Would Gustave Caillebotte have cared that his membership in the circle of French Impressionist painters is all but forgotten? Probably not, for this remarkable man was one of the most self-effacing artists of modern times. Shielded by extraordinary wealth, he had no need to sell his paintings. He took great pleasure, instead, in promoting his Impressionist colleagues Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, and Pissarro, and supported them through his generous purchases, keeping some of them from starving.
After showing his own works in most of the great Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and '80s, he withdrew them from public view and spent most of his time in the country, tending to his grand gardens (he had introduced Monet to the pleasures of horticulture), collecting stamps with his brother, and having great success designing and racing sailboats. Upon his sudden death at 45 in 1894, he had his first real brush with fame: His will -- drawn up some 20 years earlier -- left his pioneering collection of the great paintings of his era to the French nation.
Such a gift was seen as scandalous -- modern paintings simply were not shown in the museums of France. Fortunately, Caillebotte had chosen the patient and persuasive Auguste Renoir as his executor, and the guardians of the Louvre eventually accepted 40 paintings from his legacy of 65 works for display in the Musee du Luxembourg. Over time they became among the best-loved expressions of French culture, forming the core of the old Jeu de Paume and of today's Musee d'Orsay.
Had Renoir not insisted that one of Caillebotte's own paintings -- the ''Floor-Scrapers'' of 1875 -- be included with his donation, the 20th-century public might never have seen his work at all. (The bulk of his output remains in his family's hands to this day.) And it was another 70 years before the Art Institute of Chicago became the first museum to purchase one of his pictures when it bought his massive 1877 masterpiece ''Paris Street; Rainy Day'' in 1964. In the 1970s, largely through the efforts of Kirk Varnedoe, now chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, serious attention was turned to Caillebotte for the first time.
Now, a century after his death, the Art Institute, the French National Museums, and the Musee d'Orsay have organized the first major international retrospective of Caillebotte's work. And while the artist might have been nonplussed, we should not be. Complete with a handsome, comprehensive catalogue, ''Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist,'' now on view at the Art Institute, reveals the painter as a unique and compelling figure, possessed of a modern sensibility so different from his contemporaries and so right for our own time.
Visitors to the Art Institute have come to love ''Paris Street,'' Caillebotte's signature painting, even if they have known little about the man behind it. It holds pride of place in the museum's collections along with its ''cousin,'' Georges Seurat's ''A Sunday on La Grande Jatte -- 1884.'' What Seurat did for the suburban weekend, Caillebotte had done for the urbanites of the new Paris a decade earlier. And while Seurat's work has a pastoral quality, Caillebotte's paintings have a stark, almost realistic feel to them. People pass each other without speaking. Subjects are seen from the back or lost in thought. Even in his portraits, Caillebotte often depicts his subjects hard at work at their desks.
It is not just his subject matter that sets Caillebotte apart -- the grand boulevards of Hausmann's Paris, the rows of identical apartment houses, the new iron bridges of the Right Bank -- but his approach as well. The Lumiere brothers would not invent motion pictures for another year after the artist's death, but Caillebotte's point of view anticipates the cinema. His scenes of city life are ''cropped'' so that people are walking on or off the canvas. ''Boulevard Seen from Above'' (1880) is just that, an aerial view of a city street with a vertiginous quality that draws the viewer into the picture in a way Hitchcock would have applauded.
Much of Caillebotte's life remains a mystery to us. The show includes 30 drawings, fascinating studies for the two versions of ''Floor-Scrapers'' and for ''Paris Street.'' But we have no journals or letters to offer any clues to his purposes or opinions. Although he lived with a young actress in his last years, he did not paint her. His real pleasure was in the company of men, and he captures this in his paintings of friends boating or playing cards. He painted only one awkward female nude, but the 1884 ''Man at His Bath'' is one of the first natural views of a naked man.
With the exception of two late self-portraits, the show ends on a rather anticlimactic note, with a room of still lifes and floral studies. While they are again marked by the realism of Caillebotte's peopled paintings -- sides of beef hanging in a butcher's window, a view of fruit on a vendor's stand as opposed to an arrangement in the artist's studio -- neither their style nor subject matter commands our attention, and they are of greater interest to art historians.
At the show's exit, in an inevitable merchandising coup, visitors are offered umbrellas imprinted with scenes of ''Paris Street.'' The effect is to return our thoughts to the exhibition's major paintings, to Caillebotte's documentation of the sad and sweet mysteries of modern life, to the window he provides on the urban soul.
*''Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist'' runs through May 28 at the Art Institute of Chicago. It then travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from June 25 through Sept. 10.