DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you're going to be an artist, a nice way to do it is to be independently wealthy, not need to sell your work to pay the bills, buy up the paintings of your marvelously talented friends and then give their works to the nation and the world. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says one such little-known 19th-century artist is having a big show at the National Gallery of Art right now. And because he didn't have to sell them, many of his paintings haven't been seen before, except by private collectors and his family.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Gustave Caillebotte's descendants loaned works to this National Gallery show. Marie-Claude Chardeau owns "Sunflowers" from 1885.
MARIE-CLAUDE CHARDEAU: Well, I think it's swell. And when I open my door, I thought I was in my garden and not in Paris (laughter).
STAMBERG: Because it's full of sunflowers that greet you. They say hello. And then behind, it's a farmhouse of some sort, with red roofs - very, very cheerful. You feel you're standing in the sunshine, I think, even on a rainy day.
M. CHARDEAU: Exactly, exactly.
STAMBERG: Marie-Claude's husband's grandmother was a Caillebotte. Another relative, Caillebotte's great-grandnephew Gilles Chardeau, is also a lender. Gilles does not look that happy to see my microphone.
So is there anything here that belongs to you?
GILLES CHARDEAU: I don't know. I have some hole in my head. OK, thank you.
STAMBERG: Come on.
G. CHARDEAU: OK. Well - OK.
STAMBERG: You don't want to tell me?
G. CHARDEAU: No.
G. CHARDEAU: It's a secret.
STAMBERG: And why not, security and all that? A more public lender, the Art Institute of Chicago, owns Caillebotte's best-known work, "Paris Street, Rainy Day," from 1877 - wet cobblestones, wedge-shaped buildings, dark umbrellas sheltering top-hatted men and women in the long dress of the day.
GLORIA GROOM: It is Paris. It's what we think about Paris. It's what you see in movies.
STAMBERG: Chicago curator Gloria Groom says you feel you're walking into the immense painting because of Caillebotte's bold perspective - the buildings way in the background and the umbrella-ed couple up close may be about to walk right past you.
GROOM: It was criticized when it was shown. Someone said, on this monumental scale, it's cheapened by the fact that these umbrellas were all bought at Bon Marche department store because they all look alike, because they are manufactured - mass-manufactured. And he's showing each person kind of in their little world of the umbrella.
STAMBERG: Under those umbrellas, Caillebotte's people seem isolated, alienated on that slick, wet street. He is painting modern life, as medieval Paris gets ripped up for broad, new boulevards and lines of trees.
A few years before "Paris Street," Caillebotte had done an indoor scene that National Gallery curator Mary Morton says launched his career.
MARY MORTON: This is his first painting. This is it.
STAMBERG: This is his first?
MORTON: This is the beginning.
STAMBERG: What a way to start, though. That's astonishing.
It's riveting, so unusual, angled and forthright. Caillebotte made "The Floor Scrapers" in 1875 - workers preparing an artist's most important room.
MORTON: Caillebotte's father buys this great pile in the 8th arrondissement, which is one of the new neighborhoods, and it's a beautiful place to live. And his father is very kind and supportive and starts building out a painting studio for his son.
STAMBERG: The painter shows three laborers preparing the studio. Bare-chested, the workers kneel, their skinny, muscled arms reaching out to level the floor.
MORTON: What these guys are doing is planing, or making even and smooth and light, this brand-new floor. They sort of run water over it and then in striations, scrape it down.
STAMBERG: Caillebotte submits this picture to the Salon - that elite Fine Arts Academy show in Paris.
MORTON: And it causes a sensation.
STAMBERG: Laborers? Working people? The jury rejects it, but Caillebotte's name starts to get around. His art, with its dramatic perspectives and odd subject matter, is unusual - very different from his renegade pals, the Impressionists, with their light-filled brushstrokes and sunshine scenes. But he exhibits with them - for a while.
MORTON: He is independently wealthy.
GEORGE SHACKELFORD: His father had made a lot of money.
STAMBERG: This is Mary Morton's co-curator, George Shackelford of the Kimbell Art Museum.
SHACKELFORD: Had a bed-furnishing business for the army - imagine - made a fortune and reinvested it in real estate, and so Caillebotte literally lived on rent.
STAMBERG: By the time he was 26, he'd inherited that fortune. Mary Morton says that affected Caillebotte's attitude.
MORTON: He doesn't have that drive and motivation that all the other guys do to make art to live. He does not need to make this art. But he is really inspired from '75 to about '82. And I think, again, it's about this movement, this fraternity. They're changing the course of French painting, and that's the way they're talking to each other.
STAMBERG: Caillebotte made only 500 paintings in a few years and then turned to other interests - boating, gardening - before he died at age 45. All along, he'd stayed in touch with his artist friends - Monet, Renoir, Degas, that bunch - and he bought lots of their work because he could.
SHACKELFORD: He lived in comparative luxury, and he could buy these paintings from his friends, and would buy them not out of charity so much but very much looking to give his friends cash money. And then Caillebotte ended up with one of the great, early collections of Impressionism, which went to the government when he died in the 1890s.
STAMBERG: Today, those works make up the core of the Musee d'Orsay's great Impressionist collection. And Caillebotte - known more as a collector than an artist - is now getting attention for the paintings he created - strong scenes of urban life, boating, portraits, food. His bloody calf's head and ox tongue, hanging in a butcher shop, will spoil your lunch today. Gustave Caillebotte, painting the new realities of 19th century Paris. In Washington, not far from the Caillebotte show at the National Gallery until October, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
So you have loaned pictures to this exhibition. Which one - or two - would you like to take back and take home that do not belong to you?
G. CHARDEAU: I'll take this one.
STAMBERG: You want "Rainy Day In Paris?" And you have a wall large enough?
G. CHARDEAU: I build it (laughter).
STAMBERG: You'll build it?
GREENE: Susan Stamberg checking out Caillebotte's paintings. And you can check them out as well at our website, npr.org.
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