Gustave Caillebotte was born on August 19, 1848 to an upper-class Parisian family. His father, Martial Caillebotte (1799-1874), was the inheritor of the family's military textile business and was also a judge at the Seine department's Tribunal de Commerce. Caillebotte's father was twice widowed before marrying Caillebotte's mother, Celeste Daufresne (1819-1878), who had two more sons after Gustave, Rene (1851-1876) and Martial (1853-1910). Caillebotte was born at home on rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in Paris, and lived on that street until 1866 when his father had a home built on rue de Miromesnil. Beginning in 1860, the Caillebotte family began spending many of their summers in Yerres, a town on the Yerres River about 12 miles south of Paris, where Martial Caillebotte, Sr. had purchased a large property. It was around this time that Caillebotte probably began to draw and paint.
Caillebotte earned a law degree in 1868 and a license to practice law in 1870. Shortly afterwards, he was drafted to fight in the Franco-Prussian war, and served in the Garde Nationale Mobile de la Seine.
After the war, Caillebotte began visiting the studio of painter Leon Bonnat, where he began to seriously study painting. He developed an accomplished style in a relatively short period of time and had his first studio in his parents' home. In 1873, Caillebotte entered into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but apparently did not spend much time there. He inherited his father's fortune in 1874 and the three sons divided the family fortune after their mother's death in 1878. Around 1874, Caillebotte met and befriended several artists working outside the official French Academy, including Edgar Degas and Giuseppe de Nittis, and attended (but did not participate in) the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874.
The "Impressionists" - also called the "Independents", "Intransigents", and "Intentionalists" - had broken away from the academic painters showing in the annual Salons. Caillebotte did make his debut in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876 showing eight paintings including Floor-scrapers (1875), his earliest masterpiece. Its subject matter, the depiction of laborers preparing a wooden floor, was considered "vulgar" by some critics and is the probable reason why it was rejected by the Salon of 1875. At the time, the art establishment only deemed rustic peasants or farmers as acceptable subjects from the working class. The painting now resides at the Musee d'Orsay. A second version, in a more realistic style resembling that of Degas, was also exhibited, demonstrating Caillebotte's range of technique and his adept restatement of the same subject matter.
Caillebotte's style belongs to the School of Realism but was strongly influenced by his Impressionist associates. In common with his precursors, Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet, as well his contemporary Degas, Caillebotte aimed to paint reality as it existed and as he saw it, hoping to reduce painting's inherent theatricality. Perhaps because of his close relationship with so many of his peers, his style and technique varies considerably among his works, as if "borrowing" and experimenting, but not really sticking to any one style. At times, he seems very much in the Degas camp of rich-colored Realism (especially his interior scenes) and at other times, he shares the Impressionist' commitment to "optical truth" and employs an impressionistic pastel-softness and loose brush strokes most similar to Renoir and Pissarro, though with a less vibrant palette.
Caillebotte painted many domestic and familial scenes, interiors, and portraits. Many of his paintings depict members of his family, Young Man at His Window (Jeune Homme a sa fenetre) (1875) shows Rene in the home on rue de Miromesnil, The Orange Trees (Les orangers) (1878), depicts Martial Jr. and his cousin Zoe in the garden of the family property at Yerres, and Portraits in the Country (Portraits a la campagne) (1875) includes Caillebotte's mother along with his aunt, cousin, and a family friend. There are scenes of dining, card playing, piano playing, reading and sewing all done in an intimate, unobtrusive manner which observes the quiet ritual of upper-class indoor life.
His country scenes at Yerres focus on pleasure boating on the leisurely stream as well as fishing and swimming, and domestic scenes around his country home. Often, he used a soft impressionistic technique reminiscent of Renoir to convey the tranquil nature of the countryside, in sharp contrast to the flatter, smoother strokes of his urban paintings. In Oarsman in a Top Hat (1877), he effectively manages the perspective of a passenger in the back of a row boat facing his rowing companion and the stream ahead, in a manner much more realistic and involving than Manet's Boating (1874).
