Del Sarto and Caillebotte: New Light on Two Neglected Masters

I set up Winter Tomato to reflect my growing interests in economics, economic history, and historical theory, but for this first post, let’s put beauty over truth.  Two museum shows in the US this summer and fall are bringing rare treasures within the average art lover’s reach:

“Andrea del Sarto; the Renaissance Workshop in Action” brings dozens of the artist’s splendid drawings – and one of his finest paintings – to Los Angeles (J. Paul Getty Museum, June 23 – September 13) and New York (Frick Collection October 7 – January 10).

“Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye”  offers a perhaps once in a lifetime concentration of Caillebotte’s most important paintings in Washington (National Gallery, June 28 – October 4) and Fort Worth (November 8 – February 14).

But by “within reach” I actually refer to both shows’ truly excellent catalogues (of the same names).  It’s not just the reproductions that are magical.  The essays in both catalogues offer a level of writing and insight that far surpasses the usual art-book fare.  And Amazon can have the books in your hands by tomorrow.

*        *        *

Drawings, you ask?  Some years ago I saw a collection of Michelangelo’s drawings in a show at the Toledo Museum of Art.  It was curiously disappointing.  The drawings (like some of Michelangelo’s painted figures) seemed oddly disjointed: more collections of muscles and limbs than organic wholes.

Not so, here.  Del Sarto’s studies, like those of his contemporary, Raphael, have been treasured almost since the day they were done.  In Raphael’s case this is because the many studio hands on his finished works could produce a certain falling-off effect.  With del Sarto, it’s not so much that his paintings don’t equal his drawings, it’s that they can’t: many of these individual figure studies – especially the faces –are simply perfect in themselves.  The same face, attached to a figure in a group setting, no matter how well-realized, will tell a different story.

Andrea del Sarto, Pietà, 1523

Andrea del Sarto, Pietà, 1523

The young woman kneeling at the feet of the dead Jesus in del Sarto’s Pietà (about 1523, now in the Pitti Palace, Florence) is justly famous.  The model was said to be his step-daughter, and indeed she lights up what many believe to be, after the San Salvi Last Supper, del Sarto’s masterpiece.

Andrea del Sarto, Study of a Young Woman,  1523

Andrea del Sarto, Study of a Young Woman, 1523

But the red chalk study of the same young woman (justly on the cover of the catalogue and the keynote of this exposition) makes its own claims at an equally high level.  And it feels complete.  We don’t need to know what she is looking at.  The expression the artist has captured says as much about her as could any object of her gaze.

And so it goes with this catalogue.  Whether merely limned or fully realized, the drawings provide dazzling glimpses into an understudied master’s methods and sympathies.  And his models become subjects in themselves.

*        *        *

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877

So popular is Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street, Rainy Day” (Art Institute of Chicago, about 1877) that many Americans would not take him for the secondary figure he was long held to be.  There were several reasons for his initial low estimation.  First, as a person of many passions, it was easy to write him off as a dilettante.  That his versatility might be a sign of da Vinci-an versatility was a possibility no one thought of, perhaps simply because Caillebotte was already allied with what, in the eyes of his contemporaries, was the wrong camp.

A second reason was bad luck.  This was not a case like del Sarto’s, where you can see a Vasari taking considerable pains to keep del Sarto’s reputation at a rank below, say, Raphael or Michelangelo.  Caillebotte had no such envious enemies.  When taken as an impressionist, he was condemned or dismissed as one.  When his marked differences from the “standard” impressionist approach were noted, it was largely to critical approval.  But time betrayed him.  By the time impressionism triumphed, Caillebotte was dead, his (mostly family held) paintings were no longer exhibited, and the assumption took hold that he had been a talented, fellow-travelling amateur, though none of his painter cohort would have agreed

And then, history initially assigned him another role.  That we know at all today the painting we call “impressionist” is largely the result of Manet’s adamant notoriety, Durand-Ruel’s perspicacity, and finally Caillebotte’s generosity.  This last has never been questioned or lost sight of, not least because Caillebotte’s famous bequest forms the core of the Musée d’Orsay impressionist collection that we enjoy today, but it has led to the odd case where generosity has overshadowed genius.

