This unusual discussion began when the moderator visited an art museum and had a thought. Seth Wigderson, H-Labor Moderator
Date: Sat, 4 Mar 1995 16:10:20 EST From: SETHW@MAINE.maine.edu Subject: Gustave Caillebotte - Urban Impressionist
I was recently in Chicago and had a chance to visit the Art Institute and view the current exhibition of the works of Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Caillebotte came from a very wealthy family, was an early supporter of the Impressionists and collected many of their works. He deeded those to the French people and gained a reputation as a collector. But he also was an important painter in his own right.
One of his most important works is Floor-Scrapers (1875). The scene is the interior of his own Paris apartment, the scene of many of his paintings. But here there are three workmen stripping the varnish off the floor. They are stripped to the waist, their bodies look thin but muscular. (Caillebotte, who had no need to sell his works, also painted male nudes.) The work seems a heavy drudgery, they are on their knees, their hands stretching before them. A pale light enters the room reflecting off the floor not yet worked on.
According to the exhibit commentary this work was so shocking that it was refused exhibition at the official French show. There is no hint of elegance, no suggestion of beauty, just very hard work. I want to suggest that there is a veiled class content here in addition to the obvious nature of the work. As in other of his paintings, there is a certain double-meaning present. The men are stripped and they are stripping the floor. But I think the painting also says, "Look! In my other paintings we take the beautiful interior for granted. Yet what lies underneath those varnished floors is this hard labor!" Thus, Caillebotte may also be stripping away class blindness. Coming from a wealthy background, Caillebotte does show a sensibility of class which is usually lacking in the Impressionists. Of course, Degas, Pissaro, Cassatt, Monet and the others had to be able to sell their works to those new bourgeois whose world they depicted.
In another of his works, passerbys are crossing a bridge. The powerful background is provided by huge metal struts. Among the pedestrians is an urban bourgeois, in proper coat and top hat. A few paces from him is a worker in his artisan's smock. They show no awareness of each other.
One last possibility. Caillebotte's early works were often done at street level. When a change in the family situation allowed him to rent an apartment on the Boulevard Haussman, his perspective left the street for the view from his balcony. But viewed from above or on high, the streets were those which Haussman had created in order to tactically prevent another Paris Commune. So beautiful, they also provided a clear line of fire for modern weapons. Can we detect a hint of this in Caillebotte? Probably not. But we can appreciate both his wonderful artistry and the particular understanding of class which is present in some of his wonderful works.
Rob Weir sends this response to my post on Caillebotte's Floor Scrapers.
I will reply soon. SW
I'm a little troubled by the readings given to Caillebotte. Most of the art history sources I read give him little the credit for crossing class boundaries accorded here. Is this a case of over- intellectualizing? By contrast, Pissaro--who is dismissed in a wave of a phrase--is the one Impressionist figure whose working- class sympathies seem least assailable. He did scores of paintings of factories in rural settings, but his was no machine-in-the-garden romanticism, rather a kind of Tonnies-like commentary on the destruction of community and the coming of outside forces that threatened to replace Eden with something else (and he was vague about what that would be.) Representations of half-clad workers was always a shocking theme for the 19th century bourgeoisie. Witness the outcry against Thomas Anschultz's representation of steel workers. And Thomas Eakins' painting of the Agnew clinic caused more of a stir for the fact that the corpse was nude than for the gory autopsy being shown. RWeir@smith.edu
I wanted to continue the thread which Rob Weir so interestingly developed.
Rob defends Pissaro against my dismissal, and I am sure that he is correct. But I want to particularly engage him when he argues that Caillebotte was not "crossing class boundaries." I certainly agree that there is nothing politically progressive in Caillebotte's work. And I certainly saw no effort to cross over class boundaries in the exhibition. But I do believe that I saw a recognition of class in contemporary French society which I believe is absent in most of the other Impressionist works [although I recognize that I may be giving short shrift to others as well].
One of the difficulties in thinking about class in an American context [and here my comments are general and not aimed at Rob] is the erasure of class from political discourse by both conservatives and liberals. [See Margo Conk's article in SSHA on the disappearance of class from Readers Guide listings in the 1950's.] So, I would argue that most practicing US labor historians have to spend a lot of time as teachers and sometimes as scholars even arguing that class exists. And I will not even begin to go into the issues raised by writers from Katznelson to Eley. In short, many of us in the U.S. [and elsewhere?] are functioning in an environment where the very act of discussing "class" marks us somewhere on the left.
