“Isn’t it our duty to support each other and to forgive each other’s weaknesses, rather than tear ourselves down?” Gustave Caillebotte wrote to his friend Camille Pissaro on the eve of the Impressionist’s sixth exhibition, and during one of the movement’s darkest moments. Months prior, the key leaders of the Impressionists, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, eschewed their own movement’s annual exhibition to display their artwork in the juried review of the Salon, the French Academy of Fine Arts’ official exhibition. The Impressionists, once united in their rejection of the Salon’s formal values (and rejection by the Salon), faced an identity crisis as their founders moved back into the fold of the established art world.
As a patron, painter, and member of the Impressionists, Caillebotte felt this rift acutely. After Renoir invited him to exhibit The Floor Scrapers with the Impressionists in 1876, he embraced the nascent movement, going so far as to fund, organize, and personally hang the artwork of the next exhibition (Renoir, to his credit, rolled up his sleeves and helped as well). During Impressionism’s formative years, Caillebotte played both the artist and the buyer, exhibiting alongside the Impressionists while purchasing their work at generous above-market prices.
While often recognized as an important patron to the Impressionists, Caillebotte’s artistic contributions have largely been overlooked. Thanks to an exhibition hosted by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Caillebotte’s canvases are getting a closer look, including his well-known Paris Street, Rainy Day, and The Floor Scrapers. The exhibit, which closes this weekend, is one of the first major retrospectives since the artist passed away in 1894.
Museum-goers expecting to enjoy the matured, exquisite brushwork on display at the Musee d’Orsay might find the National Gallery’s exhibit to be a less-than-satisfying spread. But Caillebotte’s work provides an uncensored, rich and occasionally rough-around-the-edges view of an artist and art movement in its formative stages. It’s easy to forget that before Monet’s water lilies became museum shop fodder, his artwork was rejected, ridiculed, and sold for a song at hotel art auctions.
As the only major annual exhibition in the city, the Salon held incredible sway in the Impressionists’ lifetime. Acceptance into the Salon’s annual exhibition provided artists with validation, an entrée into respected society, and unsurpassed exposure to potential buyers. As Renoir mentioned to his art dealer, “there are scarcely fifteen art-collectors in Paris capable of liking a painter without the backing of the Salon.” It is against these odds that Renoir and the other Impressionists would mount their first exhibition.
For a single franc, a Parisian could gain admission to the Salon’s exhibition of the season’s best contemporary art. More than 23,000 visitors a day would walk the Salon’s hallways viewing gallery walls stacked to the ceiling with gilt canvases. As an artist, receiving a rejection from an institution as prestigious and ubiquitous as the Salon must have cut deep. Likewise, when a group of artists rebelled against the Salon and hosted their counter-exhibition, Paris took notice. Members of the establishment were scandalized that a collective of “revoltes” might take into their own hands the organizing of an exhibition; draft their own guidelines; establish their own jury; and worst of all, judge the artistic merit of others’ work. Emile Cardon, a critic at the time, wrote, “I know that many people feel great alarm at the advent of an age when artists [are] abandoned to their own devices.”
The first exhibition was held in 1874 by the “Independents,” as the Impressionists first referred to themselves. The original exhibiting artists represent a pantheon of household names: Monet, Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cezanne. The exhibit, held in the rooms of a former photography studio, included 200 pieces laid out in linear rows on simple painted walls. Similar to a modern gallery, the style reflected a conscious rejection of the Salon’s cluttered walls.
What was on display at the first exhibit? Monet’s impressions of sunlight dancing across water, and Pissarro’s tree shadows undulating across snowy fields. The engaging glance of a woman in her theatre box, and a young ballerina with a tutu whose brushwork melts into the wall behind her. The exhibit portrayed new perspectives, new subject matter, and a new middle class enjoying leisurely pursuits previously unknown to them. As Paris continued to recover from the political tumult and trauma of the Franco-Prussian War and French Commune just three years earlier, the exhibit embraced the modernizing city. It was a complete departure from the classic nudes and moralizing subject matter exalted by the Salon.
The Impressionists’ First Exhibition was a critical and commercial failure. The profit from sold artwork amounted to less than sixty francs per artist, a sum not even sufficient to cover the dues of participants. Cezanne had to ask his father for money to cover his exhibition costs. While many critics noted the courage required to defy the Salon, the common sentiment was that its “artists fall into hopelessness, grotesque confusion…the excesses of this school sicken and disgust.” [Cardon] While the Salon’s exhibition hosted 23,000 visitors a day, the Impressionists were lucky to have 130 visitors pass through their studio.
