Caillebotte and Hopper

Today a perceptive student asked if art historians had ever discussed a connection between the paintings by Gustave Caillebotte (a 19th century Impressionist) and Edward Hopper (a 20th century artist). I thought this was a really fascinating question. This week, my students and I have been discussing how Caillebotte’s work can be interpreted within the themes of isolation and loneliness. We’ve discussed ideas of how the modernization and industrialization of Paris could have isolated people in the 19th century, and particularly analyzed Caillebotte’s painting Pont de l’Europe (1876, see right). My students and I looked at Caillebotte’s biography, using some of the research done by my friend and colleague Breanne Gilroy. One thing Gilroy mentions is that Caillebotte experienced a sense of isolation during his lifetime, particularly since the artist’s father, brother, and mother all died within a period of four years.1

Anyhow, I thought that my student’s question regarding Edward Hopper was especially interesting in this context, since Hopper’s paintings also can tie into themes of isolation and loneliness. One can especially get a sense of isolation in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) and Gas Station (1940). Caillebotte and Hopper are also similar in other ways as well: they both have an interest in depicting contemporary subject matter, both use comparatively muted color palates, and both favor compositions with large, flat areas of color.

Although I didn’t find too many people who discuss a similarity between the two artists, I did come across a few things. First of all, Time blogger Richard Lacayo noted that he saw a similarity between the compositions of Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) and Hopper’s New York Movie (1939). Lacayo also noted a essay by Judith A. Barter in the catalog Edward Hopper.

Although I haven’t seen a copy of Barter’s essay, this evening I was able to listen to a podcast in which Barter discusses more of Hopper’s life. Barter mentions that Hopper went to France three times between the years 1906-1910. While there, Hopper viewed and studied the art of many Impressionist painters, and I think it’s very likely that Hopper was familiar with the work of Caillebotte. Although Baxter doesn’t cite Caillebotte as a direct influence, she does mention a similarity between Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day and Hopper’s Nighthawks (side note: it isn’t surprising that she chose these two paintings for comparison, since they are both part of the Art Institute of Chicago collection – the museum where Baxter works as a curator!). Here is a transcript from the podcast:

“Hopper’s…viewer witnesses the street corner and figures in Nighthawks in much the same way that Gustave Caillebotte saw the boulevard section in Paris Street, Rainy Day…But there is an important difference: unlike Caillebotte’s pedestrian, who is part of the moving traffic of the street, Hopper’s observers are further distanced and stand outside the vision of the figures that the artist paints. Hopper eliminates all pedestrians, removing the observer from the observed. This is the core of his city subjects: the experience of watching unobserved.”2

What do others think? Can you think of more similarities between the work of Caillebotte and the work of Hopper? Do you know of any other art historians who have published on this topic?

1 Breanne Gilroy, “Mourning and Melancholy in the Work of Gustave Caillebotte,” (Unpublished), 2006. Gilroy mentions how Caillebotte’s father died in 1874, his brother René died in 1876, and his mother died in 1878. Gilroy also cites an article by Kirk Vardenoe, “Gustave Caillebotte in Contextin Arts Magazine 9 (May 1976): 94-99.

2 Judith A. Baxter, “Transcending Reality: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks,” public lecture delivered 28 February 2010. Podcast of lecture is available here.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    I'm fairly familiar with the Caillebotte bibliography and don't recall any articles that looks into the Caillebotte/Hopper influence. But it's not a surprise to hear it raised.

    Generally speaking, Caillebotte's was neglected for decades and was more remembered as a collector and supporter of the impressionists than as an artist. Still, I feel his influence (or, perhaps, kinship) all over the place. How about the Pont d'Europe and Munch's The Scream? Or "Paris: Rainy Day" and Seurat's Grande Jatte (similar sized works, with prominent bourgeois couples at the front right). And Caillebotte was perhaps THE dominant presence in the great third Impressionist show (1877), which he curated and helped to finance. This show featured six of his works, including the two works mentioned above.

    One specific commonality between Caillebotte and Hopper is the way they both seem to have used photographic source material. Hopper was heavily influenced by film (and perhaps still photography, too?) and many of Caillebotte's sketches conform to the size of photographic plates–suggesting he was using photography as a compositional aid.

  • M says:

    Oooh, I like your point about film and photographic plates, Ben. That makes a lot of sense.

    Yeah, my students and I also discussed how Caillebotte isn't a perfect definition of an Impressionist, since his style and subject matter often depart from Impressionist art. It's no surprise that he was allowed to exhibit with Impressionist painters, though, since he was a financial backer for those artists!

    If anyone is interested, the case study that I read with my students is located in the book The Challenge of the Avant-Garde. This specific case study is by Fionna Barber and titled, "Caillebotte, Masculinity, and the Bourgeois Gaze." (There is even one section in the chapter which discusses how Caillebotte's art was neglected for decades, which ties into what Ben mentioned. That section of the case study is labeled as "Gustave Caillebotte: the Unknown Impressionist?")

