Gustave Caillebotte and the Wonders of Art History

“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.” Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition” from The Romantic Manifesto

Sometimes it is the unexpected things in life that end up providing us with the most intellectually challenging experiences, leading to invaluable opportunities for insight and personal development. Case in point: an art history course I took during my final semester as an undergraduate. I managed to make enough room in my schedule to explore a subject of interest to me outside of my psychology and philosophy majors. I had wanted to take an art history class for a while and was pleasantly surprised by the variety offered by UW-Madison. My first choice was Greek Sculpture, but the lecture time unfortunately conflicted with a required class. I decided instead on 19th Century European Painting. I did not know what to expect from an art history class, but I had always enjoyed art of many forms and was looking forward to this opportunity. In hindsight, I can say with certainty that this class was by far one of my favorite classes from all four years of my undergraduate education (amongst Abnormal Psychology, Philosophy of Aesthetics, Mood Disorders, History of Ancient Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, and a course devoted entirely to studying the life of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy).

I found this class to be particularly enjoyable due to a combination of the professor’s teaching style and wealth of knowledge, the content, which I found to be intriguing in and of itself, the professor’s distinctly Obectivist-oriented view of art, and the self-directed, open-ended nature of the assignments. While I likely would have enjoyed this class even in the absence of a great professor, I am certain that this particular instructor made possible a learning experience that few others would have been able to equal. She masterfully created an atmosphere of learning that had a profound impact on not only my ability to evaluate art, but also on my own self-awareness and my capacity to connect meaningfully with the artistic creations of others. Through the discipline of art history, she encouraged students’ ability to think critically, make informed judgments, gain insight, and achieve self-growth. She did all of this indirectly, teaching us to contemplate our own values, convictions, and worldviews by identifying those emphasized in an artistic work. I distinctly remember leaving each lecture with a vivid sense of being more awake – with heightened senses and perceptive ability, a greater appreciation of human ability, an amplified awareness of my goals along with a surge of inspiration to reach them, and a greater connection to the world as it was and to the world I hope to create; in a word: more alive. This professor created such a rich culture of learning – a profound experience unlike any other I had experienced in a classroom before, and undoubtedly one which I will continue to remember and appreciate fondly.

This professor expertly trained students to evaluate works of art by first teaching us about the complex process of creating a painting or sculpture. She believed that one must be intimately familiar with the production of a work of art in order to properly understand and evaluate it. After educating us about the painting and sculpting process, she taught us how to evaluate a work of art according to the various elements involved and the meaning behind each of them. She instructed us to attend to both the general subject of the work of art as well as the minuscule details, all of which the artist purposefully chose to include at the intentional exclusion of others. Her application of philosophical and psychological concepts in her analysis of each piece encouraged students to look far beyond the surface of the artwork. She emphasized the meaning underlying every detail the artist chose to integrate, including the amount of paint layered on the canvas, the use of straight or curved lines, the texture and sheen of the few sculptures we studied, the parallels between certain shapes and objects, the use of repetition and uniformity versus chaos and lack of order, the spatial placement of objects, the depiction of a distorted versus accurate and proportionate perspective of reality, the presence of complementary or non-complementary colors, and the use of light and shadow in illuminating or concealing the subject. Through the consideration of each of these elements, we were taught how to develop objective conclusions about each piece.

Furthermore, this course was certainly not lacking in content. A massive wealth of knowledge was made available to us as we explored the following styles in depth throughout the semester:

  • the aristocratic and feminine Rococo;
  • Classical art celebrating individualism and the Enlightenment;
  • the bold, heroic strokes of Neoclassicism;
  • the passionate sublimity of Romanticism;
  • the utilitarian Biedermeier style;
  • Academic art as influenced by the European art academies;
  • the working-class nature of Realism;
  • Victorian art with its underlying moral proclamations;
  • the medieval ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood;
  • Aestheticism with its emphasis of form over matter;
  • the spontaneity of Impressionism;
  • the pointillistic Neo-Impressionism;
  • the abstract style of Post-Impressionism;
  • the existential nature of Symbolism;
  • the distorted subjectivity of Expressionism;
  • the integration of idealism and proportional forms in Naturalism;
  • the exotic subject matter of Orientalism;
  • the blending of the human and the divine through Syntheticism;
  • the bold rebelliousness of the Avante-Garde; and
  • significant developments in photography such as the daguerreotype, calotype, and carte-de-visite.

