It was impressed on me as a child that complaining about personal misfortune was undignified and unacceptable. Despite that I shall tell this tale of good intentions frustrated without losing sight of the fact that as misfortunes go, this is a very small one. One of the great treasures in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago is Gustave Caillebotte’s magnum opus, Paris Street; Rainy Day, first exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. It represents the high point in Caillebotte’s output and nothing quite like it was produced by any of his contemporaries. At the age of only 28 the artist had examined the new Parisian urbanism of large scale speculative building and vast ambitious street planning to uncover the sense of psychological displacement experienced by the wider population as they navigate through the new cityscape. Perspectival distortions and a judicious elimination of distracting detail reveal the wide open spaces of the rapidly expanding metropolis and emphasise the insignificance of the occasional human presence. Meticulously planned and executed on a monumental scale, the painting was little more than a footnote in the great Impressionist narrative until it was acquired by the Art Institute from Wildenstein in 1964. In the 1970s, Kirk Varnedoe’s exhaustive, inspirational researches began a process of re-evaluation that has continued into the present and its current status as a major masterpiece of the late 19th. century seems secure.
I had every confidence that I would see the painting when I visited Chicago last month, secure in the knowledge that it was museum policy to turn down all requests for loans from overseas on the not unreasonable grounds that the safety of such a large and bulky item could not be guaranteed if it was shipped around the world. But I was to be disappointed and if I had enquired more deeply I would have learned that it had been loaned to Essen and Paris in the last decade. Paris Street; Rainy Day had buggered off to Berlin as part of a trade that brought Manet’s In the Conservatory in the opposite direction. Insult was added to injury in the museum shop where the display of Caillebotte-related merchandise ran from floor to ceiling, smirking at me. There’s a pattern here – last year in the Kusthalle, Hamburg, I discovered the object of my interest, the Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (Caspar David Friedrich) had wandered off to Berlin (again) in search of a better offer. I have learned from experience the necessity of checking whether a place I plan to visit is closed for a 75 year programme of refurbishment, but clearly I must take my due diligence to a higher level if I’m to avoid future disappointment. In the meantime, a trip to Berlin before September 26 seems called for.