- Gustave Caillebotte: Painting the Paris of NaturalismOur PickBy Michael Marrinan
- Gustave Caillebotte: An Impressionist and PhotographyOur PickBy Karin Sagner and Max Hollein
- Gustave Caillebotte and the Fashioning of Identity in Impressionist ParisOur PickBy Norma Broude
Important Art by Gustave Caillebotte
Courbet originally submitted this painting to the official exhibition of the French Academy in 1875 but the jury of the exhibition, the Salon, refused the painting, deeming it "vulgar." Those representatives of the artistic establishment considered the subject, common workers refinishing a wood floor, "unheroic" and the strange, tilted view was thought to be too radical. Even the well-known, avant-garde writer and critic, Émile Zola, who had defended the Impressionists, denounced this work as being "anti-artistic" and "photographic." He went on to state that the work was "so accurate that made it bourgeois." However, The Floor Scrapers, which is regarded as one of Caillebotte's best works, did capture the attention and admiration of some of the Impressionist painters who persuaded him to display the piece in their second exhibition in 1876.
In this painting, three workers, naked from the waist up and completely absorbed in their strenuous labor, scrape away old layers of varnish in what is to become Caillebotte's first studio. The viewer observes the scene from the far end of the room and the floor seems to angle severely upward toward the window that is illuminating the portions of the floor that they haven't yet scraped as well as their bent and muscled backs.
In fact, The Floor Scrapers is one of the very first paintings representing the "urban proletariat," according to the Musée d'Orsay. "Whereas," explains the museum, "peasants (Gleaners by Millet) or country workers (Stone Breakers by Courbet) had often been shown, city workers had seldom been painted." Caillebotte did not, however, infuse this work with social or political meaning. Instead, the painting seems more like a visual document of an exceedingly banal event. At the most, he may have been connecting the careful labor of floor refurbishing to that of creating a painting like this one with such precision, a clearly laborious undertaking.
After Caillebotte's death, this painting was bequeathed to the French state but it was only through the insistence of Renoir and Martial Caillebotte that it was eventually hung in the Musée du Luxembourg in 1896.
While Zola had blasted The Floor Scrapers the year before, when Caillebotte exhibited Paris Street, Rainy Day along with five other paintings, the influential critic had a much more positive view of the artist's work. Zola wrote, "At last, I will name Mr. Caillebotte, a young painter of the most beautiful courage and who does not give up in front of full-size modern subjects," a theme that the critic vehemently supported. He described the figures, the man and woman in the foreground as "beautifully truthful" in their realism and argued that when Caillebotte's talent had "softened a little," he could be regarded as "one of the boldest of the group" of Impressionists.
At the 1877 exhibition, the third of the Impressionist group, some observers also compared the perceived realism of this painting, among others by Caillebotte, to that of photography. And it wasn't merely the realism that provoked such comparisons. Significantly, the sharp focus on the figures in the foreground contrasted with the softening - almost blurring, really - of the background surroundings is very evocative of the way a photograph looks. Also, the emphatic cropping of the image - the man on the far right is only halfway in the picture - is directly suggestive of a photograph, of the way in which a camera excludes anything beyond the picture frame.
Recently, comparisons have been made between Caillebotte's paintings and the photographs of his brother, Martial. The brothers' shared interests, from boat racing and leisure pursuits in the countryside to modern construction and engineering methods and feats such as bridges and railways and the bustling life of the modern city, are reflected in their respective work. It has been suggested that, if they did not work directly in tandem per se, they embraced the same visual language, particularly in terms of how photography and painting seemed to have become indelibly linked in some of the most compelling avant garde art of the period, a relationship that was not necessarily deemed positive by critics of the day who didn't see the point in producing paintings that they believed imitated photographs.
While the painting seems deliberately divided by the lamppost in the center, the weightiness of the right half of the image due to the dark colors and mass of the figures seems out of balance with the open space of the left half of the composition. It's awkward, as are the poses of many of the figures populating the painting, some of whom seem as though they may collide with one another. They are all frozen in time as would happen with a photograph, which is another feature of this work that suggests that, if Caillebotte didn't use a photo to create the composition, he was at least thinking extensively about making formal choices that would lend the picture the semblance of being a photograph. Caillebotte scholar Kirk Varnedoe has argued that a good number of the artist's paintings originated as small, precise drawings that are almost exactly the same size as the plates his brother, Martial, used when making photographs.
