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Caillebotte, Man at his Bath

Gustave Caillebotte, Man at his Bath, 1884, oil on canvas, 57 x 45 in. (144.8 x 114.3 cm), (Private Collection, on loan to the National Gallery, London) Speakers: Dr. Parme Giuntini, Director of Art History, Otis College of Art and Design Dr. Robert Summers, Lecturer, Otis College of Art and Design. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Parme: This is Parme Giuntini and I'm back here with Robert Summers. We're looking at a painting by Gustave Caillebotte, Man at His Bath, and it's another one of those troublesome paintings. I'm going to ask you the obvious question. Is this supposed to be a male nude, or is this a painting of a naked man. Robert: Well, I think that's a good question if it's a male nude or a naked man because the male nude is a construction of art history that kind of sets the body into a very particular place and time. Parme: Like a Greek statue. Robert: Like a Greek statue. Parme: Or a hero? Something like Polykleitos's statue of the Spear-Bearer or even Michelangelo's David from the Renaissance. These were heroic nudes. Robert: But with this image in particular we see it's in a common setting. Parme: All his clothes and the footprints, and it looks like his boots and maybe he's folded his trousers on that chair. Robert: Yeah, so there's nothing heroic. There's nothing that places it within the kind of history of the term nude. Parme: What kind of a response did this painting get? What did audiences think about it? How many people even saw it? Robert: Well, I think what's interesting is that this image was accepted into an exhibition in Brussels in 1888. Parme: So it was shown. Robert: It was shown, but it was quickly removed from the primary exhibition to its own private room, which was rather inaccessible. Parme: But they weren't bothered by seeing the same kinds of images when a female was the focus. For example Degas who did this beautiful painting at just about the same time of a woman at her toilette. So, it's the same kind of thing, interior space, a little tub for bathing. You can see her clothes sort of tossed off to the side. She's even got a towel around her back, but this is really typical. He did a whole group of women bathing with the same kind of little round tub. Robert: You can have the ordinary woman in her tub like Degas, but you don't have that with the nude or naked men because that feminizes them. They're supposed to be in some sort of regalia, whether it's a suit and top hat or whether it's something ... Parme: A towel just doesn't work. Robert: No, the towel doesn't work. Especially him ... I think what's interesting about this is that he's not showing you his front. It's not frontal nudity. Here you have like this vulnerability. And I bring that word precisely up because it's still during this time period where the institutionalization of the idea of homosexuality as an identity comes into play. It's troublesome to have a representation of a naked male during this time in France. After the loss of the Franco-Prussian war France was already vulnerable. Parme: Oh, interesting. Robert: And so they don't want to have the male represented in any sort of vulnerable, feminized way, which is precisely what Caillebotte does. As opposed to Degas, he's showing the woman in this erotic setting, but that's really during this time period acceptable to the male viewers and collectors, etc. Parme: Well that's true and you know Baudelaire said this was one of the places where the female could be naked in the modern world, in her bath, as a model, or in a brothel. He didn't seem to have a parallel list for where ... Robert: For men. Parme: ... the men could be. So I guess the male nude doesn't really belong in the modern world. Robert: Yeah, it's perfect you bring up Baudelaire because the male he's fully dressed. Parme: Fully dressed with a suit. Robert: Yeah, he's fully dressed. He's of money, and he has the ability to look at the other be it a man or a woman. So, I think that's really interesting that Baudelaire leaves out where you would find the male nude or the naked male. You wouldn't, in a sense, and Caillebotte shows you where you will. (jazz music)