Rainy Days with Caillebotte and a Little Bit of Hockney

We’ve had more than our share of rainy days this summer. Today is another one. And I love it. Looking out the window at the gray roof next door and the gray sky above it brings to my mind Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day. This is one of those paintings that I’ve seen so many times, I don’t even see it anymore. Know what I mean?

This painting has always looked like a snapshot to me: The feet of the people in the foreground are cut off, the top of the lamp behind them is cut off. The focus of the painting, the man and woman walking under and umbrella, are off to one side, so we have a clear view of the wedge-shaped building at the intersection behind them. So are they the focus, or is it the building? Caillebotte has a way of giving us something unexpected – maybe that’s what’s always drawn me to this painting. It’s conventional, but it’s not. (That, and the fact that I’ve known Paris Street, Rainy Day since I was a child playing the board game “Masterpiece.”)

Here’s another example:

Gustave Caillebotte, View from a Balcony, 1880, Oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Because it’s called “View from a Balcony,” we try to look through the railing to see what’s below. A street. A horse and carriage. Is that a person crossing the street? That’s about all we can make out. Then we think, despite the title, maybe it’s actually about the railing (“View of a Balcony Railing”?). Maybe it’s about the pattern that the railing creates. (Caillebotte, like so many of his fellow Impressionists, was inspired by the flat patterns of Japanese prints.) For me, this painting is about focusing on and appreciating what’s in front of me. Am I curious about what’s going on down there in the street? Yes, of course. Would I like to be a part of it? Yes, probably. But it’s nice up here on the balcony. And that’s where I am. So I’ll take a deep breath, sit back, and try to live in the moment. (This painting would be a nice taking off point for a short story, wouldn’t it? What’s going on inside, behind the viewer?) Continue reading