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Considering Caillebotte: Galina Olmsted

Portrait of Eugène Daufresne

Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of Eugène Daufresne, 1878, oil on canvas, private collection

In the exhibition space dedicated to Caillebotte’s portraits, boating pictures, and sensational nudes, two small-scale portraits of men absorbed in quiet activity hang side by side. On the right, the Portrait of Henri Cordier illustrates Caillebotte’s affiliation with a prestigious intellectual milieu at the center of Parisian society. The painter’s scholarly interests were well known to his family and friends and an early biographer of the impressionists described Caillebotte as “a great reader of books, journals and newspapers,” who engaged in lively debates over dinner with his friend and colleague Pierre Renoir. Caillebotte was socially acquainted with Henri Cordier, a longtime professor of Asian languages and political science in Paris. In 1883, Caillebotte painted him in his office on the rue de Rivoli. Immersed in his work, unable to stop and pose for his own portrait, Cordier is surrounded by the claustrophobic trappings of his academic life. He is hunched over a desk that seems at once too low and too tall, recalling the perspectival distortions of Caillebotte’s interior scenes from the 1870s—his Young Man Playing the Piano from 1876 and The Floor Scrapers from 1875, among others. In the Portrait of Henri Cordier, Caillebotte recorded the intensity of the professor’s focus. He grips a pen in one hand, holding down the page with the other to take careful notes. The bookcase to his right is crammed with volumes of varying color and size, while the stack of papers on his desk underscores the intellectual energy of a man engaged in all facets of scholarly life.

Hanging to Cordier’s left in the galleries, the Portrait of Eugène Daufresne shows its sitter, a cousin of the artist on his mother’s side, immersed in his book and oblivious to his surroundings. We know from the yellow cover that he is reading a paperback, probably a popular novel of the period. While Cordier and Daufresne do not share the same level of intellectual activity—Cordier is a professional scholar while Daufresne reads for pleasure—Caillebotte paid equal attention to the thoughtful absorption of these men. As a pair, the portraits share a remarkable level of detail. Standing in front of the paintings as they hang in the galleries, we feel drawn to look closely—straining to catch a glimpse of a title on Cordier’s bookshelf, half expecting to see ourselves reflected in the brilliant gold ornaments on Daufresne’s mantelpiece. By laboring over the particulars of these interior scenes, Caillebotte created believable, immersive settings for his sitters. As viewers, we are pulled into these incredible paintings because they require the same absorptive attention as Cordier pays to his writing, Daufresne to his novel. In a gallery a century removed and nearly 4,000 miles away from Monsieurs Cordier and Daufresne, we share in their quiet, rapt attention.

Galina Olmsted
PhD Candidate, University of Delaware

"Les discussions étaient parfois montées de ton, surtout entre Renoir et Caillebotte […] Le débat comportait non seulement des opinions sur l’art et la peinture, mais sur tous les sujets de littérature, de politique, de philosophie, vers lesquels s’élançait la bonne foi de Caillebotte, grand liseur de livres, des revues et de journaux. Renoir s’était mis au courant de tout en achetant un dictionnaire encyclopédique où il trouvait des arguments pour « coller Caillebotte »," from “Le diner des Impressionists,” in Gustave Geffroy, Claude Monet (Paris, 1922), 155.