Honored Workers and Unusual Perspectives : Notes on Gustave Caillebotte

Aug. 19 is the birthday of a painter who celebrated the birth of the modern city. Caillebotte (pronounced kai-bot) makes us appreciate the effort that created the elegant image of Paris.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) gives us an intimate look at gritty behind-the-scenes work that made his hometown so elegant. In this, Caillebotte may be unique among artists of his time.

Of course, Caillebotte also joined many of his contemporaries in showing off the grandeur of the newly revamped Paris of the late 19th century. Below you can paintings of the Boulevard des Italiens by Caillebotte and by Camille Pissarro.

Once known for overcrowded and densely packed medieval streets, Paris underwent “a gut renovation at the hands of Georges-Eugène Haussmann to become the City of Light,” wrote Eric Allen in Architectural Digest. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on this AD article and other sources used in research for this essay.)

Haussmann kicked off changes in the Parisian cityscape that continued beyond his tenure (1853–1870) as a top French bureaucrat under Emperor Napoleon III. These include the construction of wide boulevards and parks and squares. Haussmannian-style apartment buildings are decorated with wrought-iron balconies and 45-degree-pitched roofs.

Caillebotte shows us the elegant side of life in Paris, like this gent in the top hat surveying the scene on Boulevard Haussmann.

And then below we have Caillebotte’s most famous work, “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” Stretching to almost seven feet by 10 feet, this painting is a star even in the rich collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute’s website explains how Caillebotte grew up near the neighborhood shown in this painting, when it was “a relatively unsettled hill with narrow, crooked streets.”

As part of Haussmann’s plan, buildings were demolished and new wider streets were laid out. Caillebotte’s father was a wealthy man. He’d started with a textile fortune and expanded into real estate during the massive overhaul of Paris. So Caillebotte was spared the financial struggles of many of his fellow painters.

But Caillebotte wasn’t concerned only with posh people who had leisure to stroll the new boulevards of Paris in fancy dress. He also painted some of the people who worked behind the scenes to make elegant lifestyles possible for others.

In this Caillebotte reminds me of Edgar Degas (1834–1917) with his paintings of the off-stage lives of dancers and Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) with his scenes of farm workers in the fields.

Millet, “Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz),” 1850–3. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image in public domain.

Caillebotte gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Haussmann’s Paris. The painting below shows men scraping a parquet floor for refinishing. In this painting, we see the wrought-iron balcony that places this scene in one Haussmann’s grand apartment buildings.

Caillebotte has found beauty in these men’s work. But for them, it seemed to be a monotonous task. You can see that the men have brought a large bottle of wine, from which a glass already has been poured.

“It’s such boring work they are literally going to drink their way through the day,” said Mary Morton, curator and head of the department of French paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, in a 2016 lecture about Caillebotte.

The men in this painting are stripped to the waist, essentially allowing Caillebotte to work with semi-nude figures. Caillebotte has shown us how lean these men are, with ribs clearly articulated in one of the men’s back. These men likely perform this same task many a work day, creating gleaming parquet floors for those who can take advantage of Haussmann’s reborn city.

Caillebotte intended to help establish himself as a painter with this work. He planned to enter it in France’s most prestigious art exhibition, the Salon, in 1875. By choosing these workmen as his subject for such an important painting, Caillebotte shows how swept up he was in his enthusiasm for the changes happening in his city.

“The nature of their labor, given the ambition of this artistic effort, is significant,” Morton said. “They are finishing a floor in one of the brand new apartment buildings sprouting up all over Paris during this late phase of Baron Haussmann’s grand urban renewal project.”

“They are making the new Paris,” Morton concluded.

The jurors at the prestigious Salon of 1875 were not impressed. Caillebotte’s subject was considered vulgar.

He went on to exhibit this work in an 1876 show of paintings done by Impressionists, then a rebel group among French artists. Unlike many of his friends and contemporaries in the Impressionist crowd, Caillebotte wasn’t interested in selling his works. He didn’t need to, as he was well funded by his father’s fortune.

He exhibited thepainting of the floor scrapers, but it remained his personal collection until his death in 1894 at age 45 of a lung ailment. By then he had acquired many paintings done by his friends, including many leading Impressionists. Many of the paintings once owned by Caillebotte now are major part of the holdings of the Musée d’Orsay.

For many decades, Caillebotte was best known as an art collector rather than as an artist.

Two of his champions — the National Gallery of Art’s Morton and George Shackelford, deputy director, Kimbell Art Museum — set out to change that. They organized the 2015 “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye” exhibition.

Caillebotte often chose unusual angles in framing his pictures. In the painting below, for example, he puts the steel beams at center stage. Two men face toward the nearby train station, while a third exits the scene, and is only half visible.

Kimbell’s Shackelford says Caillebotte has an “almost relentless” insistence on bringing the viewer into a particular point of view. He cited as an example the painting of a fruit stand shown below.

“He’ll take you to the market and put you so close to the fruits and vegetables that you can’t see anything around,” Shackelford said.

“ You don’t see the vendor. You don’t see the rest of the window. You don’t see the street beneath it,” Shackelford said. “You’re focused in.”

To me, Caillebotte’s goal with this approach seems like a reminder we can all use in this age of distraction.

“He’s really insisting again and again that you pay attention to where you are and how you are looking at what’s in his painting,” Shackelford concluded.

Click here for my Artists of Europe bibliography , which includes an entry on Caillebotte. It’s posted on my dooleyyoung.com site. Please get in touch if the link doesn’t work.

Journalist fascinated by art, food, architecture, justice, politics, history and business. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 60 nations.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store