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To buy Caillebotte, MFA sells Monet, Pissarro, Gauguin, Renoir. Good decision?

Posted by Sebastian Smee  September 23, 2011 04:38 PM

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08_Man at His Bath.jpgOn 9 February, 1897, Paris's Musee Luxembourg - a repository for French paintings acquired by the state but not yet promoted to the Louvre - opened a new addition. It was called the Caillebotte room, and in it were installed Manet's "Olympia," Renoir's "Young Girls at the Piano," and a collection of Impressionist paintings bequeathed to the French state by Gustave Caillebotte.

It took a lot of wrangling to get the state to accept these works, which are now, of course, among its most prized possessions. Among those pushing for their acceptance - and on advantageous terms, so that they would be displayed, not dispatched to storage - were Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, both of whom were represented in Caillebotte's collection.

Three years earlier, while the conditions of the bequest were still the subject of controversy, Caillebotte himself was given a posthumous retrospective at the Galerie Durand-Ruel. Renoir and Monet both helped in the selection and display of the works. A few sold, and, thanks to Renoir's intervention, Caillebotte's masterpiece, "The Floor-Scrapers," was accepted by the state as part of his wider bequest.

But most of Caillebotte's work was returned at the end of the exhibition to his family and friends, among them Degas, Monet, and Renoir. He sank into obscurity for about 70 years, and even today - when his best works are recognized as masterpieces of the period and fetch huge prices - his name is not well known by an otherwise Impressionist-adoring public.

2.jpgAll this background adds layers of intrigue - and perhaps a distant irony - to the Museum of Fine Arts's decision, which I reported in the Globe on Monday, to sell works by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Gauguin, Maufra and Vereshchagin, in order to raise the necessary funds to buy a single painting, "Man at His Bath," by Caillebotte.

The reaction in some quarters has been dismay. They're going to sell a Monet?! A Re-noir? A Gauguin? A Pissarro? Two Sisleys? All to buy one picture of a naked guy drying himself by... by whom?!

Similar tut-tutting has been heard from commentators who watch the museum world closely and tend to disapprove of this kind of deaccessioning, seeing it as a slippery slope.

Count me, however, among the yea-sayers.

I believe the MFA has made a difficult but courageous choice. The upshot, if all goes to plan, will be good not just for the MFA but for the rest of us. A great and rare painting by a fascinating figure and a deeply rewarding artist has entered one of the world's great public collections.

Meanwhile, a smattering of wealthy collectors will get the pleasure of living with - and no doubt showing off - some fine but not quite first-rate paintings that have not been on public display since at least 2003.

This last thought, of course, is what distresses many people. And it's easy to see why: Transferring works of art by famous names from a public museum to private hands (assuming the buyers keep their acquisitions and don't end up giving them to museums) is never easy to contemplate.

But in cases like these, I think, it's important to be realistic, and not to take refuge in principle. (Principles are fine, but they have a habit of short-circuiting active thought and judgment).

4.jpgFirst of all, consider the MFA's Impressionist holdings. They are, to put it mildly, strong. When I first moved to Boston just over three years ago, my home town, Sydney, was all abuzz about the arrival of dozens of Impressionist works by Gauguin, Pissarro, Sisley, and Renoir, all of them on loan from - guess where?

The MFA. The traveling exhibition included no less than 29 Monets.

Twenty-nine, all down there on the other side of the world!

And yet I didn't hear anyone in Boston complain about missing them. Why? Probably because if you walked into the Impressionist gallery at the MFA, there, hanging on the walls, were still as many first-rate Monets as anyone could rightly hope to see.

So yes, there's some depth there. But it is also true, as George Shackelford, the chair of the MFA's Art of Europe department, said, that the collection is a little lop-sided.

Reflecting the taste of Bostonians who were in a position to buy Impressionist paintings at the time, the paintings in question tend to be rural, not urban. That's fine. Impressionists did rural, and semi-rural - the spaces between town and country - very well; it's one of the reasons we love them.

But as scholars over the past 40 years have been eager to impress on us, Impressionism was not one thing: it was many. There's more to the story.

Enter Caillebotte.

3.jpgHe was not as great a painter as Monet, nor perhaps as tenacious as Pissarro, nor as inventive as Gauguin. As Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian and curator who did so much to rehabilitate his reputation in the 1970s and 80s, admitted: "His career was uneven and relatively brief... He had neither Edgar Degas's skills as a draftsman nor Monet's as a colorist, and his development was not as extensive as those of his fellows."

And yet, continued Varnedoe, "I would value any one of Caillebotte's best works... as a more important, original, and rewarding painting than any Pissarro, all but a handful of Renoirs, and a fair number of Monets from the same period."

Varnedoe does not list "Man at his Bath" among those best works. But I believe that it belongs with them. So much about it persuades: its scale (almost life-sized), its conception (heroic intimacy! quotidian nobility! stabilized vigor!), its execution (the surface is alive, the light beautifully rendered), and above all, its air of truth triumphing over idealization.

This last quality is fundamental not just to the story of advanced 19th century French art, as it moved from neo-classicism and romanticism through realism and into Impressionism. It is one of the central threads running right through the whole history of art, beginning with the Greeks and continuing into the art of today.

Caillebotte's painting is a tiny but by no means negligible part of this tremendous story. It has a precious quota of awkwardness. It feels raw - somehow not insulated, not protected from our greedy, inquisitive eyes. That is part of what makes it so compelling.

Of course, Caillebotte didn't have to paint a naked man drying himself after a bath. His decision to do so - or to do it in anything like this way - was more or less unprecedented. But he chose to.

He didn't have to shift the man's weight slightly off to one side - it makes him look clumsy! - but he chose to.

5.jpgHe didn't have to show one towel, wet and crumpled on the floor, or a pair of empty boots off to the side, or a dark shadow suggesting the presence of the man's scrotum. But all this suited his purposes, which I like to think of simply as truth-telling (which is different in important ways from prurience and voyeurism).

But by the same token, it's not all down-at-heel, rub-your-nose-in-it realism. Look how much intelligence and verve there is in Caillebotte's picture-construction! Note, in particular, the way the lines of the bath, the wooden bath mat, the boots, and the chair are all angled at something like 45 degrees, while the man himself is placed exactly parallel to the picture plane. All those diagonals reinforce and accentuate the vigor of his drying action, since they are parallel to the imaginary line connect his partially obscured hands.

Caillebotte, in so many ways, doesn't quite fit in. Or he fits in (to the story of Impressionism, to the narrative about avant-garde art) in ways that create friction, in ways that complicate our understanding of what happened then, and what still matters about what happened.

The liberation of color and light was one part of that story. It will always matter. But the acknowledgment of everyday life, of physical truths, and even of the rush of intimacy were also aspects of what happened, and they, too, matter - a very great deal.

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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