The following year, the Salon jury rejected Caillebotte’s submission, earning him an invitation from Renoir to join the Second Exhibition. The rejected work, The Floor Scrapers, was considered “vulgar” by the Salon’s judges. Its direct portrayal of shirtless, sinewed men stripping varnish off wooden floors violated the accepted rules of portraying the laboring class in art. The casual proximity of the men—in a private Parisian apartment, no less—veered dangerously from the bucolic portrayals of peasants and field workers favored by the French Academy.
When The Floor Scrapers was ultimately exhibited in 1876, it was alongside Degas’ Rehearsal of the Ballet on the Stage, Portraits in an Office and Monet’s Japonnerie. Now regarded as one of Caillebotte’s greatest works, The Floor Scrapers can be seen in the National Gallery’s current exhibit, placed alongside a collection of the artist’s lesser-known interior paintings and parlor portraits.
By inviting Caillebotte to exhibit with the Impressionists, Renoir extended a lifeline that went both ways. In the years leading up to the Second Exhibition, Caillebotte suffered profound loss with the deaths of his father, mother, and brother. Left without direction and having inherited a considerable fortune from his family’s business, the wealthy amateur painter threw himself into supporting the cause of the rejects.
Caillebotte’s efforts with the Third Exhibition established him as the Patron Saint of “Les Revoltes.” Out of the eight exhibitions that occurred under the impressionist banner, the third is considered to have been the most influential, assembling some of the finest impressionist work that would define the movement. It is also the first exhibition where the group shed the title of the “Independents” and embraced the “Impressionists.” Caillebotte, who exhibited just two canvases the year prior, would be responsible for almost single-handedly organizing and financing the Third Exhibition. Displaying an incredible amount of vision and diplomacy for a 29 year old, he brought together works including Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare series, and Renoir’s Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette.
Amidst his efforts to plan the Third Exhibition, Caillebotte found the time to paint his most famous work, Paris Street, Rainy Day, a monumental, nearly life-size canvas of sharply-dressed Parisians strolling down a glistening boulevard. The artwork abandons the impressionist style with its near realism and carefully lineated forms, but captures its spirit with the breathtaking effect of rain-soaked cobblestones and an opalescent evening sky that glows with a misting rain. Anyone who has spent a winter in Paris knows that a grey sky can contain many hues, and Paris Street, Rainy Day even won over Emile Zola, one of the Impressionists’ most consistent critics.
Nearly 140 years after the Third Exhibition, the National Gallery displays Paris Street, Rainy Day at the back of the exhibit to clever effect, visible from the gallery’s entrance and through a column of doorways. The seven-foot tall canvas anchors the collection and lures visitors into the exhibit—a curatorial trick the imminently pragmatic Caillebotte would have appreciated.
In the end, the Impressionist movement fell prey to its own successes. In the following exhibitions, the spiritual backbone of the collective, Monet and Renoir, were accepted into the Salon’s juried exhibition. The mutually exclusive nature of the Salon and Impressionist exhibitions meant that exhibiting through one prevented involvement in the other. Pisarro, the most committed Impressionist of the group and only one to exhibit in all eight shows, had these wry words on his friend: “Renoir is a great success on the Salon; I think he is ‘launched.’ All the better! It’s a very hard life, being poor.” The defection of the collective’s leaders led to disagreements on the guiding vision of the movement. The group would never regain the cohesion of the Third Exhibition and began splintering into solo shows organized by art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.
The eighth and final Impressionist exhibition took place in 1886, just 12 years after the first exhibition. Of the original gang, only Degas, Pissarro, and Berthe Morisot exhibited. Caillebotte, independently wealthy and insulated from the economic recession gripping France, moved to the suburbs and lost his taste for edgy urban landscape painting. His slick cobblestones and defined boulevards were replaced with placid landscapes as he attempted to master the loose brushwork pioneered by Monet. Not unlike the Impressionist group as a whole, Caillebotte’s later work is anemic, suffering from the lack of the exposure and artistic collaboration that made the early efforts so distinctive.
The myth of solitary artistic genius is a hard one to shake, particularly with Jeopardy! category artists like Monet and Renoir. But figures like Caillebotte may hold the key to understanding the invisible levers that lead to the broader acceptance of Impressionism. Caillebotte’s incredible ascendance, from an unknown amateur to a major organizer begs further research. With the National Gallery’s exhibit, as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent exhibit on art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, the enigmatic figures behind Impressionism have just begun to receive their due. The greatest discoveries are yet to come.