Les Raboteurs De Parquet (1875) by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894)
Several years ago, a favorite chocolate company TCHO, out of San Francisco, had a series of bars with beautiful labels featuring Impressionist paintings from the De Young Museum’s “Masterpieces From The Musee d’ Orsay” exhibit. One bar featured an image that held my interest. It was a detail from an astonishing painting of three shirtless, muscled men hard at work planing a wood floor.
The artist was someone that I was not familiar with. I was soon on the hunt to learn all about him. The Husband pointed out the same image was on the cover of a book of 19th century gay erotica, a gift he had given me 2 decades earlier. Perhaps I had just jumped right into reading that book and never bothered to study the cover. I became fascinated with painter Gustave Caillebotte, reading everything I could find on the artist and studying copies of his paintings.
Caillebotte used to be dismissed as a minor outsider of The French Impressionists. He was much younger than the main gang. He came from money and was personally very rich. He collected and supported the other Impressionists work. He was an excellent curator, and he arranged many of their exhibitions.
Cailleboote’s paintings were rather non-impressionistic. He was modest about his own talents. But, from his first participation in an Impressionist exhibition of paintings of modern Parisian life, he showed an entirely singular vein of invention: painting male nudes and producing work with an overt gay sensibility.
Caillebotte stands apart from the Impressionists because his paintings depict working-class men in an urban context, often with a concealed face. His paintings of rowing men also produce erotic feelings.
He was an artist who was an Impressionist by association rather than by style or temperament. He also used very innovative perspectives. His paintings are personal, autobiographical. You feel as if you were spying on a very private man, whose short life remains a mystery. Caillebotte’s contemporaries Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley put modern Paris in their paintings, peopled by happy dancers, or sociable boaters, busy shoppers, and flag-waving parade marchers. Caillebotte’s Paris seems lonely.
His career as an artist feels unresolved. Certainly, it was short. He stopped painting when he was 32-years-old. He stopped showing his work when he was 34-years-old, devoting himself to gardening, and to building and racing boats. By the 1890s he had become a recluse at his estate on the river Seine near Argenteuil. His pal Renoir was often a guest at the estate where they would stroll and have discussions on art, politics, literature, and philosophy.
In Autoportrait Au Chevalet (1879) the artist is painting in his studio, while in the background a man, the bottom half of his face concealed by the painter’s arm, lounges on a couch. In the background, he has placed Dance At Le Moulin De La Galette, painted three years earlier by his friend Renoir, a painting that is now considered one of the greatest Impressionist works. Renoir shows a sun-dappled crowd of happy partiers, dancing, drinking and schmoozing. A through line of melancholy flows from Caillebotte’s paintings, and definitely homoeroticism.
The 500+ works he painted stayed in his family. In part, that’s why he’s less well-known than his great painter pals. Caillebotte’s work wasn’t in museum collections, and he didn’t get serious attention until the 1960s.
But, because he was a great patron of other painters, Caillebotte’s own first-rate art collection became the center Impressionist collection at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. When he offered all his own paintings to the people of France, the Minister of Fine Arts refused them.
Even with four semesters of Art History, I knew nothing of the enigmatic Caillebotte before that fine chocolate bar, but I enjoyed the research about his enigmatic life. He never married or seemed to have any relationship with a woman, spending his time gardening, rowing, and befriending and painting interesting, handsome men. For all his adult life, he feared he would die young. He did, for no clear reason, at just 45-years-old.
I have been accused of claiming too many personalities as part of the gay tribe, including this comment: “Really? Is everyone gay?”
In 2010, when I first posted about him on my blog, I made the proposition that Caillebotte might have been gay. Within hours, I had received a strong comment from one his relatives, insisting that such a thing that could not have been possible. I remain unconvinced.