The Secrets of Caillebotte’s ‘Floor Scrapers’, 1875

There are hundreds of incredible paintings from the Impressionist period, and it’s always hard to choose a favourite. But during a trip to Paris, I spotted this Caillebotte masterpiece in the Impressionist gallery of the Musee d’Orsay; the striking use of paint and bold composition really stood out in a room full of pastel colours and feather-light brush strokes. I wanted to discuss this painting in Art in Depth because there is so much to say about it, but to really get the most out of it, it’s important to choose a focus – a biographical approach (which means looking at the artist’s life and how it affected his work) is particularly effective with this painting.

Firstly, I will give the painting a bit of background, and talk about the composition – this is something which makes it a particularly unusual work. The scene depicts three working class men planing the floor of a Parisian apartment (which belonged to Caillebotte himself) – these are the Floor Scrapers. In French painting of the period, it was unusual to depict the urban working classes. It was much more common to see paintings of the rural proletariat such as Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Stonebreakers’.

The painting uses a neutral pallet, ranging from bright sunlight to dark shadows within the unfurnished apartment. To the right-hand side of the composition there is a bottle of wine, tools and a pile of discarded clothes. Light enters the window and casts upon the men’s backs, highlighting their lean torsos. The painting’s composition is academically traditional, with a high view point, and accurate perspective of the receding floorboards. The realist style and modelling of the nude torsos is also very traditional, which made an unexpected statement in the 1876 Impressionist exhibition.

“The artist seems to have been visually delighted by the rippling, lean muscles of these ‘everyday men’”

In order to understand the painting, it is first necessary to understand the artist. Caillebotte was key to the development of Impressionism. He used his wealth to financially support the fractious group by collecting a large number of their paintings, as well as paying for their materials, studio spaces and exhibitions. However, his own art was somewhat problematic. He has a short and diverse career as an artist who didn’t rely on selling his artwork to survive. He had come to be known as the forgotten Impressionist but is now renowned for his innovative use of space, and imaginative compositions and viewpoints. Caillebotte’s paintings returned to the spotlight when art historians began to look at the subject matter of Impressionism, rather than just the technique. In relation to the Floor Scrapers, Caillebotte has chosen to paint the men in a realist style – this highlights the artist’s fascination with the physical and social difference between himself and the labourers. The Floor Scrapers is painted as a male semi nude, and the depiction of the men is unheroic and unusual. I am going to explore the links to homosexual themes in Caillebotte’s male nudes, in the Floor Scrapers and in other examples of his relevant works. The artist seems to have been visually delighted by the rippling, lean muscles of these ‘everyday men’, and the filtered light highlights the artist’s attraction. This painting works towards breaking down barriers of presupposition. Life in Paris in the 19th century was often depicted as chaste and restrained, as pictured in Degas’ ‘The Bellelli Family’, but the Floor Scrapers opens up a whole new take – it was promiscuous, scandalous and sexual…

To understand the homosexual themes behind Caillebotte’s work, I will talk a bit about this theme some of his other paintings.

Le Pont d’Europe is known to be a self-portrait, and Caillebotte himself is the flaneur (the flaneur is a central figure in Impressionist painting, and it really helps us to understand many artworks – follow the link to read more!) strolling through the painting. We can see that there is an intentional gap between the man and the woman. We know that this lack of closeness is intentional because Caillebotte altered the composition for the final work and moved the two subjects further away from each other. This intentional distance between the flaneur and his female counterpart diminishes their sexual connection, leaving the flaneur open to other possibilities. His line of sight is directed towards the working-class man on the right who leans against the railings; contrary to many Impressionist paintings which idealise fashionable women, this man is the object of the flaneur’s gaze.

His line of sight is directed towards his derrière. What’s more, the perspective from the bridge, road and roofs form an off-centre X in the painting. The middle meets at Caillebotte’s eye which gazes upon the male subject and hints towards the meaning of the painting. The audience has long chosen to ignore the real meaning of the work to avoid social awkwardness, and from there it can be concluded that heterosexual assumptions have restricted the analysis of this work.

