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Gustave Caillebotte:

A Bit of “De Trop”



Gustave Caillebotte, born into a wealthy family in Paris in 1848, was a bit of “de trop” where his paintings were concerned. “De trop” means “too much”. In terms of his work among the French society of his time, it was a bit too low-brow and sweaty; in terms of the French Impressionists who were his peers, his paintings were a bit too much of whatever he chose to depict.


He did not have to paint to earn a living; he had to paint to express an inborn genius. His images thus exceeded previous conceptions of any artistic rendering and, to an excessive degree, his art defied categorization.


Modern, traditional, impressionistic, realistic, soft, hard, muted, bold, and everything in between: such were the paintings of Gustave Caillebotte, an artist whose œuvres lingered long in private collections of relatives and friends, simply because he’d not been an eager-beaver to reach the top of the art world. Reach the top of that world he nonetheless did, in time, and in ways that are stunning to this day.


He earned a law degree at the age of twenty, along with a license to practice law two years later, in 1870. The Franco-Prussian War then intervened in his life for two years. After his service in the war, Caillebotte began to study painting seriously, placing himself under the influence of the talented painter, Léon Bonnat. His own style emerged rather quickly and he established his first art studio in the home of his parents just outside of Paris.


The then-emerging art of photography fascinated Caillebotte, and it was with an original eye to this new “vision” that this Frenchman entered the highly-esteemed École des Beaux-Arts. Formal study, however, failed to interest this young man for long. He pursued his profession in art avidly, aided financially in 1874 by his inheritance, as the oldest son of his father’s fortune. He subsequently was apportioned his share, alongside his two younger brothers, of the family fortune when their mother died in 1878.


By the age of thirty, Gustave Caillebotte was independently wealthy and independently determined to pursue his own artistic path in a world where groups and schools had built those paths, in very pre-determined ways.

The path of quiet trailblazer Caillebotte crossed the paths of other French Impressionists, brighter luminaries that included Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Pierre-August Renoir. Caillebotte, however, would, in many ways, remain separate artistically from these more ethereal artists who became almost obsessed with the effects of light and luminous color in their tableaux. He worked to steadily achieve his own style, a process aided through his choice of subject matter: muscular laborers planing a wooden floor; barefoot gardeners at work; rain in the almost mildewy Yerres River by his country house; a nude reclining on a couch.


These paintings, sensuously realistic and yet coolly detached in their depictions, were among the eight works exhibited in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. Caillebotte had not been welcomed into the first exhibition in 1875 due to his quality of being “de trop.”


The status quo of subject matter for sanctioned art by the Establishment of that era was country peasants or farmers, not city workers or laborers. Caillebotte seemed to be carving out, or planing, his own niche among the painters who were also intent on making their own break from the norms of salon paintings. Even among the Independents, Gustave Caillebotte was the most Independent.



He viewed his subject matter as if through the lens of a camera and yet his style stopped just short of photographic. Neither was his style fully realistic. His paintings were partly impressionist, and dramatic while trying to be subtle, with odd, intense, often varying perspectives that defy geometry but nonetheless please the eye. His was an original œuvre, created by a man who instinctively synthesized his trained techniques with his own way of seeing things, a vantage point that has never been copied or equalled. In that sense, Gustave Caillebotte belonged to a school of his own, in a class of one. He “framed” his paintings photographically, but his work was the composition of a supremely skilled technician, with the touch of a deft painter.



His later works show brushwork that is heavier, with colours more bold and bright. At times, his composition is almost post-Impressionist, but his style and choice of palette were largely determined by the subject matter. He was an artist deeply sensitive to the aesthetic needs of the content that his canvas would convey to the world.


His highly developed sense of light, the Muse of the Impressionist, was fused with a passion for drawing, a sensibility of the nuances within a palette, and an attraction for subjects that were modern and yet, at the same time, traditional and emblematic. A young man, the brother of this artist, looking from a window, down into the Parisian street, this vision of this man offers an introspective moment as his face is hidden from view but his feelings can be intuited.


The architectural elements in his paintings excite but do not overwhelm the subject matter. The people are integrated into the scene, in an almost structural manner. His vision was rare among these Impressionists who tended to paint similar subjects, sometimes the same subject again and again and again, like Monet and his paintings of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral (more than thirty tableaux in that series).

Caillebotte did not stay long within one genre, and he did not stay stuck in the past. This anti-Romantic impulse prompted him to take the Paris of antiquity and paint it with modernity. Scenes from the new, exciting Paris, constructed by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s, are artistically documented by Caillebotte in a way that celebrates the old and new in tones that are quintessentially Parisian: sedate, soothing, sophisticated, understated.


The Paris of the past blends with the Paris of the present, a Paris that now is seen with the rose-colored glasses of a bye-gone era. Such is the ever-lasting impulse of Romanticism that interprets innovation as elegy, and transmutes state-of-the art-into lost-and-gone.


Caillebotte was traditional and transitional in the world of art. He was also treasured by the artists whom he treasured. As a unique member of this group of Impressionist painters, Caillebotte used his fortune to promote his peer-artists. He was a major organizer and enthusiastic financier of exhibits for about six years; and he purchased the works of his fellow Impressionists. He was a most avid patron and supporter of the arts, and he was judicious in his choices of which artists to sponsor, and which ones to ignore. Those choices were determined by his aesthetic desires, as well as by his commitments to painters who had been friends along the way to Impressionism.


At age thirty-four, Caillebotte no longer entered his work into exhibitions and he eventually ceased painting large canvases. A lifetime devoted to art became focused upon boating, gardening, his friendship with Auguste Renoir and his kinship with his brother Martial. Caillebotte never married, although he found love with a younger woman and generously provided for her financially. He was at work in his garden at Petit-Gennevilliers, just outside of Paris, when he died in 1894 at the age of forty-five. He was interred at Père Lachaise in Paris.