Friday, November 12, 2010

Bushy Venus: Nude on a Couch by Gustave Caillebotte

Nu au divan (1882)

One of the pictures Agent Triple P admired on his recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston was Gustave Caillebotte's The Orange Trees, which perfectly captures the experience of sitting in the shade on a very hot day in France.  It is a particularly cleverly composed picture with the sunlit path drawing the eye down to the figures in the shade who, otherwise, would look rather muted against the brightly lit background.

Les Orangers (1878) The figure in the foreground is the artist's brother, Marital and the girl is his cousin, Zoe.

Many of Caillebotte's paintings demonstrate strong perspective and geometric compositional aspects.  Although he exhibited at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876 (notably with The Floor Scrapers; his early masterpiece) he was more a realist painter than the other impressionists at the time.   Born to a wealthy family Caillebotte (1848-1894) was the diametric opposite to the image an artist starving in a garret. 

Self-portrait (1892)

Caillebotte was born in the family home on rue Faubourg St.-Denis and qualified as a lawyer.  He started to paint as an amateur and studied under Léon Bonnat becoming skilled fairly quickly.  He entered  the École des Beaux-Arts but spent little time there.  A year later he inherited his father's fortune and was financially secure for life.

Unlike the other impressionists Caillebotte painted very few nudes and the few that he did are rather cool and  not particularly emotionally involving.  He died at the young age of 45, unmarried, although he was rumoured to have had a relationship with one Charlotte Berthier, a much younger working class woman who he remembered with a substantial bequest in his will.

Caillebotte in 1878

Possibly because he died young, or possibly because his own style varied a lot as he experimented with different techniques, he was largely forgotten and only in the last fifty years has he been rehabilitated somewhat. Perhaps his greatest impact was in his sponsorship and support of his fellow impressionists: paying the rent for Monet's studio and persauding the Louvre to buy Manet's Olympia, for example.  As a result, when he died in 1894 he left his collection of impressionists to the French government.  This included: 19 Pissaros, 14 Monets, 10 Renoirs, 9 Sisleys, 7 Degas,  5 Cézannes and 4 Manets!  Amazingly, the French authorities weren't keen on this and grudgingly accepted only 38 of the 68 paintings.  Renoir, as executor of his will retained a Degas and the other 29 were turned down again by the French government in 1904 and 1908.  Most of the remainder were sold to the American collector Albert C Barnes and can now be seen, as Agent Triple P did last year, in the Barnes Foundation Gallery in Philadelphia.

The work at the top of this post, nude on a couch, has been the subject of much speculation.  Some critics have interpreted it as a woman lying in shame after having had sex. More recently, in her book on Caillebotte, Norma Broude has said that in fact, given that the woman is playing with her nipple, she is in the process of arousing herself. Most agree, however, that the pose emphasises the private nature of the action given that the model is using her forearm to screen part of her face.  Whatever Caillebot intended, the attention to detail, from the belt mark around her waist, through the pattern on the couch to her magnificently rendered pubic hair generate a feel of voyeurism on a moment of quiet eroticism. Depiction of a woman's pubic hair in a finished painting like this would have been most unusual at the time and we would venture that it is the most tactilely successful portrayal of this area in the whole of painting.  Agent Triple P can almost feel it against the back of his fingers as he looks at it!

Femme Nue Etendue Sur Un Divan (1873)

His only other major female nude, Femme Nue Etendue Sur Un Divan is a magnificent, Courbet-like pastel and is rather more conventional in its pose and content; although, again, he depicts the model's pubic hair.  This is Caillebotte's first dated painting (1873) and was done in the year he entered the École des Beaux-Arts.  His fascination with the subtle play of light in interiors is ably demonstrated by his work on the shiny, striped sheet.

It is a shame Caillebotte didn't do more female nudes as these two paintings demonstrate both a great facility and the ability to create an enigmatic story.

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