I went to the Brooklyn Museum recently to see an exhibit of one little-known painter and came away overwhelmed by the discovery of another.
On current display is the work of Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894), a wealthy peer and generous patron of the most familiar French Impressionists. Caillebotte’s own paintings have long been overshadowed by his friends and beneficiaries, such as Monet and Renoir, but he probably would have accepted his present obscurity cheerfully, possessing as he did other passions—above all, sailing—and a public-mindedness that led him into local politics. Boats and water—jade-green coastlines, tree-draped, periwinkle rivers, raindrops plashing on silver streams—dominate this appealing show, along with the traditional Impressionist themes of a rapidly modernizing Paris.
A few of Caillebotte’s figures suffer from the heavily outlined stiffness that characterizes Seurat’s, and his brushstrokes are occasionally rough and perfunctory. But these are quibbles. The paintings assembled here make valuable additions to the nineteenth-century French canon. An early canvas (The Luncheon, 1876) shows Caillebotte’s elderly mother and brother being served lunch by a butler in a dark dining room. Light filtering through the lace curtains at the back of the room traces a fine halo around the figures. The scene is one of utter quiet and propriety. If any words are spoken during the meal, they will undoubtedly be few; the son’s intense focus on cutting the minuscule piece of meat on his immaculate plate seems intended to push back against the silence. The ratio of sparkling crystalware to food on the polished table is exponential; this is not a world of sensual culinary abandon. Caillebotte’s haunting image conveys an entire lost world of etiquette, reticence, and hierarchy.
Another silent room (Interior, Woman Reading, 1880) contains a striking trick of perspective. A young woman sitting in profile reads a newspaper; she is pressed so close to the picture surface that her full pink cheek seems to push out from the canvas. Though she is disturbingly close to the viewer, her husband, lying on a couch behind her reading a book, seems miles away, his face a blur of almost Expressionist brushstrokes. Whether the distance between them is one of alienation or cozy domestic understanding is impossible to determine.
Caillebotte’s Oarsman in a Top Hat (1877–88) uses this same quasi-trompe-l’oeil effect equally impressively. A handsome gentleman in city clothes pulls the oars of his shell through a shimmering tributary; his knuckles powerfully thrust forward out of the picture plane. The viewer is positioned in the boat with him, left to wonder what he is thinking about with his abstracted, sidewise glance and full, barely parted, rosy lips.
The Caillebotte exhibit well justifies a visit to the Brooklyn Museum. Sailing enthusiasts should note that the show contains Caillebotte’s own sleek wooden models for his yachts. But as I wandered through the museum’s permanent European collection, I found another painting that merits a trip all by itself: a large vertical portrait of James McNeill Whistler by Giovanni Boldini (1842–1931). Rarely has an extravagant personality been more arrestingly captured. Whistler leans back sideways on a blue satin side chair like an exotic bird that has momentarily alit on earth before again taking flight. He gazes ironically at the viewer through a monocle, his long fingers fanning delicately outward from the eyeglass, the tendons of his hands pressing through his white flesh. His eyebrows shoot upward like a geyser; a porcelain gleam of light plays over his nose. The sitter’s elegant black evening clothes and cape disappear into the background, whose rich darkness recalls the portraits of Velazquez and Hals, while the waxed taupe floor carries a faint reflection of his chair.
I had never heard of Giovanni Boldini before, though he was among the most popular high-society portraitists in Edwardian Paris before the First World War changed high society forever. He made his start in Florence among a group of Italian Impressionists who rejected the strictures of academic painting, moved to London, and finally settled in the City of Light, where he indulged his taste for women and champagne while churning out highly sought-after celebrations of society’s cynosures. In its psychological acuity and gorgeous fluidity of style, Boldini’s Whistler portrait easily matches those of his colleague John Singer Sargent; few of his other canvases that I have since viewed on the web, however, approach the majesty of his Brooklyn canvas. His female portraits, in particular, are much more confectionary. All the more reason why New York owes gratitude to A. Augustus Healy, who bequeathed this portrait of one of America’s greatest painters to the Brooklyn Museum.
The Brooklyn Museum can be a sad place. Abandoned by its original audience as the city’s demographics changed beyond recognition, it has lunged from one effort at relevance to another, from its appalling “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage” in 2000, which glorified gangsta rap, to the modern glass entrance incongruously superimposed over its Beaux-Arts facade, to its Center for Feminist Art. It has recently rehung its cherished American Art collection according to eight themes, rather than according to chronology, resulting in a mishmash of objects and styles. Granted, the use of chronology as an organizing principle has not always been standard museum practice, but it represents a curatorial advance that allows for a far greater understanding of art history. The recent trend toward thematic arrangement in the museum world represents a loss of confidence in the power of art’s internal formal dynamic to move us.
But for all its occasional missteps, the Brooklyn Museum remains a treasure that New Yorkers don’t utilize enough. Its Sargent watercolors, rivaled only by those in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, are one of New York’s most precious collections. Its thoughtfully curated Caillebotte show and its Whistler masterpiece are perfect targets for a mid-summer outing.
Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through July 5.