This wide variety of styles allowed us to examine the works of numerous artists, and it is the knowledge about each art movement that enabled us to become art historians rather than simply art evaluators. Each artwork was an opportunity to explore the personal life of the artist, the cultural and political environment of the artist’s lifetime, and significant historical events leading up to the time period in question. The integration of each of these factors allowed us to learn the complete context of the artist and his work, enabling us to make informed conclusions about the artwork. From the mix of idealism, realism, and the celebration of beauty in David’s works to the distorted Post-Impressionist creations of the troubled van Gogh, this professor showed us how each artist uniquely created their own personal style within the broader genre of art that they fit into. She offered wonderfully insightful commentary on each of the artworks we studied, merging objective information pertaining to the relevant time period with the more personal philosophical and psychological elements noted in credible biographical sources. This combination of information allowed us to make sense of each artist’s work, integrating the artist’s personal experiences and motivations within the broader historical context. In addition to providing an abundance of relevant information to consider when evaluating a piece of art, she was eager to hear students’ interpretations of the various works. She consistently responded to questions and comments with enthusiasm, providing inquisitive remarks in return, encouraging us to hone our critical thinking skills, and showing us how to expertly apply these skills to the practice of analyzing paintings and sculptures.

As for this professor’s perspective of art and its role in life, she exceeded my expectations yet again. Amidst the chaos of voices we hear today proclaiming either that everything is art or that art has no meaning, her conviction that art has objective meaning as attained through the analysis of relevant information was a perspective I very much appreciated. She challenged students to consider the true meaning of each piece and to present logical arguments outlining our analyses. She taught us to integrate objectivity into art, rather than to view it through a lens of emotionalism or subjectivism which is so often encouraged by modern art today. I went into this class with the Objectivist view that a work of art reveals the artist’s philosophical convictions. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to discover that this particular professor largely agreed with Rand’s evaluation of art: that the subject and style of an artwork reveal the artist’s sense of life – his fundamental convictions about human nature and the meaning of life. Rand expands on this concept in “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art” in her book, The Romantic Manifesto:

“As to the role of emotions in art and the subconscious mechanism that serves as the integrating factor both in artistic creation and in man’s response to art, they involve a psychological phenomenon which we call a sense of life. A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.”

By analyzing a myriad of different artworks and reflecting on the philosophical and psychological implications of each piece, I learned more about philosophy and human psychology from this art history class than I did in some of my philosophy and psychology courses. Given the wide range of content that was covered throughout the semester, there was never a dull moment. Some pieces were gloriously uplifting and inspiring, with underlying messages powerful enough for the viewer to have a profoundly moving experience. One such example is Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, which depicts two lovers entwined in passion, completely captivated by each other’s existence. Rodin’s selection of this subject matter and his flawless execution of it reflect his intention to emphasize the beauty of the ideal that is romantic love. A work of art such as this speaks to the best within the viewer, refueling one’s spirit and providing inspiration and courage to create the life one desires, as art ought to do.

August Rodin’s The Kiss, 1889:

'The_Kiss',_Auguste_Rodin (2)


Other pieces we examined were hideously disturbing, representing man at his lowest and projecting values and worldviews which suggest that nothing good can come from life. A prime example of this category includes Edvard Munch’s The Scream, a piece of psychological angst reflecting Munch’s own existential crisis and his ultimate conclusion that humans are doomed to misery.

Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893:

The Scream


Underlying the entire course was a quiet reverence for the ideas and convictions that led to the wonders of the industrialization of the modern world. Several weeks were focused specifically on the International Exhibitions held in Europe, which celebrated art and architecture as well as the use of the human mind in the creation of various technologies such as the light bulb, steam engine, telephone, and endless innovations in manufacturing.

Thomas Paxton’s Crystal Palace, an architectural monument of cast plate glass and home of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London:

Univ Exp

Exposition Universelle in Paris, 1889:

paris exp

Some of the pieces that I found most fascinating to study (read: not necessarily my favorite works of art, but those I most enjoyed analyzing), ordered by date of completion, include:

Jacques-Louis David’s Victors Bearing Home to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789:

Brutus David

William Blake’s Newton, 1805:

Blake Newton

Caspar David Friedrich’s Traveler Looking Over Sea of Fog, 1818:

Friedrich Traveler

John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from Meadows, 1825:

Constable Cathedral

Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830:

Delacroix liberty

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834:

 Turner Burning

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844:

Turner railway

Gustave Courbet’s Man with a Pipe, 1846:

Man Pipe

Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Gallette, 1874:


Claude Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, 1874:


James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, Falling Rocket, 1874:

Whistler Nocturne

Edgar Degas’ Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, 1879:

Degas Cassatt

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, 1880:

Thinker Rodin

Camille Claudel’s The Waltz, 1893:



Camille Claudel’s The Age of Maturity, 1902:

Claudel Age Maturity

Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell, 1917:

RodinGates (2)


It was not only the lectures themselves and the expanse of knowledge presented throughout the semester that I enjoyed; I also found the writing assignments to be both intellectually challenging and immensely gratifying. These two papers gave me the opportunity to develop my own connections with and conclusions about the artworks of my choosing. I first wrote on Jacques-Louis David’s Neoclassical Oath of the Horatii.

Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, 1784:


David was one of the first artists we studied. This piece immediately stood out to me with its bold colors and the contrast between the straight, taut forms of the men and the curved, distraught forms of the women. The sense of power and determination exuded by the men suggests the potential of which humans are capable. The narrative behind this painting is the Roman legend of the conflict between the Romans and the Albans. The dispute between these groups is to be settled with a battle between the Horatii and Curatii families, each of whom has been selected to fight on behalf of the Romans and Albans, respectively. David portrays the moment just before the Horatii brothers go into battle against the Curatii brothers, taking an oath from their father to conquer or die in an effort to defend Rome from the threats of the Albans. The two families are connected through two marriages, which is the source of grief for the women in the painting. The unwavering unity between the men implies a promise of loyalty to loved ones – of holding strong to one’s convictions, refusing to compromise, and consciously committing to fight to hold onto one’s values. This painting depicts a sense of unresolved tension between the contrasting emotions of the men and women, emotions which are in anticipation of the battle to come. Despite this conflict, the certainty and strength displayed by the men provide a source of hope, suggesting that humans have the potential to conquer in the end, regardless of the pain they may endure along the way.

It was the second and final paper (below) which ended up becoming most significant to me. I analyzed a painting that I never thought I would develop such a high regard for: Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. I initially viewed this painting as rather dull and gloomy. Paris Street; Rainy Day seemed to lack the bold declaration of human capability and the reverence for life that is depicted in David’s Oath of the Horatii – a quality that I typically gravitate toward in artworks. However, upon closer inspection of Paris Street; Rainy Day and a consideration of relevant historical facts, I ultimately developed a drastically different conclusion about this painting than I ever would have expected.

My undergraduate education was filled with many classes – some boring and uninspiring, some mildly enjoyable, and a few rare, wonderful treasures that were challenging, enjoyable, and inspiring all at once. 19th Century European Painting was one of those rare, wonderful treasures. I still miss going to UW’s art building every other day to sit through another stimulating lecture by one of my favorite professors. I cherished every moment I spent in those lectures. I have had my share of mediocre professors, and perhaps the experience of being taught by so many uninspiring individuals has contributed to my appreciation of great teachers.

Sometimes learning is best done outside of the lecture hall through firsthand experience with the world. Other times, when the elements are just right and the instructor is equipped with the right combination of rationality, passion, and effective teaching style, the atmosphere of learning that is created as a result is nothing short of remarkable. To have the invaluable experience of learning from a truly knowledgeable expert of a field – to be fortunate enough to interact with a brilliant mind and soak up the radiant energy of an individual with an electrifying sense of life – is something I have learned to never take for granted. Experiences such as this remind me why both art and high-quality education are so vital. Both of these domains have the potential to either reinvigorate or crush the human spirit, and what could be more important than that?

To complete my reminiscence of this class, I have inserted my final paper, followed by the artwork itself:

Gustave Caillebotte’s oil painting, Paris Street; Rainy Day, from 1877 (Figure 1) captures the essence of modern-day Paris and its effects on the individual. This scene portrays the intersection of the streets of Moscou, Clapeyron, Turin, and Saint-Petersbourg, an area familiar to Caillebotte because of its proximity to his family’s home (Distel 71). The connection between the artist and the location suggests a resonance of the past as contrasted with its newly built counterpart produced by Haussmannization. The figures in the painting are strolling through the streets on a rainy day. The rigid new city suggests order and is paralleled by the uniformity of the dark clothing of the figures, the repetition of the umbrellas, and the perfectly cobbled streets. At first glance, this painting exudes a sense of calm, gloomy order. Upon closer examination, however, it seems to suggest hope for the future, for the passing of the stormy weather, and for the clear days to come after the tedium of life is washed away with the rain.

The perspective of the viewer is level with the figures in Caillebotte’s painting, almost as if the viewer is part of the scene, walking toward the couple in front. Individuals are scattered throughout the streets going their separate ways, some walking alone and others in pairs. The center of the canvas is marked by a tall, dark green lamppost, dividing the couple on the right from the figures on the left. Perpendicular to the vertical line of the lamppost and its descending reflection is the horizontal line created by the bases of the buildings in conjunction with the heads of the city dwellers. Cutting across this uniformity are the diagonal lines of the buildings in the upper left and the line connecting the man in front, the man walking near the lamppost, and the couple in the distant left. Despite the asymmetry of the diagonal lines, the rigid structure of the buildings is reflected by the uniform manner of the figures. This harmonious arrangement conveys the sense of calm movement that occurs just after a storm has passed.

