It’s been a long year of repeated lockdowns and painfully drawn-out hours, when the only escape is looking out the window — anything to gain a break from the day and stop the walls from crawling in.
Emily Dickinson had mastered this art well. The genius American poet rarely left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, prompting the locals at the time to refer to her as The Lady in White or The Myth. These were both powerful monikers conjuring the image of a spectral apparition flashing for mere seconds behind the folds of a curtain before disappearing altogether and leaving the viewers to question their senses.
What Dickinson lacked in exterior stimuli was nourished instead by a rich, fulfilling interior life. She lived in possibility, in the endless expanse of the imagination that no door or wall could contain. As she looked out, she shared her perspective through her writing. Hers are sharp, memorable words, irreverent to syntax and punctuation, like darts shooting up in the air unbothered with the law of gravity. As readers, we look out with her: in the same direction, piercing the horizon with the same scrutiny, seizing the unmistakable whiff of possibility.
A few decades later across the Atlantic a young, French artist was also looking out, trying to capture onto canvas the overnight transformation of the city of Paris and all the promise that it held.
Here is the corner of rue de Miromesnil and rue Lisbonne in the eighth arrondissment. A young Parisian looks out the window towards a fashionably dressed woman standing on the sidewalk. Hands in his pockets, shoulders relaxed, the man appears idle and slightly bored, as if searching for a distraction from his ennui. He’s left the comfort of a plush red armchair to pursue this distraction, but there isn’t much to look at outside. There are only a few trees, a few passers-by, a carriage, a patch of blue sky, all engulfed in the sunlit concrete of the residential buildings flanking the boulevard Malesherbes in the background.
The young man’s back is turned to us, so we do not know what he’s thinking about, but in the contre-jour gloominess that veils his body we cannot escape the feeling that he is a product of his environment, in the vein of Balzac’s realism. He is the modern man, the bourgeois who reaps both the benefits and the disadvantages of industrialization: leisure and listlessness; progress and alienation.
The young man is René Caillebotte, Gustave Caillebote’s younger brother. The painting, shown at the 1876 Impressionist exhibition, is Young Man at His Window (1875). The artist is, of course, Gustave Caillebotte.
Among the critics who saw Caillebotte’s eight paintings at the exhibition that year was the French naturalist writer Emile Zola. Zola, despite being one of the most vocal supporters of the Impressionists, didn’t mince his words when he described the works of this newcomer: “Caillebotte has some Floor-Scrapers and a Young Man at His Window, astonishing in their relief. But this is very much anti-artistic painting, tidy painting, a mirror, bourgeois in its precision. Tracings of the truth, without the painter’s original expression, are poor things.”
And that assertion sums up Caillebotte’s artistic legacy, as the odd one out amongst a group of misfits: too conservative to pass for an Impressionist, too extravagant to be accepted by the Academy.
It’s easy to feel bad for this French artist, just like it’s easy to sympathize with all the overlooked personalities who cannot bask in the spotlight because fate keeps them in someone else’s shadow.
He is restricted in color, mathematical in his lines, with a sort of architectural detachment. I think of him as someone who distrusted passion, for he must have felt first-hand its destructive power. He builds his compositions methodically, like laying bricks on a foundation, a lingering effect of his engineering studies. His cropping and perspective lines are outstanding cinematographic stills.
But that sympathy reaches new peaks when looking at the artist’s balcony paintings. Behind the iron-wrought railings and architectural lines we see someone who wanted to build up walls around him in order to protect himself. His dramatic vistas, too, tell us that he preferred being a by-stander instead of a participant to life’s dramas.
This brings us to the question of what it takes to live a meaningful life. Is it to have a busy, social livelihood, rich in adventure or a contemplative life, seeking knowledge above all else? Ideally, the answer would be a balance between these two.
Still, it’s worth remembering that there is another option to the social bustle we impose upon ourselves. Looking down from the higher floors of Caillebotte’s balconies we get perspective.
A dizzying, exhilarating perspective — we’d like to dive right in, but an unmerciful foreground stops us. It feels almost claustrophobic at times, as if we’re doomed to see the world through the railings of a cage. Sometimes, like in View Seen through a Balcony (1880) or On the Pont de l’Europe (1876-1877), the view is the railing itself.
Caillebotte never lets us forget about the clear delimitation between the indoors and the outdoors, as if one’s interior world must be protected and reaffirmed with every occasion. This self-imposed threshold has its psychological pitfalls, yet we cannot deny the ingenuity that the Frenchman brings forward when framing these vistas.
When critic Edmond Duranty wrote the influential manifesto The New Painting in 1876 encouraging the celebration of all aspects of modern life in art — the city, the street, the apartment, the dandy — it is quite possible that he had some of Gustave Caillebotte’s paintings in mind.
“From within, we communicate with the outside through a window; and the window is the frame that ceaselessly accompanies us”, writes Duranty in The New Painting after no doubt having seen Caillebotte’s Young Man at a Window during the first exhibition of the Impressionists. “The window frame, depending on whether we are near or far, seated or standing, cuts off the external view in the most unexpected, most changeable way, obtaining for us that eternal variety and unexpectedness which is one of the great delights of reality.”
The figures that appear in Caillebotte’s paintings are just as removed and cool as his buildings. They’re the prototype of the bourgeoisie, from whose milieu he was drawn. Whether on the streets of Paris or out in nature, these figures are indistinguishable, like tentacles of a larger moving whole. They represent the body as an idea — of elegance, contemplation or athleticism — while overlooking its idiosyncrasies. There is no place for passion, mystery or human messiness in Caillebotte’s paintings. Everything is neat, in its right place.
