Gus­tave Caillebotte, the clear-eyed im­pres­sion­ist ART RE­VIEW CON­TIN­UED ON E6

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT

You see it from the mo­ment you en­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion, Gus­tave Caillebotte’s mas­ter­piece and one of the most fa­mous paint­ings of the past 150 years. “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” bor­rowed from the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, is placed at the end of a short en­filade of three gal­leries, doc­u­ment­ing the im­pres­sion­ist pain­ter’s best work, most of it made while he was an ur­ban an­i­mal, a wealthy dandy, a self-styled flâneur, an im­pres­sion­ist im­pre­sario with the means and the energy to shape a move­ment.

When you are stand­ing in front of it, ad­mir­ing the glis­ten­ing wet cob­ble­stones, the se­vere ge­om­e­try of Parisian streets and the cheer­ful bus­tle of its gloomy weather, you may think that the rest of Caillebotte will be more of the same. But the lay­out of the gal­leries fol­lows the strange progress of Caillebotte’s ca­reer. From “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” the show con­tin­ues with a sharp right turn to other sub­jects, in­clud­ing nudes, still lifes and brightly painted scenes of gra­cious sub­ur­ban liv­ing. This sec­ond tranche of Caillebotte may seem a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment. The cu­ra­tors of the Na­tional Gallery of Art’s “Gus­tave Caillebotte: The Pain­ter’s Eye,” a sat­is­fy­ing and en­light­en­ing ex­hi­bi­tion that brings to­gether some 50 of the artist’s best paint­ings, won’t mind that. They ac­knowl­edge it in the cat­a­logue and have ar­ranged the ex­hi­bi­tion to place Caillebotte’s later work in a satel­lite re­la­tion to a hand­ful of great paint­ings, most of them made in the 1870s or early 1880s.

“We would not have done the show with­out that,” says Mary Mor­ton, head of French paint­ings at the NGA, point­ing to “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” Mor­ton, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s co-cu­ra­tor (with the Kim­bell Art Mu­seum’s Ge­orge Shackelford), wants this show to trans­form our sense of the artist. Caillebotte, whose work is mainly in pri­vate hands and sparsely rep­re­sented in Amer­i­can mu­se­ums, was foun­da­tional to the early im­pres­sion­ist move­ment, yet mostly for­got­ten for a cen­tury af­ter its hey­day. Even to­day, his exquisitely painted city scenes don’t ring the men­tal im­pres­sion­ist bell in most peo­ple’s heads: They don’t have the

seem­ingly rapid and ap­prox­i­mate brush­work of im­pres­sion­ism, nor are they steeped in the flow­ers, wa­ter and lush land­scapes of pain­ters like Monet.

When Caillebotte was in­vited to join the sec­ond im­pres­sion­ist ex­hi­bi­tion in 1876, how­ever, he was rec­og­nized as one its most bold­est and most pow­er­ful tal­ents, with a pol­ished, al­most aca­demic style that con­nected him more strongly to the past than his more rad­i­cal con­fr­eres. One critic di­vided the pain­ters into the land­scape artists and the “drafts­men,” a cat­e­gory that in­cluded Caillebotte and De­gas, whose work was more pre­oc­cu­pied with the in­di­vid­ual, the hu­man and the so­cial. Had Caillebotte not died young, had he not been rich, had he not drifted later in life to­ward the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and painterly man­ner of Monet, had he not been re­mem­bered more as a col­lec­tor than as a maker of art, he might have changed our sense of the whole move­ment, shift­ing its cen­ter of grav­ity to the “drafts­men” and away from the haystacks, sea scenes, gar­dens and sun-dap­pled rip­ples of the sleepy Seine.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is the first ma­jor U.S. show de­voted to Caillebotte since a 1994 ex­hi­bi­tion seen in Los An­ge­les and Chicago. Its slightly vague and elas­tic sub­ti­tle, “The Pain­ter’s Eye,” is a good in­di­ca­tion that Caillebotte con­tin­ues to frus­trate in­ter­pre­ta­tion and easy as­sim­i­la­tion. Rather like the net­work of av­enues that di­verge from the viewer in “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” the routes to un­der­stand­ing Caillebotte are sev­eral and tan­gen­tial. What uni­fies our sense of the pain­ter is his pe­cu­liar, and com­pelling, spa­tial sense, the provoca­tive ge­ome­tries of his paint­ings, the deep fo­cus of many of his works and the of­ten rad­i­cal, seem­ingly pho­to­graphic an­gles of view, crop­ping and per­spec­tive. In short: the pain­ter’s eye.

