Monday, May 2, 2011

Caillebotte brothers: A picture of happiness

 The glorious pleasures of family life and friendship are extolled in a new exhibition showcasing the work of the Caillebotte brothers. Adrian Hamilton is entranced.

                                          PATRICE SCHMIDT / MUSÉE D'ORSAY; MUSÉE BARON GERARD; DR
Oar-inspiring: 'Maurice Minoret Ramant' by Martial Caillebotte

 Can art be produced out of contentment, happiness even?

 You wouldn't think so from most of the commentary of the last few decades. Painter, composer or writer, you are nothing if you are not tainted by experience and your works don't express a darker side.
 A truly entrancing exhibition of the Caillebotte brothers, painter and photographer, in Paris at the moment makes the case the other way. Close personally and happy in their circumstances, their art expressed above the pleasures of bourgeois life towards the end of the 19th century. Brought up in privilege and inheriting a fortune from their father (who made his money making beds for the army), they could – and did – afford to spend a lifetime indulging in family life and the pastimes of gardening, yachting and observing the life around them.
 Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), the painter of the two, is relatively well-known, a patron as well as practitioner of the Impressionists, he never reached the heights of his friends Renoir and Degas, but at his best he could produce individual works more realistic than his colleagues. Walking to the show at the Musée Jacquemart-André, I was nearly run over by a flooring company van, a copy of his well-known The Floor Scrapers covering its side as announcement of its trade.
 His younger brother, Martial (1853-1910), is much less known, although close to his elder sibling in affection and interests. Photographer, pianist and composer, however, his photographs have recently aroused considerable interest both as a record of the Paris being rebuilt by Baron Haussmann at the time but also because they demonstrate a considerable talent by Martial in this new and burgeoning art form.
 The novelty, and attractiveness, of this exhibition, is that it brings both sorts of pictures together in each room by theme and mutual interest. A total of 35 paintings by Gustave, many from private collections and some shown for the first time, are ranged alongside 150 prints taken from Martial's original negatives.
 Living together until Martial's marriage at 34 in 1887 (Gustave never married), their youth and early manhood was spent in the area of Boulevard Haussmann, then under construction. From their balcony they could watch the new Paris rising up around them.
 There's a wonderful picture by Gustave of a pedestrian roundabout on the Boulevard, done in off-white and held in time by the carefully spaced solitary figures of men in top hats and a couple of horses and carts to the side, as well a series of pictures of the watchers on the balcony looking down. Across the room there are his brother's photographs from the balcony of the crossroad at Rue Auber and of the same roundabout (or "refuge") done with equal care.
 It's not the similarity between paint and photo that intrigues – although there is a strong aspect of that – but the way that the media determines the style differently from a similar viewpoint. Martial's work has a fascination with movement and progress, as the crowds bustle and construction goes on. Gustave's has the painterly delight in texture and light. There's a quite brilliant picture by him of a tree in young leaf seen from above, titled Le Boulevard vu d'en Haut that has little of the road and everything about the tree in it, just as his views of the Boulevard in snow is about atmosphere and the paleness of the sun, where Martial's photographs of Place de la Concorde in snow are about the buildings as defined by snow not the atmosphere itself.
 Perhaps it was because they shared the same outlook on their surroundings but portrayed it in quite different media that prevented the two brothers from competing. They remained all their lives conjoined in their interests and obsessions, from philately to yachting. Gustave designed the yachts, Martial raced them (with considerable success).
 When it comes to domestic life, and people, it is Martial who scores more than his brother, perhaps because he had a family and took such pleasure in photographing him. His photographs of his brother throwing stones on the beach or walking his dog in the Paris street, the portrait of their half brother, Alfred (a priest), and his posed pictures of his young children, Jean and Geneviève, have not just fondness and intimacy but are composed with great artifice to communicate proper and contented family life.
 His brother's portraits, by comparison, never achieve quite the same quality of insight of subject, although there is a very striking (in colour at least) self-portrait, Autoportrait au Chapeau d'été, and a rather gloomy picture of Le Déjeuner, quite Dutch in its care for the objects on the table.
 When it comes to gardens it is the other way around. Flowers were Gustave's passion and he responded to them with the confidence of brushstroke and a joy in colour that his make his paintings quite delightful. For Martial, aside from the formal pictures of the payout of the gardens, it is the family life, the picnics and people gardening that captivate him.
 With yachting the two brothers come into their own. Martial has a succession of photographs of the yacht being built and then sailing, as you would expect. Gustave, Renoir-like, rises to the tranquility of white sail, calm water and scenes of friends and family fishing, bathing and rowing along the river.
 It is with the pictures of the industrializing countryside that Gustave and Martial are at their most original. Gustave's paintings of the girders of the Pont de l'Europe look forward to American art of the next century, just as his brother's photographs of the new railways echo those in the American West.
 Few would claim that the works on display here mark the artistic peaks of the period. But they are very good. While the Musée d'Orsay's The Floor Scrapers and best-known works are absent (although nearby in the city), there is a wealth of borrowings from private collections. Indeed, most of the works on display seem to be from that source, making such a show a rare event. And, at his best in pictures such as the Portraits à la Campagne, the balcony views and some of his Seine scenes, Gustave remains a formidable artist, just as his brother, taken in the round, proved a remarkable as well as historically interesting photographer.
 What is remarkable about this exhibition, however, is how much of the shared pleasure and intimacy between the brothers it communicates by hanging their works together. The presentation of the photographs, quite small, is particularly good, grouped behind glass in a shared frame rather than regimented in lines as galleries normally do. You can look at them on one side of the room, and take them in as a group, before turning to the pictures (or the other way round) similarly brought together on the other walls.
 By the end of it you feel not only a much closer acquaintance with these still under-appreciated artists but that you have shared in their peaceful lives and family fondness. A rare pleasure indeed.

 The Caillebotte Brothers' Private World: Painter and Photographer, Jacquemart-André Museum, Paris ( to 11 July


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