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Considering Caillebotte: Caroline Shields

While many of Caillebotte’s still lifes appear, at first glance, less than inviting, the paintings in this gallery reward close looking. Take, for example, Game Birds and Lemons. The subject matter of lifeless birds on a cold marble table contrasts with the artist’s technique—here, Caillebotte employed vibrant colors and animated brushstrokes that revivify this nature morte. From a distance, the golden feathers of the pheasant appear to gleam. When looking closely, we can see how Caillebotte accomplished this effect: the shadows are composed not of a darker version of yellow, but of a deep navy blue—the complementary color contrast to the golden-orange. The area where the soft underlayer of the pheasant’s feathers meets the adjacent woodcock deserves attention as well. To achieve the shadowy, soft effect here, Caillebotte used a range of color, from pale blue, plum, and mauve, to fiery accents of orange. The artist did not wait for the layers of paint to dry before adding additional layers, painting instead in a wet-on-wet technique, which is visible where the strokes crosscut one another. Look at the still lifes throughout the gallery in this way—the hare nearby is composed not of brown and gray paint as it appears to be from a distance, but of navy, plum, and even green, with light blue in its ears. Note as well throughout the gallery the recurrent marble table. Its hard surface reflects the color of the objects that sit upon it, such as the subtle yellow shine of the lemons that will soon flavor the game birds. These lemons are themselves a treat, painted with impasto that gets thicker toward the center, projecting physically out from the canvas as if conveying depth.

At the top right corner of the canvas are spirals of black paint within the black background. They suggest that Caillebotte had a different plan for this area and painted over it to effectively erase the underlying design, which is called a pentimento. We can reconstruct his plan by looking at the painting in raking light—that is, by leaning down and looking up so that the paint surface becomes highly reflective, revealing the paint’s underlying texture irrespective of the surface color. By doing so, we see the spiral swirls continue all the way down the right side of the canvas. Standing up again, look for a straight diagonal line that begins at the top right corner of the table and runs to the bottom edge of the canvas, where the table meets it at an angle. These spiral and line forms suggest that Caillebotte originally intended to paint a balcony scene, with the canvas rotated 90 degrees clockwise.

This canvas holds a special place in the history of Caillebotte paintings in the United States, as it was the first Caillebotte canvas to enter the collection of an American museum. Purchased in 1952 by the Springfield Museum in Massachusetts, this acquisition predates by twelve years the Art Institute of Chicago’s purchase of Paris Street, Rainy Day, widely believed to be the first American museum purchase of a Caillebotte painting. The Springfield Museum was enthusiastic about this canvas from the start: within a month of learning about the painting from a dealer, the museum had approved the acquisition, made the purchase, and hung it on the wall, where it has continued, for sixty-three years, to surprise and delight those who look closely.

Caroline Shields
PhD Candidate, University of Maryland