In this show, the genius has no place to hide.  Caillebotte is shown, as Degas must initially have sensed, a systematizing figure who recognized that impressionism did just not just represent a change in technique – it was not just little dabs of paint – but a complete modernist agenda, one designed to displace mythology with modern life and one that required revolutions in framing, perspective, composition, and context – changes that were just as subversive in the service of a careful academic approach as to plein air landscape painting.

So, though he supported and patronized Monet and Renoir and Pisarro and Sisley, Caillebotte seems closest to Manet and Degas, close enough indeed to continue and intensify their modernist agendas.  So where Manet, in “Olympia” (1863), says “This is not Venus of Urbino, this is just a modern woman, retuning our gaze,” Caillebotte, in “Nude on a Couch” (1880), dispenses with any mythological reference: “This is a modern woman.  See, she touches herself as we might.”  Or where Degas repeatedly shows nude women (and, by implication, because of Parisian sanitary requirements of the sexual professions, a prostitute) entering or leaving the bath, Caillebotte paints a man (“Man at his Bath”, 1884).  Despite the thousands of mythological or heroic male nudes on display in nineteenth century Paris, this last painting was never shown in Paris in the artist’s lifetime.

I do not mean to imply that Caillebotte’s rare nudes were central to his output.  It’s perhaps just the opposite; his clothed figures radiate ambiguity and tension.  Just as Manet captured the last hours of Napoleonic Paris, Caillebotte chronicles the highly codified and carefully laid out society and city that only fully emerged in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War.  Monet and others could capture the vibrancy of the most popular boulevards, Caillebotte shows us the alienating emptiness of the post-Haussmann residential neighborhoods and renders the new social confrontations and subtle erotic cross-currents of unprecedented public spaces such as the Pont de l’Europe.  Manet looked from the street towards “A Balcony” (1869), Caillebotte repeatedly shows us the bourgeois subject looking out, poised between claustrophobic interiors and dazzling streets – and as models for whom people-watching seems to have been substituted for actual life.

The show brings together examples of all of Caillebotte’s favorite motifs: portraits of friends and family, boating and manual labor depictions, the nudes and inside/outside scenes I have mentioned, as well as his large and famous streetscapes.  It does not offer, however, the same insight as to how the artist worked as the del Sarto exhibition.  That show occurred 20 years ago, and its excellent catalogue, “Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist”  is still available.  Here, from large number of drawings and preliminary studies that remain in family archives, we can see how “Paris Street, Rainy Day” and “The Floor Scrapers” and “Le Pont de l’Europe” were worked up.  There are initial perspective sketches, repeated tries at the main figures, both full and detailed small-scaled rehearsals in oils – there is even a study of cobblestones!

Gustave Caillebotte, Study Drawing for paris Street, Rainy Day, about 1877

Gustave Caillebotte, Study Drawing for paris Street, Rainy Day, about 1877

The studies make clear that, though he allows a bit more brushiness in his finished works than would a true academic painter, the early Caillebotte was far more concerned to think through the implications of his vision than to provide us with any kind of “impression”.  Indeed, it is the pretty, but comparatively slack “impressionist” work of his later years that may be responsible for the initial judgment that Caillebotte was second rate.  I think, though, we need to look past the change in technique.  It seems possible that the happy suburban gardener and sailor that Caillebotte became in the 1880s was simply not able to bring the same intensity and anxiety to his painting as the earlier urbanist who still had something to prove.  What would we think if we only knew the late Renoir?

So, was Caillebotte really an Impressionist?  This seems to be a question that has ceased to matter, even as Impressionism itself, to our age, has lost its provocative snarl and become an almost orthodox way of seeing.  It is rather Caillebotte’s modernist mastery, his ability both capture and intensify the encodings and tensions of personal and public spaces, that make him seem both relevant and oddly contemporary.

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