Monday, 1 April 2013

The Impressionist Caillebotte and Photography

Image1. Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor-Scrapers, 1875, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
An exhibition on the work of the impressionist painter Caillebotte is currently up showing at the Gemeentemuseum in the Dutch city of the Hague. Gustave Caillebotte (1848 – 1894), who participated in impressionist exhibitions five times, is considered one of the exemplary painters of impressionism.
Raised in an affluent household, Caillebotte was able to support impressionism in a world that did not yet recognize it, by financing and buying works. At his death, he left the works in his possession to the French state. A great number of works currently on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris are there thanks to his efforts.

In 1874, Caillebotte visited the very first impressionist exhibition. Here he saw new paintings such as Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise”, filled with light, and was drawn in. It was right after visiting this first impressionist exhibition that Caillebotte painted “The Floor Scrapers” (image 1). It is an image of three laborers, scraping a floor with wood planes while sunlight coming in through a window bathes their backs in light. This work was praised by Edgar Degas and on his recommendation displayed in the second impressionist exhibition, where it received much praise.

Image2. Gustave Caillebotte Pont de l’Europe, 1876 – 1877
Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas
From that time Caillebotte took to drawing city sceneries and sights from his neighborhood and as seen from his Paris apartment. In the second half of the 19th century, the governor of the Seine prefecture, Haussmann, had Paris restructured into the wide avenues, parks and railway stations that we know today (also known as Paris’ haussmannization). In “The Europe Bridge” (image 2) we can see, beyond the bridge’s metal ribs, the station of Saint-Lazare. Caillebotte observed the scenery of his rapidly evolving modern city, and attempted to capture the change of the age.

Image3. Gustave Caillebotte, The Pont de l’Europesketch,
c.1876, Private Collection
The composition Caillebotte used in a study of the same Europe Bridge (image 3), drawn from a different angle, is extremely interesting. In this work the road, which fills a broad span of the foreground, converges at a steep angle behind the man in the silk hat. This characteristic use of perspective is due to the fact that Caillebotte related to photographs while painting.

Thanks to research by Kirk Varnedoe and Peter Gelassi, it has become clear that when Caillebotte was at the stage of selecting composition, he frequently used photographs taken with a wide-lens camera. While on the one hand a wide-lens allows for a wide area to be shot,  it also compresses this wide range, emphasizes the perspective. This effect has been applied to the painting by Caillebotte.

At this exhibition, there is one room displaying stereoscopes of Paris city sceneries, contemporary to Caillebotte. Stereoscopy refers to a construction in which one can view a double photograph with a special pair of glasses, through which the images will unite and appear three-dimensional. Peering through, the optical illusion allows anyone to imagine themselves a time traveller, visiting 19th century Paris. In viewing these photographs together with Caillebotte’s work, we can know one expression of the revolution that photography brought upon painting.

The exhibition of Gustave Caillebotte’s work is open until May 20 (the museum is closed on Mondays).
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Stadhouderslaan 41
2517 HV The Hague
The Netherlands
Opening times:
Tuesdays - Sundays 11:00 - 17:00
Closed on Mondays