  • kelsey cook says:

    I think it is interesting to see the 'melancholy' theme of hand to the head carried throughout these paintings. Which plays back into the idea of being alone, troubled and contemplative. From the man over looking the bridge in Caillebotte's "Pont de l'Europe" and Hopper's "New York Movie".
    Why are those people so sad?
    They are living in France or New York.
    They should be ecstatic.
    I can't wait to travel.

    It is nice to be able to recall things I learned from the first part of the quarter.
    Thanks Professor Bowen.

  • naz says:

    On an unrelated note, have art historians examined the connection between Edward Hopper and Archibald J. Motley, Jr.? Motley also deals extensively with the themes of isolation and loneliness, and his works also reflect the influence of film. I would be interested to find out whether or not the similarities between these two artists has been discussed in art historical scholarship.

  • Margarida Elias says:

    Very interesting post. Two things that I find very similar on the work of this painters is the realism and the subjects, depicting contemporary life. Another thing that is similar is the isoation of the caracters, the way they seem lonely even when they are surrounded by other people.

  • heidenkind says:

    Hmmmmm. I've never read anything about a connection with Edward Hopper, either. Ben is right in that not a lot of work has been done on Caillebotte (although more than on some other Impressionists), but personally I have to say I'm not really feeling it. Many of Manet's paintings have a much clearer sense of isolation and the sort of existential aloneness that I associate with Hopper's work than Caillebott's paintings do; if Hopper took inspiration from Impressionists, why not Manet?.

    Perhaps broader connections can be drawn to a post-war aesthetic, though. Both Caillebotte and Manet served in the Franco-Prussian War. I know Manet was definitely in Paris the whole time Paris was under siege and through the Commune, and I think Caillebotte was too (Seurat lived in Paris during this time but was only 9). You could read a lot of all three artists' work as a response to the war and Paris' attempts to recover from it, as you read many of Hopper's paintings as a reflection of the unease in America during and after WWII.

  • M says:

    Breanne Gilroy (the friend that I cited in my post), just sent me an interesting email with some comments about this Hopper/Caillebotte topic:

    That is a pretty brilliant connection between Caillebotte and Hopper. I think I read one paper that talked a lot about how Caillebotte's figures were often physically separated from their surroundings with balconies (most often), bars, bridges, fences. You can see the same kind of thing in Hopper's work: tables, very often windows. Obviously blank space also isolates the figure often (in both cases), too. It's really distinct with the figures-staring-out-of-windows (This one by Hopper and this one by Caillebotte). It's also interesting how both painters put their subjects in surroundings that really reflect the societal landscape, Caillebotte often reflecting elements of industrialization and class changes. I haven't studied Hopper enough to know if that's something I can really connect it with, but from a cursory glance at his work he really seems to be doing the same kind of thing. I really hope someone does a research paper on this connection, maybe you can encourage that student who suggested it to do a paper on it.

  • M says:

    Kelsey, great observation! Wouldn't it be interesting to know if Caillebotte was aware of the "melancholy" iconography? (For those of you who are interested, the "hand to the head" pose that Kelsey mentioned is part of the the iconography associated with the personification of Melancholy. This is particularly observed in Durer's print Melencolia I.

    Thanks for your comment, naz! (And welcome to my blog, I don't believe that you have commented before!) You've brought up an interesting idea, and I agree: both Motley and Hopper deal with similar themes. Perhaps it has to do with what heidenkind mentioned: both these artists were painting during the World War era? That would be a great research project!

    Margarida, I agree! I am especially intrigued at how the figures in the painting seem lonely, even when they are surrounded by other figures.

    heidenkind: You've brought up some interesting points. In fact, Judith Baxter also makes a connection between Manet and Hopper in her podcast; she discusses how both artists looked to contemporary subjects, serving as intermediaries to record and express thoughts about the world. She also mentioned that Manet was one of the Impressionists that Hopper studied during his time in France.

    I also think that war played a major role in the tone that is reflected in Caillebotte and Hopper's work. Great points. Both artists worked in periods of reconstruction and unease, largely due to war and devastation.

  • ana says:

    Very interesting post.
    I come from "Memória e Imagens" because I saw the beautiful painting you left.
    Have a nice day!

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post. I can't say I'm familiar with either of these artists but it's interesting to see the modern take on an old theme. I am also glad M mentioned the iconography of Melancolia – Panofsky in particular does a great job on this.

    I've always been curious why so many modern and postmodern writers seem fixated on the loneliness brought on by industrialisation and the urban sprawl.

    Weren't these 19th/20th Century writers and artists re-purposing ancient themes for a new setting?

    Try reading Sophocles without getting a sense of the emotions wrought by isolation – or even aspects of scripture. Loneliness is part of the human condition, and has been ever present in art and literature – from Moses to Moliere.

    I think this is an important point to make to students – lest they go away with the false impression that this 'angsty' outlook all started about a 150 years ago.

    Closest to my own heart there are some wonderful lines in Dante, particularly in La Vita Nuova that are moving accounts of the psychology of a lonely soul.

    Cicero's accounts while he was in exile show an entirely different type of internal reflection. Jump forward in time again and read something like Charlotte Bronte's Villete – the same themes packaged in different words and settings, yet congruous nonetheless.

    Interesting stuff M!


