Gustave Caillebotte:

Urban Impressionist

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through May 28

The umbrella has become the very foremost badge of modern civilisation.

–Robert Louis Stevenson, 1871

Is there anybody in this great humping city who has not taken a few minutes to sit down on a park bench, say, for the sole purpose of watching the passing parade? Do you ever really tire of observing that man’s bearing, his companions, his hygiene, the cut of his jacket, the sway of his hips, or the holes he has punched through the flesh on his head? Do you not wonder, based simply on what you can see, who he is, what he thinks, where he lives, and even, if your science is deep, whether he says his prayers in the kneeling, the prostrate, or the missionary position? If your curiosity runs along these lines then I suggest you get off that bench, go down to the Art Institute, and wade into the crowds milling through “Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist.” This man is your artist.

Caillebotte, who died in 1894, was known in his day as much for his collection of impressionist art, which he bequeathed to the French state, as for his own work. He was wealthy and secure and felt no need to make a name for himself. He did what he pleased. Toward the end of his short life (dead at 45) that meant yachting, gardening, and philately; but during the early years of Impressionism he was a key organizer of its exhibitions, a buyer of some of its best work, and, for a brief spell in the 1870s, the painter of a handful of masterpieces that meticulously capture the city as a venue for the voyeur. The odd thing is that Caillebotte’s greatest images rely on a precise, scientific style that immediately sets him apart from the movement he helped sustain.

Consider The Pont de l’Europe (1876). There are no dancing daubs here, no luscious brush strokes. Everything is tight, controlled, exact. Caillebotte’s tunneling perspective, drawn in all likelihood from a photograph, sucks your eye forward along the monumental ironwork of the bridge, and just at the vanishing point is the head of the gentleman striding swiftly out of the picture. This gives you an uncanny sense of actually being on the sidewalk at that instant, and, city dog that you are, you instinctively take a reading of all the different vectors in play: the gentleman bounding straight for you, the mincing woman he’s just passed, the dog trotting at your feet, the worker gazing into the railyard, and the old man shuffling along several paces ahead.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this tableau and the other street scenes quaint because of all the parasols, carriages, gaslights, and plug hats on view. The landscape that attracted Caillebotte was quintessentially modern: it’s not the old Paris we see, intimate and aromatic, but the boulevards of a new city–clean, straight, and open. Much of this city, in fact, had gone up in the artist’s own lifetime; the Europe bridge itself was finished only eight years before he painted it. Parisian boulevards, though doubtless the triumph of order and beauty depicted by Caillebotte, were simply the latest fashion in urban design when they were built, something like the strip mall today. Even the steel-framed umbrella (as Julia Sagraves points out in the catalog) was an invention just three years old when it sprouted across the huge canvas Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877). Replace the elegant backdrop of that painting with the rehabbed factories and outlets for urban accoutrements along Clybourn Avenue, give everybody a flip phone instead of an umbrella–the gaslights, I believe, could well stay–and you approximate the modernity of the image. The transformation is grotesque, to be sure, but that’s our problem, not Caillebotte’s.

On the new boulevards of Paris different classes came together for the first time, creating a field for the play of a new social type: the roving observer, the seeker of impressions, the man who is in the crowd but not of it. He was called a flaneur, or stroller, but let’s forget the perfumy French word; our own Henry James, who was doing a prodigious amount of strolling himself back then, had the same thing in mind with his “restless analyst,” and that describes the top-hatted figure in The Pont de l’Europe exactly. Caillebotte catches him in the middle of his work. Having just overtaken the woman and inhaling, perhaps, a good dose of her patchouli (Sagraves reminds us that the virtue of a woman walking alone, especially in the vicinity of the Saint-Lazare train station, was open to serious doubt), he now points his head, indeed he twists his entire body toward the man leaning against the rail. If you wonder about the difference between a restless analyst and a mere idler, compare the intensity of the beam he directs at the worker, who gazes absently into the abyss of capitalism, with the vapidity of the look the woman is giving him. And since the gentleman is the moving intelligence of this painting it’s no surprise that Caillebotte has made him a self-portrait. The curators have placed a large photograph of the artist nearby that shows him, although older by 15 years, with the same hat, the same coat, and the same cock of the head. Even the dog in the painting looks like he might be related to the original.

