You see it from the moment you enter the exhibition, Gustave Caillebotte’s masterpiece and one of the most famous paintings of the past 150 years. “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago, is placed at the end of a short enfilade of three galleries, documenting the impressionist painter’s best work, most of it made while he was an urban animal, a wealthy dandy, a self-styled flâneur, an impressionist impresario with the means and the energy to shape a movement.

Caillebotte‘s 1877 ”Paris Street, Rainy Day,” was the pinnacle of his career and anchors the National Gallery show. (Art Institute of Chicago)

When you are standing in front of it, admiring the glistening wet cobblestones, the severe geometry of Parisian streets and the cheerful bustle of its gloomy weather, you may think that the rest of Caillebotte will be more of the same. But the layout of the galleries follows the strange progress of Caillebotte’s career. From “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” the show continues with a sharp right turn to other subjects, including nudes, still lifes and brightly painted scenes of gracious suburban living. This second tranche of Caillebotte may seem a bit of a disappointment. The curators of the National Gallery of Art’s “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” a satisfying and enlightening exhibition that brings together some 50 of the artist’s best paintings, won’t mind that. They acknowledge it in the catalogue and have arranged the exhibition to place Caillebotte’s later work in a satellite relation to a handful of great paintings, most of them made in the 1870s or early 1880s.

“We would not have done the show without that,” says Mary Morton, head of French paintings at the NGA, pointing to “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” Morton, the exhibition’s co-curator (with the Kimbell Art Museum’s George Shackelford), wants this show to transform our sense of the artist. Caillebotte, whose work is mainly in private hands and sparsely represented in American museums, was foundational to the early impressionist movement, yet mostly forgotten for a century after its heyday. Even today, his exquisitely painted city scenes don’t ring the mental impressionist bell in most people’s heads: They don’t have the seemingly rapid and approximate brushwork of impressionism, nor are they steeped in the flowers, water and lush landscapes of painters like Monet.

When Caillebotte was invited to join the second impressionist exhibition in 1876, however, he was recognized as one its most boldest and most powerful talents, with a polished, almost academic style that connected him more strongly to the past than his more radical confreres. One critic divided the painters into the landscape artists and the “draftsmen,” a category that included Caillebotte and Degas, whose work was more preoccupied with the individual, the human and the social. Had Caillebotte not died young, had he not been rich, had he not drifted later in life toward the preoccupations and painterly manner of Monet, had he not been remembered more as a collector than as a maker of art, he might have changed our sense of the whole movement, shifting its center of gravity to the “draftsmen” and away from the haystacks, sea scenes, gardens and sun-dappled ripples of the sleepy Seine.

The exhibition is the first major U.S. show devoted to Caillebotte since a 1994 exhibition seen in Los Angeles and Chicago. Its slightly vague and elastic subtitle, “The Painter’s Eye,” is a good indication that Caillebotte continues to frustrate interpretation and easy assimilation. Rather like the network of avenues that diverge from the viewer in “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” the routes to understanding Caillebotte are several and tangential. What unifies our sense of the painter is his peculiar, and compelling, spatial sense, the provocative geometries of his paintings, the deep focus of many of his works and the often radical, seemingly photographic angles of view, cropping and perspective. In short: the painter’s eye.

"Luncheon" is a visual feast suggesting a meal taken in silence and someone missing from the party. ( Private Collection; Copyright Comite Caillebott)

In an 1876 painting, “Luncheon,” a large plate looks as if tilted up toward the viewer, like an opaque steering wheel, while an array of glassware and dishes stretches into the distance along a highly polished dining table. The empty place setting in the foreground may reference Caillebotte’s father, who died in 1874, or it may be intended to place the viewer at the table, emphasizing how distant are the remote, silent and perhaps sad figures eating at the other end. It is a striking composition that heightens the flavor of the realist details, the glass carafe asymmetrically placed in a metal coaster, the apparently haphazard arrangement of dishes, glasses and platters, the peculiar sense of quiet that suggests two figures eating a rich but lonely meal in mutual isolation.

”Young Man Playing the Piano” features a vertical element in the corner that foreshadows the lamppost in “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” (Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation)

“Luncheon” is placed in the first room of the show, with another powerful 1876 interior scene that shocked early critics, “Young Man Playing the Piano.” Set against light filtering through lacy curtains, the pianist places two elegant, long-fingered hands on the keyboard of a black grand piano, the end of which is pushed into the corner formed by two walls covered with flowery wallpaper. Running down this corner seam of the wallpaper is an ornamental stripe of red and gold, reflected twice in the piano and establishing an overly powerful vertical line that unsettles the entire image. This strange fascination with apparently arbitrary vertical dissections of the image recurs in “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” where a much-criticized street lamp bisects the painting without regard to any of the usual compositional niceties.

In the next gallery, an even more shocking 1880 painting shows us a Parisian street scene from on high, an almost abstract image of street furniture, foreshortened men and a horse-drawn carriage filtered through the leaves of a somewhat spindly tree. “The Boulevard Seen From Above,” like Caillebotte’s other Parisian scenes, captures the new Paris, the remade Paris of Baron Haussmann, who shattered much of the medieval city and replaced it with elegant, uniform and easily patrolled boulevards. But this particular image emphasizes the radical newness of Caillebotte’s Paris by showing it from a novel and vertiginous perspective.

