The Orange Trees
Gustave Caillebotte, French, 1848–1894
Oil on canvas
61 × 46 in. (154.9 × 116.8 cm)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Recording Light and Shadow
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Pronounce the artist’s name: Kie – bot’
Caillebotte provides a glimpse of his own family, depicting his brother Martial and cousin Zoë in the family’s garden in the town of Yerres, France. Martial, his back turned to us, is engrossed in reading his book, while Zoë leans over a large white planter and reads a letter, and the dog sleeps in the sun. Even though their faces are hidden, their gestures and attitudes convey the leisurely relaxation of a summer afternoon. The orange trees in planters and the carefully tended beds with red and white flowers are a reminder that Caillebotte himself was an avid gardener. The hot weather is indicated by the blurred details that suggest a bright, glaring light.
The Orange Trees is a masterpiece of Impressionist painting. Caillebotte has contrasted the cool shadows in the foreground with the dazzling bright colors in the distance. Impressionists, like Caillebotte, were not interested in creating photographically realistic paintings, but rather in using dabs of paint to capture reflected light. The flower bed is painted with quick strokes of thick red, white, and green paint with little attention to details of petals or leaves. The bright light makes it impossible to see those details and also blurs outlines and edges. Under the trees, the cool purple and blue are enlivened with touches of blue, cream, and yellow. Although a work of this size and complexity took a long time to complete, the effect is of a casual scene captured quickly.
Born into a wealthy family, Gustave Caillebotte inherited a fortune in 1873, which allowed him to pursue art without worrying about money. He became friends with Degas, Monet, and Renoir, and joined the Impressionist group. He participated in and organized exhibitions of the Impressionists. Caillebotte also purchased Impressionist paintings, both at public sales and directly from artists, and provided loans to his friends. He is as important a patron of art as he is a painter. He bequeathed his outstanding collection of sixty-five pictures to France on the condition that they be displayed first in the Parisian museum devoted to living artists, then in the Louvre Museum.
Curators are always researching the museum’s collection. In the process, titles of works of art can change. This work used to be called The Artist’s Brother in His Garden and is now titled The Orange Trees.
Describe the scene. Consider the time of day, the figures, what they are doing and the setting.
What shapes and lines can you distinguish? What do you notice about the composition? Look at foreground and background.
The artist uses light and shadow to enhance the composition and mood of the painting. What are the sources of light here? Can you explain how light and shadow are used in this work?
How do we see the figures in this painting? What is the effect of the artist’s angle?
Look at the brushwork. How would you describe it?
How would you describe the colors used? What mood do they convey?
How does the artist create three-dimensionality in this painting? Look at color, shading, line and perspective.
What are the characters in this painting doing? Where are they?
The artist was part of the Impressionist movement. Impressionists were not interested in creating photographically realistic paintings, but rather in using dabs of paint to capture reflected light. Can you indicate areas in the painting that show a rougher, quicker painting style? How does the artist create light and shadow using paint? What impression does this painting give?
The short, sketchy brush-strokes in this work embody the artist’s desire to capture a fleeting moment—that instant before the light changes and the feeling of delicious quiet and repose. Discuss how the postures of these figures and the angle from which we view them creates the sense of a precious, fleeting moment.
The Impressionists often captured modernity, and rendered the refined leisure activities of the modern city. Why is reading a book a ‘refined leisure activity’? Do you think reading is a luxury or a necessity? Why?
What can you say about these character’s status in society?
This work used to be called The Artist’s Brother in His Garden and is now called The Orange Trees. The artist’s brother and their young cousin Zoe, both elegantly dressed, relax in the park-like garden of the family villa at Yerres, just outside of Paris. The orange trees were inspired by photography, Japanese prints, and the aesthetics of Baron Haussmann's newly constructed boulevards buildings of modern Paris. What would you name this painting?
The artist was a wealthy person, due to a large inheritance. He painted but also collected artworks. Do you think this scene would appeal to a large audience? Why, or why not?
When the Impressionists first showed their work in the late 19th century, the public and critics were shocked. Why do you think this was? How do these works differ from earlier artworks? Think about both the style and the subject matter.
• Work in cooperative groups to photograph an object in the school yard at one-hour intervals.
• If cameras are not available, have each student make a series of drawings recording an object with its shadow at one-hour intervals.
(see Art Lesson: Recording Light and Shadow, pgs. 6-7)
• Keep a time log of photos or drawings.
• Display photos or drawings in sequence to illustrate how shadows change with the progression of time. Discuss these changes.
Subject Matter Connection
This artwork does not have an obvious message. Concepts and ideas are important in works of art but they are not always easy to discover. Students need to learn how to take apart a work of art to understand why the artist made certain decisions.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.