The Floor-scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte

The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte (1875)

Although I am sure people love to see the paintings of the so-called “Masters”, I believe it is good to look at the works of lesser known artists and by doing so, one can discover hidden gems.  After Renoir’s famous painting Luncheon of the Boating Party,which I featured yesterday,  I decided today that I would look for a painter, who until yesterday had been unknown to me.  However, I do understand that this may be due to my simple lack of artistic knowledge and in fact the artist is well known to you, if so, I apologise!

It is often the case that when I am researching a painting I come across another artist, whom I have never heard of, and that is the reason for my choice of artist today.  Amongst the guests at Renoir’s luncheon was his friend and lesser known Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte and I decided to make him my artist of the day and I want to look at his unusual painting entitled Les raboteurs de parquet [The Floor Planers].

Caillebotte was born in Paris in 1848 and brought up in a very respectable and very wealthy upper-class family environment.  His father, Martial had inherited the family textile business.  Martial Caillebotte had been widowed twice before he met and married Gustave’s mother, Céleste.  When Gustave was eighteen his father moved the family home from Paris to the town of Yerres, a south-eastern suburb of Paris on the Yerres River,  an area which was familiar to the family as they had spent many summers there.

Gustave studied law when he was twenty years old and passed all his exams two years later. That year, he was drafted into army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War.  It was after the war and on leaving military service that Gustave wanted to concentrate on art and study painting.  He set up an artist’s studio in the family home and in 1873 he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  The following year his father died and in 1878 his mother passed away, at which time the three brothers shared the family fortune.  It was also around this time that Gustave met and became friends with Edgar Degas and came into contact with the Impressionists, a group of artists who had rebelled against Academicism art and academic painters, whose works were exhibited in the Paris Salon.  This group of artists had their own Impressionist exhibitions, the first of which was held in 1874.

In 1876 the Impressionists held their second exhibition and Caillebotte exhibited eight of his paintings including today’s featured work, The Floor Scrapers, which he completed in 1875.  The style of this work belongs to the Realism genre but unfortunately for Gustave the art establishment only considered peasants and farmers from the countryside as acceptable subjects in works of art which highlighted the realism of working-class life.

The Floor-scrapers, sometimes known as The Floor-strippers  was painted in the artist’s family home.  It is a painting which depicts working class people hard at work and although that in itself was not an unusual subject for French paintings as it had been done many times before but the difference was that in previous French paintings, the depiction of the hardships of the working class was all about working class farmers or country peasants.  This painting depicts the urban working class and as such it was one of the first such representations.  Caillebotte presented his painting for the exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1875 but it was rejected.  The Jury of the Salon were shocked by its crude realism and some went so far as to describe it as being vulgar and offensive.  The artist was both disappointed and angered by their stance and decided that exhibiting his works at the Paris Salon was not going to be the future course for his paintings.  Instead, he decided to align himself with another group of French artists, who like him, were disillusioned by the narrow views of the academics and had formed themselves into their own artistic group – the Impressionists.

The work of art today is simply a painting depicting men hard at work.  Here we see three men stripping the varnish off the floor of the artist’s new apartment.  There is neither a moralising message nor is there a left wing political message.  Caillebotte is merely showing the men hard at work carrying out a strenuous task.  This is why the artist was looked upon as one of the most gifted French realist painters of his time.  Look how Caillebotte has depicted the musculature of the upper body of his three workers as they perform their back-breaking task on their hands and knees.  See how the artist has made the light of the late afternoon streams through the long balcony window and illuminate their backs.   It harks back to the heroes we saw centuries earlier when we looked at the paintings of the heroes of Antiquity. France, like Britain, had just gone through an Industrial Revolution and with urbanization came a new social class which was termed la classe ouvrière or working class and it was in complete contrast to the bourgeoisie.  The hard working men we see in Caillebotte’s painting may have been brought up in the countryside and therefore they were used to exhausting and strenuous work and had moved to the city to seek their fortunes.

