On a rainy morning one fall, I was walking alone through the impressionist exhibit of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Standing before a wall of renowned paintings, I was struck by a question that I imagine many people wonder quietly in a museum, even if it’s rude to say out loud in a company of strangers: Why is this thing so famous?
It was The Japanese Footbridge by Claude Monet, with the blue bridge arching over an emerald green pond that is gilded with patches of yellow, pink, and green — the iconic water lilies. It was impossible not to recognise. One of my favourite picture books as a kid included several of Monet’s water lily paintings. It was also impossible to ignore, on account of several kids scrambling through the geriatric crowd to get a closer look. “Yes!” a teenage girl said, holding up her phone in front of her face to take a picture. “Oh!”exclaimed the taller, curly haired boy behind her. “It’s that famous one!”Several more high school students heard their shouts, and within seconds a group had clustered around the Monet.
Several rooms away, the gallery held a special exhibit for another impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte. This was a quieter, slower affair. There were no students and no ecstatic exclamations of recognition, just a lot of mmm-hmms and solemn nods. Caillebotte is not world famous like Monet, Manet, or Cezanne. The sign outside his exhibition at the National Gallery called him “perhaps the least known of the French impressionists.”
But Caillebotte’s paintings are exquisite. His style is impressionist yet exacting, as if captured with a slightly more focused camera lens. Often from a window’s view, he rendered the colourful urban geometry of nineteenth century Paris — the yellow rhomboid blocks, the pale white sidewalks, and the iridescent grays of rain-slicked boulevards. His contemporaries considered him a phenomenon on par with Monet and Renoir. Emile Zola, the great French writer who drew attention to impressionism’s “delicate patches of colour,” pronounced Caillebotte “one of the boldest of the group.” Still, 140 years later, Monet is one of the most famous painters in history, while Caillebotte is relatively anonymous.
A mystery: Two rebellious painters hang their art in the same impressionist exhibit in 1876. They are considered of similar talent and promise. But one painter’s water lilies become a global cultural hit — enshrined in picture books, studied by art historians, gawked at by high school students, and highlighted in every tour of the National Gallery of Art — and the other painter is little known among casual art fans. Why?
For many centuries, philosophers, artists, and psychologists have studied modern art to learn the truth about beauty and popularity. For understandable reasons, many focused on the paintings themselves. But studying the patches of Monet and the brushstrokes of Caillebotte won’t tell you why one is famous and the other is not. You have to see the deeper story. Famous paintings, hit songs, and blockbusters that seem to float effortlessly on the cultural consciousness have a hidden genesis; even water lilies have roots.