Paris Street on a Rainy Day
Flash on French Impressionism and you’re likely to see gauzy noon landscapes, or a steam-choked Gare Saint-Lazare, or just clouds of flickering paint strokes like molecules flying apart. Yet if you visited the Impressionist show in Paris in 1877, you would have found a few things that countered such expectations: realistic paintings of a new Paris of luxury high-rises as blank as mausoleums and of ruler-straight boulevards running back into infinite space.
The name of the artist attached to these pictures, Gustave Caillebotte, was one you might even have heard of at the time. He had already made a splash in the previous year’s exhibition. Still in his 20s, he had stolen the limelight from the likes of Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. And the 1877 edition, in more ways than one, belonged to him. He virtually created it.
He had rented the space, paid for it to be refurbished, picked up art from studios all over town, and supervised the installation. If he gave his own paintings pride of place in a central gallery, who could gripe? He had earned that choice position and, people noted, his art deserved it.
This was particularly true of his newest and largest picture, “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” Almost billboard-size and graphically bold, with its carefully detailed but oddly empty image of well-dressed amblers on a drizzle-slicked Right Bank street, it was a showstopper.
The location seen in “Paris Street, Rainy Day” was not far from where Caillebotte (pronounced kai-ya-BOT), the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, was born in 1848, in a fashionable section of a city undergoing drastic reconstruction as it was simultaneously torn down, cleared out and built up. Like many young men of the haute-bourgeoisie, he studied law, but he abandoned it for art.
He trained briefly with Léon Bonnat, a purveyor of religious potboilers, adapting Bonnat’s figurative style to contemporary secular subjects. But when Caillebotte submitted his first major painting, “The Floor Scrapers,” an image of three bare-chested laborers at work in a domestic interior, to the conservative academic Salon, he was turned down.
Shocked at the rebuff, he became a rebel overnight. By this point, he had met Degas, who had probably introduced him to other Impressionists. He turned his attention in their direction, initially by buying their work and amassing a major collection. When he died in 1894, he was best known not as an artist but as a patron who bequeathed a wealth of Impressionist art to the French nation.
His newfound colleagues invited him to participate in their 1876 exhibition. He chose to submit “The Floor Scrapers,” and it was a popular hit. People loved it or hated it, but everyone talked about it more than about anything else.
He sustained that success the next year with “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” Caillebotte had found a niche for himself within a kind of alternative art establishment that permitted him to nurture his eccentricities, deal with themes that mattered to him and steer his way among styles.
An 1877 picture called “The House Painters” incorporates a Cubist-like spatial logic: Two workmen inspecting a shop exterior exist in one dimension, the street behind them in another. In a near-abstract picture from 1880, we view a boulevard sidewalk from directly above, an unlikely vantage unless we could fly.
Caillebotte’s city is also a psychological tangle. In “The Pont de l’Europe,” from 1876, a young woman and a top-hatted man (believed to be the artist’s self-portrait) approach us across a Paris bridge. They look like a couple, but they are not.
It is possible that they had just interacted, but she is now hanging back. His eyes are fixed on a working-class man leaning against the bridge railing. Some writers have suggested that various kinds of sexual cruising are in progress. As if to increase the tension, an unleashed dog is running in from the foreground and heading toward the walking figures, possibly on the attack.
The astonishing painting “Luncheon” is set in the mahogany-dark dining room of his family home, where his widowed mother is being served by a butler while his younger brother René, with a sullen focus, prematurely chows down. A subtle generational war is underway.
Stay with the picture and you’ll sense further signs of disturbance as patterns in the carpet begin to stir and rise. In another painting, of Caillebotte’s other younger brother, Martial, playing the piano in the parlor, floral wallpaper threatens to become an engulfing force.
Were these effects deliberate, or the accidents of a painter not quite in control of his medium? There seems to be no question that Caillebotte’s work is uneven over all.
Eventually, Caillebotte’s engagement in art as a competitive activity waned. Other interests took over. He and Martial assembled a significant stamp collection. (It’s now in the British Library.) He moved to the suburbs — to Argenteuil, near Monet — and took up serious gardening. One late painting, from 1893, is of a stand of his prized dahlias.
He maintained a long-held passion for designing small boats and became an expert racer. In one of his great, sensually ambiguous pictures from the 1870s, he paints a head-on portrait of a burly blond god of a rower from the vantage of someone sitting on a facing seat, a knee touching distance away.
In the end, he became the Impressionist he had never really been, gauzy landscapes and all. Now and then the old strangeness recurs, as it does in a small 1888 sketch of linen sheets or shirts hung out to dry.
Wind-whipped, they are like clouds changing shape, and you can read them as you will: as flying fish, as ghosts, as lovers’ tossed pillows, as something gone wrong with the sky.
Like all his best art, they make us wonder what we’re looking at, wonder what we’ve decided we see, and why.