It’s possible that for the Frenchman these cool, architectural paintings signaled both a return to order and a fresh new start after a tumultuous decade in the history of France. You wouldn’t guess it from the passers-by strolling on the wet pavement in Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) that just a few years prior, in Place de Clichy, a block north of the intersection that Caillebotte is depicting, a large barricade had been set up and brutal infighting had occurred there during the Commune of 1871.
Years later, in his painting A Street in Paris in 1871, Maximilien Luce would return to the horrors of those times and show the aftermath of the confrontations between the Parisian revolutionaries (the Communards) and the government’s troops. Light and pastel colors awash the composition, but the blue-purple corpses in the foreground set a morbid tone, ominous enough to give us a glimpse of the 20,000 insurrectionists who lost their lives that spring on the blood-drenched streets of Paris.
So then we look at Caillebotte again, and despite the rain and his detached approach to human figures, we find his work strangely optimistic and refreshing, like a window being opened in the early hours of the morning and bringing with it the first sensations of the day — dimmed, of course, but all the more pleasurable after a night fast.
The worst is yet behind our artist: the Franco-Prussian war, the Commune of 1871, the deaths of his father, his cousin and of many other acquaintances. And the future looks quite bright too, the slums of Paris being erased to make room for Haussmann’s large boulevards which our young artist is eager to embrace. Critics were appalled that there was no rain in Caillebotte’s painting, in spite of the open umbrellas, but I see it as yet another sign of his cautious optimism: the worst is over, and if not, these modern Parisians are prepared for whatever life may throw their way.
When he tried his hand at landscapes Caillebotte still stuck to the familiar, with what he knew best. He wasn’t Monet to go looking for the Mediterranean sun or the London fog. No, he was content enough to paint his family estate at Yerres, just outside of Paris. He completed almost eighty paintings there, many of them centered around an activity in which he himself indulged: boating.
Even in The Yerres, Effect of Rain (1875), one of Caillebotte’s first completed landscapes, we see the Frenchman’s love for dramatic compositions. In this up-close morsel of nature, despite there being no high balconies, rising buildings or sprawling boulevards, the strong diagonal slicing the foreground gives cause for pause. It is the wood retaining wall of the river in Yerres, but it might as well be the frame of a painting: a picture within a picture. There’s something deeply disturbing about the body of water. Yes, there may be ripples from the droplets of rain hitting its glossy, mirror-like surface, but the river looks eerily immobile and contained — just like a painting.
Caillebotte’s art is always linked to his surroundings, be it on the posh streets of Paris close to where he lived, the interior of his apartment, or the family estates in the country, as if he was too afraid to venture outside the familiar, outside of his comfort zone. This impression is almost confirmed by his abrupt retirement at only 34, in 1882, when he stopped showing his work in public.
There were attempts, short-lived, to break through the obscurity. These included a major Impressionist exhibition in New York organized by Parisian dealer Durand-Ruel in 1886 and Les XX (les vingt, the 20), an 1888 avant-garde show in Brussels. There, our artist was met with public indifference and critical disdain.
Yet Caillebotte wasn’t entirely isolated. There was Renoir, of course, who visited him at his estate in Petit-Gennevilliers, on the banks of the Seine near Argenteuil. Renoir, who was so fond of teasing his well-read friend about all things under the sun. Renoir who immortalized Caillebotte in Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1881) as the easy-going boatman in the right foreground straddling a chair.
And there were the monthly Impressionist dinners at the Café Riche, too. Art critic Gustave Geffroy, who was a spectator at several of these meetings, recounts the banter between Renoir and Caillebotte:
“The first [Renoir], nervous and sarcastic, with bantering voice and a kind of mephistophelianism that marked his face, already tormented by illness, with irony and bizarre laughter, took malicious pleasure in exciting the second [Caillebotte], who was sanguine and irascible, his expressive face passing from red to violet, and even black, when his opinions ran afoul of those of Renoir, who loved to counter them with a flippant self-confidence. He then showed an intensity that bordered on anger but somehow remained inoffensive. The debates focused not only on views about art and painting, but on all subjects relating to literature, politics, and philosophy, and Caillebotte, who was a great reader of books, magazines and newspapers, unabashedly jumped into the fray. Renoir had become conversant with everything by buying an encyclopedic dictionary in which he found arguments ‘to put Caillebotte on the spot’”.
But despite Caillebotte’s close friendship with several Impresisonists, the only written peer recognition that we know of came posthumously, from Camille Pissaro. “Caillebotte has died suddenly of brain paralysis,” Pissarro writes in a letter informing his son of the tragic event. “He is one we can mourn, he was good and generous and, what makes things even worse, a painter of talent.” Yet even this short, heartfelt description only amplifies the perception that Caillebotte was just a footnote in art history.
I’d like to think that our French artist found comfort and beauty in building his own world, even while shutting himself away or failing to reach the same recognition as his Impressionist friends. That art for art’s sake was enough. That chasing accolades was irrelevant since he lacked neither funds nor passions. He continued painting up to his death at only forty-five, all while building yachts and indulging in his love for horticulture. Like Emily Dickinson before him, Gustave Caillebotte kept his mind open to endless possibilities. And what a view he gave us!