Kimbell Art Museum
3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.
Fort Worth 76107
Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye can be seen through Feb. 14 in the Kimbell’s Renzo Piano Pavilion.
Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and students with ID, $14 for ages 6-12, and free for younger children. Admission is half-price on Tuesdays and 5-8 p.m. Fridays.
The Kimbell Art Museum has given Fort Worth quite an education in Impressionism over the decades, most memorably through traveling exhibitions such as the Barnes Collection in 1994 and “Faces of Impressionism” last year, with marquee names like Renoir and Monet in between.
It may be one of the most-explored subjects in modern museum shows.
But with its new exhibit, “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” the Kimbell is aiming to create a new star of this beloved art movement.
In the 1870s to 1880s, Gustave Caillebotte was closely aligned with and showed alongside major Impressionists like Monet, Degas, Pissarro and Sisley. He created canvasses that the curators clearly rank with theirs, and the show gathers 50 paintings that include street scenes of Paris, portraits, landscapes and still lifes.
But the trajectory of Caillebotte’s fame has been quite different. This is the first time he been given a major U.S. retrospective in 20 years, and most of works in the show have been little-seen.
The exhibit was organized jointly by the Kimbell and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it ran from June to October. It was co-curated by the Kimbell’s deputy director, George Shackelford, an Impressionism specialist, and Mary Morton of the National Gallery.
The two were at the same small Caillebotte show in Paris four years ago, Shackelford said at a press preview, “and decided right there that it was time for another.”
It’s interesting that Caillebotte is “a core Impressionist painter about whom so little is known,” Morton said.
The Kimbell has even made a lighthearted video asking laypeople how to pronounce his name—most couldn’t—which will be used in broadcast.
One reason Caillebotte’s reputation has unfolded so slowly is that he was from wealthy family, and didn’t sell many artworks in his lifetime—he didn’t need to. His family got most of his estate when he died, and 60 percent of the paintings in the exhibition had to be borrowed from private collections. “That’s the opposite of most museum exhibits,” Shackelford said, which usually are about 60 percent from other museums.
Interestingly, when there finally was some interest in Caillebotte in the U.S., it was collectors and institutions in the Midwest and Southwest that began acquiring his works—people who loved and wanted to but Impressionist works whether the names were famous or not. Many works in the show are from Cleveland, Fort Worth, Kansas City and Chicago.
The most famous work in the exhibit, and its centerpiece, is Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877), owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. A monumental nine-feet wide, it shows Parisians walking along a very wide boulevard, trapped in their own worlds, perhaps, under their individual umbrellas. “It’s his masterpiece,” said Morton. People know this painting whether they’ve heard Caillebotte’s name or not, and tend to colloquially call it “the umbrella painting.”
Caillebotte may be slightly better known in Fort Worth than many places because the Kimbell owns another of his most significant paintings, On the Pont de l’Europe (1876-77). It’s a view of three pedestrians on one of the Paris’ then-new iron bridges. Though they are very close together, the men seem to be strangers who haven’t acknowledged one another. They are framed tightly, with two figures not even in full view. The massive beams of the bridge obstruct the view of the city, and the palette is mostly dreary grays. It’s what it feels like to be a mere human confronting the new industrial city.
These are part of a group of works that depict urban life in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s, when the city was being physically transformed by Napoleon III’s minister Georges-Eugene Haussmann, who replaced the dirty medieval city of narrow, winding streets with an orderly arrangement of broad avenues, squares, parks, rows of attractive buildings, the arrondissement system, modern sewers—the Paris we know today.
Urban life in the new Paris became the subject matter most associated with Caillebotte, said Shackelford, who invited comparisons to Fort Worth’s West Seventh area 10 years ago versus now, “but on a truly imperial scale.”
Other works that show Caillebotte taking modern life as his subject matter include café scenes and views of isolated-looking people gazing out on the cityscape from upper-story windows.
There are also unusual takes on portraiture, nudes and still lifes. Caillebotte’s compositions are often “unsettling, or discombobulating,” Shackelford said. In the background of a portrait, the furniture doesn’t behave the way it’s supposed to, Morton observed, pointing out “the wonderful protagonist that is that couch” in Interior, a Woman Reading (1880).
And “he was the most ingenious painter of still lifes in his generation,” said Shackelford. The usual still-life objects—fruit, dead animals—are shown in commercial settings, as in a fruit stand or a butcher’s shop, instead of being arranged in an artist’s studio for aesthetic reasons. It can seem like a person walking around seeing the city as a photographer would.
There’s also an unusual overhead image of people on the street as seen from a bird’s-eye view. It’s startling, more like a modern satellite perspective than what we expect from 19th-century painter.
With Caillebotte, Shackelford said, “every painting is about looking, viewing, observing.” With their often radical points of view, Caillebotte’s works don’t look like anyone else’s.
“Even if you don’t know who he is,” Shackelford said, “once you leave here you will never forget.”