In an 1876 paint­ing, “Lun­cheon,” a large plate looks as if tilted up to­ward the viewer, like an opaque steer­ing wheel, while an ar­ray of glass­ware and dishes stretches into the dis­tance along a highly pol­ished din­ing ta­ble. The empty place set­ting in the fore­ground may ref­er­ence Caillebotte’s fa­ther, who died in 1874, or it may be in­tended to place the viewer at the ta­ble, em­pha­siz­ing how dis­tant are the re­mote, silent and per­haps sad fig­ures eat­ing at the other end. It is a strik­ing com­po­si­tion that height­ens the fla­vor of the re­al­ist de­tails, the glass carafe asym­met­ri­cally placed in a me­tal coaster, the ap­par­ently hap­haz­ard ar­range­ment of dishes, glasses and plat­ters, the pe­cu­liar sense of quiet that sug­gests two fig­ures eat­ing a rich but lonely meal in mu­tual iso­la­tion.

“Lun­cheon” is placed in the first room of the show, with another pow­er­ful 1876 in­te­rior scene that shocked early crit­ics, “Young Man Play­ing the Pi­ano.” Set against light fil­ter­ing through lacy cur­tains, the pi­anist places two el­e­gant, long-fin­gered hands on the key­board of a black grand pi­ano, the end of which is pushed into the cor­ner formed by two walls cov­ered with flow­ery wall­pa­per. Run­ning down this cor­ner seam of the wall­pa­per is an or­na­men­tal stripe of red and gold, re­flected twice in the pi­ano and es­tab­lish­ing an overly pow­er­ful ver­ti­cal line that un­set­tles the en­tire im­age. This strange fas­ci­na­tion with ap­par­ently ar­bi­trary ver­ti­cal dis­sec­tions of the im­age re­curs in “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” where a much-crit­i­cized street lamp bi­sects the paint­ing with­out re­gard to any of the usual com­po­si­tional niceties.

In the next gallery, an even more shock­ing 1880 paint­ing shows us a Parisian street scene from on high, an al­most ab­stract im­age of street fur­ni­ture, fore­short­ened men and a horse-drawn car­riage fil­tered through the leaves of a some­what spindly tree. “The Boule­vard Seen From Above,” like Caillebotte’s other Parisian scenes, cap­tures the new Paris, the re­made Paris of Baron Hauss­mann, who shat­tered much of the me­dieval city and re­placed it with el­e­gant, uni­form and easily pa­trolled boule­vards. But this par­tic­u­lar im­age em­pha­sizes the rad­i­cal new­ness of Caillebotte’s Paris by show­ing it from a novel and ver­tig­i­nous per­spec­tive.

One might say of this, and many other works, that they merely re­flect the in­flu­ence of pho­tog­ra­phy, its ten­dency to crop the world in odd ways, draw the eye deep into the pic­ture and cap­ture the ac­ci­den­tal and serendip­i­tous move­ment of liv­ing things. But Ge­orge East­man’s hand­held cam­era wasn’t mar­keted un­til 1888, and the great work of the ma­jor French pain­ters who re­sponded to its revo­lu­tion in see­ing — among them Vuil­lard and Bon­nard— was still at least a decade off. And it’s a mis­take to ex­ag­ger­ate the cam­era’s in­flu­ence: What mat­tered was the pain­ter’s abil­ity to see (and not sup­press) what was in­ter­est­ing in pho­to­graphs, not the ac­ci­den­tal in­no­va­tions of the snap­shot.

The first three rooms of the ex­hi­bi­tion are beau­ti­fully or­ga­nized, pro­ceed­ing from in­te­rior views to views through a win­dow to the gallery that in­cludes “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” along with three other mag­is­te­rial works, the two views of the Pont de l’Europe and the 1877 “House Pain­ters.” These all seem of a piece, con­nected not just to each other, but also to a deeply in­ter­nal­ized sense of Paris fash­ioned, dis­sem­i­nated and sus­tained by the pain­ters of this pe­riod. The bil­low­ing gales of steam ris­ing mys­te­ri­ously from be­yond the gird­ers of the 1876 “The Pont de l’Europe” may well be from the same train in the back­ground of Manet’s “The Rail­way” (on view in the Na­tional Gallery’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion) or the black be­he­moth that comes belch­ing into the Gare Saint Lazare painted by Monet a few years later.

