A Case Art Imitating Life or Life Imitating Art?

When Delbert Adams of Sheffield Hardwood sent me a picture of the painting entitled Les Raboteurs de Parquet (The Floor Scrapers), also known as the Parquet Planers, by Gustave Caillebotte, it sparked an idea. I was very happy to say, that yes, I was familiar with the painting, boasting of my studies in art history.

Delbert and his wife Donna, have a professional interest in the world of hardwood flooring, having immersed themselves in the European tradition of parquet flooring, which they are now sharing with Canada. In addition to recreating floors predicated on designs inspired by European palaces, mansions or cathedrals, they are involved in the resurrection, restoration, and customization of the more typical Canadian hardwood flooring.

I’m interested in serendipitous opportunities and occasions when life imitates art. Was it not Oscar Wilde who is credited with the observation that, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life?”

The painting depicts working class men, stripped to the waist, hot and sweaty from their labours, in the act of scraping down a floor, (thought to be Caillebotte’s own studio). The painting, is exceptional for many reasons, but one reason in particular would not make sense in our day and age. At that time depictions of urban manual labour were considered unacceptably vulgar, whereas, oddly enough depictions of farm labour were allowed. Predictably, against that background of peculiarly snobbish social norms, the painting was rejected from the 1875 exhibition at the Paris Salon.


History is now amalgamating Gustave Caillebotte into the group of painters we know as the Impressionists, but his original claim to fame was more as a supporter of the movement. Being a man of considerable means, he was able to buy impressionist paintings or financially support individual artists, one being Monet. His father was involved in the redevelopment of Paris from which he made a lot of money, which Gustave and his brother inherited. His brother was also artistic, playing the piano and experimenting with photography. This latter detail is significant as many commentators have thought the painting’s perspective betrays the influence of photography.

I thought it might be entertaining to follow Delbert and Donna through the process of restoring a floor and comparing their activity to what we see in the painting. In the painting the floor is being scraped manually as sanding machines had yet to be invented. We see the scraped stripes which are the high points on the floor where cupping or warping has occurred along the seams, this was a regular problem and apparently floors required this remedial treatment every four or five years. From an artistic perspective, the scraped lines add drama and depth as they recede into the painting.

Delbert’s problem was to find a way to restore and revitalize a bland engineered hardwood floor which had faded and was no longer the new owner’s desired colour. Engineered floors have a top surface where the details and colour reside in a veneer that might be only a sixteenth of an inch think, which precludes the use of aggressive sanding machines. Hence we see Delbert mimicking the painting scraping away on his hands and knees. At least we have kneelers these days. Delbert attacks the main floor area whilst his wife, Donna, takes care of the intricate details around doorways and baseboards.

The next stage in the proceedings is a meticulous clean up to remove all the dust and debris. Then it’s time for Delbert to hand over the project to Donna, who as a fine art painter herself, has plenty of experience in the application of stains, colour matching and finishing coats. Pulling out the deep Hickory grain and unifying the tone of the floor to match the client’s proposed decor, has enhanced the previously obscured textural details and complements the aesthetics of the ground floor of the house. Sheffield Hardwood was happy with the outcome, the customer was happy and life imitated art.


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