Progression of Art
The Floor Scrapers
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.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Paris Street, Rainy Day
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.
Oil on canvas - Chicago Art Institute
Pont de l'Europe (Europe Bridge)
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.
Oil on canvas - Musée Petit Palais, Geneva
View of Rooftops (Snow Effect)
By the opening of the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879, Caillebotte's painting career had gained considerable momentum; that year he submitted more than 25 paintings, including this and another roofscape. He was by then fully a member of the Impressionist group - there was no speculation at the time as to whether or not he was one of them - and was also one of their most generous patrons. Unlike many of his controversial works from past exhibitions, his roofscapes generated no controversy. However, they constitute an important link between his almost maniacally precise images of the city of Paris and those paintings of his colleagues that so often focused on the effects of the seasons and the weather of both urban and rural settings.
In keeping with his tendency to create paintings with unusual perspectives, with View of Rooftops, the vantage point seems to be somewhere well above the rooftops of urban Paris, perhaps on a balcony, as Caillebotte produced several images that featured balconies, particularly with single figures perched on them and surveying scenes below them undetected.
The alternate title of the painting, Snow Effect, seems to be the major focus of the painting as the usual precision with which Caillebotte creates his modern cityscapes is largely absent, in a way obliterated by the snow. Instead, the white patches of snow interspersed with the dull gray that is almost synonymous with Paris winters create the impression that the painting and perhaps the city itself remain to be finished, the hazy lines that define edges more emphatically drawn.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Nude on a Couch
Another working-class Parisian makes an appearance in this work. The nude woman seen here resting on the couch has removed her clothing and has tossed it somewhat haphazardly on the end of the couch above her head. Her shoes sit beside the couch and their quality, combined with that of her clothes, suggest she is not well-to-do. She seems to be sleeping, with one arm shielding her eyes from the light.
This is not a typical, academic style nude featuring a reclining female figure placed in a seductive pose. Ordinarily, the nude female would be depicted looking out toward the viewer in a gesture of sexual or at least sensual engagement. However, this woman, seems to have fallen asleep, possibly while posing but the circumstances are not especially clear. Because the subject doesn't make eye contact, the viewer becomes something of a voyeur, assuming a vantage point identical to that of the painter himself. The scene is actually somewhat claustrophobic as well. It is as though we, the viewers, have walked into the room at an awkward moment, a feeling that is further emphasized by the unusual angle of the couch: on the lower left corner, the couch seems to protrude from the front of the picture plane and the effect is that we are actually in the painting as there is no barrier. Significantly, the painting is almost life-size, so the feeling of being in it is further enhanced.
While the face of the reclining woman is in shadow, the raking light that compels her to place her arm over her eyes illuminates her body so that it is extremely pale. She is not seductive; rather, this young working-class woman seems to be exhausted. In fact, the woman frequently modeled for Caillebotte and eventually became his mistress. However, she is not lovingly painted; rather, like many other works by the artist, this one has a kind of neutral, documentary feel to it, as though the only goal is to provide a visual account of this generally mundane scene.
Art historian Michael Fried has posited an alternative interpretation of the work. He argues that what we are witnessing is a private erotic moment, that the woman is actually playing with her nipple, arousing herself, and that her flexed foot is further evidence of her aroused state. He claims that, in depicting her as such, "the painting attempts to render accessible or, say, intuitable, to an audience traditionally figured as male (but the basic situation would be no different if it were figured otherwise) a particular absorbed bodily state - female autoeroticism or autoaffection - that despite the unprecedented display of female nakedness is effectively private, withdrawn, closed." By "the unprecedented display of female nakedness," Fried means that the body of the woman has not been depicted as traditionally sensuous but, rather, acutely real. Her self-absorption makes us want to retreat from the scene rather than enter into it further.
Oil on canvas - Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Calf's Head and Ox Tongue
This gruesome still life painting is one of a group of four pictures with the theme of raw meat. Here, the red tongue of an ox, removed from the animal's head (and thus its normal context) emphatically emphasizes the butchering of its owner as does the severed head of the calf displayed next to it. Whereas the image could be far more visceral and disturbing, Caillebotte used a palette that is surprisingly decorative given the subject matter: it's the palette of a light-hearted Impressionist picture only the objects aren't beautifully attired, well-to-do denizens of Paris but rather large chunks of meat on view and for sale in a butcher's window.
Like virtually all of the Impressionists, Caillebotte produced a number of still-life paintings and the subjects tended to be fairly standard: fruit and vegetables on display, elegantly arranged delicacies, flowers and more. However, as art historian Gloria Groom points out, he also "undertook a series of extraordinarily direct and confrontational paintings in which he depicted fresh meat on display, reinventing the genre in radical and unprecedented ways." Groom suggests that, because of his wealth, Caillebotte was not restricted in terms of subject matter. Whereas his friends and fellow painters Monet and Renoir struggled to support themselves early in their careers and tailored their themes to the art market, he was free to paint subjects that were not only of less interest to buyers but could often be openly offputting and even shocking.
