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Considering Caillebotte: Jennifer Henel

Calf in a Butcher's Shop

Gustave Caillebotte, Nude on a Couch, 1880, oil on canvas, lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund

Caillebotte’s iconic works—such as Paris Street, Rainy Day from the Art Institute of Chicago—remind me of that bourgeois feel so prevalent in Manet’s work: a general sense that the models and sitters in these works have it together. They exude cool. They feel modern. They are accomplished—and they are effortless. Perhaps they really portray Caillebotte himself in so many ways, since his work was not necessary to support his lifestyle (he was an artist by choice not necessity).

Which is why Nude on a Couch is so surprising. Amid many depictions of the bourgeoisie, this canvas— and Man at His Bath—seems to be antithetical to the rest of the aesthetic. Work clothes haphazardly tossed above the woman’s head and her industrial shoes next to the sofa suggest that this woman is strictly working class. Her crumpled clothes appear dingy and unclean—she cannot be the smartly dressed woman on the arm of her man in Paris Street, Rainy Day. For a nude woman on a sofa, the pose and state of undress are not radical. However, we do expect a sensual object, a Venus of the home. This woman is not at all sensual. She doesn’t engage the viewer; as Mary Morton rightly observed, she actually doesn’t care that anyone is looking at her and seems lost in herself.

The composition also changes the narrative. When we might be made to feel like voyeurs, having caught this woman in a very private moment, that sentiment usually comes from peering past a door, through a window, around a corner. Here, there is no barrier between the painting’s subject and us. But the effect is less sensual and more utilitarian, like walking past a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. In this stark appearance, this nude is like one of Caillebotte’s still-life paintings, Calf's Head and Ox Tongue: surprising at first, but then almost ubiquitous, as if simply part of the landscape of the interior. Clearly this nude is a far cry from the other bourgeois cool cats cruising the streets of Paris or exuding nonchaloir in the studio.

Jennifer Henel
Curatorial Associate, Northern Baroque Paintings, National Gallery of Art