Caillebotte's interpretation of this scene of men at work draws an interesting analogy not only in its precision of perspective and line (we will discuss later), but also in content, with the great master, Edgar Degas. Caillebotte, a bourgeois with an interest in people from all walks of life, chose his subject of three urban laborers with the intent of boldly describing their activity, observing with a keen eye, as if a fly on the wall. He catches them unaware, and in that he offers to us a sense of their reality, 'traces the truth' of their place in society.
Degas would have been, and probably was, impressed with Caillebotte's
. He had done the same thing in his paintings, especially those of the ballet dancers and the laundresses. If we examine the painting Ballet Rehearsal (La Salle de Danse, 1891.The Yale University Art Gallery) we see a typical scene of dancers at practice, at work. We enter this scene as perhaps another dancer or instructor or piano player. We are part of the "in crowd." We are ignored; no one looks at us or cares about our presence. Thus, the dancers are not ill at ease, modest or tense. They are internalizing what they are doing and are inside themselves. The four dancers on the back wall are pointing and bending, probably rehearsing a move. The dancer on the extreme right of the four stares, absentmindedly, as if bored, out the window just to her right. At the corner of that wall, divided by a vertical post just left of center in the room (and painting), our eyes follow down the adjacent one where two other dancers sit, stretch and adjust their stockings, silently. It is a scene without aesthetic, made almost shocking by its naturalism and immediacy. We feel their fatigue, unquestionably. The room is, practically, without ornamentation only a curtain (hung possibly for quick changing), a bench and a bulletin board break the monotony of this room. It is almost sad in its unglamorous depiction of the daily, grueling routine of these women; but it is real. We are there. This natural quality of the work is emphasized by the values of blues and browns throughout, and the lighter shades of their tutus. The only warmth of this room stems from the disheveled head of red hair of a seated ballet dancer and a curiously beautiful still life bouquet of flowers, which divides the two groups.
We react similarly when viewing Caillebotte's
whose colors, though warmer, involve us equally in the mood the mood of work, the mood of concentration. Work does that. These laborers, too, are inside themselves, with little care or concern for our presence. Sport can do that, too. Eakins captured the same, real, sense of concentration in his
painting. We can feel the intensity of his concentration, his total commitment to task. There is a mind-body connection happening, even a mind-body-scull connection, which is not only powerful, but also exhausting for the viewer to witness. Art, creating art, must elicit similar tensions. In preparing the canvas, mixing and watching the colors blend and arranging the objects, the rest of the world must disappear while these real connections are made. We know that Degas used to watch his subjects tirelessly; he became involved in every detail of their movement. He watched as if painting, making swirls in the air, sharp jabs of intensity, musical dénouements with his arms and hands! And only then would he paint. Some said that this was evident in his work. A friend of Degas', Jacque-Emile Blanche, said that Degas was essentially "speaking their [the ballet dancer's, the laundresses'] language, explaining to us in technical terms the applied stroke of the iron, the circular stroke, etc…. And, it is really very amusing to watch him on the tips of his toes, his arms rounded, combine with the aesthetic of the ballet master the aesthetic of the painter."
Degas must have influenced Caillebotte in terms of line, composition and perspective as well. Both used negative space to intensify their composition. In the
, an entire third of the painting is floor. Why did he do this? First, we can imagine that he wanted to give us an idea of the size of the room. Perhaps he wanted to paint a character study, like a portrait, of said room, help us to get to know the space. When faced with this empty space, we might wonder, what happens here? Perhaps he intended for us to see a room, cut by a random shot of a camera. All is possible, but what is effected by this space in the
is that we come to feel the perspective of the room. The greater the negative space, the greater the space between us and the objects or people on the canvas, and therefore, the greater the size of the room.
, Caillebotte leads us back from the foreground of the painting empty, save for the scraped floor in such a way as to challenge our understanding of perspective. It catches us off guard and gives us the impression of practically falling off the floor, out of the painting! His negative space is somewhat unnerving. But, clever Caillebotte reels us back in by the careful position of the tool, half-hidden in the foreground and the wine bottle, firmly planted on the marble hearth. He intensified this use of startling perspective with
The House Painters
(1877). Here, the street seems to zoom back from the front edge of the painting to a point where the sky takes over, stretching out in an opposing triangle. This open space balances the scene and lifts our gaze upward through the busy street, peopled with men at work and others who go about their daily lives. Caillebotte's insouciant treatment of the scene prompted art critic Victor Fournel to say:
What a wonderful thing observation is, and what a fortunate man an observer is! For him boredom is a word empty of meaning; nothing dull, nothing dead to his eyes! he animates everything he sees…
Here too, then, Caillebotte was to show us his skill in composition, while, at the same time, creating metaphorical relevance to the changing face of Paris by his use of bold intersecting lines and perspective.
Similarities abound within the works of Caillebotte, Eakins and Degas, as all three served as witness to great change in their respective cultures, change that they would communicate through their art. Possessing an enormous respect for technical precision in their paintings, each experimented with these innovative approaches to line and space.