|Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875 Musée d’Orsay, now on view
at the National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Right now the National Gallery is having an exhibition of an Impressionist whose reputation has grown over the last 25 years, Gustave Caillebotte. Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye will be on view until October 4.
It’s interesting how his first masterpiece, The Floor Scrapers was rejected by the Salon in 1875, but part of the Impressionists’ exhibition the next year. The masterful painting granted Caillebotte entry into the Impressionist group. He repaid his dear friends by buying up many of their works and then donating them to the French state after he died. Many of the paintings he owned are part of Paris’ great early modern museum, Musée d’Orsay. It’s appropriate that the museum that houses so many Impressionist works is a former train station, since modern trains inspired viewers to observe the transient views of the world that the Impressionists transience painted so well.
There are so many reasons The Floor Scrapers is my favorite work by Caillebotte. The composition is extraordinarily well balanced with an artful asymmetry. There’s the tilted floor plane, a view that artists would only start to use after they discovered photography and how it frames pictures differently. There’s also the dignity given to labor and the beautiful anatomy.
Finally it’s incredible to see how Caillebotte painted tactile contrasts on wood in the various stages of sanding, what looks like with or without varnish, and in the light and shadow. Compared to the other Impressionists, Caillebotte painted with definition and a moderate amount of precision. Yet when he illuminates the floor with natural light from the window, we see a wonderful scintillating values, colors and textures. Yellow shines through with touches of blue, but in the distance it becomes an earthy brown.
To understand how good this painting actually is, it’s useful to compare it with another version of floor scrapers that he did. It’s a simpler composition from a different angle, with fantastic lighting effects. Enlarging the photo here will really show off the reflections on the floor. (It isn’t in the National Gallery’s show, but was also part of the 2nd Impressionist exhibition in 1876.)
|Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers
Many of Caillebotte’s other paintings in the exhibition give us a view into his amazing sense of perspective: Le Pont de l”Europe, 1876, for example. He lived at the time that Paris had just experienced a major rebuilding campaign. Paris, A Rainy Day gives an impressive viewpoint of how the new city must have looked to the public, in the eyes of a new bourgeoisie class. Since streets corners were set up in star patterns, the linear perspective has multiple vanishing points and appears to go very deep. The even greater and more famous artist, Georges Seurat, borrowed from the composition of Paris: A Rainy Day when he did his iconic narrative painting of Paris on a sunny day, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte.
Monet and Van Gogh are two more prominent artists who shared Caillebotte’s deep perspective space. Degas went even further than Caillebotte to exploit the unusual viewpoint. Right now there is an important Impressionist exhibition is in Philadelphia, Discovering the Impressionists, until September 13. The exhibit showcases Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who took a gamble and went into great financial risk by buying up Impressionist painters because he believed in them. The exhibit includes Monet’s beautiful Poplars series. However, one of the really important works in the group is by Degas, The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier.
|Edgar Degas, The Dance Foyer at the the Opera on the rue Le Peletier, 1872,
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
This panoramic ballet scene of dancers offers a wonderful comparison with the Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers. This painting is also asymmetric and appears to look spontaneous, while it is actually exceptionally well-planned. Degas offers many more layers of observation: into another room and out the window, through a mirror (?) or another room in the back center. We imagine that the major source of light is a an unseen window to the right. Whites and golds predominate the scene, with touches of blue and orange. Degas’s dancers, though quite strong may seem delicate next to Caillebotte’s muscular workers. In truth, Degas’ dancing girls and Caillebotte’s hard-working men are much the same. Their work is a labor of love, as the Impressionists saw it. The same can be said about Caillebotte, Degas, Durand-Ruel and those who left us with a wonderful record of life in Paris in the 1870s. The ballet painting was done in an opera house that destroyed by fire the very next year, probably caused by gaslights.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Much of our appreciation of Van Gogh can be traced to Helene Müller, whose acquisitions are the foundation of the Kröller-Müller Museum. This German-born heiress was wise in recognizing Van Gogh’s genius and became the first major collector of his work. She and her Dutch husband, Anton Kröller, built a sensational collection and began showing parts of it to the public as early as 1913. They lost their fortune in the economic downturn after World War I, but formed the Kröller-Müller Foundation to protect the art. In 1935, they donated a house, land and a collection of 12,000 pieces to the Netherlands on the condition the country will build a place to display it. There were 90 paintings, 185 drawings by Van Gogh.
