By John P. Walsh
In the five years between the “balanced and coherent” Third Impressionist Exhibition that took place in April 1877 and the exhibition of Gustave Caillebotte’s The Bezique Game in the penultimate Seventh Impressionist exhibition in March 1882, many significant changes had occurred in the art world.
Two major developments were especially impactful for the band of independent and ever-varying avant-garde artists known as the “impressionists.” The first was that, after 1877, the group had fallen apart.
The Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877 organized by Caillebotte and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) demonstrated the benefit of a marketing plan within a professional arts organization. Caillebotte attempted a follow-up impressionist exhibition for 1878 but failed to get it off the ground.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1877 Caillebotte could measure success by 18-count modern art artists under a new brand name, their 230 works, and attendance numbers up from previous shows by almost four fold. Picture sales were also up.
In less than one year, the enterprise had devolved into nothing tangible mainly because of a lack of collective coherence and cooperation among the artists themselves. The seeds of destruction for the klatch of avant-garde artists began to sprout during the 1877 show.
Caillebotte’s genius in that show was to ignore the necessary problems. He adeptly avoided a train wreck of antagonistic and divergent creative forces by keeping them literally physically apart.
There were two major factions. The first was the classically-trained Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and his realist urban figure drawing and the second was the nonacademic broken-brush innovators such as Claude Monet (1840-1926).
For the duration of the Third Impressionist exhibition, all of Degas’s 25 beach and ballet works hung in a room of their own.
EDGAR DEGAS (1834 – 1917).
CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926).
GUSTAVE CAILLEBOTTE (1848-1894).
If in business one cannot argue with success, the caveat for the impressionist shows is: unless you are “the terrible Monsieur Degas.”
The circumstances surrounding Degas’s dispute with Caillebotte’s show was not entirely of Degas’ making, though his disputatious character was. The ensuing personal and political battle after 1877 between Degas and his group of artists and Monet and his, affected every impressionist show up until and including the last one in 1886.
The catalyst for their dispute and division was their different understandings of what was the second major development to affect the modern artists.
Despite the Salon leaders after 1863 continuing to be anti-democratic, the trend by the late 1870’s was towards a liberalized Salon. In 1881, the French government divested itself of the Salon completely. Before that, in 1878, the government allowed the “broken brush” Impressionists like Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) to participate in their “Exhibition of Living Artists.”
Édouard Dantan, Un Coin du Salon en 1880 (A Corner of the Salon in 1880), 1880, oil on canvas, 97.2 x 130.2 cm (38.2 x 51.2 in.). Private collection.
Biggest art show in Paris.
Whatever its drawbacks, the Salon remained the biggest art show in Paris. While the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877 attracted 15,000 visitors in its one month run—the Salon attracted 23,000 visitors per day. The Salon displayed around twenty-three times more art than the Impressionist show and attracted fifty times more visitors. Opportunities for sales and new clients at one of these nineteenth-century warehouse events was immense. After years of fighting for greater participation in the Salon, in 1878 innovative Impressionists were allowed to hang their artwork in an annual show that for hundreds of years was the domain of the Paris art world’s institutional elite.
In terms of the next impressionist show, Degas devised an ingeniously small-minded idea that he presented ennobled by principle.
Despite the opening to the Salon to young avant-garde artists—Monet and Renoir were in their late 30’s, Degas in his mid 40’s—the older and more financially secure artist insisted that impressionists must make a choice. Either they exhibit in the Salon or with the Impressionists.
Degas’s ultimatum was crafted to pressure the “broken brush” impressionists such as Renoir, Monet, Sisley and Cézanne to break ranks so to improve their sales and reputations in a rapidly changing art market.
Degas’s wedge prevailed. By 1880, the “broken brush” impressionists were purged from the Impressionist exhibitions by their own decision to exhibit in the Salon.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919).
Paul Cézanne (French 1839-1906) and Camille Pissarro (French, 1830-1903).
Alfred Sisley (British, born France, 1839-1899).
This situation helped secure the Impressionist shows of 1879, 1880, and 1881 under the leadership of Degas.
These three exhibitions featured Degas and his favorite artists. It was in these Degas-led shows that the public had their first in-depth look at Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), among others.
Not all of the Impressionists’ founding members decided to exhibit in the Salon. Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) chose to stay loyal to the independent art group and would continuing doing so through all eight shows. Gustave Caillebotte had invested his talent, reputation and resources into the independents since 1876 and continued to organize and exhibit with them in 1879 and 1880. Before the 1881 show, Caillebotte broke with the impressionist exhibition as he and Degas had a dispute over a minor business issue.
As quickly as the calendar proclaimed a new decade, a set of new opportunities for Impressionist exhibitions began percolating in Caillebotte’s head as he painted The Bezique Game (1880) of and within a constantly shifting artistic environment.
Gustave Caillebotte, The Bezique Game (Partie de bésigue), 1880, private collection.
The game of Bezique is a 64-card game for two players and curiously French. In the game 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.
Some art critics viewing Caillebotte’s contemporary subject of a popular game identified the painting as a “legible and tightly ordered” image out of the long-held pictorial tradition of card playing. Yet idiomatic clichés related to card playing such as “playing one’s cards right” or “holding one’s cards close to the chest” may be read into the painting. It is one of the canvasses painted by impressionist artists during this time that relate to the Impressionist group’s recent and ongoing exhibition experiences.
Nineteenth-century art critics usually grouped together the artwork of Caillebotte and Degas, Neither artist was among the “strict” impressionists such as of Monet and Renoir. Several critics wondered aloud in the newspaper why Caillebotte would even have dealings with those “broken-brush” daubers now at the Salon with Édouard Manet.
Edgar Degas, Chevaux de course (Jockeys before the Race), 1869-1872, oil, essence, pastel on paper, 107 x 73 cm, 42 1/8 x 28 3/4 in., The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition-1879.
Gustave Caillebotte, The Skiffs, 1877, oil on canvas, 88.9 x 116.2 cm (35 x 45 3/4 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition-1879.
Mary Cassatt, Femme dans une loge (Woman in a Loge), 1879, oil on canvas, 80.3 x 58.4 cm (31 5/8 x 23 in.), Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition-1879.
Edgar Degas, Miss Lola, au Cirque Fernando, 1879, oil on canvas, 117 x 77.5 cm ( 46 x 30 1/2 in.), National Gallery, London. The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition-1879.
Claude Monet, Jardin à Sainte-Adresse (Garden at Sainte-Adresse), 1867, oil on canvas, 38 5/8 x 51 1/8 in. (98.1 X 129.9 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition-1879.
Jean-Louis Forain, Café Interior, c.1879, gouache on paper, 12 7/8 x 10 in. (32.8 x 25.5 cm). The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition-1879.
Federico Zandomeneghi, Portrait of M. Diego Martelli, 1879, oil of canvas, 28 3/8 x 36 1/4 in. (72 x 92 cm), Galleria D’Arte Moderna, Florence. The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition-1879.
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.