Gustave Caillebotte was a French painter and art collector who is best-known for his scenes of urban life in Paris, including The Floor Scrapers, Paris Street, Rainy Day, and Le Pont de l’Europe. He joined the Impressionists in the 1870s and helped with both the funding and organising of their exhibitions. Caillebotte shared their interest in modern life, bright colours, and natural light, but combined this with an academic style of drawing and modelling.
Despite his artistic talent and extensive output, Caillebotte is probably the least known painter of the Impressionist group. Belonging to a wealthy family, Caillebotte had little need to sell his paintings, and after his death, most of them remained in the hands of his relatives for decades. However, around the mid-20th century, interest in his artwork reappeared, and his reputation as a leading painter of his day is now well-established.
If you’re interested in learning more about Gustave Caillebotte, I’d personally recommend Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist by Anne Distel, an authoritative text that examines his life, his art, and the changing Parisian landscape around him.
The Floor Scrapers (1875)
With this painting, Gustave Caillebotte produced one of the first depictions of the urban worker, who, unlike the country and peasant worker, had scarcely been represented on canvas. He submitted The Floor Scrapers to the jury of the 1875 Salon, but it was rejected, doubtlessly for its stark realism and depiction of quotidien life, which the Salon saw as an inferior subject matter.
Following this rejection, Caillebotte joined the Impressionists and exhibited this painting, among others, at their second exhibition in 1876. With this piece, Caillebotte illustrated his interest in everyday subject matter, which was also a principal concern of the Impressionists. However, his painting style is much more academic them theirs, reflecting his artistic training at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. Caillebotte doesn’t utilise the loose and intuitive brushwork of the Impressionists, and renders his figures with much more precise outlines and details. Indeed, Caillebotte’s muscular half-nude subjects in The Floor Scrapers are reminiscent of the heroic figures depicted in Classic artwork, their defined forms highlighted by the backlight that comes in through the window. Such a physical build would certainly not have been processed by urban workers in Paris during Caillebotte’s time.
Le Pont de l’Europe (1876)
Gustave Caillebotte’s interest in the urban landscape is also illustrated in Le Pont de l’Europe (“The Europe Bridge”). The bridge itself was constructed between 1865-68, and was part of Paris’s transformation under Baron Haussmann in the second half of the 19th century, during which the French capital’s medieval quartiers were replaced with new modern architecture.
The Pont de l’Europe was made up of six spans that each carried an avenue across the Saint-Lazare train station, and was only a ten-minute walk from Caillebotte’s family home on 77 rue de Miromesnil in the Quartier de l’Europe. In this artwork, Caillebotte has painted a long, plunging view of one of these spans with numerous Parisians crossing it, including a man in a top hat who, according to contemporary accounts, is a self-portrait. This man epitomises the flâneur – a wealthy gentleman of leisure who would wander around the city and observe its going-ons.
This painting was one of two large canvases depicting a view on the Pont de l’Europe that Caillebotte painted in 1876-77. The other seems to continue the narrative of the first, showing the flâneur looking down at the railway, as if he is observing whatever caught his attention in the first painting, in which he has turned his head to look over the bridge.
Young Man at his Window (1876)
This painting was the last major composition created by Caillebotte before he first displayed his artwork at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. The subject of the painting was identified as René, one of the Caillebotte brothers, in a note on a photograph of the painting belonging to the artist. He is standing before a third-story window in the family home overlooking the boulevard des Malesherbes, watching people travelling both on foot and in horse-drawn carriages.
This domestic scene provides insight into the wealth of the Caillebotte brothers, and indeed that of the residents of Haussmann builds. All the brothers were landlords, or proprétaires, meaning that they owned and rented out apartments in the new luxury buildings constructed under Haussmann’s direction. Rents in these residencies were particularly high, and so became populated by wealthy Parisians. Contemporary viewers would have known the expense of such an apartment in the wealthy Malesherbes quartier, especially one that is on the third story and overlooks the streets below. Indeed, the chair beside René suggests that he spent a great deal of time at this window.
Nevertheless, by showing his brother from behind gazing at the world below, and by juxtaposing the sun-drenched streets with the darker interior, Gustave Caillebotte perhaps hints at a frustration on René’s part with his unchanging routine.
Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877)
Generally acknowledged to be Gustave Caillebotte’s masterpiece, Paris Street, Rainy Day is another representation of the new modern Paris designed by Baron Haussmann. In this cityscape, the artist has depicted a complex intersection that was relatively close to the Saint-Lazare train station. We can see numerous wide boulevards extending into the distance, the modern apartment buildings lining them, and the re-laid cobbled streets.
When it was displayed at the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877, this painting was received quite well by Parisian audiences, who appreciated its more academic (and less Impressionist) style. Measuring almost seven by ten feet, Paris Street, Rainy Day was a monumental Salon-sized canvas, and its subjects in the foreground were life-size. Similarly, the forms in the painting are solid and have been rendered with controlled brushwork, rather than the loose and variegated strokes of the Impressionists. The buildings, people, and streets have definitive outlines, and don’t dissolve into the light and atmospheric conditions, which was unlike Monet’s Saint-Lazare paintings exhibited at the same exhibition.
Nevertheless, Caillebotte was also innovative with his composition. The main subjects aren’t in the middle of the canvas, and the man to their right has been cropped. This positioning of the subjects has drawn comparisons with photography, which was the newest method of representing reality in Caillebotte’s day. Along with its asymmetry, Caillebotte also subverted academic tradition slightly with the contemporaneity of this city scene, indicated by the new urban landscape, as well as the fashionable dress of the upper-class figures in the painting.
Skiffs on the Yerres (1877)
When Gustave Caillebotte was twelve years old, his family acquired a château in Yerres, a small town southwest of Paris that has a river of the same name. This estate became a summer residence for Caillebotte family, and the artist spent his long school holidays from boarding school here. He fell in love with the bucolic charm of Yerres, developing a passion for rowing and sailing on its river, which he enjoyed with his brothers. The estate was eventually sold though in 1879 following the death of their parents.
This particular painting was part of a series completed between 1877 and 1878 that depicts scenes of water leisure around the family home. It shows rowers in périssoires: flat-bottomed skiffs that were notorious for being easy to overturn. Caillebotte puts emphasis on this precariousness, placing the viewer just above the skiffs. Skiffs on the Yerres is also often noted for its use of bold colours and short brushstrokes that evoke Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, respectively. This is especially notable in the reflections on the water in the foreground, and the dense foliage lining the banks of the river. However, whilst these artists concentrated on capturing a single instant on canvas, Caillebotte’s composition creates a feeling of movement and conveys a passing of time.
The Orange Trees (1878)
This painting was produced during Caillebotte’s last summer vacation at the family estate in Yerres; after 1878, the property was sold and the artist spent his subsequent summer holidays in Petit Gennevilliers and on the Normandy coast. In The Orange Trees, Caillebotte shows his brother Martial and his cousin Zoé both occupying themselves with reading, sheltered in the shade afforded by the villa itself. The empty metal-frame chair in placed in the foreground and turned towards the viewer seems to invite us into this scene of outdoor domestic leisure, encouraging us to sit down too.
This composition is often noted for Caillebotte’s effective use of light, shade, and colour. He juxtaposes the shaded, darker areas of the canvas with those that are brighter without attempting to mingle the brightness and the shadow. As a result, he projects the atmosphere of the early afternoon onto the viewer, allowing us to gain a feeling of its light and heat. He also captures the vivid colours of the rural summer, especially in the flowerbed on the grass verge. Even the shaded area is rendered with a certain luminosity in its darkened-green/violet colour.
For this painting, Caillebotte was likely inspired by Claude Monet’s A Luncheon on the Grass, a painting that he acquired prior to creating The Orange Trees. In this painting, Monet also depicting a scene of outdoor relaxation using a large canvas and a contrast between cool shade in the foreground and brightness in the background.
Rooftops in the Snow (1878)
With this painting, Gustave Caillebotte shifted his focus away from the orderly boulevards, buildings, and bridges that were constructed during Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. Instead, he depicted a disorganised group of buildings that had not been grazed by one of his wrecking crews. This architectural jumble combines with the blanket of snow, the absence of any city-dwellers, and the dark colour palette to give the composition a certain sadness. It has been suggested that this may be linked to the death of Caillebotte’s mother in October 1878, which left the artist parentless, his father having passed on in 1874.
