Caillebotte holds a key place among the Impressionists, not only as a painter of modern life, but also as an organizing force behind the group’s exhibitions and a generous patron of his fellow artists, including Degas, Monet, and Renoir. His collection, which he left to the French state, is today a cornerstone of the Musée d’Orsay. Caillebotte is best known for the scenes of contemporary, bourgeois Paris painted between 1875 and 1884. These highlight his fascination with surprising viewpoints and evocative juxtapositions of figures, which capture what the critic Edmond Duranty described as “constantly changing impromptu views that are the great delights of life” (The New Painting
, 1876, reprinted in Charles S. Moffett, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874–1886
, Geneva, 1986, p. 45).
The Met’s picture attests to an important shift in Caillebotte’s art in the 1880s and 1890s, when river scenes, floral motifs, and landscapes come to dominate his work. This change was prompted in large part by his acquisition of a home along the Seine River in the town of Petit-Gennevilliers, just north of Paris, in the spring of 1881, which allowed him to pursue his passions for boating and gardening. The property, which became his full-time residence in 1888, eventually included a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, greenhouse, flowerbeds, a small wood, a gardener’s house, a pavilion serving as a residence for two gardeners, a chicken coop, hen-house, and a kennel, all enclosed by trellises, fences, and earth embankments (Anne Distel et al., Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist
, Chicago, 1995, pp. 272–73 n. 14). A sense of the site, since demolished to make way for a large industrial complex, may be gleaned from photographs taken by Caillebotte’s brother Martial (see fig. 1 above).The Picture:
Earlier in his career, Caillebotte had made numerous paintings of the cultivated grounds of his family’s country home in Yerres, southeast of Paris; now he delved with fresh intensity into the artistic possibilities presented by the varied terrain of his gardens. The Met’s picture is one of three depictions of a bed of brilliantly colored chrysanthemums that Caillebotte undertook in 1893, not long before he died (Berhaut 1994, nos. 487–89). Fell (1994) identifies the flowers as “football” mums, with full, rounded, tousled heads, and suggests that they were painted in autumn, when chrysanthemums typically bloom.
In Caillebotte’s day the blossoms were hugely popular in France, celebrated for their resplendent colors and associations with East Asia, whose arts and cultures were greatly admired by Europeans. As Clare A. P. Willsdon notes, the "introduction and cross-breeding" of new species of chrysanthemum from Asia "brought these flowers to a zenith of colouristic diversity by the end of the century," making them a natural choice for painters (In the Gardens of Impressionism
, New York, 2004, p. 216). Chrysanthemums figure in a number of works by artists in the Impressionist circle, including Renoir (The Met, 2003.20.10
) and Monet (The Met, 29.100.106
). One such example, a Monet still life of red chrysanthemums in a vase, was in Caillebotte’s collection when he painted The Met’s picture (Daniel Wildenstein, Monet
, Cologne, 1996, vol. 2, no. 635; hereafter cited as "W").
Caillebotte’s ongoing interest in innovative perspectives can be seen in his creation of an intimate, eye-level view, with the chrysanthemums spread across the canvas from edge to edge, pressing up against the picture plane. He balanced this decorative effect with a naturalistic sensibility, delicately rendering the soft disarray of the petals and the gently curving leaves. Scholars have linked this composition to a project that Caillebotte undertook in 1893 to decorate the doors of his dining room at Petit-Gennevilliers with depictions of orchids and other flowers. The completed top panels show the plants against the glass arches of Caillebotte’s greenhouse, while the bottom panels offer tightly focused, ground-level views of different blooms, depicted in shallow depth and dispersed across the canvas (fig. 2). Although the panels’ dimensions differ from that of Chrysanthemums in the Garden at Petit-Gennevilliers
, the formal kinship is compelling.
Authors also draw parallels with the work of Monet, a friend and fellow artist-gardener who corresponded with Caillebotte about their mutual passion in the 1890s. By this time, Monet’s own exploration of the decorative potential of floral motifs was in full swing. Most relevant to Caillebotte’s work are Monet’s ornamentation of doors for the drawing room of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel with paintings of flowers in vases and close up views of blossoms and fruit in 1882–85, and his subsequent “all over” floral compositions. It is fitting that Caillebotte gave one of the companions to The Met’s picture to Monet (Berhaut 1994, no. 488), who in turn made four similar paintings of chrysanthemums (1897–98; W1495–98; figs. 3–4). Groom (1995) suggests that they are an homage to his departed friend.
Alison Hokanson 2015