There are also homosexual links in Caillebotte’s painting Balcony on Boulevard Haussmann: it depicts two men from obviously different class and social backgrounds. They seem to be oblivious of each other, and it is easy to question why these two ill matched characters are standing together on a balcony. The distance could be interpreted as a palpable tension between the two men. They are both focused on the thick band of trees, which contrasts the urban landscape and perhaps hints towards the difference of these men to the rest of the “socially normal” society. Basically, the only reason for these two men, who are from different class backgrounds, to be on a balcony together in 1870s Pairs is a homosexual affair. There was a very public concern about homosexual relations in ever-modernising Paris, which created a kind of “homosexual panic”. Subsequently, upper middle-class men wouldn’t have had sexual relationships with men of the same social standing, but instead with lower class pickups and male prostitutes (perhaps like the working class labourers in the Floor Scrapers). This helped to enforce the desirable belief that homosexuality was purely physical and not emotional. 

In relation to The Floor Scrapers, this biographical outlook provides the viewer with insight as to why Caillebotte may have wanted to paint semi-nude men in such a way. It is an unusual representation of the common theme of the working class, but it is likely that Caillebotte has executed the work to subtly hint towards his own desires, interests and intentions.

“This epitomises the discomfort that the sexualised naked male body caused in 19th century painting”

‘Man at his Bath’ is a key painting to mention in a discussion of Caillebotte’s homosexuality. It features a man drying his back, facing away from the viewer, with stark view of the man’s buttocks. The buttocks are linked to theme of feminine homoeroticism, and signify vulnerability. When put on display, this painting was “apparently disturbing and problematic enough to the organisers and viewers of the exhibition to cause its removal from general view and its isolation in an inaccessible space”. People were horrified at seeing a man, naked, from behind. Had this painting been of a woman, it would have been perfectly acceptable. This epitomises the discomfort that the sexualised naked male body caused in 19th century painting, and how male nudity had become a genuine threat to the modern ideals of the “real man”.  

‘Man at his Bath’ strips the classical male nude of its heroic theme, which has been replaced by realism. The bathroom is sparse and austere, and his pose is neither heroic nor flamboyant. It is a contradiction of what one would typically expect of a male nude. In Impressionism, the female nude was far more popular, and it is a world away from academic, Renaissance conventions of the male nude, such as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Men are usually placed in a setting which enhances their masculinity, instead of undermining it: water and the bathroom are often associated with the female nude, such as Degas’ painting, ‘The Tub’.

‘Man at his Bath’ is interesting from a homosexual point of view. The gap at the top of the buttock signifies penetration, and the glimpse of genitalia would have been outrageous to 19th century viewers. Additionally, the fact that he is facing away from the viewer enhances his vulnerability. This painting makes for an interesting comparison with a more modern example of a similar theme: David Hockney’s Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool – this is a classic example of homoeroticism from a modern artist who was openly gay.

What’s more, there are clear visual links in the compositions of both paintings which point to similar underlying themes. The nude male subject was Hockney’s lover and muse; the pose is sexual and undeniably linked to homosexual ideas, which has interesting parallels to Man at his Bath, inviting the viewer to further question Caillebotte’s intentions when painting the male nude and semi-nude.

“…he was subtly expressing his repressed desires in the only publicly acceptable way: through art”

Tamar Garb, a scholar who has written widely on the social side of Impressionist and Modern paintings says that Caillebotte painted working men in the Floor Scrapers because: “there was something about the labour of these men with which he could identify, something about their manly sociability and common purpose which he idealised and something about their bodies which made them an object of fascination”. With a modern biographical analysis of this painting, this fascination can be easily linked with homosexual desire, and helps us to understand Caillebotte’s reasons for choosing such an unusual subject – he was subtly expressing his repressed desires in the only publicly acceptable way: through art. In doing so, he has created one of the most highly regarded Impressionist artworks from the period, despite maintaining a realist style and straying from the popular themes and pallets used by artists like Monet and Renoir. It is striking, bold, and enigmatic, and most importantly, it is a true expression of the artist himself.

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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