Described as one of the first representations of the urban working class, Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers is an early glimpse of social realism stripped, like the bare floor, of any moralising message. Although the French artists Millet and Courbet had portrayed figurative reproductions of rural workers, city workers had rarely, if ever, been depicted as the subjects of paintings. Thoroughly documenting the scene, Caillebotte deftly dramatizes the action with a restrained use of space, gesture, and the tools of the workmen. Rendered in an utterly methodical and classical manner, The Floor Scrapers recalls the classical bodies of antiquity, and seems unrealistic when considering the health of Parisian workers of Caillebotte’s day. Presenting the image to the 1875 Paris salon, the Jury were shocked enough by the subject matter to reject the work, causing the painter to join the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists. Shown at the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876, the painting, although investing no stake in the worker’s as anything other than subjects, divided critical opinion and paved the way for proceeding social realist painters.
Currently housed at the Musée d'Orsay, The Floor Scrapers is a masterpiece of balance, technique and clarity of vision. Resonating throughout the work is the curling effect of the wood shavings, echoed in the ironwork filigree and the bent elbows of the workmen. Tripling the action with the three figures reinforces the laborious action in the activity, emphasized by the bare-chested men, and a bottle of wine waiting to quench their thirst. A second version of the canvas was exhibited in 1876 revealing a different angle of the action and showing more of the pervading influence of the photographic medium that so inspired Caillebotte. This masterful reproduction of the work, but not the lives, of the urban proletariat is a stunning vision of an undocumented world.
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