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Gustave Caillebotte's role in Impressionist history illuminated in 'Painter's Eye'

In the late 19th century, everyone looked on Gustave Caillebotte as a leading painter of the Impressionists. He took part in five of the eight exhibitions that the Impressionists mounted. In fact, he organized and helped finance several of the shows. One displayed more than 25 of his paintings; another greeted visitors in the opening room with his stunning depictions of the new Paris. Caillebotte, a wealthy man, also purchased many paintings by his colleagues. He continually loaned money to an impoverished Claude Monet and paid the rent for his studio.

Yet while the names of Impressionists like Monet and Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas have lodged in the minds of all students of art for more than a century, there has been little or no room for Caillebotte. As Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, puts it, Caillebotte "was left out of the early histories of Impressionism."

There have been efforts to repair this in the last few decades, and the campaign will surely attract new enthusiasm with the recent opening of a major exhibition of Caillebotte's work at the National Gallery. Organized by the National Gallery and the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, the show, "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye," will remain in Washington until Oct. 4 and then go to Fort Worth in November.

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A series of canvases painted in the 1870s dominate the exhibition. These celebrate the transformation of Paris by the Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect or government-appointed administrator of the city. In 1853, Emperor Napoleon III instructed Haussmann to change Paris from a medieval warren of overcrowded, narrow streets into a grand city of spacious boulevards, public squares and ample parks. Haussmann accomplished this in less than two decades and created a Paris much as it looks today.

The most impressive of Caillebotte's New Paris paintings is surely "Paris Street, Rainy Day," which has become a signature attraction of the Art Institute of Chicago since its arrival there in 1964. Seven feet high and 9 feet wide, this 1877 painting, the mainstay of the exhibition, shows fashionable bourgeois Parisians strolling in the rain at an intersection of several grand boulevards. The men all sport similar gray British-style umbrellas.

Caillebotte's work presented a variety of scenes of the new Paris. In "The Floor Scrapers," three workers stripped to the waist plane the floors of an apartment in a new building on a new boulevard. In "The House Painters," two painters contemplate their work as they decorate the facade of a wine shop or restaurant at the end of a grand boulevard. In "The Pont de l'Europe," a well-dressed gentleman chats with a strolling woman on the new iron bridge above the trains going in and out of the St. Lazare railroad station.

The Paris paintings in the show also depict gentlemen gazing from high balconies, the vistas of streets far below, interior scenes of crowded bourgeois apartments, portraits of the artist's well-attired friends, a pair of nudes and still lifes of decorative foods displayed in shops and street markets.

Caillebotte's paintings did not have the disordered look and hurried brush strokes of much Impressionist work. He lay paint on carefully and thinly so that a viewer could not detect any strokes at all. What made his work modern and non-establishment was his use of long perspective, unusual spacing and the cropping of figures derived from the new art of photography.

In 1887, Caillebotte, the chronicler of Haussmann's Paris, left the city and moved to a family property right next to the Paris Sailing Club in the suburb of Petit Gennevilliers on the Seine River. While not giving up painting, he developed new interests in boating, gardening and stamp collecting. He embraced the new avocations with so much ardor that his stamp collection is now on permanent display in the British Library in London.

He began painting landscapes and river scenes. While some of the boating scenes have a delightful air, many canvases look like lackluster imitations of the outdoor work of his Impressionist colleagues. Mary Morton, the head of French paintings at the National Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition, told reporters recently that Caillebotte seemed to lose his "snappy edge" in his later work.

Caillebotte died of a stroke in 1894 at age 45. He sold few of his paintings during his lifetime because he had no need to. His father, a manufacturer who made beds and sheets for the French army for many years, was wealthy. Caillebotte became far better known after his death for his collection of paintings by his Impressionist friends than for his own work.

His will provoked controversy by donating 60 paintings from his collection to museums of the French government. Officials were reluctant to accept them, fearful that the undisciplined Impressionist works would subvert the teachings of the French art academies. In the end, the Caillebotte collection was accepted and now graces the walls of the magnificent Impressionist galleries of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Much like Caillebotte, his wealthy relatives have felt no need to sell many of his paintings in the 120 years since his death. George T.M. Shackelford, the deputy director of the Kimbell museum and co-curator of the current exhibition, says family members insist they sold "Paris Street, Rainy Day" in the mid-20th century only because they lacked the massive wall space to display it properly.

Although no canvas in the exhibition is identified as property of the Caillebotte family, more than half the paintings are listed as coming from anonymous private collections. Most surely belong to family members. The exhibition would have been limited without their help.

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