“Faire cattleya” is, in Proust’s big novel, a code word for making love inspired by the favorite flower of Madame Swann, a semi-retired cocotte.
If you’ve ever wondered what that species of orchid looks like, there are plenty of examples in a new exhibition at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris. It’s devoted to the brothers Gustave (1848-94) and Martial Caillebotte (1853-1910).
Gustave, whose paintings appeared in several of the early Impressionist shows, is best known for his cityscapes. They include the giant canvas at the Art Institute of Chicago depicting a Paris street corner on a rainy day and life-size figures with umbrellas in the foreground.
You’ll look in vain for such museum pieces. Virtually all of the 50 paintings in the show come from private collections. That doesn’t mean they are of inferior quality.
The paintings mingle with some 130 photographs by Martial, who often treated the same subjects as his older brother. Both were amateurs and had the means to indulge their hobbies. Their father had made a fortune by selling fabric for uniforms to the Ministry of War.
Gustave first studied for a law degree, then became a naval architect. His true passion, though, was painting which he briefly studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Paris at the time was in full transformation pushed through by Baron Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine department, who ruthlessly modernized the still largely medieval city. The Caillebotte brothers were astute observers of the momentous change, mostly concentrating on the new Quartier de l’Europe where they lived.
They were also fond of gardening. Their country houses to the north and south of Paris offered plenty of opportunities for the horticulturist, the painter and the photographer.
This is where Madame Swann’s cattleyas come in.
The interiors show the universe of a bourgeoisie in the age before television, with men reading the papers and women absorbed in their knitting or dreamily staring out the window.
At the end of the 1870s, the brothers threw themselves into yachting. They not only joined in regattas; Gustave also designed boats, naming his most ambitious vessel “Roastbeef” in homage to the sailing nation across the Channel.
In one of his self-portraits, you can see in the background Renoir’s masterpiece “Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette” on the wall.
Gustave was a great collector of his contemporaries and, in his will, left 67 canvases by Manet, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir and others to the state provided they were actually displayed at the Musee du Luxembourg, which was then the showcase for modern art.
After much foot-dragging, the museum finally accepted some 40 works, banishing them to a shabby annex.
When the annex opened in February 1897, Le Journal des Artistes dismissed the new arrivals as “ugly and disgraceful,” likening them to the anatomical monstrosities on display at the Musee Dupuytren.
Today, those monstrosities are the pride of the Musee d’Orsay.
“Dans l’Intimite des Freres Caillebotte” runs through July 11 at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. Information: http://www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com or +33-1-4562-1159.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)