The first exhibition that I can recall visiting was the Caillebotte retrospective presented at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995. At the time, Caillebotte was a revelation to me. I had never heard of the artist nor had I before seen any of his paintings, but I remember being struck by the sheer scale of Paris Street, Rainy Day. Just about all I remember from that introduction to Caillebotte was the feeling of being confronted by nearly life-sized Parisians stepping towards me from another place and time. And though twenty years have passed since that initial encounter, my reaction upon seeing his work again in the present exhibition is almost identical.
Compared to the portraits, genre scenes, and landscapes of his impressionist friends, Caillebotte’s paintings shock and awe as much through their subjects as through their subversive scale: As if tackling the virtually taboo subject of a male nude drawn from modern Parisian life wasn’t enough, Caillebotte had the audacity to paint Man at His Bath on such an enormous scale that it remains a unique example within the whole of 19th-century French art. Not only do many of his subjects loom large within their settings, whether figures standing at windows or flowers growing in his garden, but the paintings themselves also take up a considerable amount of physical space.
In his portrayal of everyday subjects on a monumental scale, Caillebotte established himself as an artistic descendant of the realist painter Gustave Courbet, a lineage noted by the critics of his time. Nevertheless, his choice of canvas size and motif can also be explained in part by his financial situation. By necessity, most of his impressionist friends at one time or another tailored their work to the demands of the art market. They painted pleasant subjects on canvases scaled to the intimate domestic spaces of their Parisian clientele. Caillebotte, on the other hand, was blissfully free from the practical concern of having to sell his pictures to make a living. We see his liberty boldly proclaimed in colossal calf carcasses, giant sofas, and the soaring boulevards of Paris on a rainy day, a confrontation that is just as breathtaking to me now as it was then.
Nicole R. Myers
Associate Curator, European Painting and Sculpture, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri