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Arts / Museums

The Lessons of a Misunderstood Painter

Kimbell’s Art Guru Shares the Secrets of a Blockbuster Exhibit and His Peter Marzio Big Break

BY // 01.05.16

The deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum, George Shackelford, contemplates Caillebotte — perhaps the least understood but most modern of the impressionists — then considers the joys of collecting Texas artists paired with the wonders of 19th-century neoclassical, gothic revival and aesthetic movement furniture … and ponders how Degas gave him his first big break.

WHY GUSTAVE CAILLEBOTTE IS STILL RELEVANT.
Caillebotte is one of those painters who is concerned with themes that go beyond time and place … His paintings often remind modern audiences of photographs or films — there’s something so novel and modern about them that you can imagine Nan Goldin or Quentin Tarantino setting up a shot based on Caillebotte.

QUINTESSENTIAL CAILLEBOTTE.
A lot of his images are about point of view — what’s near and what’s far, what’s high and what’s low, what’s glimpsed on the street and what’s scandalously intimate. He’s fascinated by subjects that touch on how people behave with each other. A man and a woman sit in the same room but pay no attention to each other; people come and go in the street, and stop and start and look here and there; a mother and son sit at a dining table together but seem worlds away from each other.

Social psychologists have all kinds of terms for these relationships — and they’re the same now as they were in the 1870s.

HOW THE EXHIBITION CAME ABOUT.
My good friend Mary Morton, head of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., shares my enthusiasm for Caillebotte. We were together in Paris in 2011 and went to see a small show where many of the best paintings from his family’s collections were on view. I had just shepherded the acquisition of a masterpiece by Caillebotte for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Man at his Bath, 1884) and was coming to the Kimbell, where the great On the Pont del’Europe has been since the 1980s.

We said to each other, a bit like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, “Let’s do a show!”

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Gustave Caillebotte’s Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1879–1880, at the Kimbell Art Museum

 

WHAT VIEWERS WILL SEE.
It was time for a new retrospective — one with the ambition to include all his best works, both famous masterpieces from museums (like the Art Institute of Chicago’s Paris Street, Rainy Day) and amazing works from private collections (like A Boating Party, owned by the artist’s heirs). Only one museum in the world owns more than two Caillebottes (Musée d’Orsay in Paris), so to get a real idea of his achievement, you have to see a special exhibition. Our criterion was quality. We wanted — and we got — only the best.

YOUR FIRST CAILLEBOTTE ENCOUNTER.
I had seen paintings by Caillebotte in my undergraduate art history courses at Dartmouth, and I had seen The Floor Scrapers at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, but I had never seen a painting by him that I could remember [in America] until I went to the great exhibition of his work in 1976 and 1977 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Brooklyn Museum. That was the first big show of his works in many years, and it was a wake-up call to collectors and curators.

The MFAH already had two paintings in the Beck Collection, but Boston, Fort Worth, Kansas City, etc. all went looking for Caillebottes as a result of that exhibition.

THE ARTIST AND YOUR MUSEUM CAREER.
Impressionism is my art-historical homeland, so I have never been very far from Caillebotte. I went to the great Caillebotte exhibitions held in Paris, Chicago and Los Angeles in 1994 and 1995. That was the last time a comprehensive retrospective was held, until now.

FOR YOU, THE SEMINAL CAILLEBOTTE CANVAS.
Now that’s a tricky question. Paris Street, Rainy Day is his most ambitious and most famous painting. But I have to say that the Kimbell’s On the Pont de l’Europe may be the painting that I think is his best. There’s something about its mood that is indescribable.

It’s a very mysterious painting, gentle and hard at the same time, filled with longing and expectation that’s ultimately overcome by melancholy and silence. Moist, light-infused atmosphere up against cold steel and iron. It’s a painting that has as many meanings and interpretations as it has viewers … It was a very major accomplishment, but Caillebotte never exhibited it. I long to know why.

