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ART REVIEW : Caillebotte: Illuminating a Less-Known Impressionist

June 23, 1995|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

In 1976, a retrospective of paintings by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) seen in Houston and Brooklyn created something of a stir. A new Impressionist painter seemed to have materialized, almost out of nowhere.

Caillebotte (pronounced KIE-ya-bot) had long held a small but significant niche in the history of French painting. The son of a wealthy manufacturer and landowner, he had subsidized several of the landmark Impressionist exhibitions in 1870s Paris. He had also assembled an amazing art collection, which included such drop-dead pictures as Manet's "The Balcony," Renoir's "Ball at the Moulin de la Galette" and Cezanne's "L'Estaque." And, finally, he had bequeathed these stellar holdings to France, the first such gift of modern painting and the core of what would become the Musee d'Orsay.

As a painter in his own right, however, Caillebotte was hardly known. The 1976 exhibition successfully inserted his name into the crowded ranks of 19th-Century French painters, opening another avenue of research into a widely admired period in Western art history. A "new" Impressionist was unearthed, especially among Americans.

Now, almost 20 years later, the upsurge in interest has culminated in a bigger, more complete retrospective. "Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist" is a show of some 80 paintings and about two dozen drawings, jointly organized by the Musee d'Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago. It opened Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, its only other venue.

If the show is welcome for amply laying out the career of an artist who occupied an unusual position in modern history, it also reveals an art that is flat and labored, more often of interest for its social insights into the period. While moments of compelling power and quirky curiosity are sometimes encountered--most of them early in Caillebotte's career--they are few.

The curators have attempted to create a slot for Caillebotte as "the urban Impressionist," an artist who recorded the transformations of modern city life among a group more widely known for their excursions into the dappled sunlight of the countryside. The idea principally stems from his monumental canvas "Paris Street; Rainy Day" (1877), a beautifully orchestrated composition in two-point perspective that shows a few dozen bourgeois citizens going about their business on the sweeping, newly modernized boulevards of the ancient French capital.

The 7-by-9-foot painting has long held court in the Art Institute of Chicago. There, it seems to set the stage for Georges Seurat's monumentally bizarre ode to the urban promenade, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884-1886).

Yet, urbanist-among-the-gardeners is a description more comfortably applied to Camille Pissarro, whose vibrant pictures of the boulevards and traffic islands of Paris can create compact explosions of civic spectacle. (Go upstairs at LACMA and compare the syncopated rhythms of Pissarro's "La Place du Thea^tre Francais" with the spacey enervation of Caillebotte's dry and solitary "A Traffic Island, Boulevard Haussmann.")

No, I don't think of Caillebotte as the urban Impressionist; I now think of him as the boring Impressionist. Imagine Impressionism as executed by an artist who is, at heart, a Salon painter, and a picture very much like "Paris Street; Rainy Day" will come to mind.

Caillebotte began to paint rather late in life, only after he had completed a law degree and done some military service. In 1872 he studied with the academic painter Leon Bonnat, in preparation for entrance into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he was accepted the following year.

Caillebotte was 25. He died young, of a sudden stroke, at 46; the exhibition shows that almost all his most appealing paintings were executed before the age of 30.

The show begins somewhat chronologically, focusing on Caillebotte's early work. Then, thematic rooms are devoted to urban scenes, domestic interiors, still lifes and landscapes. Few of the later rooms are of more than incidental, autobiographical interest.

The artist's first intriguing picture is "Floor-Scrapers" (1875), which is a traditional study of the male nude, here rendered in the Realist guise of three laborers hard at work preparing a floor for a new coat of stain. The gallery also includes an oil sketch, nine drawings and a variation on the picture, which together show how Caillebotte melded an academic affiliation with an exploratory manner.

The picture's dramatic perspective, reinforced by the splayed stripes of the wooden floor being so arduously scraped, visually dumps the workers right in the viewer's lap. A sense of conscious display makes Caillebotte's art feel modern, as perception and the individual spectator are emphasized.

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