Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye
an exhibition at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, TX. November 8, 2015 – February 14, 2016
It is somewhat unsettling that a painter as accomplished as Caillebotte critiques two artistic virtues: the desire for order and one’s intensity of focus. Both are considered emblematic of human reason. I don’t think rationality necessarily underlies serious painting, as, say, throwing away Expressionism and the Fauves in favor of realizing Platonic forms makes no sense. Insisting on a strict correspondence between art and rationality leads to the worst sort of conservatism, one that can’t help but be self-parody. But I do think an artist wants to see his audience engage a work as intelligently as possible, and that it is possible to create a dark cynicism which discourages a fully engaged audience. If we desire to better our minds, we could adopt an air of arrogance while striving for order, training a more serious gaze. However, not all of us will look like this guy:
Dressed in the finery of his top hat and tailored jacket, our protagonist stands regally, impatiently upon his wrought-iron balustrade, overlooking the boulevard in Paris on a bright, lush day. He’s waiting not so much to see others as to be seen. The modern, reformed Paris of Napoleon III into which he stares is really his hope and expectation. I’d like to laugh a bit at his pomposity, but then again, I’ve gone to an art museum to get digits, and we’re staring out the doorway at him. That glass door on the right reflects both of us.
Pretensions to higher class claim a superior grasp of rationality, the status of natural aristocracy. Whether Social Darwinism promoting Carnegie and Rockefeller as more evolved, or the ancien régime concluding any alternative to it irrational, we arrive at the same place. Yet there’s something honest, refreshing, and strangely modest about a well-dressed guy trying to show off his outfit.
The Portrait of Eugene Daufresne (1878) features its subject tense in a chair, intent on the pages he has put directly in front of himself. The scene screams wealth. Lush fabrics abound: his suit, the red upholstery, the matching curtains. The tall, marble fireplace with some sort of golden ornament upon the mantel. His gold chain. I felt, looking at this in person, that the angle was thrusting me into his orbit. Do people who appropriate, who put everyone else in order, actually read?
Portrait of a Man (1880) conveys a very different feeling, despite strong parallels with the Portrait of Eugene Daufresne. The subject, suited in a red chair, sits by a wall with gold trim and a lace curtain. However, he gazes out the bright window almost in profile. If there is any doubt to what he’s thinking, then note the green of his vest complementing the verdure outside, the flower-like tie, and his tensing hands. He looks about to get up and go. Attention to order, our focus, brought us to his movement.
Still, the criticism of focus, directed to both artist and audience, is razor sharp. To be clear, consider Game of Bezique (1880). Each figure in the painting pays attention in his own way, culminating in satire. I remember being drawn in by the bearded player seated at the left of the table, holding cards. He stares at the cards with the intensity of one doing heart surgery. Standing tall beside him is a well-dressed, intrigued man. The two smoking pipes seated opposite wear their experience, but that doesn’t mean the gentleman in a brown jacket has any less focus. Only the guy on the couch, bored out of his skull, gives away the whole game. He’s not paying attention to any of this: he’s not paying attention in a study of people paying attention. Attentiveness is something we as observers read into others’ expressions. It’s a construct of the artist. Game of Bezique may be a trivial example, but can we imagine the same expressions in a scene from a laboratory, a hospital, or a battlefield?
Order, I feel, gets similar treatment in Luncheon (1876). The narrative that painting holds, the loss of a father, makes one wonder what would have happened if he simply painted a whole canvas black. The finery and rituals of the household mean nothing compared to the ghostly reflections of the crystal. Not order, but the weight of things, carries the grief. How necessary is order, anyway? Nude on a Couch (1880) has a potent sexuality emerge from its unusually frank earthiness. Her feet are badly bruised and swollen; her garments and shoes look burdensome, relentless, even thrown aside. Exhausted, her whole figure says “no” as the painting pulsates with tenderness.
It’s strange to conclude that order and focus are, in a way, tricks we play on ourselves. To know how one knows is a much taller order than to simply know, but why should the consequences of this proposition feel so radical? Caillebotte’s command of scope might be his greatest asset. Everything is meant to frame the liveliness of just one object. In Sunflowers in the Garden at Petit Gennevilles (1885), how the geometric buildings collapse into sinuous, twisted vines, all to display a mess of sunflowers. Within that mess, Caillebotte captures how some petals cast shadows on the flower itself. In Prairie at Yerres (1875), how the placement of trees and bushes creates a sense of depth, a never ending field of green.