FORT WORTH, Texas — When, in 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston decided to sell one of its paintings by Claude Monet, two by Alfred Sisley, one by Paul Gauguin, one by Camille Pissarro, and one by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, all to buy a single painting, "Man at His Bath," by Gustave Caillebotte, many people asked a forgivable question: Who is Gustave Caillebotte?
An answer is presented by "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye," an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum. Organized by Mary Morton and George Shackelford, the show was presented over the summer at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It is the first Caillebotte exhibition in 20 years to include the painter's two greatest works, both of them mainstays of textbooks on 19th-century French art: the Musee d'Orsay's modestly scaled "The Floor Scrapers" and the Art Institute of Chicago's enormous "Paris Street, Rainy Day."
That may be reason enough to travel to see it. But the show also includes an array of other paintings that are among the most original and beguiling of their time. Each throws out fascinating social and physical clues about Paris and its environs under the Third Republic. The best of them overcome their own often labored execution to produce an alloy of anxious isolation and sensuous relish that settles like sediment in the soul.
Two of the show's finest paintings, "Man at his Bath" and "Fruit Displayed on a Stand," have been lent by Boston's MFA. It was Shackelford — this exhibit's co-curator, and the Kimbell's deputy director — who, in his former job as chair of European art at the MFA, orchestrated the purchase of "Man at his Bath."
The painting shows a naked man, seen from behind, still wet from the bath, vigorously rubbing himself with a towel. Inspired by the naturalism of authors such as Zola and the Goncourt brothers, it can be seen also as a response to Degas's early images of women drying themselves.
"Man at his Bath" hangs at the Kimbell opposite an equally arresting female nude reclining on a large divan. Her discarded clothes have been thrown unceremoniously across the cushion that props up her head. Her outstretched shin and thigh are improbably long; her skin is pale and pasty against the floral pattern of the divan; and her pubic hair, as the catalog rightly observes, is "shockingly unruly."
One hand touches her nipple (the gesture, you feel, is protective); her other arm partially shields her face. Although the brushwork is relatively smooth, the painting feels much closer to one of Lucian Freud's so-called "naked portraits" than to a conventionally idealized 19th-century nude.
Besides these two remarkable pictures, which appear halfway through the show, there are half a dozen other masterpieces, among them "The Pont de l'Europe," "On the Pont de l'Europe" (the latter from the Kimbell), "Interior, Woman at the Window," "At a Café," and "The Boulevard Seen From Above." They in turn scatter beguilements among the middling works, of which there are many — even in a show that has striven to present only the best of Caillebotte.
"His painting was rarely fluid or easy," write the curators in their catalog introduction, "but often rather labored, built up and self-conscious." Only a fraction of the 500 paintings in his known oeuvre, they acknowledge (with a forthrightness one doesn't often encounter in catalogs), "warrant the attention of a major exhibition."
Caillebotte was, in other words, one of those curiously encouraging artists who, by dint of application, a flair for grand conceptions, and a kind of perverse audacity, managed to rise above the limits of his talent.
The argument of Shackelford, with which it is hard to disagree, is that he was at his best early on when his subjects, influenced by Degas, were urban and modern. When he later succumbed to the influence of Monet and the other landscape-oriented Impressionists, drunk as they were on atmosphere and light, his somewhat plodding manner was not up to the challenge, and the quality of his work fell away.
The son of a very successful businessman who made his money supplying beds and sheets to the French army, Caillebotte (1848-1894) was under no pressure to make money from his art. Although he was trained in the law, he wanted to become an artist. His father supported him in this, to the extent that he paid for an annex to be built onto the family's home in the 8th Arrondissment, for use as a studio.
It is the final stages of that studio's construction that Caillebotte depicts (presumably with a certain excitement and pride) in "The Floor Scrapers," which shows three shirtless laborers on their knees, arms outstretched, scraping the floorboards of the new room. Backlit by daylight coming in through a window at the back of the room, they are drastically foreshortened by a rigorously enforced system of perspective, with the result that their arms, especially, appear impossibly elongated.
