The Incurable Distance of Gustave Caillebotte

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Gustave Caillebotte has been curiously canonized: first as Impressionist, then as Realist, then as more of a collector than an artist. Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, an ambitious retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., re-positions the painter as a major artist in his own right, though his aesthetic allegiances and institutional commitments remain obscure. Caillebotte paintings, direct and searching engagements with the changing landscape of nineteenth-century Paris, speak to an uneasy habitation – to a sense of pervasive displacement that predates even his exclusion from the mainstream canon.

In the years following his death in 1894, Caillebotte was remembered primarily as a patron – a narrative solidified by his posthumous bequest to the French government of a sizable collection that would come to constitute the core of the Musée d’Orsay’s Impressionist holdings. During his lifetime, he enjoyed a reputation as one of the foremost Impressionists, but here, too, he sat uncomfortably. He was wealthier than other members of the cohort, and he studied under the successful and somewhat conservative painter Léon Bonnat at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts during the 1870s, a move that betrayed his traditionalist sensibilities. Only when the young painter’s 1874 submission to the official Salon was rejected did he definitively defy the mainstream to ally himself with the Impressionist misfits. No one was sure how to classify the works that followed: Caillebotte was consistently deemed both the most and least radical of the group by his contemporary critics. His paintings were often considered too sobering to count as pure Impressionism, but he favors dizzying angles that scandalized the realist establishment. An uneasy and liminal painter, Paris’s uncomfortable chronicler, Caillebotte borrows heavily from the realist and Impressionist traditions but belongs to neither.

It is perhaps for this reason that his work is imbued with such a pointed sense of isolation: every proximity comes at the cost of an equivalent distance. In paintings like The Floor Scrapers (1875), skewed perspectives create a sense of interpersonal space even within ostensibly intimate confines. The painting, arguably the artist’s signature piece, positions the viewer above three shirtless laborers at work on the wooden floor of a luxurious room. Although the workers’ motions are precise and contained, the space itself is giddily mobile: the ground appears slanted, as if the figures are at risk of sliding out of the frame and into our laps. In Luncheon (1876), Caillebotte employs a similar technique to depict three figures gathered around an exaggeratedly elongated table, alone together at what looks like a somber lunch. Even nominally communal spaces, like the family dining room, acquire a renewed privacy.

In the modernizing city, private spaces were rapidly becoming public. As Elizabeth Benjamin notes in her catalogue essay, the French interior had been an especially social space since the advent of eighteenth-century “salon” culture, but the public spaces in Haussmann’s Paris were also permeated with a new privacy. It’s this aspect of modernity – the intrusion of isolation into our every intimacy – that fascinates and preoccupies Caillebotte.

Two of his most celebrated paintings, The Pont de L’Europe (1876) and Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) – both of which numbered among the highlights of the 1877 Impressionist exhibition – are darkly funny portraits of urban solitude. In The Pont de L’Europe, a woman and a man walking next to one another appear to be strolling together. On closer inspection, we realize that the man is several paces ahead of his companion, and their gazes, directed towards one another in the most general sense, in fact pass one another by. The visual joke consists in the defiance of our initial expectation: though the figures are positioned not unlike lovers on a promenade, their affect is decidedly icy. Like so many of modernity’s metropolitan discontents, they are united only by their mutual alienation.

Paris Street, Rainy Day depicts a similarly bleak scene. Bourgeois Parisians in identical apparel amble across a wide boulevard in the rain. In the foreground, a woman and a man approach us. The woman’s arm is twined through her companion’s, but the line of her vision sweeps past him, and she walks slightly behind, almost beyond the scope of their shared umbrella. Absent the tenuous intersection of their linked arms, we might mistake them for strangers. In this picture, the schema of expectation established in The Pont de L’Europe is inverted: though we initially suspect the pair to be anonymous idlers, they prove themselves lovers, participants in a romance as tepid and underwhelming as a polite nod to an unknown passerby.

Behind the couple, another pedestrian has adopted the central man’s pose: he, too, crouches under an umbrella with one hand in his pocket. But though these two figures are visually twinned, clad in the same top hats and wielding the same umbrellas, they live their lives in parallel, never intersecting. In the foreground of the far-right corner of the canvas, we catch a glimpse of yet another man outfitted in the same dark coat and top hat. He enters the frame hurriedly, though his legs are severed by the canvas edge. To us, as to the couple he approaches, neither of whom acknowledges his advance, he is fragmentary. The grandiosity of Haussmann’s Paris conflicts with the flitting chaos of its human inhabitants.

In another monumental work from the 1877 exhibition, On the Pont de L’Europe (1876-1877), we are presented yet again with the poignant contradiction of a private moment enacted in a public space: a businessman dressed in an elegant black coat and top hat turns away from us to gaze off the bridge at the distant cityscape, a blur of lugubrious blue-greys. The severe angles of the bridge’s metallic railings cut across the painting, yielding a pair of strong diagonals that meet in the center of the canvas and irresistibly draw our gaze. But the businessman stands slightly to the left of this core intersection, defying the diagonal momentum of the work to pose a strong vertical counterpoint. The resulting antagonism – between the upright figure and his lateral environment, between the softness of a defiant human form and the harshness of an unyielding monolith – disorients, and we feel that we’ve witnessed a scene from which we are fundamentally excluded.

