Gustave Caillebotte
Biography of Parisian Impressionist Genre Painter.

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Paris Street, A Rainy Day (1877)
Art Institute of Chicago.
By Gustave Caillebotte.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94)


Early Artistic Training
The Floor-Scrapers (Floor-Planers)
Paris Street Scenes
Mature Artist
Reputation and Legacy

NOTE: For analysis of works by Impressionist painters like Caillebotte,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

The Floor Scrapers (1875)
(aka The Floor Planers)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
By Gustave Caillebotte.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Gustave Caillebotte, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

See: Art: Definition and Meaning.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


An active figure in French painting of the late 19th century, the artist Gustave Caillebotte was closely associated with Impressionism and adopted Impressionist techniques, although his natural style was closer to Realism. Compared to the main Impressionist painters he was a second-rate artist, although a few of his works show him to be one of the best genre painters of the group. In addition, he certainly knew what talent was, being one of the first great collectors of Impressionist paintings - a role which proved invaluable for the finances of the movement. On his death, he gifted 65 works to the French State (even though initially the State refused almost half), including works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Renoir (1841-1919), Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Degas (1834-1917). It was for this legacy that he was best remembered, although in recent years his own genre paintings have been viewed more favourably.

Caillebotte's early works show clear evidence of realism and naturalism, as exemplified by one of his best known works from this period Floor-scrapers (1875, Musee d'Orsay, Paris). His favourite subjects were scenes of everyday contemporary Paris, in a style quite similar to Edouard Manet, and often cropped under the influence of photography. Well known works include: Young Man at his Window (1876, private collection), Paris: A Rainy Day (1877, The Art Institute of Chicago), Rooftops in the Snow (1878, Musee d'Orsay), Yachts at Argenteuil (1888, Musee d'Orsay). His reputation grew decades after his death, when studies of his works revealed particularly clever spatial construction.



Early Artistic Training

Caillebotte was born in Paris in 1848. His family were middle class and his upbringing was privileged. He began sketching from an early age, but in his teens he pursued a degree in Law and also qualified as an Engineer. After the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), Caillebotte began taking lessons in drawing and painting from Leon Bonnat, a leading portraitist, and became accomplished quite quickly, opening his first studio in his parent's home. In 1873 he entered the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but doesn't appear to have spent much time there. The following year he inherited his father's money, which gave him total financial security. This was the time he befriended Impressionists like Edgar Degas and the Italian painter Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-84). (See: Impressionism: Early History and also Impressionism: Origins, Influences.)


The Floor-Scrapers and 1875 Salon

His first major work, The Floor-Scrapers (1875) was rejected by the Academy for its shocking realism, some critics denouncing its 'vulgar subject matter'. The scene is set in the artists' own apartment, as were so many of his paintings. Three workmen are stripped to the waist, varnishing the floor. The composition uses traditional perspective, accentuated by the high angle shot and the line of the floorboards. The workmens' bodies are wiry but muscular. A critic wrote at the time: "The floor-scrapers of M. Caillebotte are certainly not at all badly painted, and the perspective effects have been well studied by an eye that sees accurately." However, male nudity outside of a Classical context was frowned upon, and - more importantly - the use of workers, as opposed to heros or even peasants, was unacceptable to the Paris Salon. In response, the young painter decided then to join the other Impressionists, showing with them at the second of their Impressionist exhibitions, in 1876.


Impressionism was the satirical nickname given by the minor Parisian art critic Louis Leroy to a group of painters who exhibited together in 1874. The painters included Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927), Berthe Morisot (1841-95) and Eugene Boudin (1824-98). The aim of the group, was to achieve greater naturalism through the use of tone, colour and the rendition of light on surface. (For more on this, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.) The overriding focus on these elements meant that traditional areas such as drawing and composition were going to suffer. The brightness of colours used, even in shadows was so revolutionary, that the public was bound to be shocked, at least initially. (See also: Impressionist Painting Developments.)

Caillebotte attended the 1874 exhibition and subsequently exhibited five times with the group between 1876 and 1882. In fact he became hugely involved with the group, sometimes taking charge of organising exhibitions, and generally helping out with both time and money. He was enthusiastic about the movement, exhibiting 25 works at the 4th exhibition in 1879, including Rooftops in the Snow (1878, Musee d'Orsay). Unlike his co-exhibitors, his works caused little comment. Although his paintings generally belonged to the style of Realist artists like Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) and Gustave Courbet (1819-77), he did begin to adopt Impressionist techniques. His colours became more Impressionistic, and his brushstrokes became looser. His principal focus was genre painting, featuring Parisian street scenes, bathing and boating parties and interior scenes.

Paris Street Scenes

Paris: A Rainy Day (1877) is one of Caillebotte's best known paintings. In 1851 Napoleon III transformed the old streets of Paris into a new system of grand boulevards. In this work, the newness of Paris is apparent, as the artist takes a wide-angle view, reflecting the modernity of the City. The artist owned a property in the busy district, near the Saint-Lazare train station. In the foreground a fashionable man and woman promenade, the ground is wet, following a rain shower. The composition employs clever geometric angles and perspectives; a gas-light separates the foreground from the middle and distant views. The view of the composition is cropped; a fleeting moment in street life is captured, in the Impressionist manner. However, the foreground is still highly realistic, and the base of flat colour gives the painting a distinctly modernist look. His tendency to crop or zoom in on scenes may have been affected by his discovery and interest in the new art of photography. It almost anticipates American Realists like Edward Hopper (1882–1967).

Mature Artist

Caillebotte also painted domestic scenes, still lifes and portraits (eg. Henri Cordier 1883, Musee d'Orsay). His output of work slowed in the 1880s when he moved near Argenteuil, on the banks of the Seine. He spent much of his time gardening as well as building and racing yachts. He abandoned large scale painting, and focused on painting boaters and sailing boats. In this he was influenced by Monet, who had also moved to the area and was painting the same subject matter, along with Renoir, Sisley and Manet. In his plein air painting Sailing Boats at Argenteuil (1888, Musee d'Orsay), Caillebotte creates a beautiful balance of composition and light. Painted rapidly, it depicts boats moored along the river.

Reputation and Legacy

Tragically, Caillebotte died from heart disease in 1894, at the young age of 45. For decades after his death, he was dismissed as an amateur artist, whose main contribution was to the public collection he donated to the State on his death. (He bequeathed a total of 65 works - 8 by Renoir, 16 by Monet, 5 by Cezanne, and 7 by Degas. The French state rejected more than half. Not until 1928, did the Louvre agree to accept the entire bequest.)

As it is, historians have subsequently re-evaluated his oil painting and found merit where it was previously overlooked. When the Art Institute of Chicago acquired his painting Paris: A Rainy Day in 1964, this awakened interest on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2000, his painting Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (1880) sold for over $14m. In 2009 the Brooklyn Museum, New York held a major retrospective exhibition of his paintings entitled Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea.

Paintings by Gustave Caillebotte can be seen in many of the best art museums around the globe.

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