Gustave Caillebotte: “Paris Street, Rainy Day” (1877), oil on canvas.

It must have been a gloomy day indeed at the Gustave Caillebotte household when his family bequeathed his paintings to the Louvre Museum on his behalf — and the venerable art institution refused them all.

The curators justified their decision claiming that his works “were not still widely accepted by the mainstream artistic establishment,” and were considered “vulgar” and “unhealthy.” Harsh!

Truly, change happens in art and those who herald the new order are almost always rejected by those who came before them. As far as Modern Art goes, there is no one specific artist or artists who can be traced to its origins. The movement had a plurality of influences, all traced to France: First, the country had become the cultural and economic center of Western Civilization in the 19th century; then, a group of French painters rejected the formal rigidity of the classical and mythological themes of the previous artistic movements; and finally, the invention of photography.

The introduction in the market of the Kodak No. 1 camera in 1888, produced by Eastman Kodak Co., made photography affordable to the middle class, and pictures easy enough to be taken by amateurs. Some critics even declared precipitously that photos would bring about the demise of painting. Photography was now a competitor to paintings and painters.

A group of French-born painters formed in the 1860s. What came to be known as Impressionism contributed specific innovations that were incorporated into the Modernist movement. Claude Monet was the founder of Impressionism, painting in the outdoors; Courbet was the founder of landscape realism; Edouard Manet created a fusion of beauty, fashion and intimacy; and Paul Cezanne, was responsible for unorthodox, photo-like cropping of the subjects.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94) was born into a wealthy Parisian family. Before becoming a full-time artist, he obtained law and engineering degrees, but his heart was in painting. With the blessing of his father, Caillebotte trained at the Paris School of Fine Arts, from which he graduated in 1873, becoming a professional painter.

Caillebotte was a Modernist, but one who painted in a much more realistic way than his fellow Impressionists. He combined the characteristics of the styles that came before, adding to those his own style.

“Paris Street, Rainy Day” (1877) is his masterpiece, one that many may be familiar with, yet may not be aware that it is one of Caillebotte’s paintings. The work is an imposing life-size (83.5 inches by 108.75 inches) oil on canvas, presently at the Art Institute of Chicago.

With this work he created a synthesis of Modernism. In this painting, the couple on the forefront is life-size, seemingly trying to get out of the boundaries of the artwork. They are well dressed, indicating their high social position. Many figures populating the painting are a bit awkward, some of them seemingly jaywalking and may collide with one another.

The appreciation of Caillebotte, in France and the United States, began only several decades after he had produced his best work, in the 1950s in France and only in 1976 in the U.S., when an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum introduced his work to the American people. In the 1950s, his family began selling his paintings to private collectors, with one finally landing at the Artist Institute of Chicago in 1980.

Disillusion with his lack of success may have caused Caillebotte to retreat. As a result, the majority of his later work was little known outside a small circle of friends and family, though he continued to paint until his death in 1894. Today, his legacy begins to get the praise it deserves.

(1) comment

Julie Davis

Thanks for this article on an important artist---I enjoyed reading it and you are providing a great service to your readers by educating them on the arts.

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