Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye Offers an Up Close Look at a Little Known Impressionist

Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir are all familiar names to even the casual art lover. Impressionism remains extremely popular and no other museum in the area has given viewers more opportunities to see the movement's masterpieces than the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth. They've done it yet again with Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, an in-depth look at a more unfamiliar (and certainly difficult to pronounce — it's kye-yuh-bot) name from Impressionism. 

The Painter's Eye, curated by Mary Morton of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and George T.M.Shackelford of the Kimbell, will allow a new generation to see many of these paintings for the first time since many of the works are on loan from private collections. The exhibit is called The Painter's Eye because, as Shackleford, deputy director of the Kimbell, explains, "every painting is about looking, the peculiar action of your eyes; how they function as lens.”

The exhibit is divided into motifs reflecting the idea of looking; ‘Looking In," "Looking Out," "River Views," "Suburban Views" or "Observing the Nudes." "Looking Out: The View from the Window" and "Parisian Perspectives" transport viewers to 1850s Paris with its wide boulevards, modern buildings and lamp posts, which signaled a new kind of security for the redesigned city. Medieval Paris' narrow, winding streets, which were easily barricaded, had been replaced when Napoleon III commissioned Baron von Haussmann to rebuild the city.

That is the city we find ourselves inside of in Caillebotte’s billboard-sized masterpiece, "Paris Street, Rainy Day," which may be known to some by its nickname, "The Umbrella Painting." However, few could probably name the artist who painted this scene of wealthy Parisians strolling along a slick street beneath their umbrellas. It is quintessential Caillebotte deploying all of his tricks to move the eye along geometric lines deep into the space of the canvas. The painting's photographic qualities — it crops out figures the way a camera might — are almost unsettling. Researchers at the Art Institute of Chicago, which acquired the painting in 1964, have posited a theory that perhaps Caillebotte used a device known as a camera lucida to make the initial drawings for this painting.

Caillebotte was born into a wealthy, upper-class family in 1848. He trained as a painter under Leon Bonnat, who also taught Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. In 1870, the Paris salon system dominated the art world, requiring artists to recreate historical, mythological or biblical paintings and landscapes to earn a display in annual exhibitions. In 1875, Caillebotte’s painting "The Floor Scrapers" was rejected by the salon because its depiction of manual laborers was considered vulgar.

Caillebotte, like the Impressionists who were then known as Intransigents, chose to paint what he wanted, recording the daily lives of Parisians. He painted his family, his friends and his family’s estate outside of Paris. He looked out his window and painted the view. His subjects, whether sign painters or workmen scraping the floor of his art studio, and even the few nudes he painted, were not the idealized figures that interested Paris' salons. Yet when he was invited to the second Impressionist exhibit in 1876, "The Floor Scrapers" was the painting he chose to exhibit. Caillebotte collected a great deal of Impressionist art himself, serving as a patron to many of his Impressionist friends. He lent them money, paid their bills and began to organize the exhibitions, often placing his paintings in positions of prominence.

So why have so few heard of Caillebotte? He left no journals and few letters, so his life remains a mystery. Because of his wealth, he was not forced to sell his paintings to support himself like the other Impressionists, and when he died, he donated a portion of his collection of Impressionist masterpieces and many of his own paintings to the French government. However, many still remained in the hands of private collectors. Caillebotte remained unknown to American audiences on a wide scale until the mid-1970s when the Houston Museum of Fine Arts commissioned Kirk Varnedoe to produce an exhibition of Caillebotte’s work. This was followed up by other significant exhibits, including a retrospective in 1994. But The Painter’s Eye is intentionally limited to paintings from 1876 to 1882 because as the Kimbell’s Shackelford explains, their intent is to bring viewers the very best.

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye opens November 8 and runs through February 14, 2016. Admission is $18 for adults. More at kimbellart.org.

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