Gustave Caillebotte : in privacy

Gustave Caillebotte, Young man at the piano, 1876, OIl on canvas, 81×116 cm, Tokyo, The Bridgestone museum

Gustave Caillebotte was born in 1848 into a very wealthy family. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the studio of Léon Bonnat. In 1876, at the request of his friend Renoir, he took part in the second Impressionist exhibition in the premises of the art dealer Durand-Ruel, rue Lafitte in Paris.

He presented eight paintings, including « The parquet planers », which was highly praised by the critics, and « the Young man at the piano ».

Gustave Caillebotte, The parquet planers, 1875, Oil on canvas, 102×146 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay

The painting shows a young man playing the piano. He appears to be concentrating, with his mouth half-open and his hands suspended in the air. He is seen against the light in a room with a bourgeois decor and an intimate atmosphere, in which the grand piano occupies almost all the space.

This young man is his younger brother, Martial, 22 years old, composer and precursor of the so-called « impressionist » music. The setting is that of the family mansion on rue de Miromesnil in Paris. This setting, in particular the window and the red armchair, can be found in a portrait Caillebotte painted of his other brother, René, which he presented at the same exhibition. The two portraits, one horizontal and the other vertical, are almost identical in size. One can imagine that they are counterparts and that they were meant to be seen together.

Gustave Caillebotte, Young man at the window, 1875, OIl on canvas, 117×82 cm, Private collection

The scene is seen from a wide angle and from above. The viewer therefore sees the room slightly overhead. The framing abruptly cuts off certain elements of the décor, such as the window or the frame hanging on the wall. This type of composition is undoubtedly influenced by photographic processes. Martial is a very good amateur photographer and takes many pictures.

Caillebotte paid great attention to the decor and described the overloading of the motifs with precision. He likes to render the different materials: wallpaper, curtains, carpets, the reflective surface of the piano…

All this gives the impression of being close to the subject, of entering into his intimacy. At the same time, the bird’s-eye view and the backlighting keep us at a distance from the figure. The same applies to the Young Man at the Window, seen from behind and against the light.

It also gives off a somewhat stifling atmosphere: the piano seems to be stuck in the corner of the room and the many motifs in the decor invade the room. I can’t help thinking that this abundant decor will be looked at and then exaggerated by Vuillard, who, through a saturation effect, will show the stifling side of bourgeois interiors.

Edouard Vuillard, The suitor, 1893, 31×36 cm, Northampton, Smith College Museum of Art

Here Caillebotte depicts a scene of intimacy that lets us into the world of an artist. The piano motif is seen as a symbol of creative activity. In this he differs from his contemporaries, for whom the piano is above all an opportunity to show a fashionable female leisure activity in the bourgeoisie of the time.

Edouard Manet, Mrs Manet at the piano, 1868, Oil on canvas, 38×46 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay

Gustave Caillebotte, The piano lesson, C. 1879, Oil on canvas, 81x 65 cm, Paris, musée Marmottan

Auguste Renoir, Yvonne and Christine Lerolle at the piano, 1897, 73×92 cm, Paris, musée de l’Orangerie

Edouard Vuillard, Characters in an interior : Music, 1896, Glue paint on canvas, 212×154 cm, Paris, musée du Petit-Palais

In this work, Caillebotte plunges us into the hushed intimacy of a bourgeois flat, while leaving us at a certain distance from the character who occupies it. Martial at his piano evokes creative activity, while his counterpart, René, is absorbed in his vision of the street. One can imagine that the two paintings suggest two aspects of the contemplative life: escape, in thought, to the outside world on the one hand and introspection on the other. They can also be seen as representing two of the five senses: sight and hearing.

And you, what do you think about it ?

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