A modern view of a neglected Impressionist

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The French painter Gustave Caillebotte has suffered more than most from the fact that he wasn’t Monet, Manet, or Renoir. As one of the second-ranking Impressionists, he has long been in the shadow of these more famous names with which his career is associated.

Also, there is a question mark over just how “impressionistic” his work is. Compared to the experimental work of Monet or the soft-focus brushwork of Renoir, Caillebotte’s paintings can seem like a reversion to realism.

But in the social and organizational life of the Impressionists, who grouped together to reject the authority of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Caillebotte played an important part, not least because of his wealthy background.

His career and art have always remained firmly ensconced on the fringes of the great Impressionist narrative, and now, when audiences are ready for a new twist on an old tale, Caillebotte is ready to step forward and provide it.

The exhibition “Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist in Modern Paris” at the Bridgestone Museum of Art recognizes this, giving the artist his first ever solo show in Japan. But, according to the Bridgestone’s chief curator, Yasuhide Shimbata, the reason why Caillebotte had to wait so long for this honor is because his paintings are comparatively rare and widely dispersed.

He died in 1894 at the tragically early age of 45, and, rather than being grouped in convenient public collections, his works are scattered in private collections.

“To organize this exhibition, we first had research the collectors and contact them,” Shimbata explained.

The fact that the Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath coincided with the exhibition’s preparation was an additional difficulty, but the results are impressive, with more than 60 oils, including some of his best-known works. These include “The Pont de l’Europe” (1876), which shows Caillebotte’s more realist side, and “Skiffs” (1877), a canoeing scene where the complexities of water push him in a more impressionistic direction.

Nowadays, Impressionism has something of a “biscuit tin” reputation: charming images that can be put anywhere and of which grandma would approve. This obscures the fact that the movement was actually once a form of artistic radicalism that embraced modernity and sought new methods of representing it. In the case of Monet and Renoir, experiments with light and brushwork won out and pushed their art in a dreamier direction, but in the case of Caillebotte, his art remains more anchored to a sense of the urban and the modern.

This is most apparent in the exhibition’s third section, “Cityscapes of Paris as a Modern City,” where the great iron girders of the railway bridge in the “The Pont de l’Europe” provide the artistic focus. Another subject that wouldn’t go too well with Bourbon creams is the workmen in “House Painters” (1877).

The exhibition also emphasizes the aspect of modernity by including photographs taken by Caillebotte’s brother Martial. But 19th-century Paris, at the end of the day, is just too beautiful a place to stay entirely out of biscuit tin territory.

“Gustave Caillebotte” at the Bridgestone Museum of Art runs till Dec. 29; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. (except holidays).