Caillebotte’s use of repetition is another source of uniformity within this painting. The figures’ similar outfits hint at commonality, and the recurring shades of dark gray and black suggest a somber state of mind. The repetition of the cobblestone roads and the windows on the buildings further emphasize uniformity within the city. The individuals are all walking alone or with one other person, separated from the rest, yet simultaneously pulled together through their pale blue umbrellas. These umbrellas not only protect them from the rain, but also from each other, accentuating the private worlds created by each figure. Everyone appears deep in thought, preferring solitude over lively public interaction.

Haussmannization, the process of rebuilding Paris through the efforts of Napoleon III and George Eugene Haussmann in the Artists’ Plan of 1793, is crucial to understanding the meaning of Paris Street; Rainy Day (Distel 65). This modernization of Paris was meant to replace the city that was once filled with the fighting of the revolution. Distel suggests that this new Paris is an “inhospitable, unwelcoming space, its overconsistent regularity and cleanliness almost psychologically disturbing” (72). The individuals continue to hold their umbrellas despite the halting rain, underscoring an unwillingness to change as if the inhabitants of Paris are not yet ready to move on. Additionally, the heavy emphasis Caillebotte places on repetition in this painting is consistent with Distel’s view that this new way of life is monotonous and dull.

While Distel’s interpretation can be supported by elements in Caillebotte’s painting, there is an alternative perspective. The clean new city of modernization suggests a better way of life after the chaos of revolution. With industrial progress comes not only ordered civility, but a higher standard of living and a wealthier city for its inhabitants to enjoy. While the figures in this painting can be viewed as isolated in a negative way, individuality can also be seen as a positive product of modernization. People are living and walking independently as a matter of choice, paralleling the idea that privacy is one of the benefits of industrialization. The ability to escape public life in favor of privately developing one’s own mind is reflected by the individuals in this painting. They appear to be deep in thought, aware of each other’s presence while also valuing the freedom of autonomy and of not having to answer to others. The couples in this painting suggest the mutual merging of worlds between two people who value the ideas and company of each other, while those choosing to walk alone are being productive on their own chosen path. The couple in front, facing the viewer, can be interpreted as timid and averting their gazes from the viewer, which would support Distel’s perspective. Alternatively, perhaps they have just spotted someone down the street and are heading to meet up with a valued friend.

Furthermore, while Distel interprets the rain as reflecting the gloom of the recent conflict in Paris, rain can also suggest a cleansing of the past, leading to a fresh new start as initiated by Haussmannization. The glistening water between the cobblestones represents the city wiping clean the recent events, allowing its inhabitants to start anew. This interpretation is supported by the restoration of Caillebotte’s painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, in which conservator Faye Wrubel discovered that the sky, once thought to be dreary, one-dimensional, and pale yellow, was instead revealed to be blue, with greater depth and light underneath the old varnish (Figure 2; MacMillan). The author suggests that Caillebotte “…had in mind a precise moment right after the rain has stopped and the sun is trying to break through – the kind of specificity that was a hallmark of the Impressionists” (MacMillan). This restoration implies that Caillebotte may have intended a more hopeful depiction than Distel suggests.

On its surface, Paris Street; Rainy Day seems to support Distel’s interpretation of Paris as a monotonous, lifeless city that is tainted by a fear of the past. However, closer investigation combined with the recent restoration indicate that Caillebotte may have created a more optimistic painting of Paris and of human life. The rain has come to a stop and the sun is fighting to shine through the clouds. Similarly, the fighting of the revolution has ended and the city rebuilt to serve as a new foundation for the future of Paris. The city’s inhabitants appear content with their lives, basking in the quiet, sturdy serenity of progress during the transition from chaos to industrialization. There is a sense of balance in this painting between escaping the hectic demands of public life while still being able to enjoy the products of civilization. It is expected that the end of conflict would be met with a sense of timid uncertainty. However, after taking time to adjust to this new way of life, Caillebotte seems to imply that the clouds will pass, the rain will wash away bad memories, and life will continue to improve.


caillebotte unrestored

Figure 1. Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877 (MacMillan, 2014).

caillebotte restored

Figure 2. Gustave Caillebotte’s recently restored Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877 (MacMillan, 2014).



Distel, Anne, Druick, Douglas, Groom, Gloria, Rapetti, Rodolphe. Gustave Caillebotte: The Unknown Impressionist. Ghent: Ludion Press, 1996. Print.

MacMillan, Kyle. “Chicago Restoration May Alter View of Caillebotte.” The Wall Street Journal, 15 April 2014.

[Note: All images have been taken from class lecture slides unless otherwise referenced.]


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