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Male Nudes – a problem in interpretation or style! A reflection on Caillebotte and art-historical evidence.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 18 Jul 2018, 19:42

Male Nudes – a problem in interpretation or style! A reflection on Caillebotte and art-historical evidence.

What kind of evidence is used to make claims about responses to art? How do commentators use such evidence and why? As I gear up for A844, I have been picking up on artists to whom I was newly introduced in last year’s course – my next venture is Bonnard but here I am, having read 2 works on Caillebotte, feeling intrigued by a male nude used in the discussion fora and the kinds of statements people made about it and how and why they thought that perspective legitimized by art-historical paradigms.

In order to make some notes on my reading, I’m developing a debate I find in these books in Caillebotte’s Man at His Bath (1884). 

What is clear from the responses I’ve read is that commentary on that painting often skirts around the effect of seeing male nudity and justifies this skirting by the desire to be seen as ‘objective’ and therefore unmoved by the presented sight, whether that to be desire, laughter or disgust. The best means of doing so is to see the painting as an exemplum of ‘naturalism’ in which our view is occluded at the same time as it is permitted by the notion of a fourth wall of the bathroom in which the man 'invisibly' stands. This view could be supported by Marrinan’s (2016:271ff.) reading[1]. According to him, Caillebotte’s painting is a naturalistic response to the complaints about contemporary male hygiene literature that he would have found reference to in a book by Flaubert that Caillebotte refers to in a letter of 1884, even if the reference is not to Flaubert’s comments on  hygiene literature but to a preceding passage in the same book. This convoluted logic is typical of art-historical evidence I think. Flaubert’s ‘manly’ disregard of advice that males engage in bathing comes from an old-fashioned belief that bathing feminised and softened men, making masturbation more likely. Against such feelings, Caillebotte is seen by Marrinan as reacting – thus the painter depicts vigorous body-rubbing in a way that remains private but is certainly not indulged in as a sensual activity. He shows that also operating but more complexly in the contemporaneous Man Drying His Leg (1884)

Despite the fact that many of Marrinan’s readings of domestic interiors by Caillebotte depends on what furniture from Caillebotte’s own Paris salon his identifiable ‘sitters’ sit upon, Merrinan is keen to show that the bathroom that other critics attribute to Caillebotte’s own home bathroom cannot possibly be imagined to represent that particular place. To him, sufficient evidence is found for that in the rustic nature of the chair painted in the bathroom, the lower-class boots and the careless abandonment of clothing to the floor. Why does Merrinan go to such lengths to disassociate the nude from any space that belonged to Caillebotte? We can but guess, although elsewhere Marrinan makes it plain that Caillebotte paints the space between the subjects of his paintings and himself as betokening the nature of a relationship between them. This is even the case in his reading of the early Floor Scrapers (1848).

In the early painting Marrinan notes the extremely high point of looking adopted by the painter. He interprets this as an attitude of dominance and ownership of those workers and their work on what Marrinan insists his Caillebotte’s own new apartment, paid for by his father before the latter’s death. We are also shown how distant are the bodies of the painters from the classical ideal that Winckelmann associated with the perfected style of the nude. They are described as undeveloped bodies, clearly those of working-class men, quite unlike the classical ideal appearing in the statuette of a male nude that appears in Caillebotte’s Interior of a Studio with Stove (1872): of course Caillebotte’s own artistic studio. This ‘evidence’ is used to show that there is no sexual charge to the gaze of the artist or viewer possible in this painting.

Strangely enough this latter argument is not used of Man at His Bath, though it could have been. The posture and body of the man vigorously self-towelling is far from that of the classical ideal too. However, this man is described (although no more muscular than the Floor-scrapers in the earlier painting) as an image promoting male full-body hygiene, ‘a vision of masculinity grounded in robust physicality and energetic movement’. If Caillebotte felt the full-force of an ideological belief in contesting the supposed feminising effects of bathing, one might have thought that he would give his imagined person (imagined to be of modest financial circumstances) a more rude health and athleticism – at least noticeably more than the Floor-Scrapers.