At the time of this painting, France was in its Second Empire stage and Paris was undergoing massive change under the Haussmann’s Renovation of Paris which was the great modernisation plan for the city which had been commissioned by Napoleon III.  The project encompassed all aspects of urban planning, both in the centre of Paris and in the surrounding districts: streets and boulevards, regulations imposed on facades of buildings, public parks, sewers and water works, city facilities, and public monuments. The planning was influenced by many factors, not the least of which was the city’s history of street revolutions.  This was a time of great change and in a way Caillebotte wanted to change art and what had been previously unacceptable, he wanted to be accepted but he was a little ahead of his time as far as this painting was concerned.  There is a great contrast in colours used in the painting from the light blue walls to the dark browns of the floor and the men’s clothes.   I note that a bottle of wine and a glass has been added – a French prerequisite to help with a day’s work !

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Auguste Renoir (1881)

My Daily Art Display today features one of the best known Impressionist paintings.  It is Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir which he painted in 1881.  Although I would rank Impressionism outside my top three favourite art genres, I was fascinated by this painting and the story behind it.

Maison Fournaise (c.1890)

I suppose firstly I should examine the setting for the painting, which is the balcony at the Maison Fournaise.  This building is situated on the ÎlIe de Chatou, an island situated across from the small town of Chatou, which is situated on the right bank of the Seine.   Boating on the Seine became a very popular form of recreation in the middle of the eighteenth century and whereas Argenteuil, a little way upstream from Chatou, where the Seine is wider and with its more prevalent winds, attracted sailors, the Îlle de Chatou was the ideal spot for rowers.  Alphonse Fournier, who was a river toll collector and a part-time boat carpenter, set up his boat building workshop along with his boat rental business in 1857.  Alphonse also used to organise boat regattas and water festivals.   At the same time, his wife, an accomplished cook, opened a restaurant next door.  This restaurant, combined with the boat rental facility and its many organised boating events, was a very popular family-run business.   Their daughter Louise-Alphonsine, who became a popular and well-known artist’s model, greeted the clients whilst their son Jules-Alphonse charmed the ladies and assisted them into the boats.  Artists visiting Maison Fournaise were never short of potential models for as Renoir wrote:

“…..I was constantly spending my time chez Fournaise-there I found as many beautiful girls as one could ever wish to paint!…..”

The Island of Chatou had other thing going for it.  Rail travel allowed Parisians easy access to this area in the countryside.  If you look carefully under the awning you can just make out, at the top left, the blue-gray outline of the Chatou railroad bridge, part of the government’s recently completed transportation projects that had made access to this riverside destination possible to everybody, not just to the members of the upper class.

La Maison Fournaise, today.

The setting also radiated   peace and tranquillity along with its ideal light conditions and proved a haven for artists with the likes of Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Berte Morisot, Edouart Manet and Camille Pissaro often visiting the location.   Auguste Renoir was also a regular caller and he once described his love of the establishment in a letter to friend:

“…You could find me anytime at Fournaise’s. There, I was fortunate enough to find as many splendid creatures as I could possibly desire to paint……….. I can’t leave Chatou, because my painting is not finished yet. It would be nice of you to come down here and have lunch with me. You won’t regret the trip, I assure you. There isn’t a lovelier place in all Paris surroundings….

The Fournaises’ two businesses flourished until 1906 when Madame Fournaise closed the restaurant and four years later Alphonse Fournaise wound down his boat rental enterprise.  Then, unfortunately, over the years,  the deserted premises started to fall into disrepair.  Madame Fournaise died in 1937.  By the 1970’s the buildings were at the point of complete dereliction.  However in 1977 the town of Chatou bought the building and five years later it listed it as a building of historic significance, joining the register of Les Monuments Historiques and restoration work began with the support from The Friends of Maison Fournaise and The Friends of French Art.   Currently the building is a museum, La Fournaise Museum, and in 1990 a restaurant reopened on the premises

So now we know the setting for the painting let me introduce you to some of the people featured in this wonderful painting.  As in a number of Renoir’s paintings, he liked to include portraits of his friends.

