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Considering Caillebotte: Elizabeth Benjamin

Portrait of Monsieur R.

Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of Monsieur R., 1877, oil on canvas, private collection

I have been interested in Caillebotte's Portrait of Monsieur R. since I began my dissertation, years ago. The blue and white stripes of his wallpaper and matching sofa, so harmonious in theory, nearly seem to smother him as he hunches into the pillows. One of Caillebotte’s continual worries was that the trappings that were supposed to make modern domestic life comfortable were actually turning on their owners. Monsieur R. is, in this instance, an excellent example of one of Caillebotte's recurrent subjects: Man Eaten by Apparently Friendly Furniture. All my work on the painting, however, had been drawn from a photographic reproduction, and seeing the painting in person was a revelation. Full size and hung at eye level, Monsieur R. holds the viewer’s gaze more confidently than I ever could have imagined. In fact, his gaze is starkly incongruous with his slouched posture. I had always assumed he was narrow shouldered, but being nose to nose, I clearly saw that Caillebotte inelegantly wedged his body into the sofa. His left arm in particular, the one with no hand, is jammed upward and back, the effect of which squeezes his shoulders between the pillows. All the same, Monsieur R. does not appear to be easily domineered. His gaze communicates a tremendous degree of self-possession. Yet his peculiar slouch-turned-jammed posture suggests that even he is being bullied by his furniture.

Elizabeth Benjamin
Research Associate, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art