Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Photographer's Eye

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

The name of this exhibit is actually Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye, but I'm calling it "The Photographer's Eye," because some of this work is so precise and so of the moment, that you'd think you were looking at a photograph.  But a bit of background before we get started.

Gustave Caillebotte is one of the least well-known French Impressionists.  In part, this was because he had plenty of money and could afford to give his paintings away to friends.  Thus, not many of them turned up in museums.  Those "starving artists" had to sell their work, so more of it wound up in public spaces.  Caillebotte was also a collector of his friends' work, and he left his wonderful collection to the French state.  Since this included only two of his own works, he languished in obscurity until the mid-20th century.

I was first introduced to Caillebotte by the Masterpiece game.  It sounds ridiculous, but I'm willing to bet others got their earliest exposure to great art from that board game.  One of the works included was the one pictured above, Caillebotte's most famous work, Paris Street, Rainy Day which resides at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I saw it there almost three years ago, when on a business trip to the city, and I was happy to see it again.

What I noticed this time is how much like a photograph it is.  In addition to the precision of the painting, the scene is exactly the sort of thing you'd see walking down a busy street.  Clearly, it's composed: the umbrella handles mirror the lamppost and the spokes on the carriage wheels.  Everyone is carrying an identical umbrella.  The streets converge at a perfect point to show perspective in all directions.  But it doesn't feel composed.  It feels as if Caillebotte went out into the street on an overcast, gloomy, wet day and snapped a photo of Parisians scurrying out of the rain.  It's very cleverly done, precisely because it doesn't feel "done" at all.

Paris Street, Rainy Day dominates the room where it's displayed, as you might expect.  I read in a review that the National Gallery would not have put on the show without it, and I can understand why.  It's the star of the show and for good reason.

But, it's not the only reason to see the exhibit.  I would recommend another painting, The Yerres, Effect of Rain.  It's raindrops on a river, which doesn't sound like much, but which I think perfectly shows Caillebotte's mastery of precision and Impressionism.  The rain on the water (which one doesn't see terribly often, it seems to me) is very carefully done.  You see the circles on the water in a totally realistic way.  The trees on the opposite shore, however, are far more reminiscent of Monet or Renior - impressions of trees, rather than faithful recreations of the trees themselves.  The photographer is on display in the water, but the painter dominates in the background.

Verdict:  Don't miss this opportunity to learn more about Gustave Caillebotte - there's more to him than simply the rainy Paris streets you already know.

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