To say that Caillebotte paints the city as an arena for the voyeur is not to accuse him of Peeping Tomism. He could be reasonably arraigned on that charge only for his large Nude on a Couch (1882); in the rest of the show the sexual content is subdued. For the true restless analyst there is stimulation enough in a man looking at train tracks, in workers either loafing on the job (House-Painters, 1877) or toiling diligently (Floor-Scrapers, 1875), or in a woman–fully clothed, mind you–simply crossing a street in the distance (Young Man at His Window, 1875). And whatever is drawing the attention of the couple in Paris Street; Rainy Day, Caillebotte doesn’t even show it. (I’ve often thought, in the Pritzker Galleries where these folks usually hang, that they must be looking at that rather uncomfortably posed portrait of Balzac by Rodin.)

In Paris Street the man, serving as escort, seems to have lost some of his ardor. His gaze is cool, almost blase, as if he’d seen it all anyway; his companion, perhaps new to the field, looks more engaged. In any case, the artist is still in top form. Using the same precise technique he employed on The Pont de l’Europe (and most likely beginning with a photograph here too), Caillebotte appears to stop time at the intersection while allowing the couple, perhaps by virtue of their looming presence, to keep moving forward. Thus he achieves the astonishing effect of having them stroll through the scene they’re surveying. If you’ve ever taken a good long walk in the city, passing from one neighborhood into another and then another, you may have noticed how the creatures on the street, though motile, seem to be in a kind of random Brownian motion that goes nowhere; a straight line trajectory always turns up slightly different fauna every few blocks. Caillebotte may have had something like that in mind here, since his restless analyst is above all someone who knows how to take advantage of the new straight lines of Paris.

Sometimes, however, the analyst works out of an apartment. In Young Man at His Window we find him so absorbed by the enclosed and familiar view that he’s pulled up a chair, facing out. It’s beyond me how Rodolphe Rapetti, writing in the catalog, can find this young man a casualty of “boredom” in “a city drained of reality.” M. Rapetti, s’il vous plait! Would you say that someone who spends his evening playing a telescope over the adjacent high rise is bored? Here the young man is so intent on the woman below that he’s risen from his chair and presses up against the balustrade. This is hardly a picture of boredom; it is distilled voyeuristic passion. The woman, you see, can have no idea she is being watched.

Compare that painting with Man on a Balcony (1880), which opens the exhibit, and you get a good idea of what happened to Caillebotte’s art after his early peak. Done five years later, its subject is also a man leaning against the railing at an open window, but everything else has changed. The brushwork is looser; the man’s pose is merely distracted, not absorbed; and most tellingly the city itself has all but disappeared beneath the cover of trees. The story is the same with the other balcony views, some of which are so sketchy they look like they could have been done by the arch-impressionist Camille Pissarro. There are a couple of bright spots: Boulevard Seen From Above (1880) and A Traffic Island, Boulevard Haussmann (1880) offer interesting experiments in perception. But toward the end of the 1870s Caillebotte was starting to adopt one of the standard subjects of impressionism, water sports, and with the exception of Oarsmen (1877) and Boating Party (1877-’78), where he’s up to his old tricks with extreme perspectives, the results are not very engaging. (Caillebotte seems to have been addicted to the special effects of his idiosyncratic treatment of perspective. In the beautifully backlit Young Man Playing the Piano of 1876, for instance, the instrument appears to be resting on the musician’s knees; Interior, from 1880, relies solely on the joke of reducing the husband to the size of one of his monstrous wife’s gewgaws; and in The Pont de l’Europe a second gentleman just behind Mr. Top Hat seems perched on his shoulder like some kind of daimon.)

In the 1880s Caillebotte began to spend more time in the suburbs, eventually settling there and even getting himself elected to the local town council. He gave up his city themes entirely, and the landscapes he painted during this period are probably the low point in the show. His execution has all the looseness of impressionism with none of its vivacity; the result evokes nothing so much as jigsaw puzzles. Here, indeed, is boredom. The curators struggle gamely with this material, trying to rescue one such canvas, Laundry Drying (1892), with the thought that it was intended as “a major statement on modern life.”

When you reach the last room of the show–not counting the shop full of Caillebottiana into which you’re brazenly funneled at the end–you see mostly still lifes of various foods, both the raw and the cooked. They’re pretty discouraging (35 years later his 1882 Rib of Beef might have made it as Dada if the artist had done it up with a bit more pizzazz), but try to save a little juice for the floral studies in the same gallery. Toward the end of his life Caillebotte dedicated himself more and more to his gardens, and these pictures leave no doubt about the warmth of his devotion. In a painting like White and Yellow Chrysanthemums in the Garden at Petit Genne-villiers (1893), completed in the year just before his death, all of Caillebotte’s old passions seem finally to be quelled, his aesthetic refined to an exquisite point. True, you wouldn’t be admiring these flowers had their painter not become known first as an observer of the modern city street, but they’re not any the less charming for that.