Gustave Caillebotte, Painter of the Remade Paris

by Donald Kuspit

From 1850 through 1869, under the auspices of the Emperor Napoleon III and George-Eugene (later Baron) Haussmann, Paris was rebuilt—totally transformed. Tired, old, untidy, medieval Paris, with its unsanitary streets and small, ill-fitting, uncomfortable houses, presided over by grand cathedrals, was replaced by a brisk, new, neat, clean, modern, comfortable Paris, with grand boulevards and parks taking precedence over cathedrals, now reduced to sideshows in the panoramic sweep of the enlarged new city.1 The old run-down environment was gone, the new environment was full of promise, and there was a new sense of pride and glory in the air. Gustave Caillebotte was born into this new, remade Paris; it became the subject matter of his art, fittingly so, for his prosperity—he was so rich he didn’t have to sell his paintings to make a living—matched the New Paris. He was an upper-class man of leisure, and he had the leisure and time to study its pleasurable sights—to look at them carefully and lovingly, if with a certain detached acumen, like The Young Man at His Window (1875)—his brother, seen from the back, implicitly his surrogate—or Woman at the Window (1880), also seen from the back.

Both the young, immature man and the older, mature woman are inside a room, looking at the street and buildings outside the room. Their identities are beside the point—they are anonymous. We cannot see their faces, only that they are deeply engaged in the act of seeing, seemingly fixated on the scene—the new Paris, with its uniform new buildings and advertising signs—beyond the rooms they stand in. They could be any man and any woman and of any age: what matters—what makes them important—is that they mark the boundary between interior and exterior. They stand between the small, confining room, closed to the outside world, and the large, open space of the city beyond it. But the most important “figure” in the picture is the window through which they look. They pivot around it, as it were. The window through which the woman looks is closed, yet the window through which the young man looks is open, suggesting that the boundary between inside and outside, private space and public space is flexible, movable, not absolutely fixed. But it is always there, simultaneously separating the viewer from the outside and connecting him or her to it.

Woman at the Window, 1880, Private collection   That window, with the light flooding the floor of the room in which The Floor Scrapers (1875) are hard at work, is the “hero” of that painting. I suggest that the figures are incidental to it, as the young man and mature woman are to their windows on the world. The judges, who rejected the work for the Salon of 1875 because they thought that urban laborers were not fit to be seen in grand paintings—only lowly peasants, kept out of sight in the countryside, were allowed to appear in high art—missed the point of it. Courbet’s realistic Burial at Ornans (1849) had already broken that rule, which is why Caillebotte was initially regarded as a follower of Courbet but came to be regarded as an Impressionist. The Floor Scrapers was accepted for exhibition in the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876, perhaps because of the contrast between the plane of bright outdoor light that suddenly floods the unstripped floor and the plane of dull indoor light of the stripped floor. It was a sensational contrast that seemed to epitomize the Impressionist credo: natural light was preferable—more exciting, vitalizing, intense—than indoor light, which is why the painter should leave the studio and make plein-air paintings. Caillebotte used this method during the summer, when he spent time at his country estate, but otherwise he painted in the studio, even when he painted Paris Street; Rainy Day (1876–77), a work as monumental as the Paris building dominating the distance. It was clearly too large to be painted on an easel placed outdoors. It was made for a museum, not for private edification. It is one of the museum-worthy paintings that made Paris into the museum it seems to be today.

We are outdoors—the wet street shines with the same radiance as the sunlit floor in The Floor Scrapers, giving the work a similar Impressionist import—but at the same time we are oddly indoors, for the open space is walled in by buildings, making it seem like a room, an unusually large indoor space however simultaneously an outdoor space. Indeed, it has the intimacy of an interior room, as the arm-in-arm couple moving toward us implies, and the hard cobblestones have the same slippery sheen as the hard wooden floor the floor scrapers are at work on. The ambiguous integration of outdoor public space and indoor private space—along with the disparity between natural and artificial light—is the clue to understanding the complexity of Caillebotte’s paintings. There is something uncanny about them, which is why they have been difficult to categorize.

