In the fall of 1962, the Jeu de Paume in Paris, formerly the royal tennis court set in the upper corner of the Tuileries, housed many of France’s most prized Impressionist paintings. Today those paintings, along with 19th century French Salon academic paintings and sculptures, are housed in the Musée d’Orsay (which in 1962 was a closed railway station and key location for Orson Welles’ The Trial). The Jeu de Paume is now a museum of photography.
It was at the Jeu de Paume that I first saw a painting that instantly enthralled me, albeit not in the sense that Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian enthralled the young Yukio Mishima, who talked about that painting as if it had been lying in wait for centuries to seduce his soul. Wandering through the Jeu de Paume galleries that summer of 1962, recognizing the mesmerizing, soft-focus canvases of Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Vuillard that I newly knew from a sophomore-year art-history course, I was totally gobsmacked — yes, that’s the right word — by a painting and a painter that seemed to belong to an era beyond the scope of the museum, an escapee from the future.
That painter, Gustave Caillebotte, and his haunting oil, Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor Scrapers), were not known to me then, despite the fact that I was already developing a sense of art history. Caillebotte was not considered by art historians to be among the first-rank painters of the Impressionist era; despite his formal training, his painting was refused a hanging by the French Salon exhibition in 1875. In fact, it was labeled “vulgar.” So, the gentlemanly Caillebotte did what any gentleman painter of the time might do: exhibit it and a half dozen of his other paintings the following year with the Impressionists.
On a purely narrative level, The Floor Scrapers embodies the quotidian themes of the Impressionists, though not that of the plein air painters like Monet who were experimenting with the subtle play of light and color in country and harbor landscapes. Almost singularly, Caillebotte expresses the press of urban life in the new Paris streets and boulevards of Baron Haussmann; or, even more to the point, he offers a near-photographic documentation of hard labor among the men and women of the working and servant classes, a subject that was not seen as worthy (unless it extolled the fantasy of ennobling farm labor) by the closed minds of the academy .
In fact, The Floor Scrapers owes more to the then new world of photography than to earlier French painting, and even by those terms, its visual style suggests not its own time, but 20th-century documentary street photographers like Kertesz. The first thing that leaps out at you is the light; it spills with luminescence like a soft stream of water from the bright window at the top of the frame across the floor to the very bottom, in front of the middle of the trio of workers. The backlight strongly defines their sinewy musculature, while their bodies seem to represent a triple-view photo exposure akin to the multi-angle, contemporary studies of human locomotion by Eadweard Muybridge. The vertical lines of the partly scraped parts of the floor lead the eye back to the three vertical wall panels of the rear wall. The perspective of the painting is also photographic; it looks down on the workers’ bare backs and also has the field of view of a wide-angle lens.
The painter’s brother, Martial, was a photographer, and while it is not known whether Gustave embraced photography himself, the brothers shared many interests, including stamp collecting and sailing. A book by German scholars Karin Segner and Max Hollein, Gustave Caillebotte: An Impressionist and Photographer, makes a strong case for the painter’s fascination with French photographers who were documenting the sweeping urban modernization of Paris streets and public places under Baron Haussmann. In fact, a 2011 exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André Paris presented some of Gustave’s lesser known works in conjunction with Martial’s photographs. Martial was also a composer.
This short video (in French) shows how Martial’s photos and Gustave’s paintings seem at times to establish a kind of dialogue:
Gustave Caillebotte was independently wealthy. He supported and collected the refusés Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir, though his own style was more aligned with the solid, full-length portraits of Manet and the compositional daring of Degas (himself an avowed photographer). Caillebotte amassed a considerable private collection of his contemporaries’ works. He died of heart congestion in his garden at the very early age of 43 and bequeathed his collection to the French state. It experienced a rocky journey before ending up in the Jeu de Paume and then the Museé d’Orsay.
Seeing the Les raboteurs de parquet in that pivotal fall of 1962 led me to study other works by this long-overlooked master. It was not easy to do then; until just a few decades ago, he was regarded by many as a footnote to the revolution of late 19th-century French painting. That has changed. Increasingly, Caillebotte is studied and appreciated as a prophetic figure of modernism. But somehow I knew, even as a naïve student, that this painting spoke to my heart and soul. To this very day, I am compelled to share my love of it with every film student who asks me about my “influences.”
With this video, you can judge for yourself just how expansive Caillebotte’s work is today. (Mercifully, allows the full-frame paintings to speak for themselves.) It affords an opportunity to study the compositional and perspectival daring of this still underappreciated artist.
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