Featured Image: The Bezique Game (Partie de bésigue), 1880, private collection.
By John P. Walsh
By the time Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) painted The Bezique Game in 1880 and the four-by-five-foot oil on canvas was exhibited in the penultimate Seventh Impressionist exhibition in 1882, many changes in the art world had transpired in those five years since his “balanced and coherent” Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. Two major developments proved especially impactful for the select band of ever-varying avant-garde and independent artists calling themselves “impressionists.” The first major development is that, after 1877, the group had fallen apart.
Caillebotte attempted a follow-up impressionist exhibition for 1878 and utterly failed to get it off the ground. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) jump-started and organized the third exhibition in 1877 proving the benefits of professional arts organization and marketing. By the next year Caillebotte moved from the measurable success of eighteen cogent modern movement artists under a brand name, 230 works, and attendance numbers bursting the attendance of previous shows by almost four fold—sales were up as well—to a complete lack of collective coherence and cooperation.
Seeds of destruction for the cozy klatch of budding avant-garde artists had sprouted in the 1877 show. Caillebotte’s genius for that show was one of avoidance. He adeptly avoided a train wreck of antagonistic and divergent creative forces by keeping them literally physically apart. Of the two major factions one was the classically-trained realist urban figure drawing of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and the innovative nonacademic broken brush landscapes of Claude Monet (1840-1926). Caillebotte assented to their separateness by hanging all 25 beach and ballet works by Degas in their own room for the show’s duration.
Rule number one in business: don’t argue with success. That is unless you are “the terrible Monsieur Degas.” Degas’s dispute with Caillebotte’s show’s success was not entirely Degas’s fault – his disputatious character, however, was. The catalyst for the ensuing political battle between Degas and Monet which affected the rest of the impressionist shows after 1877 was their varying understanding of the second major development to affect all modern artists. By 1878 the trend to a liberal Salon, despite monarchical, religious and aristocratic reactionaries in leadership after 1863, had become inescapable. While the government would divest itself of the Salon completely in 1881, it had allowed in 1878 its brittle conservative dam to break. Suddenly it became a propitious moment for “broken brush” Impressionists like Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) to return to the government-run “Exhibition of Living Artists.”
Whatever its drawbacks, the Salon remained the biggest show in Paris. While the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877 attracted 15,000 visitors in its month-long run—an exciting 500 visitors per day—the Salon attracted 23,000 visitors per day. Although the Salon displayed around twenty-three times more stock than an Impressionist show it attracted fifty times more visitors. Opportunity for client building and sales potential at one of these annual warehouse events was immense and until 1878 the Impressionists had been regularly kept away by the Salon’s small and shrinking institutional elite.
Degas came up with his own ingeniously small-minded idea. It struck to the heart of his reactionary mentality which he manifested on many important issues during his lifetime. In this instance, his limiting idea was craftily couched in nobility. Despite a new opening into the Salon for modern artists, Degas insisted that the Impressionists had to choose between the Salon or the Impressionist group. He was forcing artists like Renoir and Monet (as well as Cézanne and Sisley) to break ranks with the Impressionists only to best survive in a changing marketplace. Degas’s gauntlet was a perfectly-crafted wedge that, for the moment, prevailed.
This situation doomed the next three Impressionist shows to one-sided affairs. The exhibitions of 1879, 1880, and 1881 featured Degas and his favorite artists including Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) and Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903). Édouard Manet (1832-1883), of course, was not directly affected by this ongoing intramural contest since he continued to exhibit only in the Salon. Of the Impressionists’ founding members in 1874 only Pissarro and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) stayed loyal to the independent art group. Caillebotte too—who from almost the beginning delivered his talent and resources to the independents—continued to organize and exhibit with them in 1879 and 1880. But Caillebotte stayed home for the 1881 show after breaking with Degas on ostensibly an advertising issue. By that time, a new set of opportunities for Impressionist exhibitions was brewing and Caillebotte painted The Bezique Game in this shifting political environment.
Bezique is a curiously French 64-card game for two players. Two singles players sit across the net to compete to 1000 points. The rest are score keepers or observers. As the game carries on, card “tricks” pile up on the table. Viewing this contemporary subject of a popular game depicted by Caillebotte, some critics called the painting a “legible and tightly ordered” image of a long-held pictorial tradition of card playing. Idiomatic clichés of card playing such as “playing one’s cards right” or “holding one’s cards close to the chest” may be read into this painting by Caillebotte as it pertains to the Impressionists’ recent exhibition experiences. Nineteenth-century art critics usually grouped Caillebotte with Degas as an artist and not among the “strict impressionists” of Monet and Renoir. Several critics wondered aloud in newspaper print why Caillebotte even had any dealings with those daubers.
Sources: Charles Moffett, The New Painting, 1986; Anne Distel, Urban Impressionist, 1995; Ross King, The Judgment of Paris: The Decade that Gave Us Impressionism, 2006; John Milner, The Studios of Paris, 1990; Alfred Werner, Degas Pastels, 1998.
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