Caillebotte though is best knowwn for his paintings of urban Paris, such as The Pont de l'Europe (Le pont de l'Europe) (1876), and Paris Street, Rainy Day (Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, also known as La Place de l'Europe, temps de pluie) (1877). The latter is almost unique among his works for its particularly flat colors and photo-realistic effect which gives the painting its distinctive and modern look, almost akin to American Realists such as Edward Hopper. Many of his urban paintings were quite controversial due to their exaggerated, plunging perspective. In Man on a Balcony (1880), he invites the viewer to share the balcony with his subject and join in observing the scene of the city reaching into the distance, again by using unusual perspective. Showing little allegiance to any one style, many of Caillebotte's other urban paintings done in the same period, such as The Place Saint-Augustin (1877), are considerably more impressionistic.
The tilted ground common to these paintings is very characteristic of Caillebotte's work, which may have been strongly influenced by Japanese prints and the new technology of photography, though evidence of his actual use of photography is lacking. Cropping and "zooming-in," techniques which are also commonly found in Caillebotte's oeuvre, may also be the result of his interest in photography, but may just as likely derive from his intense interest in perspective effects. A large number of Caillebotte's works also employ a very high vantage point, including View of Roooftops (Snow) (Vue des toits, effet de neige) (1878), Boulevard Seen from Above (Boulevard vu d'en haut) (1880), and A Traffic Island (1880).
Caillebotte's still-life paintings focus primarily on food, some at table ready to be eaten and some ready to be purchased, as in a series of paintings he made of meat at a butcher shop. He also produced some floral still life paintings, particularly in the 1890s. Rounding out his subject matter, he painted a few nudes, most notably Nude on a Couch (1882), which, though provocative in its Realism, is ambivalent in its mood - neither overtly erotic nor suggestive of mythology - themes common to many female nude paintings of that era.
Caillebotte acquired a property at Petit-Gennevilliers, on the banks of the Seine near Argenteuil, in 1881, and moved there permanently in 1888. He ceased showing his work at age 34 and devoted himself to gardening and to building and racing yachts, and spent much time with his brother, Martial, and his friend Renoir, who often came to stay at Petit-Gennevilliers, and engaged in far ranging discussions on art, politics, literature, and philosophy. Never married, he appears to have had a serious relationship with Charlotte Berthier, a woman eleven years his junior and of the lower class, to whom he left a sizable annuity.
Caillebotte's painting career slowed dramatically in the early 1890s, when he stopped making large canvases. Caillebotte died of pulmonary congestion while working in his garden at Petit-Gennevilliers in 1894 at age 45, and was interred at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
For many years, Caillebotte's reputation as a painter was superseded by his reputation as a supporter of the arts. Seventy years after his death, however, art historians began reevaluating his artistic contributions. His striking use of varying perspective is particularly admirable and sets him apart from his peers who may have exceeded him in other artistic areas. His art was largely forgotten until the 1950s when his descendents began to sell the family collection. In 1964, The Art Institute of Chicago acquired Paris Street, Rainy Day, spurring American interest in the artist. By the 1970's, his works were being exhibited again and critically reassessed.
Caillebotte's sizable allowance, along with the inheritance he received after the death of his father in 1874 and his mother in 1878, allowed him to paint without the pressure to sell his work. It also allowed him to help fund Impressionist exhibitions and support his fellow artists and friends (including Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro among others) by purchasing their works and, at least in the case of Monet, paying the rent for their studios.
Caillebotte bought his first Claude Monet in 1876 and was especially helpful to that artist's career and financial survival. He was precise in his sponsorship, notably absent are works by Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin, or any of the Symbolists. He played a major role in convincing the Louvre to purchase Manet's Olympia for their greater good.
In addition, Caillebotte used his wealth to fund a variety of hobbies for which he was quite passionate, including stamp collecting (his collection is now in the British Museum), orchid horticulture, yacht building, and even textile design (the women in his paintings Madame Boissiere Knitting, 1877, and Portrait of Madam Caillebotte, 1877, may be working on patterns created by Caillebotte).