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 is 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 would manifest all his life on many important issues – and, in this instance, was craftily couched in some nobility. Despite this new opening into the Salon for modern artists, Degas insisted that the impressionists had to suffer exclusion from either the Salon or the impressionist group. He was forcing artists like Renoir and Monet as well as Cézanne and Sisley to break rank with the impressionists in the name of not breaking rank. Degas’s gauntlet was a perfectly crafted wedge.
This situation doomed the next three impressionist shows in 1879, 1880, and 1881 to one-sided exhibitions of Degas faction artists including Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926). Of course Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was not involved in this intramural contest for he had only exhibited in the Salon. Of the founding members of impressionists in 1874 only Pissarro and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) stayed loyal so to transcend factions of the independent art group. For Caillebotte, who had generously delivered his talent and resources to the independents, he continued to organize and exhibit with them in 1879 and 1880. But he stayed home for the 1881 show, after breaking with Degas on an advertising issue. A new set of opportunities for impressionist exhibitions was brewing and “The Bezique Game” was painted by Caillebotte in this shifting 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. Observing this contemporary subject of a popular game as depicted by Caillebotte, critics viewed the painting as a “legible and tightly ordered” image of the long-held pictorial tradition of card playing. Certain idiomatic clichés of card playing such as “playing one’s cards right” or ”holding one’s cards close to the chest” may successfully be read into this painting by Caillebotte as it pertains to his recent exhibition experiences. As an artist, nineteenth century critics usually grouped Caillebotte with Degas and not the “strict impressionists” such as Monet and Renoir. Several critics wondered aloud in print why Caillebotte even dealt 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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