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Gutave Caillebotte
In 1894, the French government came by a windfall. A young French navel architect and amateur painter suffered a stroke and died at the age of 46. He willed the Louvre his entire art collection--some sixty-seven works by artists such as Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and Cézanne. But at the time, the deed was not seen so much as a windfall but more like a nuisance. The French academician, Jean Leon Gérôme, then seventy, termed the collection "filth," and under pressure from the academy, the government initially rejected the bequest. In his will, Gustave Caillebotte (pronounced KI-bot) had insisted his collection remain intact, essentially an all or nothing, take it or leave it provision. The chief sticking point seemed to be the inclusion of work by Cézanne who, even as late as 1894 was persona-non-grata insofar as the French art world was concerned. After negotiations which stretched into several years, the government and Caillebotte's heirs finally reached an agreement for acceptance of thirty-seven of the Impressionist masterpieces, while rejecting all the Cézannes and to add insult to injury, several of Caillebotte's own works. It wasn't until 1928 that the Louvre finally got around to exhibiting any of them, and 1937 before they went on permanent display. Today, they form the backbone of France's collection of Impressionist works and are housed in the Musee d'Orsay.

Gustave Caillebotte was, perhaps, as important to Impressionism as Monet, Pissarro, or Renoir; but not as a painter. His life's work of some 500 paintings bear some philosophical and visual kinship to the work of his friends; but technically, Caillebotte wasn't an Impressionist. He showed his work with theirs, even arranged and financed several of the Impressionist exhibitions, but to look at his paintings, such as Rue de Paris, Wet Weather, completed in 1872, one would have to call him a Realist. His Floor Scrapers of 1877, while just as shocking a departure from the French ideal of painted beauty as that of any of his Impressionist peers, was nonetheless muddy with browns, tans, and greys. While Caillebotte was no Impressionist, and in fact, only a minor player in the artistic scheme of things at the time, he was no less important to the movement. Caillebotte's gift came in his early recognition of the worth of these new painters and the money to back up his genuine love of their radically new art.

Caillebotte might have been greater as an artist except for one thing - having studied engineering as well as art, at the tender age of twenty-five, he inherited a sizeable fortune. Thus, unlike his impecunious friends, he neither had to paint, nor had to sell. Thus, he cared little whether anyone besides he and a few close friends really liked his work and, and not one whit whether it would sell. This kind of freedom is often the key to substantial breakthroughs in art. (Cézanne was likewise so blessed.) In Caillebotte's case, this independence manifested itself not in his style or technique, but in what he painted. Large, but unspectacular street scenes, male nudes, everyday interiors, un-romanticised urban landscapes, coupled with his hobbies of sailing and rowing make up the bulk of his work. (Monet consulted Caillebotte in the building of his famous floating studio.)

A lifelong bachelor, and perhaps also gay, Caillebotte's freedom to do as he pleased, paint as he pleased, and most important, spend as he pleased, was a godsend to the struggling pioneers of the Impressionist movement. He threw open his rather large home in Argenteuil to them, bought some of their largest, most unsaleable works, and in Monet's case especially, loaned substantial sums of money which he may or may not have ever got back. The Caillebotte Collection is especially important because it contains several highly experimental milestones along the Impressionist roads of exploration. Of course Caillebotte no doubt expected to live well into the twentieth century when he wrote his will; and therefore fully anticipated his landmark art collection would be welcomed by enlightened officials with open arms. In all fairness, it's near scandalous reception by the government (and their subsequent rejection of a large part of it) was as much the result of his untimely death as their awkward short-sightedness.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 November 2000

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