To us today, it is difficult to understand why the Impressionists were scorned, mocked and often left penniless. Their paintings speak so lucidly of the experience of passing moments – waves hitting the shoreline, the mist of an autumn morning, a café concert singer lit by gaslight. Impressionist art is immediate and fresh, the paint alive on the canvas. Sue Roe’s book The Private Lives of the Impressionists is an incredibly detailed exploration of the this stunning art, as well as the artists’ lives and the complex time in which they lived. A richly woven tapestry of personalities, places and events, the book allows us to understand the stories behind the paintings and the struggles that the artists faced. Roe skillfully reminds us that art history is more than just a succession of ‘isms’: it is deeply rooted in individual personality and experience.
Reading this book, I became intrigued about Gustave Caillebotte, whose painting The Floor Scrapers I saw at the Musée d’Orsay. Caillebotte was part of the Impressionist group, but his style often owes a huge debt to the academic tradition and he has been referred to as a Realist, alongside Courbet, as well as an Impressionist. Unlike most of the other members of the Impressionist group, Caillebotte never had to worry about money, having inherited a vast fortune in 1874. Because of this, he was able to finance other artists, buying their paintings and helping them out when times were hard (which they often were), for example paying Monet’s rent. He played a crucial role in organising the Impressionist exhibitions and even helped with hanging the paintings. He has been overlooked as a painter, with the focus instead on his role as a collector – he built up a collection of 67 Impressionist paintings which he bequeathed to the State, although 29 were rejected.
So Caillebotte was one of the much-needed financial guardian angels of Impressionism, helping the painters and supporting their legacy even when this proved contentious. But he was a great painter in his own right, whichever ‘ism’ we decide to place him in. He loved sailing, and was a keen painter of light on water. He was also deeply fascinated by the modern urban landscape of Hausmannised Paris (read more about this here), epitomised in his masterpiece Paris Street: Rainy Day (see below).
Le Pont de l’Europe is a similar exploration of the relationship between the modern city and its inhabitants. The painting depicts the newly constructed bridge spanning the tracks of the Gare St Lazare in Paris. The composition is dominated by the cliff face of latticed iron on the right, dwarfing the figures. Its bold receding diagonals sends our eye shooting towards the couple in black approaching us. The lady is probably a prostitute; the gentleman turns towards her but walks purposefully ahead. We sense a tension between intimacy and distance, highlighting the coexistence of propriety and sleaziness in Paris’ bourgeois brothel-goers.
The distance between the couple as they walk not-quite side by side is mirrored in the distance between them and us. The empty space evokes, as it does in Paris Street, Rainy Day, the isolation of the modern city. The iron bridge locks our eye into this tunnelled space but we have no sense of closeness with the figures within it. The man leaning against the bridge is oblivious to the passers-by, lost in his own thoughts, the product of this urban alienation. But this is not an overtly bleak painting – its ordinariness, and the sunny light, means that it takes a while to realise the negative concepts that it contains.
In a Café has this same sense of quiet tension. Caillebotte used the academic technique, getting a friend to model in his studio and gradually building up the composition rather than using the spontaneous approach associated with Impressionism. For me, this gives the painting a stillness and a solidity that adds to our understanding of the central figure. He is internalised, solemn, looking blankly out at the men sitting at the table; he is almost part of the café furniture. The mirror in the background allows us to place him in his surroundings, as it shows us what he is facing and so contextualises him. But his reflection in the glass, where he is seen facing his surroundings, tells us nothing about him. All the information we can glean comes from how we see him as he is isolated from his context, with his back to it. Caillebotte is using the mirror to play with the boundaries between integration and isolation.
These two paintings show Caillebotte to be a perceptive, creative interpreter of modern urban life. They are psychologically charged, modern paintings that seem to prefigure Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks, while maintaining the traditional, academic technique favoured by the mainstream artists of the day. He is an artist that deserves to be more famous than he is.
If you are interested in Impressionism, especially in the human stories that it contains, Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists is a very engaging book. It packs in a lot of detail but by the end left me wanting to know more. I’ve started reading Impressionist Art, which I recommend if you’d like a more academic read (and the coloured images are excellent quality).
Kelder, Diane (1980) The Great Book of French Impressionism Abbeville Press
Roe, Sue. (2007) The Private Lives of the Impressionists Vintage
Walther, Ingo F. (2016) Impressionist Art Bibliotheca Universalis
View of the Seine in the Direction of the Pont de Bezons: https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-caillebotte/view-of-the-seine-in-the-direction-of-the-pont-de-bezons
Paris Street, Rainy Day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Street;_Rainy_Day
Le Pont de l’Europe: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Pont_de_l%27Europe