Rooftops in the Snow is also noted for its more Impressionist brushwork, which is less precise than that in cityscapes such as Paris Street, Rainy Day. Similarly, Caillebotte also shows in this painting a particular interest in the effects of light and weather, which was shared with Impressionist contemporaries such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. The artist has shown the grey reflection of the leaden sky on the snow-covered rooftops, which have also been peppered with some touches of light pink.
Man at His Bath (1884)
During his artistic career, Caillebotte painted both male and female nudes in a manner that evolved from Realist artists. His decision to focus on the bathing nude was perhaps a result of his acquisition in the 1870s of numerous artworks by Edgar Degas that depicted female bathers. Degas’s images of women at their toilettes were certainly unconventional and unglamorous, but Caillebotte arguably went further than his contemporary by painting a male bather.
His image of a modern man, who is, although muscular, drying himself with a towel after stepping out of the bathtub obviously subverts the traditional heroic male nude with its naturalism. The subject is also modern in that it evidences new views about male personal hygiene that replaced the old in the mid-1880s. In France, there was a long-standing belief that full-immersion bathing was a feminine indulgence that was too sensual for men, and that rigorous self-care would effeminise them. However, this view was replaced by a promotion of the same levels of hygiene for both sexes, which included regular baths.
Caillebotte painted Man at his Bath in 1884, and sent it to the “Les Vingts” exhibition in Brussels in 1888. However, it was apparently seen as too vulgar by the organisers or the viewing public, as there is evidence that it was isolated in a separate and inaccessible room.
Sailing Boats at Argenteuil (c.1888)
During the Second French Empire (1852-1870), sailing emerged in France, having travelled from England, as a popular leisure sport. From the 1870s, it was a fashionable pastime, and sailing clubs and restaurants increasingly emerged on the riverbanks of the Seine and the Marne to entertain Parisians. Naturally, this motif was explored by Impressionist painters, including Claude Monet, who made sailing boats on the Seine one of his favourite motif during his time in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris on that river, between 1871 and 1878.
These Monet paintings influenced Caillebotte when he came to paint the sailing boats himself, and he even purchased one of them after Monet began to exhibit his Argenteuil canvases in 1876. However, the theme was arguably of a more personal importance to Gustave Caillebotte, given that he was particularly enthusiastic about sailing. He won regattas on the Seine after 1879, and even became renowned for his yacht building in his later years.
Bringing himself closer to his treasured hobby, Gustave Caillebotte purchased an estate in Petit Gennevilliers in 1881, a Parisian suburb across the Seine from Argenteuil. His property was located next to the exclusive Paris Sailing Club, whose annual regattas and various other water events attracted great crowds from the city throughout the summer. This particular painting depicts a flotilla of sailing boats moored downstream from Argenteuil’s older wood bridge across the Seine, with the supports of the suburb’s railway bridge and the Sannois and Orgement hills visible further into the distance.
Dahlias, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers (1893)
This painting is another Caillebotte work produced after his purchase of an estate in Petit Gennevilliers, which he had originally brought with his brother Martial in 1881. In the ten years following this, Gustave bought out Martial, expanded the estate by purchasing adjacent plots of land, constructed a hothouse in which to grow orchids and a studio in which to paint, and in 1888, left Paris to live here permanently. Indeed, Caillebotte was an avid gardener, and he regularly corresponded with his friend and fellow horticulturist Claude Monet about their projects.
With this change in setting, Caillebotte’s artwork changed accordingly. He turned his attention away from urban Paris and towards his garden in Petit Gennevilliers, as well as the surrounding countryside which remained unspoilt by urban development.
In this intimate garden scene, Caillebotte has used the vivid colours and heavier brushwork that were typical of the paintings made towards his end of his career. He depicts his prized dahlias in the foreground of the canvas, with his greenhouse and house further behind, and on the garden path shows a single woman in summer clothing and a small dog looking towards the viewer. The lush and bucolic qualities of this work are further enhanced by Caillebotte’s playful use of shade and sunlight.