EXHIBITIONS; The Impressionists' impressionist

Gustave Caillebotte was the foremost follower of the first movement of modern art. And, the RA's new show implies, not much more

Tim Hilton
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:52

THIS has been a rotten year for the Royal Academy. First, the RA had to abort its scheme for "Art of the 20th Century". This left a hole in its autumn schedule, a period when blockbuster shows are supposed to bring in massive revenue. Then, two senior members of staff applied for jobs elsewhere. Next, the bursar was arrested following investigations into allegations of theft. The public hasn't liked the exhibition devoted to a former President, Lord Leighton; and I fear that the Gustave Caillebotte retrospective will also disappoint.

Caillebotte is not an actively bad artist in the way that Leighton was, principally because he was never an academic. He had an enquiring if not original mind, understood innovation and had the advantage of living and working among the Impressionists. Degas and Renoir spotted him early on and he showed publicly with the group in the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876. He either shared the discoveries of Impressionism or was acute enough to see what was going on. He was the foremost follower of the first movement of modern art. Alas, that wasn't enough. Caillebotte lacked internal inspiration - a quality that's hard to define, but you do notice its absence.

There are at least a dozen pleasant and intriguing big pictures in the Sackler Galleries. All have the spirit of their times: none of them is of the first rank. It might have been better for Caillebotte if he had painted smaller canvases. But he had Salon ambitions, just like other Impressionists, and in his sizeable pictures there's too often a coarseness of touch, the wrong play of colour and light, or an uneasy balance of silhouette and pictorial depth. I enjoyed the small landscapes that begin the exhibition because they are not open to such criticisms. They date from the early 1870s, when Caillebotte was beginning his training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Here are honest, instinctive pictures that don't aim too high and have the equilibrium of a natural artist. What a nice, accomplished youth Caillebotte must have been, and little wonder that Degas, his senior by some years, immediately spied him out as a future comrade.

Caillebotte's ill fortune was that his naturalness left him and he never formed a personal style. The powerful examples of the leaders of Impressionism pulled his innate talents in different directions. So he relates to lots of other people but somehow doesn't relate to himself. My guess is that, if Caillebotte could not find his own path, he would have been wise to follow Degas alone. Like Degas, he saw the possibilities of pastel and was a refined observer of lascivious subjects (alas, such matters are not considered in the RA show). Most of all, Degas could have taught Caillebotte to be more aesthetic and also more casual. The younger artist often made his paintings too weighty.

This said, Caillebotte had the ability to produce one or two crackers. The first of them, and his most Degas-like painting, is The Floor-Scrapers. The title sounds peculiar in English. In French it's Raboteurs de parquet, and the picture shows two men who are planing down the floor in a bourgeois apartment. A better version of the subject is in the Musee d'Orsay but the one at the RA is fine. As people remarked when it was first shown (in the 1876 exhibition), there's something odd and original in the concentration on labourers doing this job, especially since their poses recall heroic themes in earlier French art.

The most arresting feature of the painting, however, is its emptiness, the expanses of brown pigment and the off-balance composition. Caillebotte liked effects of perspective and found plenty of zooming vistas in the streets of Paris: not the old streets but the great new thoroughfares cut through the ancient city by Haussmann. To this extent Caillebotte was a modern painter, but he doesn't make a thing about it, insistence not being in his line. His views of the city seen from high windows or balconies are generally failures, but with nice things in them. The same is true of the most celebrated picture in the show, the Pont de l'Europe, with its dramatic ironwork and a cleverly observed couple in fashionable dress.

Caillebotte was a wealthy young man who could afford to indulge his various interests. It must have been delectable to be a monied Parisian in the 1870s, with artists as friends and all the city to roam, which is why I can't understand why there is not more hedonism in Caillebotte's painting. Perhaps he was too serious, always thinking about art when he should have been having a good time. His main passion seems to have been for boating, in the high-society form recently imported from England (one of his boats was called the Roastbeef). This leisure-time activity was recorded in a number of paintings. The best of them is Les Canotiers (Oarsmen, 1877), a nautical variation on his picture of labourers scraping a floor.

It's saddening, but must be said, that at least two-thirds of the pictures in this exhibition are of low quality. Caillebotte never really managed a portrait. He needed a sharper eye for features and didn't keep the pictures simple. His self-portrait is the best: he knew what he looked like and there was no point in dressing himself up. The still-lifes are all wrong and the flower paintings are worse than wrong. They are ugly. Only rarely did Caillebotte create beauty, but he certainly discerned it. His collection of Impressionist paintings gave us some of the great treasures of the Louvre. Caillebotte as a collector is interestingly described in the catalogue and the current issue of the RA Magazine. This is an excellent publication, just about the only good thing to come out of Burlington House these days. I think the RA deserves a bit of luck. They are trying desperately to get the Vermeer exhibition to England. If that happened it would be lovely for them and for us too.

! RA, W1 (0171 439 7438), to 23 June.

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