Young Man at His Window, 1875, Private CollectionCaillebotte was close to the Impressionists all his life and has been understood to be one of them. He purchased many of their works and was close friends with Monet (he paid the rent for his studio and painted his portrait) and Renoir (a frequent dinner guest at Caillebotte’s country estate). But he has also been understood to be a realist, even a psychological realist—his seemingly alienated couples (physically together but emotionally at odds) have been convincingly compared to those in some of Degas’ paintings. There is a disjointed look to Caillebotte’s paintings—the parts don’t neatly relate. His men and women inhabit different emotional spaces, just as his closed and open spaces have a different emotional tone, as do his bright outdoor light and dimmer indoor light. They’re all implicitly estranged, yet unavoidably together in the new Paris, suggesting that they can be made new, or at least made better, as the remaking of Paris made it a better place to live. The emotional and spatial differences that inform Caillebotte’s paintings climax, as it were, in the much-noted difference between his handling: the “flat,” “dry,” “academic” surface and linear clarity of his indoor paintings has led some art historians to label him a conventional realist, while the “animated,” “wet,” “anti-academic” surface of his outdoor paintings have led other art historians to label him an unconventional Impressionist. The confused understanding of him was compounded by the fact that he drew “hard facts” with exquisite skill even as he painted “soft sensations” with Impressionist verve. Sometimes this doubleness happened in the same picture: the couches in his various portraits tend to be vividly Impressionist, the figures are typically soberly realistic. Real objects didn’t “melt” for him, as the Rouen Cathedral did for Monet, but held their own, even when they became “sensational:” the “sensation” was in the object—in its size, shape, position, as the natural elegance of the flowers he meticulously painted make clear—not in the impressionable eye of the painter. Rather than recognizing the intricate dialectics of his inconsistency, the art historical consensus is that Caillebotte had no fixed style.

It is signaled by the estranging perspective of Le Pont de l’Europe (1876), much noted for its bizarre—dare one say mannerist?—character. It ruthlessly cuts through the picture like a knife, splitting the work in two, interrupting and disrupting the scene; and suggesting, unexpectedly, Caillebotte’s criticism of the new Paris—his rebellion against the uniformity of its buildings, symbolizing social conformity. The abrupt perspective is like a lightning bolt from the blue, its suddenness and seeming spontaneity passing judgment on the conformity with its nonconformity. Oddly impulsive and unpredictable, it is insulting and offensive, intruding on the bourgeois Paris of Napoleon III, just as Impressionism intruded upon academic realism, the preferred mode of the official Salon and the bourgeois patrons of art.2 Caillebotte never became a complete or consummate Impressionist as Monet did, but his use of perspective to skew the anonymous, homogeneous façade of the look-alike, standard buildings—people complained that one could not determine their purpose, and thought they had no character3—that lined the uniform streets of the new Paris was as critical of the academic sensibility and as personal and intense an anti-bourgeois statement as Monet’s vivid Impressionist handling. Both were radical gestures; violating existing sensibilities, they seemed like rebellious harbingers of social disorder, and as such disturbingly revolutionary.

Caillebotte was a bourgeois, but he was also a modern painter who rendered, with disturbing realism and insight, the subliminal truth about oddly repressive modern Paris. One opened a window on it, looked out at it with elated expectations, but what one saw was strangely oppressive, suggesting that Paris was not as ideal and humanizing a place as the Emperor and the Baron thought it would be. I am suggesting that Caillebotte was neither an academic realist nor an anti-academic Impressionist, but a critical realist. He conflated both modes to convey the tension between conformity and nonconformity—bourgeois art and avant-garde art—that the new Paris unwittingly generated and cultivated. Baudelaire conceived of it as the tension between a declining aristocracy and an emerging democracy,4 but it was the tension between an environment that modeled conformity even as it seemed refreshingly new and unique.