This massive painting - the figures are life-size - depicts a specific location in modernized Paris: the Place du Dublin (as it is now referred) near the Gare Saint-Lazare (Saint Lazare Train Station). The neighborhood was newly renovated, with old buildings and narrow streets demolished or destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War at the beginning of the 1870s to make way for the wide boulevards that are so characteristic of modern Paris. Thus, in addition to celebrating the improving technology of photography, this painting also celebrates the urban modernization process. Unlike some of the Impressionists such as Monet and Pissarro, whose works have been interpreted as lamenting the effects of industrialization and modernity on Paris and its environs in particular, Caillebotte seems to have had a more positive outlook.
The precision of works like Paris Street, Rainy Day has prompted some scholars, including Varnedoe, to argue that Caillebotte was far more a Realist than an Impressionist given that the latter was a practice painted on site, often en plein air (out in the open air), rather than in their studios looking at drawings or photographs on which to base their paintings. However, the argument seems somewhat moot as, first of all, other artists like Degas worked just as often in their studios as on site and also relied heavily on photography for composing many works both compositionally and conceptually. Further, one major aspect of this and other works that is overlooked is the surprising lack of details available. The almost blurring effect of his omission of details does connect his pictures to those of other Impressionists, despite his rejection of the loose brushwork that was so characteristic of their paintings.
Pedestrians and even a dog stroll across or pause to look at the railway tracks of the Saint Lazare Train Station in this 1876 painting by Caillebotte, one of the works that drew praise from Zola when he exhibited it the same year it was painted. The newly constructed bridge linked six major avenues, each one named after a European capital. The vantage point of the viewer is from the rue de Vienne. One of the heavy iron trusses of the Pont de l'Europe is a prominent feature of the painting. The focus, aside from the bridge itself, seems to be the man leaning against the bridge, the dog, and the man and woman who, upon first glance, appear to be a couple; moving in opposing directions, these figures emphasize the lively character of the setting.
Analyses by art historians tell a more intriguing story than what meets the eye: the man on the left, who seems to be part of a couple, is more likely unattached to the woman who walks slightly behind him. He has been identified as a flâneur, a well-to-do man who roams the modern city at his leisure like an invisible presence with no role to play but that of silent observer. The woman, on the other hand, has been identified as a prostitute; she is well-dressed and resembles a bourgeoise, an affluent woman but, in fact, no proper woman of the period would have been strolling along the bridge without an escort. Alternatively, some scholars have argued that the man is Caillebotte himself and the woman his model and mistress, Anne-Marie Hagen, but there is no way to confirm that assertion. The man peering over the edge of the bridge is dressed in working-class clothing and is almost a ubiquitous fixture of the artist's scenes from the modern city of Paris, where more than ever before the wealthy were mixing with the working class on the widened boulevards and expansive public spaces like parks and squares.
Educated not only as a lawyer, Caillebotte was also trained as an engineer, although he never practiced the profession. His rendering of the Pont de l'Europe seems to emphasize the engineering feat this bridge was considered to be when it was first constructed. It is almost heroic in scale, dwarfing the newly constructed, symmetrical looking buildings on the far side of the square but still including them, as though they in their newness are connected. In contrast, in the space through the trusses, some of the medieval structures of the old Paris are barely visible, as though the bridge and, more importantly, technological advancements, are meant to conceal if not obliterate them. Possibly to emphasize another reference to technological progress, the railroad that lies almost out of sight to the right of the bridge and the picture frame, the truss of the bridge cuts a strong, emphatic diagonal through the painting as though speeding through like the trains below.
Caillebotte created a companion painting to this one titled On the Pont de l'Europe, which zooms in on the iron structure, rivets and all, of the bridge until it is a heavy, abstract form that frames three male figures walking in different directions. For both works, and others, he created detailed preparatory drawings, possibly using photographs. In one drawing, the man and woman are walking beside one another. The dog is nowhere to be seen and the space between the viewer and the couple and between the couple and the far side of the square is not nearly as populated.