But there is a different tradition. Particularly in the 19th century there is a sort of Tory class consciousness, or at least consciousness of class, which can be extremely insightful. Look, for instance at Hofstadter's old essay on Calhoun, "The Marx of the Master Class," or Genovese's fine work on other antebellum southern thinkers and pioneer sociologists. So, one point of departure, for me, is the artistic representation of class, even without any "working-class sympathies." I was interpreting the Floor Scrapers as suggesting a stripping away of the varnish which hides the workers from the bourgeois inhabitants of these wonderful apartments.
I also wanted to suggest a second point of departure, a fairly standard one about art and the market. [See, for instance, Svetlana Alpers work on Rembrandt.] Most of the impressionists did have to sell their work in order to survive. Degas, for instance had huge debts after his father's death which he eventually paid off. This necessarily limited them in their choice of material, not necessarily in every work, but in general. Caillebotte did not have to sell a single painting, nor do I know that he ever did. This certainly gave him a certain freedom which the others would have had to sacrifice much more to achieve.
I hope we can continue this discussion, both on the immediate point, but also on the broader issues. It might be interesting, for instance, to ask if anyone has used artworks in their classes. Fraternally, Seth Wigderson
Thanx to Rob Weir for continuing the discussion. SW Point well made and taken about the ever-presence of class awareness in 19th century Europe, though I'd argue it was also quite alive in America at the same time.
Caillebotte was always considered a minor figure. His most famous work was entitled "Place De L'Europe on a Rainy Day" and it's quite a different kettle of fish than the floor scrappers. It attracted notice for its odd frontality and shows a well-heeled couple with umbrellas up walking across a Paris plaza. Their figures loom large, amd a triangular building and street light cut the canvas in half and suggest strong angles that are, in fact, optical illusions. The floor scrapping painting you mention is his only other work that gets reproduced very often.
19th century painters, esp. in Europe, were very class aware. Whether they were class conscious is contentious. It's the on-going debate over the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for example. In a larger sense, it's the on-going debate whenever middle-class folks enter the working-class circle. In European circles, the debate rages over the fabians; in the USA over Progressive era reformers (see recent Labor's Heritage on Wisconsin school economists), or reformers like Edward bellamy, Jane Addams or Lewis Hine. It even rages into the 30s with documentary photographers taking the blows from those who claimed they were poseurs. After that...well, labor historians know how that one goes. Class awareness is yet to recover from George meany's proclamation that American workers were middle class. Maybe I work too closely with 19th century sources, but I often find myself longing for the class awareness that suffused everything, inc. painting. The armory is, of course, another reminder of middle class consciousness in the 19th century, albeit of a different nature than the themes of Caillebotte or George Bellows (a product of the 19th century Is there irony in the fact that modern art was first shown to Americans on a mass scale in an armory (New York, 1913)? The ambiguous meaning and fragmentation of the modernist movement may have done more to defuse dangerous class awareness in art than the aarmory than housed it!c Rob Weir RWeir@smith.edu
Anne Effland uses the Caillebotte discussion as a springboard for a very
Although I will be taking the discussion away from art here, I noted that the examples you cited of class consciousness in the 19th century United States were both from the antebellum South. Was that just the result of Hofstadter and Genovese being the first two examples that came to mind or do you think that particular time and place more openly admitted class as an organizing principle for society?
Since this is my first post to h-labor, let me describe a little of why this thread has drawn me in.
I am interested in questions of class and defining class in rural America and have found that the distinctions seem quite clear in the South and in situations in which groups of outsiders, most often defined by race, ethnicity, or urban origin, come to a community for work (farmwork, mining, lumbering, low-paid factory labor). In other places and work relationships the divisions are not so clear.
Thanks for your thoughts on this.
Anne Effland Economic Research Service, USDA email@example.com
From: SETHW@MAINE.maine.edu Subject: Re: Caillebotte and Class
I wanted to take up some of the points raised by Rob Weir and Anne Effland. I was not arguing that Caillebotte was actually some sort of progressive. I don't know his politics, and on his class position alone I would assume that he was some sort of conservative [although Being certainly does not always determine consciousness].
What I was suggesting is that conservatives and even reactionaries can have their own special and valuable sensitivity to class. That was why I cited Calhoun and Fitzhugh. I am, of course, borrowing heavily from Trotsky who argued forcefully againt the Proletkult in 1920's Soviet Union that good politics are not a prerequisite for good art, and that even bad politics can create great i.e. very honest art. [And weren't they glad to get rid of him!]
I think the problems arise for us when we look for too close a correlation between Art and Politics.