The perspective in Le Pont de l’Europe is more distinctive than the buildings. They passively lay there, permanently immobilized, while the dynamic perspective dives steeply and suddenly into the background, leaving the eye behind. It remains stranded in the foreground, restlessly taking in all it can see as it wanders through the space—the dog with his back to us, the profile of the man looking through the solid girders of the modern bridge, the couple facing us, the man with his back to us—a scattering of figures forming an unstable middle ground. They are all phantom-like, oddly old-fashioned and forgettable, ephemeral compared to the modern bridge, as implacable and alien and memorable a presence as the perspective.5 The whole scene is peculiarly illogical, however logically conceived—convincingly constructed, like the bridge. We have no place on the magic carpet of the zooming perspective of the bridge. It quickly passes under us. Like the couple approaching us, we are suspended in space, levitating in the emptiness, for the walkway of the bridge is a void, with no more density than the blue shadows that spot it, failing to take its measure.

Looking was Caillebotte’s theme, and the new Paris—not yet familiar enough to be boring, to be taken for granted—was the object of his lingering, studious gaze. He looked at objects with new eyes—their newness deeply impressed him, which is in part why his work impressed the Impressionists, why they accepted him as one of them—but he never abandoned his old eyes. His repeated use of perspective makes the point clearly: perspective is an intellectual device—a rational way of structuring and stabilizing space and reflectively constructing an intelligible picture—and the Impressionists slowly but surely eliminated it, perhaps unwittingly but inevitably undermined it, for “impressions” are not seen in perspective, nor do they exist in perspective, nor are they are intellectual phenomena. The Impressionists had no use for perspective—it was too calculated for them, it ordered space rather than deregulated it, as their randomly given, indeterminate impressions did—but for Caillebotte it was the backbone of the picture.

The Floor Scrapers, 1875, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

But he modernized it: his perspective is not the usual Renaissance perspective, but it codifies the unusual new vantage point from which one could see modern Paris. One could view the world from above—one did not have to remain on the same level of it to see it properly, as the artist drawing a nude in perspective in Dürer’s famous print did, or like the eye in Alberti’s diagrammatic rendering of it. The message of Caillebotte’s seeing-from-above—and above all his swiveling window—is that there is no one-and-only true and proper perspective. It has a certain autonomy; Caillebotte treats it like a thing in itself, conveying the new consciousness of space as dynamic rather than static, energetic rather than inert, restlessly on the move rather than comfortably at rest—which is why there is something discomforting about Caillebotte’s impulsive perspective. It may inhabit a place, as it were, but it is not bound to any place, for it relentlessly moves off the bridge into the streets in the background, and, implicitly, into the infinity beyond them. Caillebotte’s bold, assertive perspective, aggressively thrusting into space—like the modern bridge that is its companion (it is seen in perspective)—rather than routinely regulating it makes the point clearly. Just as the bridge is a sign of the future, so Caillebotte’s perspective anticipates the Futurist vector, as its vector-like character suggests.

Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876, Private collection

What began with Caillebotte’s view from a fashionable balcony became Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s view from the Eiffel Tower. One can argue that modern art begins when perspective breaks down (as it does in Picasso’s Cubism) and ends (as it does in Kandinsky’s abstract expressionism). There is no clear line of sight in them, which is why their space has become problematic. There is little or no sense of place in them, as there is in Caillebotte’s pictures—however “compromised” by perspective—which is why we feel, if only unconsciously, like displaced persons—dislocated and ungrounded, and with free-floating anxiety—when we look at Abstract Expressionist and Cubist paintings.

Caillebotte’s Calf’s Head and Ox Tongue and Calf in a Butcher Shop (both c. 1882), all but breaking through the picture plane into our space—confronting us with intimidating immediacy—are the exception that proves the rule. Nonetheless, they are seen in perspective—a rather limited, shallow perspective—as the rose to which the eye is drawn in the latter and the metal rack that marks the horizon in the former suggest. The perspective in The Floor Scrapers and Paris Street; Rainy Day is subtler than the perspective in Le Pont de l’Europe, but it also dramatizes the scene. We are relatively high above the floor scrapers—implicitly standing over them—and slightly above the pedestrians. Caillebotte maintains his distance, at once physical and emotional, from them, and even from the figures in his more intimate portraits—Eugene Daufresne (1878) is absorbed in reading a book, Richard Gallo (1881) looks into the distance and Monsieur R (1877) keeps the artist at bay with his hard stare—for it gives him a certain perspective on them, and with that a certain understanding of the alienated human condition in the modern world.



