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 !