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Gustave Caillebotte’s Interior, Woman at the Window, 1880, at the Kimbell Art Museum

 

YOUR PERSONAL COLLECTING OBSESSIONS.
I own either old works by unknown or little-known artists, or else modern works by people I know well. Some of my favorite works are by artists with Texas ties, people I’ve known for a long time, like Terrell James, Liz Ward, Rob Ziebell, Randy TwaddleDavid Aylsworth, the late Robin Utterback, and DeWitt Godfrey and Jeff Cowie, who got their starts in Houston but are both now in New York. My most intriguing older work might be a highly finished pencil drawing by the painter Dagnan-Bouveret, a portrait of his lover Gustave Courtois, acquired at the time of the Salon du Dessin in Paris a few years ago.

Another work I cherish is a bronze bust of a young man, which I bought from a small but excellent dealer on the Cape 10 years ago. Research tells me that the bust is one of a group of such bronzes made in the late 1930s and cast at a New York bronze firm, but I still haven’t figured out who the sculptor is.

As for furnishings, I am partial to a number of different times and periods, but I have a strong penchant for early 19th-century Neoclassical pieces — mahogany tables and mirrors and sideboards; for the Gothic Revival, mostly in terms of chairs, each more outrageous than the next; and for the Aesthetic movement, largely represented in my house by ebonized furniture in the Japanese taste. I also have a passion amounting to a dangerous obsession for antique china and table linens.

TALENTS YOU ARE TRACKING.
I keep a sharp eye out for the work of three artists that I’m particularly interested in. The first is Edgar Degas, the subject of my PhD dissertation at Yale, who I have been working on for nearly 40 years. Then there’s Claude Monet, whose late work was the subject of a show I co-organized in 1998 and whose early work will be featured in a show I’m doing for the Kimbell and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2016 and 2017.

Finally, there’s Paul Gauguin. I had the honor of being one of the curators of the exhibition “Gauguin Tahiti” in Paris and Boston in 2003 and 2004, and once Gauguin gets in your blood you just can’t get him out. My forays into contemporary art are more personal. I tend not to worry about the broader contemporary scene and focus instead on the artists I know personally, or on those championed by dealers that I know and like.

FIRST BIG BREAK AS A CURATOR.
It was the chance to do an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art when I was still under 30. I had been awarded a fellowship to work on my dissertation research on Degas’ dance compositions. I lived in Paris for two years, going through Degas’ notebooks at the Bibliothèque Nationale two times and through every drawing by him at the Cabinet des Dessins, the drawings study of the Louvre. I read everything I could find on dance and dancers, and on methods of drawing, both classic and vanguard.

Back in Washington, D.C., at the [National] Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, I began to write my dissertation and discussed my work in casual conversation with Gil Ravenel, the Gallery’s chief of design. He urged me to draw up an exhibition proposal, which I took to the director of the museum, J. Carter Brown. The exhibition, a show of only 55 works that we titled “Degas: The Dancers,” was accepted. It opened in 1984, and by that time I had been asked to come to Houston, where I worked for Peter Marzio at the MFAH and had the pleasure of helping Audrey Jones Beck build on her exceptional collection. After 11 years there, I went to the fantastic MFA, Boston, for 16 years, with a chance to organize exhibitions on Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin and Impressionist landscapes and still lifes, based on Boston’s amazing collection.

I’ve been at the Kimbell for nearly four years and love being part of a museum that’s just as ambitious on a world stage — and, of course, I love being back in Texas.

WHAT YOU MOST FONDLY REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR TIME IN HOUSTON?
Peter Marzio, the famous director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, hired me when I was 29 to be a curator, and gave me the opportunity to grow as a scholar, a connoisseur and as a member of a really talented team. The spirit of Houston as a place — its belief that anything is possible, and that great things should happen — really helped form my attitude towards life and work. And as a Southerner who’d “been to town,” as they say, starting my career in Houston — which really is one of the great cities of the South — was a great thing.

As my Louisiana grandmother always said, “Good manners will open doors for you that money never can.” Well, to take that further, I learned in Houston that if you use good will to convince people that your ideas are worth paying attention to, you can make great things happen. 

“Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye.” Through February 14 at The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

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