If I had to discern a social analysis in Caillebotte, it would be a corporatist critique of late 19th century French urban society. In the painting which Rob mentions of the people on the street, what is striking is that they are not relating to each other. even the central pair are not looking at each other. Quite different from the gay crowds which fill many of the other Impressionist works. Corporatist social views do not always fit neatly on a left/right axis. Fascists hold them in their way, as do working class republicans in a very different way. But for the purpose of labor historians trying to understand past class relations, they can be another valuable source of understanding.
Fraternally, Seth Wigderson Here are two more comments from Marc Stern and John Crocciti Thanx to them both. I will soon add a response. Seth Wigderson
Its nice to see a discussion of art and class. It does, however, get us into the mess of form and content. From my very cursory reading about Caillebotte, I was under the impression that he was, in fact, rather the elitist and something of a conservative. The picture of the workmen is indeed a marvel. I saw either that one or a mate in Paris and was struck by its power. I, too, read political meaning into it. Reading about this elite formalist, however, makes me wary of pursuing that line. It was more an effort to play with perspective (note the bottle) and light than a political statement. A marvellous picture, nonetheless. He was not an especially prolific painter. Marc Stern MSTERN@BENTLEY.BITNET
Regarding Seth's message of 3/7/95, my sentiments go in the same direction. I don't think we can understand class relations unless we give a fuller evaluation of politically incorrect aspects of working class behavior. My personal opinion is that we are all reacting against unsavory conditions of late capitalist world, but in ways that often seem "wrong" because the complexity of the situation is overwhelming. There is much in conservative culture, art, ideology (pick your term) that seems detached from the working class experience; nationalism and fascism seem even further removed. yet they are often the channels through which the working class vents its frustration. I'm not familiar with the debate between Seth and Weir (20 th century Brazil is my field), but my intuition is that Seth has hit on something. His comment on Trotsky seems quite relevant.
John J. Crocitti <John.J.Crocitti@students.Miami.EDU>
Lars Christensen sends this very interesting and insightful post. SW To H-Labor readers
I have most recently used two of Caillebotte's paintings as illustrations, in an article about historical analysis of the culture of work. So I was of course thrilled to see Seth Wigderson opening a discussion about precisely the same paintings. I take the liberty of entering the discussion, not to add anything directly to the discussion of art and class, but to emphasize a different point: It seems to me, that the two paintings "Place De L'Europe" and "Floor-scrapers" are perfect illustrations of two different conditions of human life in the modern world. In the era of capitalism and modernity, and after the "dead of God" as Nietzsche puts it, the human self had no one else to rely on than him- or herself. The result was a new freedom for the individual - but also a certain feeling of insecurity, and maybe loneliness. I think Caillebotte is expressing this ambivalence of modernity in an extraordinary way in the first of the two paintings mentioned: the citizens of Paris are depicted as isolated objects in an infinite space - as human equivalents to commodities in the market economy. For the workers, modernity meant a new form of freedom too - the freedom to sell their ability to work on the market. It also meant that work and production was organised according to new principles. It is often said, that modernity confines truth, beauty and good into three separated spheres: Science, art and ethics. What this means for the world of labour is to be seen clearly in such a concept as "scientific management" - work is discussed, organised and evaluated with reference to (economic) truth only. But what is disturbing to this notion of modernity is, that it seems like the workers to a certain degree keep insisting upon the right to evaluate work from a moral and aesthetic point of view too. It is also clear, that for the modern workers movement there exists an intimate connection between work and moral. One of the most popular slogans on the red flags of Danish trade unions are: "Do your duty - claim your right" - and furthermore this slogan is often combined with pictures of the tools of the trade. With his painting of the floor scrapers, Caillebotte is offering us a hint at an explanation of this. Contrary to the people on the other painting, these men are not isolated from one another. On the contrary they show an almost intimate togetherness. What they have in common is their work. Apart from the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals - who most often are the ones who articulated the experiences of modernity - workers and artisans in the modern era still very often have to perform their work together with others, and maybe in mutual dependence of others. And as Pierre Bourdieu has put it: "Honour is fundamental for the moral, which is a property of the one who knows he is always the object for the views of others, and who needs the others for his existence". I completely agree with Seth Widgerson, that we should not see the correlation between arts and politics as being too close (or even worse: the first being completely determined by the other). In fact, I know almost nothing about Caillebotte's political and social background. But I was immediately struck by the power of his paintings, and especially the wealth of thoughts they give rise to in the mind of the spectator. They were probably not meant this way, but to me they illustrate that even to such a fundamental concept as modernity, there is an aspect of class. So, maybe what I meant to say was something about class, anyhow.... MVH Lars K. Christensen