Gustave Caillebotte was born on an upper-class Parisian family. His father was the inheritor of the family's military textile business and was also a judge at the Seine department's Tribunal de Commerce. Caillebotte earned a law degree in 1868 and a license to practice law in 1870. He was also an engineer. Shortly afterwards, he was drafted to fight in the Franco-Prussian war, and served in the Garde Nationale Mobile de la Seine.
After the war, Caillebotte began visiting the studio of painter Léon Bonnat, where he began to seriously study painting. He developed an accomplished style in a relatively short period of time and had his first studio in his parents' home. In 1873, Caillebotte entered into the École des Beaux-Arts, but apparently did not spend much time there. Around 1874, Caillebotte met and befriended several artists working outside the official French Academy, including Edgar Degas and Giuseppe de Nittis, and attended (but did not participate in) the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874.
The "Impressionists" - also called the "Independents", "Intransigents", and "Intentionalists" - had broken away from the academic painters showing in the annual Salons. Caillebotte did make his debut in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876 showing eight paintings including "Floor-scrapers" (1875), his earliest masterpiece. Its subject matter, the depiction of laborers preparing a wooden floor, was considered 'vulgar' by some critics and is the probable reason why it was rejected by the Salon of 1875. At the time, the art establishment only deemed rustic peasants or farmers as acceptable subjects from the working class.
Caillebotte's style belongs to the School of Realism but was strongly influenced by his Impressionist associates. In common with his precursors, Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet, as well his contemporary Degas, Caillebotte aimed to paint reality as it existed and as he saw it, hoping to reduce painting's inherent theatricality. Perhaps because of his close relationship with so many of his peers, his style and technique varies considerably among his works, as if 'borrowing' and experimenting, but not really sticking to any one style. At times, he seems very much in the Degas camp of rich-colored realism (especially his interior scenes) and at other times, he shares the Impressionists' commitment to 'optical truth' and employs an impressionistic pastel-softness and loose brush strokes most similar to Renoir and Pissarro, though with a less vibrant palette.
Caillebotte painted many domestic and familial scenes, interiors, and portraits. Many of his paintings depict members of his family. There are scenes of dining, card playing, piano playing, reading and sewing all done in an intimate, unobtrusive manner which observes the quiet ritual of upper-class indoor life. His country scenes at Yerres focus on pleasure boating on the leisurely stream as well as fishing and swimming, and domestic scenes around his country home. Often, he used a soft impressionistic technique reminiscent of Renoir to convey the tranquil nature of the countryside, in sharp contrast to the flatter, smoother strokes of his urban paintings. In "Oarsman in a Top Hat" (1877), he effectively manages the perspective of a passenger in the back of a row boat facing his rowing companion and the stream ahead, in a manner much more realistic and involving than Manet’s Boating.
Caillebotte is best known for his paintings of urban Paris, such as "The Bridge De l'Europe" (1876), and "Paris: a Rainy Day" (1877). The latter is almost unique among his works for its particularly flat colors and photo-realistic effect which gives the painting its distinctive and modern look, almost akin to American Realists such as Edward Hopper. Many of his urban paintings were quite controversial due to their exaggerated, plunging perspective. In "Man on a Balcony" (1880), he invites the viewer to share the balcony with his subject and join in observing the scene of the city reaching into the distance, again by using unusual perspective. Showing little allegiance to any one style, many of Caillebotte's other urban paintings done in the same period, such as "The Place Saint-Augustin" (1877), are considerably more impressionistic.
Caillebotte's still-life paintings focus primarily on food, some at table ready to be eaten and some ready to be purchased, as in a series of paintings he made of meat at a butcher shop. He also produced some floral still life paintings, particularly in the 1890s. Rounding out his subject matter, he painted a few nudes too.
Caillebotte acquired a property at Petit-Gennevilliers, on the banks of the Seine near Argenteuil, in 1881, and moved there permanently in 1888. He ceased showing his work at age 34 and devoted himself to gardening and to building and racing yachts, and spent much time with his brother, Martial, and his friend Renoir, who often came to stay at Petit-Gennevilliers, and engaged in far ranging discussions on art, politics, literature, and philosophy. Never married, he appears to have had a serious relationship with Charlotte Berthier, a woman eleven years his junior and of the lower class, to whom he left a sizable annuity. Caillebotte's painting career slowed dramatically in the early 1890s, when he stopped making large canvases. Caillebotte died of pulmonary congestion while working in his garden at Petit-Gennevilliers in 1894 at age 45, and was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Caillebotte's superb collection of impressionist paintings was left to the French government on his death. With considerable reluctance the government accepted part of the collection. This collection included sixty-eight paintings by various artists: Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, and Édouard Manet.
Caillebotte's sizable allowance, along with the inheritance he received after the death of his father in 1874 and his mother in 1878, allowed him to paint without the pressure to sell his work. It also allowed him to help fund Impressionist exhibitions and support his fellow artists and friends by purchasing their works and, at least in the case of Monet, paying the rent for their studios. Therefore, for many years Caillebotte's reputation as a painter was superseded by his reputation as a supporter of the arts. Seventy years after his death, however, art historians began reevaluating his artistic contributions. His striking use of varying perspective is particularly admirable and sets him apart from his peers who may have exceeded him in other artistic areas. His art was largely forgotten until the 1950s when his descendents began to sell the family collection.
Forty of Caillebotte's own works are now held by the Musée d'Orsay. His "Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann" (1880), sold for more than US Dollars 14.3 million in 2000.