Today, I decided to check out one of The National Gallery of Art’s newest exhibitions: a review of Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte. I had heard a lot of buzz about this exhibition (some of which came from my drawing instructor, which I mentioned in last week’s post), and I thought I’d see what all the excitement was about. I was previously familiar with some of Caillebotte’s work, and, I have to admit, not all that crazy about it. I’m a little biased because I’m not a big fan of Impressionism as a whole, but I thought it was still important for me to give it a chance. Caillebotte has a unique style similar to that of Manet, who I enjoy quite a bit, so I ignored my stubborn attitude towards this movement in favor of expanding my artistic horizons. I’m glad I did, too, because I was impressed with the depth of Caillebotte’s work.
The gallery room was packed when I first walked in. A very popular exhibition, it was a bit difficult to maneuver at first. Don’t be discouraged, though – it cleared up as I made my way through the (many) rooms. The walls of the first three rooms were boldly painted in blue, making Caillebotte’s cityscapes and portraits pop. Caillebotte’s numerous paintings seemed to be mostly organized by their content (Paris views in one room, portraits in another, etc.), and yet the content groupings appeared to parallel his chronological progression. One of the first paintings I saw was The Floor Sweepers (above), a stunning piece representing a true Paris scene. In fact, this painting launched Caillebotte’s artistic career; rejected from the Paris Salon, it then caught the eye of the Impressionists, who invited him to show at their next exhibition. The Floor Sweepers exemplifies the appeal of Caillebotte’s work: real, thoughtfully rendered, and nostalgic. The warm light spilling through the windows highlights the un-idealized bodies of the Parisian workers, and the hints of the architecture through the room and the scenery out the window transport the viewer to a home in Paris. Caillebotte also painted several balcony scenes, allowing the viewer to share a view with the subject of the painting and fully experience the setting. These views also reflect the innovations of urban planner Baron Haussmann. Beginning in the 1850s, Haussmann renovated Paris to improve congestion and poor public health, creating the broad boulevards and clean grid that are now so closely associated with this city.
Continuing through the galleries, the sense of people-watching persists throughout Caillebotte’s work. The subjects of the paintings do not interact with the audience; instead, the somewhat isolated figures passively engage the viewer by going about their day-to-day activities, ignoring both the viewer and each other inside the paintings. An example of this dynamic is the piece Paris Street, Rainy Day, below. Arguably Caillebotte’s most renowned work, and undoubtedly his largest, this painting is prominently displayed on the back wall of the gallery (judiciously located so the museum visitors can see the piece from the exhibition’s entrance). The description accompanying the painting states, “Like a snapshot, the composition captures a haphazard moment, as if the artist had stumbled upon the scene,” brilliantly revealing the reason Caillebotte’s work is so captivating. Caillebotte later moved toward pastoral landscapes - most likely due to influence from his good friend Claude Monet - but I think his most fascinating content rests in his urban scenes and portraits.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this exhibition. I now understand that Caillebotte’s paintings are universally appealing – no matter what your taste is, there will be something in his work that captures your interest. Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye will remain in the National Gallery until October 4th, so give it a visit while you have the chance:
Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye
Wednesday, July 29, 2015 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.
Want to learn more about Caillebotte before you hit the exhibition? Join Mary Morton, curator of the exhibition, next Wednesday evening at the Ripley Center as she explores some of the painter’s most powerful and surprising images, their conception, and impact.