Caillebotte’s Hands

I have two Caillebotte related stories to share.

1. Hands

Caillebotte: Details from The Floorscrapers, 1876

The first comes courtesy of one of my students, Charlotte Smith, who made an impressive visual research project for my class Visual Culture in France (1850-1900). Over the years, I’ve noticed that students have had success when they work in three dimensions, but draw from two-dimensional source material (or vice versa). This is exactly how Charlotte approached the project, as her artist statement explains. Here are some excerpts:

I chose to do an artwork based on Gustave Caillebotte’s painting The Floor Scrapers. In this painting there are three shirtless workers refinishing a floor in an apartment. When planning for this sculpture, I knew that I wanted to focus on the workers’ bodies. Because of the years of work, the muscles in their bodies are particular to their work.

Caillebotte: The Floor Scrapers, 1876

I decided to focus on one part of their body. I felt like the hands were the most important. I wanted to sculpt one hand from each worker. I paid specific attention to the placement of the hand, how it held the tool, and what angle the wrist and top plane of the hand created. I could have been more specific using a hand model of my own and recreating the positions in real life, but I wanted my hands to reflect Caillebotte’s research.

Charlotte Smith, The Floor Scrapers' Hands

I chose to use clay with this project. I began with the right hand of the worker on the far left. I cut basic triangle, rectangle, and square forms out of the clay. This allowed me to get the basic gesture of the hand. After I let the clay sit and harden, I was then able to carve knuckle, tendon, and fingernail details. When placing the elements together for the finished piece, I originally planned to display the hands upright as though they were completing the task only without the tools.

Charlotte Smith, The Floor Scrapers' Hands

As I worked on the hands and completed them one by one, I began setting them aside, resting some parts on another so that I would not mess up the fingers. I liked how the hands were then working together to complete my piece. I chose a clay base on a short back pedestal. I cut the clay slabs into strips and placed them beside one another. I was hoping that this, as well as a few clay shavings, would hint back to The Floor Scrapers painting.

Charlotte Smith, The Floor Scrapers' Hands

2. Writing

Caillebotte: Details of shop signs (1877-80)

And here’s my second piece of Caillebotte news: later this year, I’ll be giving a paper on the artist at SECAC 2012, which is being held in Durham, North Carolina. The paper will deal with issues of legibility and illegibility in the artist’s paintings, and especially in his depictions of shop and business signs. I’ll be talking mostly about three paintings: Interior (1880, top detail, above), The Shop Painters (1877, bottom detail), and Paris. Rainy Day (1877).

Years ago, when I was visiting the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time, I spent a long time staring at Paris. Rainy Day. I eventually noticed something that wasn’t at all obvious from reproductions of the painting. While one of the shop signs in the work is just legible, and identifies the shop as a “PHARMACIE,” another sign in the work cannot be read (see the centre two details, above). We can tell that the marks represent the gold lettering of a sign, but can decipher neither what this lettering spells out, nor what kind of business it is identifying.

For some reason, this intrigued me. Further thoughts followed from this rather modest observation, and now the ideas have accumulated into a paper, and the paper will lead me to Durham. Or rather, since I used to live in the city, back to Durham.