The stubborn enmity of the bridge is not anomalous for Caillebotte. His objects and built structures often seem to acquire a sort of hostile agency. And indeed, with the advent of social realism, class and its trappings began to overwhelm individuality in the eye of many French artists and writers. In her catalogue essay, “Paintings of Modern Life: Representing Modernity in Baudelaire, Balzac, Zola, and Caillebotte,” Alexandra K. Wettlaufer notes that the novels of realists like Flaubert are “suffused with exhaustively detailed descriptions of faces, bodies, clothes, furniture, décor, and architecture.” These works “capture the complex realities of the contemporary world through the subtle language of visual details and objects.” Internal life bleeds into public life as interiors become markers of social status, arranged according to inflexible but unspoken codes. Furniture in particular acquired a new significance in this brave new world-order. “By midcentury,” Elizabeth Benjamin writes, home furnishing “was considered an extension of the body, both physically and morally.” In Caillebotte’s interiors and portraits, we encounter figures especially beholden to their milieus and possessions.

In Luncheon (1876), the central table is laden with glass beakers, bowls of fruit, and silverware that ripple with color – but the lunchers, crouched mutely over their plates, blend into the dull background. The rich opulence of the densely furnished room stifles them, and the painting’s distorted emphasis on food and ornament illustrates the perils of a consumption that threatens to overtake the consumer. This logic, according to which human accouterments gain their own sinister momentum, extends beyond bourgeois residences and into the streets of Caillebotte’s city. In the striking The Rule Halévy, Seen from the Sixth Floor (1878), an oppressive urban landscape bears down on its denizens. The pedestrians bustling around the avenue are small and indistinct, while the buildings and horizon loom menacingly. A raw but tender painting, The Rue Halévy animates the brooding hues of late November cold, bringing Paris chillingly alive.

Powerless before the indomitable mechanisms of the metropolis, the nineteenth-century Parisian’s involvement in city life consisted less in acting and more in looking. The modern flâneur, or loafer, wandered the streets, watching without participating, “at the center of the world, and yet … hidden from the world,” as Baudelaire observed. Visually, the phenomenon of flâneurie was encapsulated in the image of the window, a point of entry but also a point of exclusion, a symbol of impotent engagement. “From indoors, we communicate with the outside through windows. A window is a frame that is continually with us,” wrote influential art critic Edmond Duranty in his 1876 pamphlet, “La Nouvelle Peinture,” a text that implicitly championed Degas’s and Caillebotte’s tendencies towards social realism.

Caillebotte took Duranty’s reflections to heart, and the window, presented as a symbol of moveable solitude, recurs throughout his oeuvre. In most of the resultant works, the frame of a painting is further circumscribed by the frame of a window, which intrudes along the edges of the canvas. Often, we observe a figure observing, as in Interior, Woman at the Window (1880) and Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (1880), both depicting figures gazing out onto the street. We are reminded by these repeated insertions of a viewing figure that what we see isn’t an unmediated landscape but rather the delimited vista of what Caillebotte sees, and in turn chooses to portray. The vista, as such, is displaced, and what we observe, finally, is a portrait of inaccessibility. We are both incorporated into these paintings and barred from them: their tight framings are mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, designed to initiate us into their worlds but also to keep us from the scenes that fall beyond their perimeters.

Duranty’s metaphorical window performs this function even in the paintings that lack more explicit frames. In The Pont de L’Europe, a dog runs afield of a figure located outside the painting. The bottom of the dog’s back leg, lifted as he trots forward, is cut off by the bottom of the canvas, linking him with us and issuing an initiation to follow him into the image. As in The Pont de L’Europe, the central figures in Paris Street, Rainy Day are abruptly truncated, inciting us to imagine the continuations of their bodies, which must extend into the external space of the gallery.

Although we are embedded in these pictures and sometimes even privy to their subjects’ most personal moments, their inhabitants remain impervious to us. Nude on a Coach (1880) shows a disrobed woman lying supine on a sofa with one her arm over her face and the fingers of her other hand lightly tracing her nipple. This sensual scene produces a dual sensation of intimacy and estrangement: we can come seductively close to its subject, but we cannot touch her. Even in A Boating Party (1877-1878), a painting in which we are positioned several feet across from a man in a rowboat, in a pose that is straightforwardly conversational, our interlocutor looks past us at something outside of the picture. The picture’s composition is chatty, but it remains stubbornly and conspicuously silent.

Few commentators have explored the troubled temptations of a flâneurie that discloses only as much as it withholds. Our watching, like the flâneur’s, is a mute but beguiling currency: to fulfill the fantasy of true voyeurism, a watching that affords us access to genuinely private acts, we must be willing to cede our desire for interpersonal exchange. But what good are these one-sided encounters, which allow us to know but prevent us from being known? Like his subjects, Caillebotte is maddeningly inaccessible. His presence is evoked and elided as he constructs scenes that recall his participation but decline to depict it. In his work as in his life, he refuses to place himself within a tradition or within an image, preferring to present his renderings of Parisian street life as observations without an observer – and himself as an eye without a body, a curiously placeless witness to the reconstruction of a place.

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