Like many visitors to the Caillebotte show, I was riveted by a number of unusual paintings, but none more than those found in the gallery of still lifes. Immediately upon encountering Calf in a Butcher’s Shop, I thought of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of cow, horse, and ram skulls juxtaposed with flowers. In style, palette, and paint handling, Caillebotte’s canvas appears quite different from a painting like O’Keeffe’s Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931, Art Institute of Chicago) of nearly fifty years later. The bloody carcass on display in a French butcher shop contrasts starkly with the bleached cow skull typical of those scattered in the American desert southwest. However, O’Keeffe’s composition is very similar to Caillebotte’s: in each work, we are presented with a large, frontal view of an animal’s remains set against a simple background and adorned with blooms. Caillebotte placed a single pink rose on the calf, as if to echo the garlands of smaller flowers with which the butcher decorated the carcass. O’Keeffe decorated her cow skull with white artificial roses, quite likely responding to the Mexican (and New Mexican) tradition of adorning the tombstones of loved ones with silk flowers (and other memorabilia). In each canvas, the flowers bestow a somewhat startling and macabre overtone on the image of bovine remains.
Associate Curator of American and British Paintings, National Gallery of Art