Nowadays Gustave Caillebotte is not one of the better known Impressionists, although it could be argued that his bequest to the French state of his collection of paintings by several painters had a significant impact regarding the movement.
Being a member of the Impressionist group, he features in Renoir’s painting The Boating Party. He is the figure on the right in the straw hat sitting backwards on the chair. His self-portrait is more serious.
Caillebotte was born into a very wealth family who had made their money from supplying blankets to the French army. A significant aspect of this is that he was not, unlike most of the other impressionists, obliged to sell any of his paintings and could paint what he wanted. After his father’s death in 1874, Caillebotte made alterations to the family house including his studio on the top floor. This is the room depicted in his 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers. It is one of the first depictions of urban workers. (Degas went on to paint several pictures of laundresses.)
Caillebotte submitted The Floor Scrappers to the 1875 Salon but it was rejected by the jury as “vulgar”. Rural peasants were acceptable but not urban workers.
Louis Enault summed up the reaction: “The floor-scrapers of M. Caillebotte are certainly not at all badly painted, and the perspective effects have been well studied by an eye that sees accurately. I regret only that the artist did not choose his types more carefully, or that, from the moment he had accepted what reality offered him, he did not claim for himself the right, which I can assure him no one would have denied him, to interpret them more freely. The arms of his floor-scrapers are too thin, and their chests too narrow. Do the nude, gentlemen, if the nude suits you…. But either make your nude beautiful or leave it alone.”
Waldemar Januszczak, in his excellent TV series “The Impressionists” was puzzled by two aspects of The Floor Scrapers. First of all, why is the varnish of the floor being stripped in stripes rather than one area at a time? He was able to find the answer to this through company in California who had a video on youtube. They explained that it ensured the floor was scrapped evenly. If it had been done an area at a time, some may have been scraped more than others leading to an undulating floor.
The second puzzle posed by Januszczak was why was the floor being scraped at all? The floor and varnish seem to be in good condition. The answer to this was provided by Januszczak’s wife who is an artist. She explained that if it was to be his studio, Caillebotte would want as much light as possible and would not want a dark floor.
In the television programme, Januszczak also suggested a possible hidden meaning in the picture. The old art, he suggests, was artificial, dark and covered with thick varnish. The new art – Impressionism – was natural, truthful and full of light. The picture, says Januszczak, was a “call to arms”.
Other aspects of The Floor Scrapers have been debated for some time, particularly possible homoerotic aspects. Does Caillebotte’s high viewpoint looking down on the semi-naked men objectify them? Does the painting need to be analysed alongside his other paintings of male nudes?