People often lose umbrellas, but I've held onto a special one for many years - a large parapluie (literally, for the rain, in French) with a wooden base and curved handle that upon opening reveals the painting Paris Street, Rainy Day by painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). That particular work, housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, shows a well-dressed couple walking arm in arm down a sidewalk on a boulevard of Paris. The man is holding an umbrella, and just to the right another man walks forward into the picture, pulling his umbrella out of the way so as not to bump them. Behind these subjects in the foreground we see many others in motion crossing the street. With an elongated perspective that draws the eye back toward a building near an intersection of Gare Saint-Lazare and then back to again to the cobblestones up front, the painting established the painter-flâneur, an upper-class Parisian from a prosperous family, as the leading urban Impressionist.
With so much rain this week in New York, I've opened my umbrella more times than I can count. The image, though not on display in New York, also served to remind me to visit the Brooklyn Museum for the exhibit, Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea, and take in the work of a like-minded observer of nature and the city streets. Where in the previous post I cast doubts on Dylan as a flâneur, there's no doubt that Caillebotte fits the description. He strolls the streets in a top hat, builds boats, cultivates hobbies like photography, summers elsewhere, and due to his generous inheritance, doesn't worry about making money on his art. He bankrolls the work of others, including Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, by buying their paintings, and in the case of Monet, taking care of studio costs. He was so wealthy that few critics and taste-makers took him seriously as an artist.
Caillebotte's interest in photography is often given as a potential explanation for his odd points of view, skewed perspectives and distortions. While it's been difficult to document his use of the photographic image in his process, it's true that advances in photography in the 1870s led to a wider distribution of faster, hand-held cameras. The photogenic qualities of his work may be viewed in several paintings at the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, including Oarsmen Rowing on the Yerres, 1877. Still, he was a painter and curious to explore, along with his fellow Impressionists, qualities of light, perspective, color, reflections and water. While the Brooklyn exhibit offers many views of Paris and streets, the element of water - as rain drops on the street, waves in the ocean, or ripples stirred by oaring boatsmen in the river, stands out as a focal point for the artist. Though optics and light bridge the worlds of the photographer and painter, the passion for Caillebotte and his friends was not to photograph the scene but to render the effects of the play of light and water with paint on canvas.
After visiting the Caillebotte exhibit and other objects of interest in the Brooklyn Museum (I recommend exhibits at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art), it makes sense to visit the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden (above) to look at flowers and ripples on the water. Sometimes, images of our world, even in New York, still look like an Impressionist painting. Buy the art and garden pass for $16.
Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877). Art Institute of Chicago.
Gustave Caillebotte. Le pont de l'Europe (1876) Petit Palais, Geneva
Gustave Caillebotte. L'Yerres, pluie (1875) Indiana Art Museum - Bloomington
Image of the Japanese Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 6, 2009.
Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea
Brooklyn Museum, Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 5th Floor
Through July 5, 2009
200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York
Wednesday–Friday: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday: 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
Coming next: A walk through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
For more on Impressionism and perception, see Walking with Seurat in the Deepening Darkness.