Impressionism occupies a funny space between bourgeois blah and revolution. A Monet can come across as genre-changing or as wallpaper; a Degas, visionary or musty, depending on the viewer’s mood. This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the movement—the Trojan horse aspect in which it brought pivotal change to modern art while often seeming simply lovely. Gustave Caillebotte’s (1848—1894) artwork is a good example of this, and the subject of Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea at the Brooklyn Museum, through July 5.
This exhibition comprises more than 30 paintings, including a number of significant works from private collections, such as Oarsman in a Top Hat (1877-78). It comes three decades after BMA hosted the first significant American show of his work. It’s organized by Ordupgaard Copenhagen and Kunsthalle Bremen, and coordinated in New York by BMA’s Judith Dolkart.
The exhibition focuses primarily on the artist’s fascination with water. While Caillebotte’s best-known works are likely his streetscapes of Paris, he spent a good deal of time in Yerres, a river town south of Paris. Some of his most evocative works contemplate the Yerres River—rain puncturing it, sculls angling across it. You can feel the difference between city and country in his approach to his designated subject; like one’s wardrobe, casual and sundry, versus formal and symbolic.
His cityscapes have a sere, analytical, sometimes disorienting feel calculated to skew one’s perspective. So do some of the rural compositions, but in them, nature’s chaos looms as the x-factor. His 1884 paintings—Regatta at Trouville and Grassland on a Cliff in Normandy—are studies of land meeting sea meeting sky, with man and his activities subsumed by nature’s magnificence.
Caillebotte, in addition to inheriting family wealth, was trained as a lawyer and engineer. He designed yachts, and several half-models shown at BMA illustrate the satisfaction he derived from pursuing elegant form through function. He applied this refining process to his paintings, and while he always seemed to hew to the palatable, he effectively conjured the eerie, as in Garden Path with Dahlias in Petit Gennevilliers.
It is perhaps stretching the “liquid” tangent to include one of the artist’s more curiously fascinating subjects, that of men refinishing a floor. Sure, the glossy finish reflects light as water might. But more interesting is that the act of scraping of a fancy parlor floor becomes the intersection between upper and lower classes—a depiction of blue collar work shoehorned among scenes of upper class life.
Images: (top) Oarsman in a Top Hat, 1877-78. Oil on canvas. Private collection. (bottom) Garden Path with Dahlias in Petit Gennevilliers, 1890-91. Oil on canvas. Private collection.