”The Boulevard Seen from Above” has a photographic feel, but predates George Eastman’s handheld camera. (Private Collection)

One might say of this, and many other works, that they merely reflect the influence of photography, its tendency to crop the world in odd ways, draw the eye deep into the picture and capture the accidental and serendipitous movement of living things. But George Eastman’s handheld camera wasn’t marketed until 1888, and the great work of the major French painters who responded to its revolution in seeing — among them Vuillard and Bonnard — was still at least a decade off. And it’s a mistake to exaggerate the camera’s influence: What mattered was the painter’s ability to see (and not suppress) what was interesting in photographs, not the accidental innovations of the snapshot.

"On the Pont de l'Europe" reminds you of Manet’s “The Railway” and Monet’s depiction of a Paris train station. (Gustave Caillebotte/Courtesy of National Gallery of Art)

The first three rooms of the exhibition are beautifully organized, proceeding from interior views to views through a window to the gallery that includes “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” along with three other magisterial works, the two views of the Pont de l’Europe and the 1877 “House Painters.” These all seem of a piece, connected not just to each other, but also to a deeply internalized sense of Paris fashioned, disseminated and sustained by the painters of this period. The billowing gales of steam rising mysteriously from beyond the girders of the 1876 “The Pont de l’Europe” may well be from the same train in the background of Manet’s “The Railway” (on view in the National Gallery’s permanent collection) or the black behemoth that comes belching into the Gare Saint Lazare painted by Monet a few years later.

Fortunately, the power of these three galleries carries over into the next galleries, devoted to portraits, still life, suburban and garden scenes and two rare nudes. The viewer’s eye has been shocked into awareness of the painter’s eye, and Caillebotte’s forays into other territory seem almost equally strange and disorienting. A large male nude drying himself after a bath inverts the usual gender of the impressionist bathing scene; a naked woman lies exhausted and probably oblivious on a sofa that dwarfs her; a roomful of food presents the Parisian shop window as a Grand Guignol fantasy of horror, humor and artifice; and drying linen obscures the view of a sunny landscape with a strangely corporeal sense of flayed skin flapping in the wind.

Is it a letdown? A bit, but although no single work seems as great as what has come before, most of them are at least equally idiosyncratic and even perverse. The figures in Caillebotte’s portraits are not wearing the approved masks of standard portraiture, but seem smug, or annoyed or even menacing. The well-dressed man rowing a boat in “The Boating Party” is captured with disturbing intimacy and exudes all the pleasure of a celebrity under the gaze of the paparazzi. The reflection of the wooden masts on the water of an 1893 sailing scene are rendered with a thick zigzag of yellow paint that feels more like a symbol of reflection than a rendering of one.

“Calf's Head and Ox Tongue" is visceral yet calm as it looks at silence and separation in life and in death. (Art Institute of Chicago)

A late-career self-portrait by the enigmatic artist who died in 1894 at the age of 45. (Private Collection/Private Collection)

And then there’s the still life “Calf’s Head and Ox Tongue,” probably painted around 1882. Throughout the exhibition, the visitor will have developed little if any sense of who Caillebotte was, and no sense of his emotional life. Some critics see alienation and isolation in his cityscapes; others thought Caillebotte strangely ensorceled by the newness of Haussmann’s Paris. Caillebotte’s view remains an enigma. (Perhaps as one who enjoyed the best of gentrification, he was discreet enough to be neutral about its impact.)

If you want to force meaning on the work beyond its visual innovation and experimentation, the ghastly tongue and severed calf’s head are a tempting place to start. They are seen in a room of dead animals and fruit and cakes, near other images that often pair carcasses as if the inanimate foodstuffs of Paris went like the animals of Noah’s aquatic menagerie: two-by-two. But the pairings are odd.

A long, red tongue, capped by a blood-red bundle of flesh, hangs inert beside a calf that might be sleeping but for the obvious evidence of its decapitation. A metal butcher’s rack and chain cross the image horizontally. It is a gory image, but a calm one, too, like a painting by Soutine that has been lightly censored and slightly polished. One might see this as a natural extension of the painter’s more elegant cityscapes, or a Balzac-like digression into the manners of the marketplace and thus related to Caillebotte’s paintings of the suburban fields of Gennevilliers Plain, an enticing artificial landscape that was fertilized with the effluvia of the Parisian sewer system. The painter is giving us the high and low of Paris, the in and out, and both ends of an enormous, urban alimentary canal.

But perhaps this, too: Tongues are for speaking, and the calf’s head suggests attenuated youth. There is something going on here about ideas of transmission and death, about communication and silence, relationships that have lapsed into the incommunicable isolation of pure otherness. Caillebotte has hung up sadness on the wall, quietly and without comment, which only emphasizes the space that divides tongue from head, viewer from image, image from reality and reality from oblivion.

On the other hand, this is also an image of lunch, which is what fashionable people do on a rainy afternoon, when life is lived all on the surface, well-dressed, well-heeled, well-fed and well-sated with city living.

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art and is on view through Oct. 4. For more information, visit