  • Val Span says:

    Bringing "Villette" into the discussion adds a new twist. What an excellent book. It adds the context, though, of a foreigner. This would be another way to look at some of the paintings, particularly the people looking out of windows. Are they visitors and feeling isolated because of that?

    However, my feelings from these pictures are very different. Hopper's people do seem lonely and cut off from the world. His woman at the window is nude, not dressed for company. Caillebotte's people are all part of a large, bustling city – maybe they're on their way to Starbucks – and enjoying being seen. His man at the window seems ready to turn back to a conversation in the room. I just don't feel the same loneliness from Caillebotte.

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comments, H Niyzai and Val Span. I think H has brought up a very interesting idea about artists re-purposing themes that have existed since antiquity. Perhaps this is the case with Caillebotte. Even if the theme wasn't intentional on Caillebotte's part, though, I think he definitely is referring to more universal themes which tie into the human condition.

    Although I have read other works by the Bronte sisters, I haven't read "Villette." My curiosity is piqued, especially because of Val's comment! I'll have to check it out.

    I can see what you are saying about the hustle-and-bustle of Caillebotte's work, Val. You've brought up an interesting point. For me, Caillebotte's work seems to still retain an element of isolation, but I largely see this element in comparison with other Impressionist paintings. For example, Caillebotte's A Traffic Island, Boulevard Haussmann (1880) seems rather gloomy and lonely in comparison with Pissarro's bustling work La Place du Theatre Français (1898). That being said, I think that you have a valid opinion regarding Caillebotte's work!

  • Michael Robinson says:

    As Ben your first commentator said Caillebotte was unknown as a painter by the time of his death in 1894 — and Renoir, his executor, had very great difficulty in getting the French state to accept any of C's bequest of even a part his collection of impressionists. C had did not exhibit after 1878 and had ceased painting entirely in 1882.

    Is there any evidence that any Caillebotte was available on public exhibition for Hopper to view during any of his three visits to Paris? So far as I know, the few that were hanging at this time were in the family houses. Gail Levin in her biography of Hopper did make the Hopper Caillebotte comparison en passant but has never offered any evidence for this possibility — it became a cliche in the mid eighties after the late (and great) Kirk Varnadoe published some observations about Caillebotte but he was almost unknown, except to specialists, when Marie Behaut published the first edition of her catalogue raisone in 1978 and only came to wider attention when included in the show at the National Gallery (Washington DC) 'The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886' which attempted a partial re-creation of the first impressionist shows.

    To me the more likely influence on Hopper's compositions are Degas , some of whose works were on display for Hopper to view, and a general period awareness of 'japonisme' and patterning / compositional flattening in both the US and Paris. For example in the work of the influential American critic and painter Guy Pène du Bois. This would appear to be much plausible as influences on Hopper than Caillebotte.

    This show, just opened today, includes works from the family that have never been shown in public:
    "The Caillebotte Brothers' private world" From 25 March to 11 July 2011, the Jacquemart-André Museum is presenting The Caillebotte brothers’ private world. Painter and photographer. An encounter between Impressionism and photography, this exhibition evokes the artistic and private world of the Caillebotte brothers.

    [Apologies for infelicities in text composition, I find it difficult to compose and review text in the confines of the offered by the small box.]

  • M says:

    Michael, thanks for discussing a bit of the historiography of research and discussion regarding Caillebotte. I don't know if Caillebotte would have been on public display during Hopper's visits to France. Good point! You are right that most paintings belonged in possession of the family, and it looked like those paintings gradually began to appear on the market in the 1950s (several decades after Hopper's visits). You have brought up a good suggestion about Degas, and perhaps his work is a more plausible influence.

    Thanks for including that link to the new show. Looks like a fascinating exhibition.

  • Sedef says:

    I hope you still check your comments on your old posts. I was just at the Whitney Museum in New York where there was an exhibit Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time.
    One of the reasons I went to the exhibit was because I was intrigued after reading this post since Caillebotte is one of my favorite artists, I wanted to see for myself. I did get a chance to check out the two at the Art Institute of Chicago and thought your idea had some merit. But at the exhibit I found another gem I want to share with you and get your opinion on. New York Interior, 1921(the one with the ballerina sewing with her back to the viewer) when I saw that painting it reminded me of Degas' Interior. Do you have any ideas, information in regards to that?

  • M says:

    Hi Sedef! That show at the Whitney sounds really fantastic. And I think that you have an interesting connection between Degas' "Interior" and Caillebotte's "New York Interior." (Even the title is similar, right? I wonder if Hopper picked his title in direct reference to this Degas painting.) I've never read any direct correlation between these specific paintings, but it is an interesting thought.

    "New York Interior" painting by Hopper also reminds me of Degas' images of bathing women. In both instances, the female figures have their backs turned to the viewer. (One such example by Degas is After the Bath: Woman Drying Herself.) Perhaps Degas might have influenced Hopper in this respect as well.

    I'm quite flattered that my post led to some museum visits and further connections on your part. If you ever have further ideas on this topic, I'd be very interested to hear them.

  • Sedef says:

    Actually your post also led me to find a very personal connection In Hopper's work.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.