The Pissarro Letters and the Caillebotte Legacy

Note from the author: all the translations are my own.

While reading the letters of Camille Pissarro, I encountered many references to the ‘legs Caillebotte’ (the Caillebotte Legacy) between the years 1894 and 1898. In this article, I wanted to put together the material from the letters and have a closer look at this interesting episode from the history of the Impressionists. I will be presenting the way in which the events were interpreted by Pissarro as he was reacting to developments.

Gustave Caillebotte, Self-Portrait (1892), collection of the Musée d’Orsay

Gustave Caillebotte was both a member of the Impressionists and a generous patron of the group. He was from a well-to-do Parisian family and inherited a sizeable sum from his father, allowing him to paint without having to worry about sales. Caillebotte is one of the least-well-known of the Impressionists, despite leaving behind a number of important paintings. His chef d’oeuvre Les Raboteurs de parquet [The Floor Planers] (1875), for example, now in the Musée d’Orsay, will be known to many, while his name continues to be unfamiliar. His painting Jeune homme à la fenêtre [Young man at his window] (1875) adorns the cover of the modern edition of the novel Jean Barois (1913) and perfectly captures the energy of a young man looking to the future.

Caillebotte was an unselfish, enthusiastic man and well-liked by his colleagues. He helped to support his fellow-Impressionists by purchasing a number of their paintings over the years. The benefit of this assistance cannot be overstated. Camille Pissarro wrote to Monet around 1879, telling him that he’d only made a few small sales recently, and was ‘very happy to have had Caillebotte to help me get through the Cape of Summer, without him my sales would certainly not have saved me from a shipwreck’. Pissarro knew that Monet would understand since he, too, had received crucial help from Caillebotte during difficult times.

But Caillebotte only bought pieces that he genuinely liked, and as Pissarro noted, he did not like pointillism and therefore didn’t buy any neo-Impressionist work. In a period in which Pissarro owed money to Caillebotte, he explained to his son Lucien: ‘at that time, I was doing pointillism and I knew that he hated it, to the extent that I did not feel able to offer him what I’d done’.

Tragically, Caillebotte died of a stroke on 21 February 1894, only 45 years old. This was very sad news for all the Impressionists. Camille wrote to Lucien on 1 March 1894: ‘we have just lost a sincere and devoted friend, Caillebotte died suddenly of a stroke. Here is someone we can mourn, he was good and generous and, on top of that, a painter of talent’. I do not know if Pissarro was aware that Caillebotte had left a will stipulating that his collection of 67 paintings (all Impressionist works except for 2 pieces by Millet) be given to the State on condition that they would be displayed in the Musée du Luxembourg, with the expectation that they would one day be in the Louvre. The paintings were not to be divided up, were not to be sent to a provincial museum and were not to end up in the State’s ‘loft’. The executors of his will were his younger brother Martial and the artist Auguste Renoir, who both worked diligently to have the terms honoured. In the meantime, there was a retrospective exhibition of Caillebotte’s work held at the Durand-Ruel gallery from the 4 to 16 June 1894.

Even though 1894 marked twenty years since the first Impressionist exhibition, and great strides had been made in terms of their acceptance, the Caillebotte Legacy caused controversy. The terms of the bequest attracted attention and negative pushback from certain corners of the art establishment and made the work of the executors very difficult; it wasn’t long before it became known as ‘l’Affaire Caillebotte’. On 19 January 1895, Pissarro wrote to Lucien:

‘It seems that the State has definitively refused the Caillebotte bequest! How about that? What a pity that Caillebotte did not have the idea of offering his legacy to a foreign country if France did not want it. That would be quite a blow’.

With this suggestion, Pissarro was making reference to an ironic piece published by his friend Octave Mirbeau in the Journal on 24 December 1894. Mirbeau wrote in the guise of an ‘art collector’ who explained that his collection had been acquired carefully and at great expense and since he wouldn’t want it dispersed haphazardly after his death, he’ll bequeath it to London’s National Gallery, where the works will receive the honour they merit. Mirbeau added: ‘ungrateful homeland, you may have my bones, but you won’t have my paintings’. This was a satirical re-writing of the inscription on the tomb of the Roman general Scipio Africanus ‘thankless country, though shall not possess even my bones’.

The French state did not definitively decline the entire Caillebotte legacy, as Pissarro stated, but negotiations were fraught and the collection wasn’t taken in its entirety.  The executors had to accept having it broken up, with the following allocation admitted to the Musée du Luxembourg: 7 Degas, 2 Manet, 4 Cézanne, 8 Monet, 6 Renoir, 6 Sisley and 7 Pissarro. The 2 Millet paintings went straight to the Louvre. The remaining paintings were kept by the Caillebotte family. On 14 February 1895, Pissarro wrote to Lucien:

‘Did I tell you that I’d received a letter from the curator of the Luxembourg asking me for my advice on the 6 paintings that they chose for the Caillebotte collection, but he added that’s in the event that all the parties involved reach an agreement. What a bunch of idiots! I replied that I will give a response when I come up to Paris and see this collection, which I haven’t seen for 15 years’

Even as of this date, almost a year after Caillebotte’s death, the details of accepting the legacy had still not been formalised. Pissarro, for example, mentions 6 paintings, though they eventually take 7 of his works. But a week later, he wrote again to say: ‘I’m awaiting your mother who will be here tomorrow to go see the paintings in the Caillebotte collection’. The formalities were advancing. It is interesting that Pissarro took his wife Julie with him to view the paintings. The letter doesn’t reveal whether this was at her request or his; he might have wanted her opinion, or she might have wanted to see behind the scenes at the Luxembourg.

