This past weekend I visited The National Gallery here in Washington, in part to meet up with friends from out of town, and in part to see the current exhibition, “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye”. The show, which runs through October 4th, explores the work of a lesser-known, but critically important member of the French Impressionist movement. While today Caillebotte (1848-1894) is not quite a household name, the reader is probably familiar with one of his images in particular, “Paris Street, Rainy Day” of 1877, at the Art Institute of Chicago. It has been reproduced on everything from iPhone covers to bed linens.
Part of the reason for his relative obscurity is that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Caillebotte did not have to paint for a living. He sold very few works in his own lifetime, and even today most of his paintings remain in private hands. Hence, if you do go see the exhibition, which will be moving on to the Kimbell in Dallas-Fort Worth in November through February, you will not be permitted to take photographs.
It does not surprise me that Caillebotte is not as well-known today as his peers, for I must confess that the overall experience of seeing his work was underwhelming. More recent attempts to reevaluate his work notwithstanding, Caillebotte was not a particularly talented painter. There are occasional flashes of brilliance, but for the most part the works in this show are rather ho-hum. One rather large portrait of a French dandy, for example, put me in mind immediately of a similar portrait I saw last month in Norfolk by Caillebotte’s contemporary, the French realist painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), and not in a good way. Although virtually identical in subject matter, size, and even in the way the two gentlemen are dressed, Caillebotte’s painting is flatly painted, uninteresting, and tells me nothing about the sitter, whereas Fantin-Latour’s is gloriously executed, intense, and piercingly psychological.
Thus, while looking at the work of Caillebotte in this exhibition, we are meant to see how, as a member of the Impressionists, he was challenging the accepted notions of art in his day, in the way his figures look over balconies, or across bridges, or squat on the floor doing their work. Yet all one sees is someone who usually chose to paint people from behind probably because, from viewing the other paintings in the show, he couldn’t paint faces very well. His “painter’s eye”, frankly, could have used a stronger pair of spectacles.
The problem with this exhibition is that one walks away from the experience not simply unmoved by this painter, but largely unimpressed – ahem – with French Impressionism. While I am wading into treacherous waters in doing so, I will lay the fault for this not only at the feet of Caillebotte himself, but also at those of the movement itself. For it seems to me that Caillebotte, like many of his colleagues, was simply trying too hard to do something different, rather than concentrating on becoming a good artist.
Since today, prints of French Impressionist art are such an ubiquitous choice for hotel lobbies, waiting areas in doctor’s offices, and college dorm room walls, they do not shock us as they did those who saw them for the first time. Almost perversely, these images have become emblematic of the so-called “Establishment”, collected by very wealthy people to decorate luxury apartments on Fifth Avenue and vacation homes in Sag Harbor. They are the acceptable face of a type of art which supposedly decried artifice, but paradoxically sought to achieve the natural through artificial means – which of course is what art has always done.
A way to consider how the intended collective impact of French Impressionism has lost its strength is to ask yourself when was the last time that you found one of these paintings, shocking. Certainly they shocked Paris in the 19th century, looking for all the world like unfinished preparatory sketches, or the work of a child who had not quite grasped the principles of linear perspective. However more than this, today exhibition catalogues and museum placards often inform us that the shock was also due to their radical departure from acceptable themes in Western art.
This is something of an oft-repeated canard in art history and criticism, which it falls to me to stop from continuing to squawk.
While it is true that the Salon system of art competition in Paris in the 19th century tended to favor submissions exploring grand themes, it was hardly a bold, new idea in Western art to paint still lives, landscapes, or genre scenes – i.e., people doing ordinary things – often to great critical and popular acclaim. By the time the French Impressionists came along many European artists, most notably the Spanish and the Dutch, had already created great masterpieces along these lines for hundreds of years. Even in France itself, painters such as Chardin, Van Loo, and the Le Nain Brothers had been painting such images for kings and queens, dukes and cardinals, centuries before the French Impressionists were even born.
For all their supposed shock value then, thematically speaking most of French Impressionism is, on the whole, a collection of pleasant, rather bland images. Today, these images offer little or no challenge to the viewer, in the way that the Old Masters still can and do. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself whether you would feel more comfortable allowing an 8-year-old child to flip through a coffee table book, unsupervised, which reproduced the work of Monet, or one which catalogued the work of Caravaggio – or Titian, or Rembrandt, or Goya.
Now, this is not to say that French Impressionism must be entirely dismissed as a genre, swept away as one must the entire oeuvre to date of someone like, say, Tracy Emin. If you cannot appreciate a Cézanne, particularly one of his later landscapes, then you need to rethink your level of art education. Not every work of art, after all, needs to look like a tableau or a photograph. As it happens, there are many paintings by the French Impressionists which I love – Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son” here at The National Gallery, for example, or Pissarro’s “Route to Versailles, Louveciennes” at The Walters in Baltimore.
That being said, one must recognize the fact that, whatever it may have meant to their contemporaries, today the art of these painters means something quite different to contemporary society. It is popular, pretty, and pedestrian. In effect, French Impressionism has become the “Dancing Queen” or “Come On Eileen” of the art world. And that is perfectly fine, as far as it goes, but it is often just a question of surface treatment. Personally, I require something more than just a pretty face from my art – assuming of course, that the artist is even capable of painting one.