effect of Rain (1875) portrays a fragment of water at an angle. White halos appear across the water's surface, revealing the artist's attempt to capture the fall of rain and the dim light within the sky.
Skiffs on the Yerres (1878) combines the artist's new, swift brushstroke with the kind of physical movement that he attempted to capture in Floor Scrapers. Two kyacks emerge from the left corner as the rowers' oars oscillate methodically through the water, maintaining smooth movement and even direction. Caillebotte became a boat-builder in the outlying village of Gennevilliers in the late 1880s, after purchasing a large property with his brother in 1881. Just as Giverny became the ultimate muse of his contemporary Claude Monet, Caillebotte embellished the quaint landscape around Gennevilliers. The Plain of Gennevilliers, Yellow Fields (1884) shows a vast stretch of blurry orange and yellow blossoms that stretch out into the center of the canvas, framed by green fields. Likewise Garden Path with Dahlias in Petit Gennevilliers (1890-91) reflects just that: an empty walkway hedged with flowers, all under the context of a bluish, gray sky.
Gustave Caillbotte had every facet of daily life at his finger tips and chose to focus on those details that interested him most: city laborers and recreational leisure. Work and play were deeply correlated and quickly becoming part of a way of life that was destined to effect everyone, as the Industrial Era continued to usher in new technologies throughout societies of the West. Given the amount of pictorial volume that we find ourselves currently living with today, Impressionism provides both a respite and recollection of a moment when the time of one day could still be extended into a month. Technology had not yet effected fine art even though the Daguerrotype emerged in the early 19th-century and Henry Fox Talbot was printing photographic multiples by the 1850s. Caillebotte and his colleagues were fortunate to have lived as artists in the calm before the storm.