For­tu­nately, the power of these three gal­leries car­ries over into the next gal­leries, de­voted to por­traits, still life, sub­ur­ban and gar­den scenes and two rare nudes. The viewer’s eye has been shocked into aware­ness of the pain­ter’s eye, and Caillebotte’s for­ays into other ter­ri­tory seem al­most equally strange and dis­ori­ent­ing. Alarge male nude dry­ing him­self af­ter a bath in­verts the usual gen­der of the im­pres­sion­ist bathing scene; a naked woman lies ex­hausted and prob­a­bly obliv­i­ous on a sofa that dwarfs her; a room­ful of food presents the Parisian shop win­dow as a Grand Guig­nol fan­tasy of hor­ror, hu­mor and ar­ti­fice; and dry­ing linen ob­scures the view of a sunny land­scape with a strangely cor­po­real sense of flayed skin flap­ping in the wind.

Is it a let­down? A bit, but although no sin­gle work seems as great as what has come be­fore, most of them are at least equally idio­syn­cratic and even per­verse. The fig­ures in Caillebotte’s por­traits are not wear­ing the ap­proved masks of stan­dard por­trai­ture, but seem smug, or an­noyed or even men­ac­ing. The well-dressed man row­ing a boat in “The Boating Party” is cap­tured with dis­turb­ing in­ti­macy and ex­udes all the plea­sure of a celebrity un­der the gaze of the pa­parazzi. The re­flec­tion of the wooden masts on the wa­ter of an 1893 sail­ing scene are ren­dered with a thick zigzag of yel­low paint that feels more like a sym­bol of re­flec­tion than a ren­der­ing of one.

And then there’s the still life “Calf’s Head and Ox Tongue,” prob­a­bly painted around 1882. Through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion, the visi­tor will have de­vel­oped lit­tle if any sense of who Caillebotte was, and no sense of his emo­tional life. Some crit­ics see alien­ation and iso­la­tion in his ci­tyscapes; oth­ers thought Caillebotte strangely en­sor­celed by the new­ness of Hauss­mann’s Paris. Caillebotte’s view re­mains an enigma. (Per­haps as one who en­joyed the best of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, he was dis­creet enough to be neu­tral about its im­pact.)

If you want to force mean­ing on the work be­yond its vis­ual in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, the ghastly tongue and sev­ered calf ’s head are a tempt­ing place to start. They are seen in a room of dead an­i­mals and fruit and cakes, near other im­ages that of­ten pair car­casses as if the inan­i­mate food­stuffs of Paris went like the an­i­mals of Noah’s aquatic menagerie: two-by-two. But the pair­ings are odd.

A long, red tongue, capped by a blood-red bun­dle of flesh, hangs in­ert be­side a calf that might be sleep­ing but for the ob­vi­ous ev­i­dence of its de­cap­i­ta­tion. Ametal butcher’s rack and chain cross the im­age hor­i­zon­tally. It is a gory im­age, but a calm one, too, like a paint­ing by Sou­tine that has been lightly cen­sored and slightly pol­ished. One might see this as a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the pain­ter’s more el­e­gant ci­tyscapes, or a Balzac-like di­gres­sion into the man­ners of the mar­ket­place and thus re­lated to Caillebotte’s paint­ings of the sub­ur­ban fields of Gen­nevil­liers Plain, an en­tic­ing ar­ti­fi­cial land­scape that was fer­til­ized with the ef­flu­via of the Parisian sewer sys­tem. The pain­ter is giv­ing us the high and low of Paris, the in and out, and both ends of an enor­mous, ur­ban al­i­men­tary canal.

But per­haps this, too: Tongues are for speak­ing, and the calf ’s head sug­gests at­ten­u­ated youth. There is some­thing go­ing on here about ideas of trans­mis­sion and death, about com­mu­ni­ca­tion and si­lence, re­la­tion­ships that have lapsed into the in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble iso­la­tion of pure oth­er­ness. Caillebotte has hung up sad­ness on the wall, qui­etly and with­out com­ment, which only em­pha­sizes the space that di­vides tongue from head, viewer from im­age, im­age from re­al­ity and re­al­ity from obliv­ion.

On the other hand, this is also an im­age of lunch, which is what fash­ion­able peo­ple do on a rainy af­ter­noon, when life is lived all on the sur­face, well-dressed, well-heeled, well-fed and well-sated with city liv­ing.

Rather like the net­work of av­enues that di­verge from the viewer in “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” the routes to un­der­stand­ing Caillebotte are sev­eral and tan­gen­tial.


TOP: Gus­tave Caillebotte’s 1877 mas­ter­piece “Paris Street, Rainy Day” is the linch­pin of the Na­tional Gallery of Art’s en­light­en­ing ex­hi­bi­tion “Gus­tave Caillebotte: The Pain­ter’s Eye.” ABOVE: A work from later in Caillebotte’s too­brief ca­reer, “Calf 's Head and Ox Tongue” seems to have some­thing to say about si­lence and iso­la­tion, both in life and death.

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