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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 18 JUNE 2009 — Impressionists were both the first Modernists and about the last painters of consequence to consider the pursuit of beauty their primary objective. Although initially and famously scorned by critics, they are today perhaps the most universally beloved artists. Ask someone with only a trace of knowledge about Western art to name the painters he most values, and and expect to hear a list of Impressionist masters. That may partly be an attempt to mask ignorance, but it may just as well indicate true affection for a style of painting whose popularity endures.

Gustave Caillebotte: Oarsmen Rowing on the Yerres, 1877
Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 45 11/16 in. (81 x 116 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

The Impressionist rooms at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - which contain a number of art-class icons - are always popular, but so are most of the other galleries. It helps that the museum, located on Fifth Avenue, benefits from not only the tourist trade but from patronage of locals in what is certainly one of the American Western Hemisphere's most culturally aware neighborhoods. But a Fifth Avenue location does not alone guarantee success. Consider the Whitney Museum of American Art , just five a few blocks south: because of a mandate limited to American artists, and because of a brave willingness to embrace contemporary art, the Whitney finds itself compelled every few years to let loose the strong right arm of its Edward Hopper collection. Great crowds duly return the favor at the ticket desk. Now consider the Brooklyn Museum, which, despite its excellent Hudson River School canvases, an interesting assembly of works by European painters and a rather impressive decorative arts collection, has long ago outlived the aesthetic curiosity of its neighbors. Its only alternative is to reach out to those Manhattan connoisseurs, but it takes time and the price of a three-course lunch to reach the Brooklyn Museum from the neighborhood of The Metropolitan Museum by taxi. As for the return trip, the information booth at the Brooklyn Museum can only advise that taxis do not service the area; it will provide you with a business card bearing the telephone numbers of six local car services or suggest a long, snaking subway ride home.

Gustave Caillebotte: Le Pont de l' Europe, Sketch, 1876
Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. (54 x 73 cm)
Private Collection
Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

To get the locals in and to bring the Manhattanites down, the Brooklyn Museum therefore relies on none other than the Impressionists. The results over the years have been rather good, the Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige exhibition of 1999 having been especially memorable. It's that time again, and our Impressionist du jour is Gustave Caillebotte (1848 -1894).

A private income has been important for Modernist French artists from Toulouse-Lautrec to Cartier-Bresson and beyond, and Caillebotte was particularly well off, as shown in his painting of his family estate and grounds, The Park on the Caillebotte Property at Yerres (1875). Caillebotte was as much interested in, and skilled at, yachting and boat design as painting. In recognition of that, a good part of the exhibition relates to Caillebotte's maritime talents. Most notable are the half models of the hulls of boats he designed; they are displayed as decorative art in one of the two brightly lighted galleries devoted to the exhibition.

Gustave Caillebotte: Oarsman in a Top Hat, 1877-78
Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 46 1/16 in. (90 x 117 cm)
Private collection
Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

Caillebotte's painting technique loyally used the visual grammar of French Impressionism: soft-focused scenes of leisurely urban and country life, tranquil domestic moments and flattering portraits. His Boulevard Haussman, Snow (1879-81) is one of those sophisticated Impressionist views of Paris that, however expertly handled, inspired tens of thousands of muddy imitations of the kind seen in questionable hotel galleries at second-tier resorts.

There are a couple of surprises in the exhibition, as with the fine rendering of two laborers finishing a new hardwood floor, The Floor Scrapers (1876). The acuity with which Caillebotte renders both the single-minded focus of the two men - one scraping, one sharpening his blade - and the interplay of window light and shadow hint at a talent that might have developed more fully but for the distractions posed by the sea and boats.

Gustave Caillebotte: The Floor Scrapers, 1876
Oil on canvas,
31 1/2 x 39 3/8 in. (80 x 100 cm)
Private collection

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

Anyone familiar with the work of Renoir, Monet, Degas and Pissaro will find most of Caillebotte's work instantly accessible. Retrospectives are inevitably summations, and because the art points here to a talent in the middle of the pack, Caillebotte, who is not well known in the United States, appears, from this one showing, to have been about as good as Mary Cassatt. With her many paintings of chubby-faced children and other sweet things, Cassatt is the movement's most overrated artist; by reaching about the same mark, the more obscure Caillebotte may still be the most underrated Impressionist. (In fairness to Cassatt, it was hard for a nineteenth-century American woman to be respected as any kind of artist, and if she retains respect in substantial measure because she was an American woman and not a French man, that is only to be expected.)

Caillebotte's work is good enough and interesting enough to make the trip from Manhattan worthwhile. New York City needs cultural institutions outside of Manhattan, and keeping the Brooklyn Museum going (albeit as a large and underpopulated outpost) should be a goal of all in the region who value fine art. Simply showing up is an act of support and goodwill; having the opportunity to discover Gustave Caillebotte is a delicious bonus.

Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea
Through 5 July 2009
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, New York 11238-6052
Tel: (1) 718 638 50 00

Title image: Gustave Caillebotte: Self-portrait, 1892
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Alan Behr last wrote on Swimming Among the Sharks: The Art of Profiting off Contemporary Art.

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