I. When the Russian-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid created their series People's Choice paintings in the 1990s, to no one's surprise, blue was the favorite color in countries around the world. With tongues planted firmly in cheek, the duo had hired a polling firm to conduct the research that resulted in the composite "Most Wanted" and "Least Wanted" paintings. Conceptual art can be hermetic and off-putting but this project was fun. And it illustrated a truth long known to artists.
Natural ultramarine was for centuries the most prized of all pigments by artists. Its only source was lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan beginning in the 6th century. Imported to Europe through Venice, it was valued at five times its weight in gold by Renaissance artists. Yes, there were other blues that became available but each was unsatisfactory in some way. An experiment gone wrong in an alchemist's laboratory in the early 18th century resulted in the discovery of Prussian blue, giving hope that other, better blues could be developed. Watteau used the new pigment and shared it with Fragonard and Boucher and it was used to great effect b Elizabeth Vige-Lebrun. But it was the explosion of industrialization in the 19th century that led to the invention of an inexpensive, synthetic ultramarine used to great effect in Gustave Caillebotte's Skiff on the Yerre, painted in 1877.
II. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) was both a painter and a patron of his fellow Impressionists. The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer who made a fortune supplying blankets to the French Army, he grew up and made his studio in a large house the Caillebotte's purchased from none other than Baron Haussmann, architect of Parisian urban renewal. After serving in the military during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Caillebotte enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he made the acquaintance of Edgar Degas who introduced him to other Impressionist painters. The young Caillebotte can be seen in Renoir's painting Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881). He is the one seated at the far right in a white vest and straw boater.
Although he fit in with the circle of Monet, it was the influence of the great realist Gustave Courbet that inspired Caillebotte's hybrid style, a style that has been called "gentle realism." For Caillebotte, human figures are full of individual personality and are never mere types. His work is also notable for the odd angles that he chose as vantage points in composing his paintings. Like his contemporaries, Caillebotte had absorbed the spell of japonisme with its heady unconventional juxtapositions of conventional subjects.
Owing to his wealth, Caillebotte felt no pressure to sell his pictures; thus, he had a low public profile. Modest to a fault, he bequeathed his considerable art collection to the nation but did not include any of his own work. Renoir, who was the executor of his will, eventually arranged to have Caillebotte's paintings hung in the Palais de Luxembourg alongside the artist's personal collection.
For further reading: Painting By Numbers: Komar & Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, New York, Farrar Straus & Giroux: 1997.
Image: Gustave Caillebotte - Skiffs on the Yerre, 1877, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.