1. The general purpose of the renovation was to accommodate the large population of the city, which had doubled since 1815. A new aqueduct brought fresh, clean water from the Vanne River, and a new reservoir was built, increasing the water supply of Paris—which had been enlarged from twelve to twenty arrondissements by the annexation of eleven surrounding communes—from 87,000 to 400,000 cubic meters of water a day. “Hundreds of kilometers of pipes [were laid] to distribute the water throughout the city,” and “a second network” was built, “using the less-clean water from the Ourq and Seine to wash the streets and water the new park and gardens.” The Paris sewers were completely rebuilt, and “miles of pipe” were installed “to distribute gas for thousands of new streetlights along the Paris streets…Eighty kilometers of new avenues, connecting the central points of the city,” were built. “Buildings along these avenues were required to be the same height and in a similar style, and to be faced with cream-colored stone, creating the signature look of Paris boulevards. Baron Haussmann achieved Paris’ being of a particular shape, uniform.” Napoleon III also built two new railroad stations, the Gare de Lyon (1855) and the Gare du Nord (1865), and a new municipal hospital, Hotel-Dieu. He also completed Les Halles, the famous iron and glass produce market in the center of Paris. His “signature architectural landmark was the Paris Opera.” Also, “four major parks at the cardinal points of the compass around the city” were created: the Bois de Boulogne (1852–58) to the west; the Bois de Vincennes (1860–65) to the east; the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (1865–67) to the north; and Parc Montsourris (1865–78) to the south. Twenty small parks and gardens were built in the neighborhoods. Each of Paris’ eighty neighborhoods was to have a park, “so that no one was more than a ten minutes’ walk from such a park,” each a “green and flowering salon.” From “Georges-Eugène Haussmann” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., May 2016), n. pag.

2. I think the splitting of the picture by the steep perspective was responsible for the rejection of The Floor Scrapers by the official salon, however much his depiction of laborers also was. The split was much more emotionally and aesthetically, not to say perceptually disturbing: it undermined the sense of over-all harmony, a requirement of academic painting, making for a certain dizzying disequilibrium. Indeed, there is something delirious about Caillebotte’s perspective. Picturing the working class was merely socially offensive.

3. “Victor Hugo mentioned that it was hardly possible to distinguish what the house in front of you was for: theatre, shop or library” (“Haussmann,” Wikipedia, n. pag).

4. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London and New York: Phaidon, 1993), 28.

5. Perspective assumes that the viewer is at a certain distance from the object viewed, but Caillebotte tends to compress this distance, most conspicuously in Le Pont de l’Europe and The Floor Scrapers, and to a lesser extent in The Young Man at His Window and Woman at the Window. The distance completely collapses in the pictures of butchered animals. One can’t see through the façade of flesh, suggesting that it functions like a closed window. One has no serious perspective on it—certainly not one that plunges into the far distance. Caillebotte also seems to be struggling to overcome the difference between central vision—the so-called cone of vision or angle of sight, that is, the sixty-degree angle that forms a cone, in which objects can be clearly seen, extending from the eye—and peripheral vision, in which objects outside the cone of vision blur and look distorted. More particularly, he suggests that it is possible to integrate—if only in and through art—the naturally occurring cone of vision and the artificially constructed rectangle of perspective vision. I suggest that the curved umbrellas and the curved building in Paris Street; Rainy Day are conical sections, and that the sides of the buildings around the street form a rectangle, with the lamppost parallel to them taking its measure. The curved and straight lines are incommensurate and incompatible, yet playing off each other in the picture they make an aesthetic point. There is an estranging incoherence in the picture, but also a tentative—proposed—reconciliation of opposites. Disjunction and conjunction are simultaneous, an effect epitomized by the position of the lamppost: it marks the vanishing point, but it is off-center, like the vanishing point in Le Pont de l’Europe.