Gustave Caillebotte<br/>
France 1848–1894<br/>
<em>The plain of Gennevilliers, yellow fields</em> (<em>La plaine de Gennevilliers, champs jaunes</em>) 1884<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
65.5 x 81.5 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br/>
Felton Bequest, 2011 (2011.289)<br/>

Gustave Caillebotte The plain of Gennevilliers, yellow fields


This painting belongs to a group of six radically simplified landscapes that Gustave Caillebotte created in 1884. These canvases all depict the Gennevilliers plain, planted with vegetables, adjacent to the artist’s property at Petit-Gennevilliers, on the banks of the Seine across from Argenteuil, half an hour’s train journey from Paris. Caillebotte purchased a property and country house here with his brother, Martial, in 1881, apparently attracted by the breadth of the river at this spot (some 180 metres wide for a distance of twelve kilometres), which provided opportunities for him to indulge his love of sailing.

While the two brothers shared an apartment in Paris, they both spent weekends at Petit-Gennevilliers, a small community of some twenty-five buildings adjacent to the village of Gennevilliers. Caillebotte had begun sailing here in 1876; and he founded a boat-building company himself in 1886.

A leading member of the Impressionist group since its second exhibition in 1876, Caillebotte was independently wealthy, often providing support for his fellow artists in times of need. An avid collector, he owned dozens of Impressionist paintings by Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne and Manet.

The fields on the Gennevilliers plain were situated right on the river. Fed by sewage from Paris, they provided rich and colourful vegetable harvests. Monet had painted a Plaine de Gennevilliers in 1877; this seems, however, a relatively conventional landscape vignette when compared to Caillebotte’s radically abstracted compositions of 1884, with their remarkably simplified chromatic translations of the Gennevilliers vegetable fields. As Kirk Varnedoe has noted (Gustave Caillebotte, A Retrospective Exhibition, Houston, 1976, p. 170), the classic feeling for organisation and structure, so familiar from Caillebotte’s celebrated urban scenes, is also present in these six Gennevilliers landscapes, in a severely reductive manner. The artist’s love of perspective and sharp diagonals is retained here, applied to sweeping layers of youthful vegetation on a broad field devoid of human presence, save for some red-roofed houses scattered along the horizon line two-thirds of the way up this radically pared-back composition.

What makes this painting full of movement and life, despite its absence of human figures, is the way in which Caillebotte layers his pigments with rich abandon, applying dashes of creamy pink, yellow, blue and green paint with thick brushstrokes. The colour seems in places to have been squeezed directly from the tube in this outstanding and dynamic modern landscape by one of the principal Impressionist painters.

Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).