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A Bridge Too Far: Gustave Caillebotte and the Fourth (1879), Fifth (1880) and Sixth (1881) Impressionist Exhibitions.

Featured Image: 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.

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 major development is that, after 1877, the group had fallen apart.

The third impressionist exhibition in 1877 organized by Caillebotte and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) proved the concrete benefit of a professional arts organization and marketing. Caillebotte attempted another follow-up impressionist exhibition for the very next year in 1878 and failed to get it off the ground. It wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1877 Caillebotte could measure success by eighteen modern art artists under a new brand name, 230 works, and attendance numbers that exceeded previous shows by almost four fold. Sales of pictures were up. But in less than one year, the enterprise had devolved into nothing tangible for lack of collective coherence and cooperation among the artists themselves.

Seeds of destruction for the klatch of budding avant-garde artists had begun to sprout during the 1877 show. Caillebotte’s genius in that show was to ignore the right problems. He adeptly avoided a train wreck of antagonistic and divergent creative forces by keeping them literally physically apart.  There were two major factions — one was the classically-trained Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and his realist urban figure drawing and the other was the nonacademic Claude Monet (1840-1926) and his innovative broken brush landscapes. 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).


 CAILLEBOTTE (1848-1894).

If “rule one” in business is that you do not argue with success, the caveat in the case of the impressionist shows is unless you are “the terrible Monsieur Degas.” Degas’s dispute with Caillebotte’s show was not entirely of Degas’ making– but  Degas’s disputatious character was his own. The ensuing political battle between Degas and Monet after 1877 affected every impressionist show until they ended in 1886. The catalyst for their dispute and division was their different understandings of what was the second major development to affect modern artists.

Despite leaders of the Salon after 1863 still being anti-democratic monarchists, aristocrats and religious sympathizers, the trend by the late 1870’s was towards an increasingly liberalized Salon. The government divested itself of the Salon completely in 1881, but it was preceded in 1878 by allowing “broken brush” Impressionists like Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) to appear in a still government-run “Exhibition of Living Artists.”

A Corner of the Salon in 1880, Édouard Joseph Dantan (French, 1848 – 1897), 1880, private collection.

Whatever its drawbacks, the Salon remained the biggest show in Paris. While the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877 attracted an exciting 15,000 visitors in its one month run—the Salon attracted 23,000 visitors per day. Although the Salon displayed around twenty-three times more art than the Impressionist show, it attracted fifty times more visitors. Opportunities for sales and new clients at one of these nineteenth-century warehouse events was immense. By 1878 the artwork of innovative Impressionists was finally allowed to hang side by side with what had been for hundreds of years the domain of the Paris art world’s institutional elite.

In terms of any future Impressionist show, Degas came up with an ingeniously small-minded idea that he couched in an aire of principled nobility. Despite the opening to the Salon to young avant-garde artists such as many of the impressionists were– Monet and Renoir were in their late 30’s, Degas in his mid 40’s — the older and more financially established artist insisted that every impressionist must choose between exhibiting in the Salon or with the Impressionists. Degas ultimatum was perfectly crafted to pressure Renoir and Monet (and Cézanne and Sisley) to break ranks so to improve their fortunes or simply survive in a rapidly changing art market. Degas’s wedge, in the short run, prevailed– the “broken brush” impressionists by 1880 were purged from the Impressionist exhibitions by their own decision to exhibit in the Salon.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919).
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919).
Paul Cézanne (French 1839-1906) and Camille Pissarro (French, 1830-1903).
Paul Cézanne (French 1839-1906) and Camille Pissarro (French, 1830-1903).
Alfred Sisley (British, born France, 1839-1899).
Alfred Sisley (British, born France, 1839-1899).

This situation to varying degrees doomed the next three Impressionist shows — of 1879, 1880, and 1881 — towards the leadership of Degas. These three exhibitions featured Degas and his favorite artists. Yet it was in Degas-led impressionist shows that attendees had their first in-depth look at artists such as Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Of the Impressionists’ founding members in 1874 only Pissarro and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) chose to stay loyal to the independent art group for all its shows. Caillebotte too—who from the beginning delivered his talent and resources to the independents—continued to organize and exhibit with them in 1879 and 1880. In the 1881 show, Caillebotte withdrew from participation after breaking with Degas ostensibly over an advertising issue. As quickly as the turn into a new decade, a brand new set of opportunities for Impressionist exhibitions was percolating as Caillebotte painted The Bezique Game in 1880 in this shifting artistic environment.

The Bezique Game (“Partie de bésigue”), 1880, private collection.

Gustave Caillebotte, The Bezique Game (Partie de bésigue), 1880, private collection.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844 –1926) in later years.
Mary Cassatt (American, 1844 –1926) in later years.
Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883).
Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883).
Berthe Morisot (French, 1841-1895) in 1875.
Berthe Morisot (French, 1841-1895) in 1875.

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. Viewing this contemporary subject of a popular game depicted by Caillebotte, some art critics called the painting a “legible and tightly ordered” image of a 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 this painting. It is one of the canvasses painted by these artists during this time that relate to the Impressionist group’s recent and ongoing 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 dealings with those daubers now ensconced 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.

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.

John P. Walsh