Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Gustave Caillebotte and Modernization

           Gustave Caillebotte was a French painter and supporter of Impressionist artists during the Impressionist period.  He is known for the ‘Caillebotte Bequest’, which left his collection of Impressionist and modern paintings with the French state upon his death in 1894.  As an artist, his paintings show the modernity of France: the bourgeoisie (upper level middle class) at leisure, the Haussmanization of Paris, modern technology, and an sense of isolation and loneliness that reflected his own personal life, but it can also be said to reflect some of the affects of the new modernization and urbanization of France.  Some of his paintings are an interesting mix of both a celebration and a critique of modernization.

            A painting that reflects these concepts of celebration and critique of modernization in France during the 1870’s is the Pont l’Europe, done in 1876 (Challenge of the A-G p. 138), oil on canvas.  The subject matter shows the pedestrians walking across a bridge.  At first the painting seems to celebrate modernization.  The viewer can see the rebuilt street and buildings, which were damaged during the destruction of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune uprising.  The widened streets show the Haussmanization of France, which was a modernization of Paris streets prior to the war.  The bridge supports look as if they are made of steel beams, which was a fairly new technology that started to be mass produced in the mid 19th century.  Electric street lamps can be seen in the background and adds to the sense of mondernization.

            Pont de l’Europe has a mood of isolation, which is reinforced by the spacing and the perspective, the color palette, and the characteristics of the figures.  Caillebotte’s unique perspective angles the ground up and divides the space.  By angling the sidewalk, Caillebotte divides the scene between the people on the sidewalk, which now takes up most of the picture plane, and the street and the background, which get pushed to the side of the canvas.  He’s created this open space between the figures that seems to isolate them from one another.  The cool and somber color palette adds to the feeling of isolation of the figures and the harsh light creates deep shadows which lend itself to the more somber mood.  The figures themselves seem to be caught up in their own thoughts (such as the figure on the right).  There is very little interaction between the figures in the foreground or those in the background.  The man and woman on the left side of the canvas seem to have a casual interaction taking place, but the man’s placement in front of the woman and a couple of steps away from her, creates an awkward distance between them, and there are no feelings of intimacy in their interaction.

            The sense of isolation, which can be found in many of Caillebotte’s paintings, can be seen as a critique of modernization.  With the advent of the Industrial Revolution it brought a huge migration of people from the rural areas into industrialized urban areas.  The influx of people seeking jobs in the factories, mines, and mechanical manufacturing often got paid very little and had to work long hours in order to support their families (Stokstad p.962).  This caused isolation with some of the population who worked long hours, different shifts, and people who had little leisure time, unlike the flanners, who were rich upper class that pursued a life of leisure.

            Other critiques of modernization that Caillebotte is conveying in his painting are the advent of disease and prostitution.  The dog, which I associate positive feeling towards and who seemed the happiest of all the figures, is a symbol of the bourgeoisie’s fear of the rabies disease.  Because the dog seems to be wandering the streets without a human companion and seems to be a mutt, the bourgeoisie, or the upper class, would have seen the dog as a threat for disease, and would have been terrorized by the sight of the dog.  The man in the top hat talking to the woman over his shoulder may in fact be propositioning her.  Her fine clothes and because she is unescorted walking in public, her reputation is questionable and it’s possible she could be a courtesan, or prostitute.  Modernization while causing an influx in labor, also brought wealth to some of the bourgeoisie and more time for leisure activities, including prostitution.

            While Caillebotte’s work did show the modernization of France with the technology, the improvements of the streets and buildings, his work also shows the critiques of modernization.  He successfully conveys the mood of isolation of people, through his use of perspective and space, somber colors, and deep shadows.  He also shows the other realities of modern day life with the fear of disease, which can be spread more rapidly as people bring diseased pets from other areas, and the seedier results of wealth, such as prostitution, on some of the middle class.


  1. Thank you for mentioning the advent of disease and prostitution which came along with the modernization of France. I did not think that it was something that was evident in Caillebotte's painting "Pont de l’Europe", but after reading your post, I see how it can be seen in the wandering dog and in the man talking with the lady in expensive clothes. Along with the change in the city's construction we can also see the change in the type of people that lived or moved to France.

  2. I found it very interesting in how you discussed the painting and broke down its content. The hidden messages in this work tell the viewer more about the state of the minds of the bourgeoisie. I like that you discussed the criticism of the modern life and how that can be interpreted as a celebration rather than a revelation of its ills. Also it was interesting to think about the fears and superstitions people faced.

  3. I have to totally agree with Lesik, I never really though as much about the change of people by viewing these paintings as much as the physical changes that took place as the times changed. I would have never even considered it, without reading your post. Thank you!