Gustave Caillebotte - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Gustave Caillebotte
Childhood and Education
Gustave Caillebotte was born into a wealthy Parisian family on August 19, 1848. The family lived in Paris on the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis. Martial Caillebotte, his father, had inherited his family's military textile business. Additionally, the elder Caillebotte was a judge at the Tribunal de commerce in the Seine department. He had already been widowed twice by the time he married his third wife and Gustave's mother, Celeste Daufresne. The eldest of her three children with Martial, Gustave had two younger brothers, Rene and Martial.
In 1860, the family began going for the summer to their estate in Yerres, which was 12 miles south of Paris on the Yerres River. His father had purchased land there, including a large home, and it was there on the family's extensively landscaped property where the young Caillebotte first began drawing and painting.
After finishing his schooling Caillebotte completed his law degree in 1868 and received his law license in 1870. Intelligent and ambitious, he was also trained as an engineer. Caillebotte hadn't been out of school for long before he was drafted to serve in the Franco-Prussian war in the Garde Nationale Mobile de la Seine from July 1870 to March 1871.
Following the war, Caillebotte began pursuing his artistic career with increased fervor. He visited the studio of the well-respected academic painter Léon Bonnat, who encouraged him to begin taking a career in art seriously. Bonnat, a Realist painter who had influential friends like the writer Émile Zola and artists Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, was a teacher at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts. Among Bonnat's more famous students through the years were Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Georges Braque, Jean Beraud, and Edvard Munch. Caillebotte threw himself enthusiastically into his new vocation, including enrolling in the École des Beaux-Arts in 1873, although he spent very little time there, preferring his own studio in his family's home.
Caillebotte's father died in 1874. His brother Rene died only two years later and in 1878, his mother died, leaving the two remaining sons, Gustave and Martial, to divide the family fortune between them. Around the time that his father died, Caillebotte made some vital connections in the art world, befriending a number of artists who were not involved with the French Academy, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and De Nittis. He was a colleague and, in some cases, close friend of some of the most important avant-garde artists of the period.
Caillebotte made his artistic debut in 1876 at the second exhibition of the Impressionists (there were 8 exhibitions total), the loosely knit group of artist also known as the "Independents," the "Intentionalists," and the "Intransigents." In keeping with the Impressionists' avant-garde style, a rejection of academic painting and the formalities of the traditional exhibition protocols of the official Salon, Caillebotte, Renoir, Monet, and others produced small, independent exhibitions of their work.
At the third exhibition in 1876, which Caillebotte helped finance and organize he exhibited eight paintings, including one of his best known works, The Floor Scrapers (1875), which had been rejected by the judges of the Salon of 1875, the official exhibition sponsored by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (French Academy of Fine Arts). As it depicted common laborers planing a wood floor, it was deemed "vulgar." Whereas the artistic establishment might find images of peasants in bucolic settings by well-respected artists like Corot acceptable, representations of the working class produced by Realist painters like Courbet, Manet, Degas, and then Caillebotte (among others) were deemed unacceptable and thus rejected from official recognition.
In addition to being a painter himself, Caillebotte also played a critical role as a major source of patronage and financial support for artists such as Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro who were still endeavoring to attract attention and achieve more widespread success. His family's wealth helped him not only to pursue his own artistic career but it also enabled him to both provide financial support for his artist friends whose means were limited and to collect their work, often buying it at inflated prices. He purchased paintings by Monet, for the first time in 1876, and also paid the rent for some of the artists' studios on a number of occasions.
As a collector, Caillebotte was extremely selective in his sponsorship of specific artists. For example, he never bought the work of either Georges Seurat or Paul Gauguin; additionally, he had no works by the Symbolist artists in his personal collection. On the other hand, he was a major force in convincing the Louvre Museum to buy Manet's controversial painting, Olympia (1863). Caillebotte's collecting extended beyond the arts as well, including his amassing of a world-class stamp collection that is now in the possession of the British Library in London.