Caillebotte's father died at Christmas, 1874, before the studio was finished. Caillebotte was 26 at the time. He submitted "The Floor Scrapers" to the 1875 Salon, but the jury rejected it.
This bitter setback liberated him artistically. The example of Degas, who spurned the Salon, may also have bolstered him in his decision to remain independent, to paint urban life in the manner of Manet and Degas, and to exhibit with the Impressionists.
Within two years of his father's death, Caillebotte's beloved younger brother, Rene, died, and two years after that, his mother died. There is a sense, in the work he produced up until about 1884 — and especially in his heavily upholstered and disconcertingly blue interiors — of something pensive, silted up, almost mournful.
Caillebotte's fascination with systems of perspective, partly inspired by the spatial conundrums of photography, are most beguiling in his streetscapes — especially the mesmerizing "Paris Street, Rainy Day," where the wide angle and extreme depth of field lead the eye across a sea of slippery cobblestones, and "The Pont de l"Europe," which shows pedestrians (including Caillebotte himself) crossing the great iron bridge spanning the railway tracks at the Gare Saint-Lazare. (The bridge also connected Caillebotte's upper-bourgeois district with the more bohemian precincts occupied by his artist confreres).
Both paintings are populated by Parisians drawn from across the social spectrum, with no obvious psychological connection. We are invited to feel both the pleasure and the alienation, the psychological vertigo, of the new Paris, which had only recently, and rather brutally, been transformed by Baron Haussmann into the city of wide and thrusting boulevards we know today.
In Caillebotte's paintings, Shackelford has noted, things near the bottom of the canvas are unusually close to the viewer, whereas things higher up are often very far. The tissue connecting them can seem thinly stretched as a result. In some ways, Caillebotte's pictorial dynamics foreshadow the plunging perspective lines in paintings by Edvard Munch and Anselm Kiefer, or the vertiginously deep spaces in movies like Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane," Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist," or Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."
In several pictures, the distortions are frankly bizarre. Both the background figure reading on the divan in "Interior, a Woman Reading" and the foreshortened hands of the rower in "Skiffs" are absurdly small. "The curious part," as Michael Marrinan writes in the catalog, "is that he accepts these pictorial distortions."
It is indeed curious, and when it doesn't seem merely eccentric, it can seem strangely modern — not so much as a symptom of Caillebotte's willingness to see the picture as a thing in itself, quite apart from the thing it represents (as Marrinan blandly argues), but as a symptom of his willingness to adopt a system and follow it through to its logical end, no matter how perverse the result. ("Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically," said Sol LeWitt, almost a century later — rather chillingly, I always find.)
In 1887, Caillebotte and his brother Martial moved to a village on the Seine, and Gustave, although he continued to produce some terrific works, diverted his best energies into gardening, stamp collecting, and above all, sailing and yacht design (at which he excelled).
Caillebotte's landscapes, especially those made before his wholesale move to Petit Gennevilliers, can be impressive. "A Boating Party," which shows a top-hatted man in a waistcoat pulling on two oars from the vantage point of a companion in the boat, is particularly brilliant.
His paintings of fruits and vegetables, dead game, meat on hooks, and pastry cakes, all displayed for the consumer's perusal, are also commanding. (The marvelous "Game Birds and Lemons" became the first Caillebotte painting to enter an American collection when it was purchased by the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts — now the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts — in 1952).
But more remarkable still is "The Boulevard Seen from Above," a view from an apartment balcony, through spiraling spring branches, straight down to the street and sidewalk below. The bird's eye view creates a novel design of circles and diagonals, pre-dating by decades similar visions captured by photographers like Alexander Rodchenko, Andre Kertesz, and Robert Frank.
A stroke killed Caillebotte early in 1894. His death was greatly lamented by Pissarro, Renoir, and Monet. "If he had lived instead of dying prematurely," wrote Monet, several years later, "he would have benefited from the same turn of fortune as us, because he was full of talent … as naturally gifted as he was conscientious, and when we lost him he was still only at the beginning of his career."
Gustave Caillebotte :
The Painter's Eye
At: Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, through Feb. 14.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.