The Participants
  1.  Aline Charigot, seen holding a dog, was a seamstress and part time model for Renoir.  Aged twenty-seven at the time of the painting met Renoir in 1880 and they were married in 1890, despite a thirteen year age difference.  The couple had three children, Pierre, Jean (who became the well-known filmmaker) and Claude.  Despite being much younger than Renoir she died four years before him in 1915, aged 61 and was buried in the churchyard at Essoyes in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France which was her childhood home.  Renoir who died a few months before his seventy-ninth, in Cagnes, was laid to rest alongside his beloved wife.
  2. Jules-Alphonse Fournaise, wearing a straw boater and sportsman’s T shirt leans against the balustrade.  He was the son of the owner of Maison Fournaise and was in charge of the boat rentals.
  3. Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise, leaning against the balustrade is the daughter of the owner of the establishment and a war widow.
  4. Baron Raoul Barbier, sporting a brown bowler hat, has his back to us as he engages the proprietor’s daughter in conversation.  Formerly a cavalry officer and war hero later became mayor of colonial Saigon.  The two loves in his life were women and horse racing.
  5. Jules Laforgue, a Symbolist poet, journalist on the La Vie Moderne newspaper and private secretary to Charles Ephrussi (No.8)
  6. Ellen Andrée, seen drinking from her glass. Aged 24 at the time of the painting, she was a Parisian actress and mime at the Folies Bergère and sometime artist’s model for Renoir, Manet and Degas (See My Daily Art Display June 7th where the actress has modeled for the Degas painting).
  7. Angèle Leault, some time Parisian actress and singer and also a market flower seller.
  8. Charles Ephrussi, wearing a top hat and in conversation with his secretary.  Russian-born Ephrussi was a wealthy art collector and historian as well as being editor of the prestigious art magazine, Gazette des Beaux-Arts.  He was a great supporter of the Impressionist painters.
  9. Gustave Caillebotte, in the right foreground with a cigarette in his hand.  He was a good friend of Renoir and a well-known painter in his own right.  He was a collector of Impressionist paintings and also one of Renoir’s wealthy patrons.  Renoir’s prominent positioning of Caillebotte was not accidental but was a measure of his importance to Renoir.  He lived in a house overlooking the Seine, not far from Chatou.  Caillebotte  was trained as an engineer, built boats and was a great sportsman.  This maybe accounts for Renoir’s youthful portrayal of him (he was 33 at the time of the painting) in his boating attire, consisting of a sleeveless white T shirt and blue flannel pants.  On his head is a flat-topped straw hat around which a blue ribbon is tied.  This indicates that Caillebotte was a member of the privileged Cercle Nautique de la Voile boating club.  He was godfather to Renoir’s eldest son, Pierre.
  10. Adrien Maggiolo , Italian journalist on Le Triboulet newspaper.
  11.  Eugène-Pierre Lestringuez, official at the Ministry of the Interior and close friend of Renoir who often modeled for his paintings.
  12.  Paul Lhote, wearing a straw hat in conversation with Lestringuez and the actress Jeanne Samary.  He was a writer of short fiction and a journalist and close friend of Renoir.
  13.  Jeanne Samary, holding her black-gloved hands to her ears.  Actress at the Coméie-Francais in Paris.

With this group of people we can see that Renoir was illustrating the nature of Maison Fournaise which welcomed customers from a variety of social backgrounds from the wealthy aristocrats to the humble actors.   With the new rail system in place along with the shortened working week, everyone, no matter what their occupation, was able to escape the city and enjoy the pleasures of the Parisian suburbs at the weekends.  The forty year old artist in producing this large masterpiece depicted the modern life of Parisians as they relaxed.  Renoir’s painting captures the idyllic atmosphere as his friends wine and dine on the riverside terrace.  Renoir gathered most of the participants in the painting together early on so that he could organize the composition.  Later he worked on the individual figures as and when they were able to model for him.  It was a grueling time for the artist and Renoir felt the pressure on him to complete the work.  He had a love-hate relationship with the work commenting once:

“… I no longer know where I am with it, except that it is annoying me more and more….”

He made many changes to the work before he was completely satisfied. The final result was a veritable gem of Impressionism.