I wonder why these pieces of endlessly tortured evidence are used to remove any hint that there is (or could be) any erotic charge in these scenes of nude (or semi-nude) men except in the view of a non-valid subjective response? Next to them, Renoir’s female nude bathers are obviously presented as sexualised and as demonstrably so. My own view is that these uses of evidence, although clearly valid and, in the end, truly illuminating, can only be part of the story. But Marrinan does not want that to be the case. He believes that his evidence adds up to an objective truth. Yet such a conclusion depends on two central factors - that the objectively true account of a painting represents an intention of the artist themselves, that has been reconstructed from the circumstantial evidence, and that this intention is regulated as the only true reading by social norms – in this case the norms of heterosexual desire, heteronormativity in fact.

Marrinan is aware his reading can be challenged. He contributed to a set of essays in 2015 celebrating an exhibition at Washington and the Kimbell Art Museum. Here, other readings rub shoulders with the same evidence used by him to a different end. Morton & Shackleford (2015:181) say:

(Caillebotte’s) focus is on the man’s buttocks and the barest glimpse of scrotum between his legs. The almost life-sized scale of the painting seals its radical provocation.[2]

Guegan (2016:102)[3] goes further by tracing Caillebotte’s task in depicting the male nude to his under-advertised apprenticeship under Bonnat (see p. 100), who deliberately set out to represent the male nude in ways that were not justified by Winckelmann in the name of classical ‘style’ and reinforced by the academic practice of Ingres but looked to other decidedly less class-based as well as unclassical models. He quotes Bonnat in his dismissal of the importance of style: ‘the nobility of the lines and the magnitude of the shapes that elevate the soul’. Bonnat cites Velasquez’s nudes whose art shines through, though ‘his Mercury is the neighbourhood blacksmith who has taken off his shirt.’

Bonnat’s view of an inclusive male beauty irrespective of classical style (in the wonderful unclassical nudes of the The Barber of Suez 1876 and The Death of Abel 1861 cited ibid: 103) is as influential on the Floor-Scrapers I believe as Caillebotte’s bourgeois ownership of, and dominance, over the work done for him by the working-class in Floor-Scrapers or his views of hygiene for males at the end of the century in Man at His Bath. This is not to say that I believe that Caillebotte saw his male nudes as desirable or intended them to be so for others. The evidence seems to show that Caillebotte submitted and probably accepted heteronormativity without consciousness of any alternative. The point is not that but that intentions of an artist, nor assumptions about norms cannot sum up a work of art. It will necessarily fracture along the fault-lines of difference that captures it in the sight of many and diverse subjectivities. These multiple possibilities are truer than anyone’s claim to an objectivity that promises non-disturbing unitary interpretations.

And, indeed, I’d say the same of Cezanne – the painter of the most incredible male nudes of the nineteenth century. Of course the studious reading from evidence of Marrinan is not for nothing. What motivates a painting in the consciousness of a painter could well be: I’d like to show that full-body bathing is thoroughly masculine. However that motive or intention will rarely be able to claim to be the meaning of a work of art if it is to claim to be a work of art and not propaganda or merely second-rate art. I don’t think Caillebotte (at least in his pre-yacht-entrepreneur days) is second-rate!!!! His paintings exist in precisely the spaces identified by Sedgewick in her queer theory texts that Marrinan side-lines in his chapter on ‘Bodies’ and ‘Bachelors’.

I’d love any discussion on this. Can it be moved forward non-confrontationally?

All the best


[1] Marrinan, M. (2016) Gustave Caillebotte: Painting the Paris of Naturalism, 1872 – 1887. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute.

[2] Morton, M. & Shackleford, G.T.M. (eds.) (2015) Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye Washington, National Gallery of Art

[3] Guegan, S. (2015) ‘Ecce Homo’ in Morton & Shackleford (2015, 99 - 108)

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