Still Life with Four Sunflowers, 1887, has contrasts of blue and orange, yellow and red, a reason I find this painting in the Kröller-Müller Museum more interesting than Van Gogh’s more famous yellow paintings of sunflowers in a vase.
In a recent trip to the Netherlands, I was lucky to visit the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo with its awesome collection of Van Goghs. A month earlier I had seen a wonderful exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Van Gogh: Close Up, mostly paintings of nature. The 4 withered sunflowers, above, in the Otterlo museum, reminded me of the painting of two sunflowers I had seen in Philadelphia (from New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
However, we didn’t get to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the lines were out of the door. Is there ever a time that to see a group of his paintings without big crowds? The public loves Van Gogh so much because everything pulsates and everything we feel and experience is felt so much stronger in his artworks.
My favorite Van Gogh in the Kröller- Müller Museum was The Café Terrace at Night, 1888, an outdoor view of the nightclub Van Gogh frequented in Arles. Intense contrast of yellow light meets the deep blue starry sky.
Color is sensual and color draws us into Van Gogh because his blues, greens and yellows are unique, out of this world in their beauty. Applied with heavy brush strokes, Van Gogh lines and shapes form a variety of 3-dimensional textures coming out into space, up into space or around the canvas. We witness the fury of his emotions. Students are fascinated with the details of his life, why he cut off part of an ear and later committed suicide in 1890. Van Gogh wrote of his depression and suicidal thoughts, while others described his manias. Some of his best production seems to have been painted in periods of mania. He suffered from epilepsy and drank too much absinthe. Extremes of mood made him hard to tolerate, but fostered his great genius.
As a student, Cezanne and Gauguin were my early favorites of Post-Impressionism. I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the intensity of Van Gogh ….or Edvard Munch. Munch’s painting of The Scream, 1893, anticipated what was to come in the 20th century– Depression, world wars, genocides. Van Gogh certainly was a huge influence on the art of Munch and other Expressionists.
Rugged textures of the floor, body and chair and elsewhere
make the pain of Old Man in Sorrow, 1890, seem very real.
Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch had the power to visualize and portray intensity of feelings that most of us humans feel at times, though we might not admit it, or we may not be able to express it. Van Gogh in the 1880s and Munch in the 1890s experienced a world that was rapidly changing and adjustment would not be easy. We can understand the difference between old and new life in the very first painting Helene Müller bought. Paul Gabriël’s Train in Landscape, a traditional painting of c.1887, describes the Dutch world at the time of Van Gogh, one leg in the past and one in the future.
Paul Gabriël’s Train in Landscape, c. 1887, is a traditional, realistic painting of Van Gogh’s time.
A canal divides the painting in center, separating modern world from old ways of life. The left has a train and electric wires, while the right side has dikes and windmills representing the past.
I thank Helene Müller for bringing Van Gogh’s art to the public. She also patronized modern artists of her time, such as Picasso, Fernand Leger, Diego Rivera, Dutchmen Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck. She collected many other 19th century modernists: Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin and Munch. In 1922, Helene Muller bought her last painting, Le Chahut by Georges Seurat, a delightful circus image which gives us light-hearteded break from the serious emotions of Van Gogh.
Le Chahut, 1889-1890, by Georges Seurat, is another masterpiece in the Kröller-Müller Museum.
The humorous facial expressions are a relief from the intensity of Van Gogh’s expressiveness,
and from the stiffness of his famous Sunday Afternoon on the Island of .La Grande Jatte.
Since 1977, the museum has added contemporary art and will continue to expand. Not all the famous Van Goghs can be seen at the Kröler-Müller at any one time. A beautiful example of The Sower owned by the museum was not on view. Today the Kröller-Müller Museum presents Van Gogh in context with other artists, including contemporary artists. It is in a huge park, once the Kröller property, and there is a wonderful sculpture garden outside.
A sculpture garden in the large park surrounding the Kröller-Müller Museum has a
playful landscape sculpture by Jean Dubuffet
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016