Education: Ecole des Beaux-Arts
Gustave Caillebotte was a French painter who was also keenly interested in photography, much before it became a common art form. Although he was an enthusiastic patron and member of the Impressionist group, his own work places itself closer to Realism than the evocative landscapes of the Impressionists. As a patron, he collected many artists’ works, and helped Monet’s career tremendously.
Born at home in August of 1848, Gustave Caillebotte belonged to a wealthy family dealing in real estate and textiles. His father, Martial Caillebotte, was a judge at the Tribunal de Commerce. He had lost two wives before he married Celeste Daufresne, Gustave’s mother. Caillebotte spent his childhood on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in Paris before moving to a home his father built on the Rue de Miromesnil in 1866.
Caillebotte took up painting during summer trips to the town of Yerres, about 20 kilometers south of Paris, in the 1860s. His father had bought an estate close to the river there, and he spent many hours observing nature and teaching himself to draw. Nevertheless, he was obliged to study law and earned a degree and a license over the next decade. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out, any real practice was not possible, so he was drafted into the Garde Nationale Mobile de la Seine.
He began studying painting seriously under the influence of Leon Bonnat and established his first studio within his parents’ home. He was admitted into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1873 but reportedly spent little time there.
Not Quite Impressionist
In Paris, Caillebotte actively mingled within the social network of artists, befriending artists such as Edgar Degas and Giuseppe de Nittis, both Impressionists, who worked outside the academic framework. He did attend the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, even though his own work did not clearly reflect their style or idiom. He also participated in the Impressionist show mounted the following year at the annual Salon des Independants, showcasing eight canvases including the now-famous “Les Raboteurs de Parquet.” Critics deemed the painting vulgar in subject matter, as only pastoral scenes were acceptable as depictions of the working class at the time. However, he used a variety of subjects, many of them family portraits and scenes of domesticity. “Portaits a la Campagne,” “Jeune Homme a la Fenetre,” and “Les Orangers” are all of members of his own clan; images of shared meals, silent leisure, piano playing – all executed with a sense of intimacy, as if the viewer was the ubiquitous fly on the wall observing the indoor rituals of the upper classes.
Caillebotte’s exposure to the Impressionists had some influence over his personal style but he belonged to a school based more in Realism, comparable to older painters like Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet. He attempted to depict reality as it was, without embellishment and theatricality, or detracting from fullness of detail. His keen interest in photography is a reflection of this, and the technique of cropping and zooming can be discerned in some of his paintings, in addition to his preference for unusual perspectives.
A Patron of the Arts
The success of the Second Impressionist Exhibition led Caillebotte to become their main organizer and promoter for the next six years. His father’s death in 1874 had left him the sole heir of the family estate, and he used his considerable wealth to finance art, purchasing the early works of Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Degas, and Berthe Morisot. He pointedly bought the canvases that would be difficult to sell in the open market, the ones considered too large or experimental. He developed a close friendship with Claude Monet as well, and his assistance was pivotal to Monet’s survival and career. Caillebotte was instrumental in organizing a public subscription for him in 1890, in addition to paying his studio rent for a number of years.
Caillebotte stopped exhibiting his own work in 1882 and moved to the riverside village of Petit-Gennevilliers, where he would spend the remainder of his life. He turned to gardening and yacht racing with great passion. He also spent time with his brother Martial and with Pierre-Auguste Renoir who was a frequent visitor.
Death and Legacy
At age 45, Caillebotte died of pulmonary congestion. He was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Although Caillebotte remained a bachelor until his death in 1894, he left a considerable annuity for Charlotte Berthier, with whom he had a serious relationship despite the fact that she was much younger and came from a very modest social background.
The originality and diversity of Caillebotte’s work was striking, and his treatment of light was exceptionally realistic. He had willed his paintings to the French government on the ground that they be publicly displayed in the national museums. The French government refused, until 1928, when his collection was taken by the Louvre museum.