The unveiling of the exhibition had to wait a further two years while the museum underwent a refurbishment, including the preparation of a new annexe which opened on 9 February 1897. ‘La petite annexe’, as they called it, had 3 rooms, with the ‘legs Caillebotte’ occupying one of them.  On 18 February 1897, Pissarro wrote to Lucien: ‘Did I tell you that the musée du Luxembourg, the annex, has opened? Crowds, it seems, howling! in front of the Impressionists. Besides that, the room is poor, narrow, badly lit, ugly frames and idiotic placement’. After all of the publicity surrounding the Affaire Caillebotte, curiosity attracted large crowds, though not all of them were sympathetic to the Impressionists.

Even at this stage, certain members of the Académie continued to complain about the inclusion of the Impressionists in the Luxembourg, and did so vocally, in the press. Pissarro had not yet been to the exhibition, but on 10 March 1897, he wrote to Lucien, giving a wonderful summary of the events:

‘About the Caillebotte collection, we don’t complain about the quality: Renoir has his ball, which is a masterpiece, Degas has some very beautiful things, Monet has his railway station, Sisley doesn’t have his best pieces, but they’re interesting, me, I have two of my best things from 1882, as good as those in your mother’s collection. The only problem is that they’re stupidly placed and horribly framed, that’s it. Some young artists and good collectors have paid me the biggest compliments. But there is the battle, the battle against the School. Some of them don’t understand anything. […] No, very rare are the true painters and those who understand; I haven’t had the time to go to the exhibition, but Degas told me about it; he finds that although it’s not complete, it’s very good, and that the Renoir is admirable. I’m sending you some newspapers, L’Eclair, which has an interview with Gérôme. The Institute has protested to the Minister of Fine Arts: and he says not to confuse Renoir with Renouard, who really knows how to draw and has talent!!!! That takes the cake! […] We don’t mind all of this; basically, they rage and we’re in the right, at least I’m convinced of it. Be sure of it, all this does us considerable good; this protest was an event and it will continue, you can be certain’.

Jean-Leon Gérôme was the supreme example of the status quo in the art establishment. He worked in the academic style and was a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. He was a member of the prestigious Institut de France, which Pissarro mentions. He was a chevalier in the Légion d’honneur and even an honorary member of the British Academy. Over the years, he had consistently attacked the Impressionists, and during the Affaire Caillebotte, he was especially vocal in protesting their admission to the Luxembourg. Pissarro wrote to Lucien: ‘Gérôme treats us like pimps!’ The Impressionists had their supporters too, and it was in this period that Pissarro received a letter from a collector named Eugène Blot, a member of the newly-founded Société des amis du Luxembourg (Society of the Friends of the Luxembourg), created in part to defend the Impressionists against their critics.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso (1872), collection of the Phoenix Art Museum

By 29 April 1897, Pissarro had finally been to see the exhibition in person, and he was pleased with his work; he wrote to Lucien:

‘Did I tell you that I have been to the Luxembourg? I was quite satisfied with my paintings; I believe that I am very well represented. Though it is presented as only officials can do: with horrible ugly frames, in a corridor, with the paintings stuck one against the other; you won’t be surprised, experience has shown us the general bad taste of French museums!’

Despite these comments, it’s clear that Pissarro also took pride in having his paintings displayed at the Luxembourg. Later, Pissarro will refer to a piece in the Caillebotte collection when he discusses his Pontoise series: ‘a painting like the red-roofed house, now at the Luxembourg, perhaps the best I did’. One can sense the satisfaction in his tone. The piece was Les Toits rouges, coin de village, effet d’hiver, now at the Musée d’Orsay.

Camille Pissarro, Les Toits rouges, coin de village, effet d’hiver (1877), collection of the Musée d’Orsay

Pissarro was correct that the Caillebotte Legacy and the furore surrounding it would have a lasting influence, to the extent that it is beyond the scope of this article, where I’m simply looking at the way in which the events were interpreted by Pissarro in his letters. This article from Le Monde in May 2007 shows that the controversy surrounding the State’s treatment of the bequest continues:

Gustave Caillebotte’s final act of generosity had helped his Impressionist colleagues to gain a foothold in an establishment museum, and, he had not included any of his own works in the bequest. Finally, the Caillebotte Legacy would become part of the permanent collection of the Musée d’Orsay.

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

3 thoughts on “The Pissarro Letters and the Caillebotte Legacy

  1. ” « tissu d’erreurs et d’absurdités, légèreté scandaleuse, c’est comme si quelqu’un se mêlait de médecine en reprenant des recettes de bonne femme, pure invention…”

    Not nice.

    Thank you for sharing this extensive article.

    Liked by 2 people

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