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Many paths span out from the Royal Academy’s current Painting the Modern Garden blockbuster exhibition, and one of the most intriguing leads to the curious universe of painter-gardener Gustave Caillebotte at his estate in Petit Gennevillier, a few kilometres south of Monet’s at Giverny. Caillebotte’s dizzying close-ups of flowers star at Burlington House; now an exploration of his strange, estranged view of modernity emphasising his little-known garden pictures unfolds in Caillebotte, peintre et jardinier, a magnificent monographic exhibition just opened at Giverny’s Musée des Impressionnismes.
Note the plural. As art history’s highways broaden and dissolve in 21st-century revisions, this spirited museum, inaugurated in 2009, contests a straightforward definition of Impressionism. Caillebotte certainly defies one in the galloping, quixotically various, unexpected oeuvre on display here.
Hothouse orange orchids in “Orchidées” (1893) are cropped, monstrously enlarged fragments whose weird toxic beauty calls to mind Luc Tuymans. A diver in body-hugging stripes about to plunge into still, empty water while his companion, wrapped in a dressing gown, looks on blankly, in “Baigneurs, bord de l’Yerres” (1878) balances detachment and erotic frisson in ways reminiscent of David Hockney’s swimming pool pictures. Seen from above, a batch of emerald green cabbages, “Les Choux”, is painted with the cruel precision of Lucian Freud.
Caillebotte’s skewed constructions of space and vertiginous downward perspectives are unique in 19th-century French painting. He is celebrated primarily for two works — Geneva’s “Le Pont de l’Europe” (1876) and Chicago’s “Rue de Paris, temps de pluie” (1877) — each representing the arrow-straight wide boulevards, uniform stone apartment blocks and new iron infrastructure with which Baron Haussmann transformed the French capital during the Second Empire. Privately owned examples here — “Balcon, Boulevard Haussmann” (1880), where two unconnected men stare down at the new city; “Boulevard vu d’en haut” (also 1880) with young tree, bench and tilting pavement — amplify that grey, spare, razor-sharp aesthetic: a dispassionate response to urban isolation that shares little with the shimmering, blurry cityscapes of Monet or Renoir.
Nothing in Caillebotte’s biography predicted this alienated stance. Born in 1848, he grew up in a luxurious Haussmann hôtel particulier, trained as a lawyer and engineer, fought in the Franco-Prussian war, then entered the conservative École des Beaux-Arts. Extensive crayon and oil sketches for his Paris works — the silver-coated man slumped over railings for “Le Pont de l’Europe”, languorous workmen on trestle ladders in a bleak, newly built street in “Les peintres en bâtiment” (1877) — demonstrate the careful drawing, modelling and tonal values acquired from his academic training, which differed crucially from Impressionist spontaneity.
Yet Caillebotte’s first major composition, “Les Raboteurs de parquet” (1875), was refused by the Salon as vulgar. The artist had laboured on studies, some on show here, to portray the macho, sinewy floor scrapers on hands and knees at work in his Paris studio, their naked torsos flooded with light from a window whose curving railings rhyme with their arched backs and with the curling wood shavings on the parquet.
Devastated by official rejection, Caillebotte bought his first Impressionist pictures that year. “Les Raboteurs” was shown at the 1876 Impressionist exhibition, but for the next century Caillebotte was known as patron rather than painter. That was how he saw himself: in “Autoportrait au chevalet” (1879-80), the lovely awkward self-portrait opening this show, he frames himself not by one of his own works but by Renoir’s flashy “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, which was among scores of masterpieces that Caillebotte later bequeathed to France, creating the nucleus of the nation’s Impressionist holdings.
Extremely wealthy and extremely modest, Caillebotte had no need to sell and even now, most of his works remain in private hands, giving him scant museum visibility. Only in recent decades has he garnered attention. Today, his hybridity is fashionable: he combines Salon meticulousness, a generally dry, tight facture, and an engineer’s interest in structure, with Impressionist concerns for light and everyday motifs.
All his own are bold, odd angles, cinematic zoom-ins and an obsession with the male figure, each suggesting an uneasy relationship with the world around him. At his family estate at Yerres in 1877-78 he tried out Monet’s short broken brushstrokes and Renoir’s heightened palette to create disconcerting snapshots, evocative of photographs, of canoeists: a top-hatted oarsman whose knees hit the picture’s edge, as if the viewer is in the boat with him, in “Canotier au chapeau haut de forme”; identically dressed rowers zigzagging in sharp diagonal rhythm, golden oars clashing amid myriad reflections in “Périssoires sur l’Yerres”.
Yerres was sold in 1879; Caillebotte purchased instead a house with extensive grounds bordering the Seine at Petit Genevilliers, where he had fertile soil brought by boat, installed automatic watering systems and vast greenhouses, and retired from Paris, telling Monet that the retreat “is my only home”.
Photographs comparing the two artists’ garden-empires, and letters between them, are lively additions here. “I am growing a stanhopea aurea which has been in flower since this morning,” Caillebotte writes to cancel lunch in November 1890. “The flowers only last three or four days, and will not bloom again for another year. I cannot leave it. Present my apologies . . . ”
These flamboyant/delicate orchids appear in condensed still life canvases — “Orchidées jaunes”, “Orchidées dans la serre du Petit Gennevilliers” — as well as tumbling down door panels giving the trompe l’oeil appearance in Caillebotte’s dining room of a greenhouse’s frame overflowing with flowers. This “Cattleya et Anthurium” decorative scheme remained unfinished at Caillebotte’s death, aged 45, in 1894; it predates Monet’s immersive “Nymphéas”.
Indeed, in some ways Caillebotte’s career resembles a less resolved, speeded-up version of that of the illustrious friend whom he supported with loans and purchases and at times kept literally afloat — he even sent boats downstream for Monet to use as bateaux-ateliers, floating studios. Like Monet in Giverny, he painted for himself alone at Petit Gennevilliers, innovative, experimental, heralding painterly and geometric abstraction.
Through the early 1890s, depictions from above of nasturtiums, chrysanthemums and daisies are flattened into all-over compositions without beginning or end, while patterns of strictly rectangular empty fields such as “Les champs, plaine de Gennevilliers, étude en jaune et rose” recall early Mondrian. In the wonderfully free “Linge séchant, Petit Gennevilliers”, giant sheets on a washing line billow, twist, flap in streaks, ripples, cursory slabs of white paint thick or loose, overwhelming a tiny house and fields beneath.
The effect is surreal, sensuous: the revelatory vision of the solitude of a painter who found and gave joy cultivating his garden.
Photographs: Paris Comité Caillebotte; RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay); Paris, Brame & Lorenceau; Tous droits réservés