With his series of paintings featuring meat, Caillebotte was drawing on the very long tradition of still life painting and works of the same theme by well-known painters like Rembrandt who excelled at producing beautifully crafted still life imagery. He probably also knew of the work of the 19th-century French painter, François Bonvin, who created disturbingly realistic images of slabs of beef displayed in nondescript interiors. Unlike Rembrandt and Bonvin, however, the potentially gory impact of Caillebotte's painting is radically toned down by the strangely pleasant palette.
Critic Philip Kennicott and art historian Michael Fried have both commented on the obvious symbolism of the disembodied tongue. "Tongues are for speaking,' writes Kennicott, "and the calf's head suggests attenuated youth. There is something going on here," he continues, "about ideas of transmission and death, about communication and silence, relationships that have lapsed into the incommunicable isolation of pure otherness. Caillebotte," he concludes, "has hung up sadness on the wall, quietly and without comment."
Fried notes that the theme of silence is not only appropriate but "implicit" to "still life as a genre." Referring to the picture as "oddly poignant," he suggests that the glaring silence of that dangling tongue functions basically as "a vigorous protest on behalf of the body," whether that of the ox itself, the body of an animal, or that of a human: in particular, the viewer, who is here confronted with his or her own mortality, according to Fried.
Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago
Man at His Bath
Although it was painted in 1884, Man at His Bath was not exhibited until 1888 at the exhibition of Les XX in Brussels and, probably not surprisingly, provoked a shocked public and critical response. Like many of his paintings, this one is nearly life size, measuring 57 x 45 inches. Similar to his Nude on a Couch, Caillebotte has created a vantage point for the viewer that draws him or her into the scene at a strange and intimate angle, as though crouching slightly in the foreground so that even the genitals of the male figure, who is toweling himself off after a bath, are visible - and in a way that is quite unintentional. Indeed, he is not posing but is absorbed in the ritual of the bath, which has concluded so recently that even his wet footprints have not dried.
Without question, Caillebotte's penchant for representing off-putting subjects achieves new heights as he portrays a contemporary man, not a classical nude, in a contemporary setting rather than, for instance, some kind of bucolic fantasy world. Even his unusual Nude on a Couch, however, did not challenge the artistic establishment as this work did because, while unidealized representations of nude women were becoming increasingly more familiar - Manet's Olympia is a major example in this regard - there was really no precedent for a work like Man at His Bath nor was there an impulse on the part of any of his contemporaries to join Caillebotte in exploring the theme of the unidealized (or any version of) the male nude. Indeed, as art historian Paul Wood points out, "Throughout the 19th century, the status of the male nude was steadily marginalized in avant-garde art." While Degas had created some extremely untraditional and unglamorous images of women bathing, often featuring them in awkward poses and completely self-absorbed, he did not create male-dominated versions of such works.
For all of its challenges to the artistic establishment, over a hundred years later, Caillebotte's Man at His Bath was redeemed when the Museum of Fine Art in Boston purchased the painting for $17 million dollars. A century later, the work may finally be regarded as, among other things, fundamentally exemplary of the artist's appreciation for the male form and for the human body, including or possibly specifically when it is not posing or otherwise self-conscious.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Chrysanthemums in the Garden at Petit-Gennevilliers
Like the other genres with which he engaged, Caillebotte managed to imbue his still-life paintings with his own style, one that combined realism and unconventional views. While the palette is quite naturalistic - the viewer can imagine standing among these flowers in the artist's family garden, they look so real - the flatness of the composition is odd. It is as though Caillebotte intentionally eliminated the kind of modeling and contrasts of dark and light that would provide the illusion of the depth. As a consequence, the flowers, stems and leaves seem to cascade across the picture plane and the surface of the canvas becomes a kind of decorative panel. Indeed, it has been proposed that this painting may actually have been intended to function as a door panel, installed on the lower portion of the door so the viewer would look at it from above, focusing foremost on the blooms at the top.
This emphasis on flatness and relatively large areas of mostly solid color is also a major feature of the Japanese prints that captivated the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The references to Japanese art and culture don't end there as the chrysanthemums themselves were, as Met Museum curator, Jane R. Becker points out, "prized at the time as an exotic reference to all things Japanese and Chinese." In fact, an adept gardener, Caillebotte cultivated a number of different kinds of flowers that were equally prized at the time such as irises and roses and, of course, chrysanthemums.
With this painting, the influence of the Impressionists and particularly his friend Monet is also evident in the urge of Caillebotte to describe the effect of light at a particular moment in time, as the sunlight "falls from the left of the flowers," writes Becker, "casting a shadow on the green stalks at right and a glow of light that particularly kisses the white, yellow, and orange flower petals." It is the transitory nature of life that is captured here, which has long been a part of the tradition of still-life painting, especially those that feature fruit or flowers that are in various states of ripeness or, conversely, decay.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York