… the front of a boy, the back of a man …

Not always following the Impressionist “rules,” Caillebotte fulfills the French Impressionist purpose — to capture the moment, deliciously.  This exhibition covers his main subjects, scenes of the city and urban labor, and with a special focus on his paintings in which water plays a major role.  Here are two of my favorites.

In Oarsman in a Top Hat, we (unseen), are in a rowboat, knee to knee with a rower who’s taken time off from the office for a refreshing row on the river.  Beside him on the rower’s bench is his folded jacket — what a detail to conjure up — the just before and the just after, framing the great Impressionist subject:  the now.  His cheeks are rosy, his face flushed with physical activity — he’s just pulled forward on the oars — but he looks aside, caught in thought.  Physical activity and thought, the Impressionist broken brushstrokes of the water and the clear, curved contours of his hat, the color-filled shadows of his face and the black of his vest, the dappled patterns of the water and the stripes of his shirt sleeves, he’s near as he could be, others are distant — this painting is a study of contrasts, a visual drama of available human joys.

The Floor Scrapers is a study of browns and sepias.  What — no juxtaposition of complementary colors?  no broken brush strokes?  hard work as a subject? — for reasons like these Caillebotte has often been overlooked, because the “true” Impressionists — Monet and Renoir, bathed in such prestige.  What a narrow attitude that assumes that hard work isn’t fun!  that arbitrarily decides that the color brown, poor brown, lacks light.  For this artist, neither is true.

As in Oarsman in a Top Hat, Caillebotte paints mind and body.  Concentration on the job, one of our greatest pleasures — well, isn’t it?  — is as much the subject of The Floor Scrapers as scraping floors.  The older worker, on his knees, uses experience, training and focus to do a fine job — it’s all in his posture.  The young worker concentrates on sharpening his blade, head bent to the task.

Natural light pouring through the window falls across the poignantly naked chest of the young man and the shirted back of the older one — the front of a boy, the back of a man, coming and going, flesh and no flesh, youth and age … and yet, both face the same direction.  This is one canny painter.  The unpausing light illuminates the parallel rows they’ve been cutting through the old floor varnish, the curly shavings a heightening contrast, and reflects with a refreshing dazzle from the wetted floor.

These are life-affirming paintings.

Gustave Caillebotte, Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea is at the Brooklyn Museum through July 5, 2009.

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