By the time of the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877, Caillebotte had become not only a central organizer of what had evolved into an independent, unofficial, and distinctly avant-garde salon, but he was also an important force in the avant garde movement, although his style didn't explore the effects of light. His work was more Realist, on par with early paintings by Monet, as well as the work of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. He displayed work in subsequent Impressionist exhibitions, although he famously boycotted the sixth one as he had opposed the inclusion of Degas, a rivalry that underlines how fraught associations in the Impressionist circle actually were. He participated the following year, in the seventh Impressionist exhibition, submitting 17 paintings, although there was turmoil once again as, evidently, Caillebotte and Pissarro were at odds, a situation that Monet mediated with some success. Monet and Caillebotte both refused to participate in the final exhibition in 1886 but, by then, he had all but stopped painting completely.
In 1881, Caillebotte bought a house and property in Petit-Gennevilliers in the northwestern suburbs on the Seine River. He relocated there permanently in 1888. In 1882, he threw himself into a new hobby that consumed a great deal of his time (in addition to other collecting activities and gardening): constructing yachts, which he already had experience racing. He spent the majority of his time with his brother Martial, and his good friend Renoir, who came often to visit the house in Petit-Gennevilliers and enjoyed talking over subjects like philosophy, literature, politics, and art. Caillebotte never married, although he is thought to have had a serious and long-term relationship with a woman named Charlotte Berthier. She was 11 years younger than him and apparently from a lower-class family; when he died, Caillebotte left her a large annuity.
By the early 1890s, Caillebotte was barely painting; he had stopped producing the large, ambitious canvases of previous decades. In 1894, at the age of 45, he was working in the garden at his home in Petit-Gennevilliers when he collapsed, dying suddenly of a stroke. He was buried at the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery in southeastern Paris.
Following Caillebotte's death, his estate, in keeping with his will, attempted to make a generous donation to the French State. The artist had drafted his will very early in his life, in 1876, following the untimely passing of his brother, Rene. His will read, "I give to the French State the paintings which I have; nevertheless, since I want that this donation be accepted and in such a manner that the paintings go neither in an attic nor in a provincial museum, but...in the Luxembourg Museum and later in the Louvre Museum, it is necessary that a certain time passes before execution of this clause..." He had stipulated that twenty years should pass before the paintings would be turned over by his brother Martial and the executor of his estate, Renoir.
The donation spurred controversy, which underlined how resistant to avant garde art and artists the French Academy still was, even in 1894. Academy officials, with the artist Jean-Leon Gerome in the lead, attempted to prevent the transfer of the works by Impressionists and, by then, important Post-Impressionists like Cézanne, to the French National Museum. The works had been consistently refused admission to the official Salons through the years and the art establishment continued to oppose acceptance of what they referred to as "unhealthy" art, but are now considered some of the most important works of the modernist movements of the late-19th century in France. Only a portion of the works in the collection - pastels by Degas and paintings by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Millet, and only two by Caillebotte himself - were ultimately accepted. In 1911, nearly 30 others were purchased by Albert C. Barnes, an American physician, businessman, and art collector; the works form the core of what has become the extensive collection of Modernist works of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Until the 1950s, when family members began selling works from their private collection, including paintings by Caillebotte as well as works by other artists he had acquired through the years, the artist's work was for the most part forgotten. Most of the works were eventually purchased by Doctor Barnes in 1954, the American industrialist and art collector; Walter P. Chrysler purchased Caillebotte's painting, Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) and then ten years later, the work was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago. This brought his work to the attention of American collectors and public. By the 1970s a critical reassessment of his painting was underway.
The Legacy of Gustave Caillebotte
Caillebotte's style, which so outraged critics and academics in his day, conversely inspired artists who followed him to use some of his more radical compositional techniques. For instance, the often highly unusual perspectives - looking from below up a slanting floor, gazing down from a non-descript perch or standing on the edge of an intimate scene - and the unconventional cropping resembling photographs were features of paintings by avant-garde artists ranging from Van Gogh to Picasso. The use of photographs to construct images became commonplace extending even to the Photorealists (also known as Hyperrealist or Super-realists) of the 1970s.
He is also credited not only with influencing painters but also photographers such as Jeff Wall, whose 1982 work, Mimic, uses extreme perspectives and also emphasizes class tension as was so strongly the case with, for example, Caillebotte's Pont de l'Europe. Caillebotte's legacy as a patron is also more than noteworthy as the works he bequeathed to the French State created the foundation for the country's extensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings as well as the renowned Barnes Collection in the United States.