Gustave Caillebotte is now considered to be one of the most recognizable artists of Paris’ golden age, the Fin-de-Siècle. Although he is now known for his work as a painter, Caillebotte’s life was filled with many other interests and pastimes. If you’d have asked his contemporaries, such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, they might have been more inclined to talk about Caillebotte as a patron of the arts rather than an artist in his own right.
As such, Caillebotte’s place in the history of French art is unique and provides modern art lovers of art with a fascinating insight into the Parisian High Society which has so captured the contemporary imagination and inspired many of the romantic connotations now associated with late 19th century Paris.
1. Gustave Caillebotte Had A Wealthy Upbringing
Gustave Caillebotte was by no means a self-made man. His father had inherited a prosperous textile business, who had provided bedding to the armies of Napoleon III. His father served as a judge at Paris’ oldest court, the Tribunal du Commerce. His father owned a large holiday home on the rural outskirts of Paris, where it is thought that Gustave would have first taken up painting.
At the age of 22, Caillebotte was enlisted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War in the Paris Defence Force. The impact of the war would indirectly influence his later work, as he captured the newly modernized streets that emerged out of the war-torn and politically ravaged city.
2. He Was Qualified As A Lawyer
Two years before he was deployed in the military, Gustave Caillebotte graduated from university, having studied classics and, following in his father’s footsteps, law. He even earned his license to practice law in 1870. However, this was just a short time before he was called up to the army so never worked as a practicing lawyer.
3. He Was a Student at the École des Beaux Artes
Upon his return from military service, Gustave Caillebotte began to take a greater interest in making and appreciating art. He enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in 1873 and soon found himself mixing in the social circles that encompassed both his school and that at the Académie des Beaux Artes. This included Edgar Degas, who would go on to initiate Caillebotte into the Impressionist movement, with which his work would go on to be associated with.
However, his father died a year later, and he subsequently spent little time studying at the school. That said, the connections he made in his time as a student would go on to play an important role in his development as both a painter and a patron of art.
4. Impressionism Meets Realism
Although often being associated with and exhibiting alongside the impressionists, Gustave Caillebotte’s work retained a style more akin to the work of his predecessor, Gustave Courbet. In his way, Caillebotte took the new-found impressionist appreciation for capturing light and color; and merged this with the realists’ desire to imitate on canvas the world as it appears before the painter’s eyes. This has often been compared to the work of Edward Hopper, who would later achieve similar results in his depictions of inter-war America.
As a result, Caillebotte managed to capture Paris with a gentle form of realism that, even to this day, evokes a romantic and nostalgic vision of what the city is imagined to be – both in the minds of those who have visited the city and those who wish to do so eventually.
5. He Was A Painter Of Life In Paris
The style of his painting is, however, only one element of his works that make them so popular among modern audiences. He also had a special ability to capture the individuality of the people who formed the subject of his work.
Whether in portraits of his family in their own domestic settings, outside in the streets capturing the hustle and bustle of daily Parisian life, or even when depicting members of the working class toiling away in the summer heat; Gustave Caillebotte always managed to convey the humanity within each of these figures.
This is one of the many reasons why his artworks are so popular, as it (sometimes quite literally) opens a window into what it was like to live and work in Paris at the end of the 1800s.
6. His Work Was Influenced By Japanese Prints
You might notice that his artworks often have a slightly distorted perspective. This is often thought to be because of the influence of Japanese art, which was incredibly popular among Gustave Caillebotte’s contemporaries.
Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh had collections of Japanese prints, and the influence of these are well documented on his work and the work of his contemporaries. Caillebotte was no exception to this trend.
His contemporaries even noticed the similarity between his work and that of the Edo and Ukiyo-e prints which had become so popular in Paris. Jules Claretie said of Caillebotte’s 1976 Floor Scrapers painting that “there are Japanese watercolors and prints like that” when commenting on the slightly skewed and unnatural perspective with which Caillebotte painted the floor.
7. Caillebotte Was A Collector Of All Sorts
As has been mentioned several times already, Gustave Caillebotte was well known for his love of collecting art, as much as producing it. He had works by Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Pierre-Auguste Renoir in his collection; and played a significant role in convincing the French government to purchase Manet’s famous Olympia.
In fact, his support even extended beyond buying the work of his friend, Claude Monet, in paying the rent for his studio. This was just one of the many acts of financial generosity he was able to afford those around him thanks to the wealth he had inherited from his father.
Interestingly, his collecting habits even extended beyond the arts. He had a sizable stamp and photography collection, as well as enjoying cultivating a collection of orchids. He even collected and built racing boats, which he sailed on the Seine at events such as that depicted by his dear friend Renoir in Luncheon at the Boating Party, in which Caillebotte is the figure sat immediately to the bottom right of the scene.
8. He Had A Penchant For Textile Design
Gustave Caillebotte was a man of many talents and interests, including a love for textile design. No doubt a trait that was inherited from his familial past in the textile industry.
It is presumed that in his works Madame Boissière Knitting (1877) and Portrait of Madame Caillebotte (1877) that the women he has painted are in fact stitching designs which Caillebotte himself had designed. This love and understanding of textiles and fabric were key in his ability to capture sheets blowing in the wind and suggest the rustling of awnings over the windows of his city center apartment.
9. He Died Tending To His Beloved Garden
Gustave Caillebotte died suddenly of a stroke one afternoon while tending to the orchid collection in his garden. He was just 45 years old and had slowly become less interested in painting his own work – focusing instead on supporting his artist friends, cultivating his garden and building racing yachts to sell on the River Seine which his property backed on to.
He had never married, although he left a significant sum of money to a woman with whom he had shared a relationship before his death. Charlotte Berthier was eleven years younger than Gustave and due to her lower social status, it would not have been deemed proper for them to officially marry.
10. Gustave Caillebotte’s Posthumous Reputation
Although mixing with many of the other most well-known painters of his day, and exhibiting alongside them, Gustave Caillebotte was not particularly well regarded as an artist during his life. His work supporting artists, both buying and collecting their work, was what made him a noteworthy societal figure during his lifetime.
After all, owing to his family wealth, he had never had to sell his works to make a living. As a result, his work never received the kind of public veneration that artists and gallerists pushing for commercial success might have otherwise relied on.
What’s more, it is likely due to his own modesty that his name did not initially survive alongside his friends and associates. Upon his death, he had stipulated in his will that the works in his collection be left to the French government and that they be displayed in the Palais du Luxembourg. However, he did not include any of his own paintings in the list of those which he left to the government.
Renoir, who was the executor of his will, eventually negotiated that the collection be hung in the Palace. The subsequent exhibition was the first public display of Impressionist works which had the support of the establishment and as such, those names whose work was shown (which obviously excluded Caillebotte) became the great icons of the movement which he had had such an important role in shaping.
It was only many years later, when his surviving family began to sell off his work in the 1950s, that he began to become the focus of more retrospective scholarly interest. This particularly came to a head when his work was shown at the Chicago Institute of Art in 1964, when the American public was first able to encounter, en masse, his various depictions of life in 19th century Paris. They quickly grew in popularity and it wasn’t long before his work was regarded as epitomizing the era in which he lived and worked.