Thursday, December 26, 2013

Raffaëlli's Ragpickers

Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850 – 1924) was a French realist artist who painted portraits of the ragpickers.

Ragpickers, also called "rag and bone men" or "chiffoniers" in French, collected scraps of discarded cloth, bones, metal and and other unwanted refuse from the streets of Paris. They lived in a northern district of the city and worked at night. 

They carried a large bag or a basket on their backs. In one hand they carried a cane-like stick with a sharp pointed end, and in the other they held a lantern.

According to Shirley Fox, a young art student in Paris, "The appearance of some of these birds of the night, as they flitted about from place to place, was most picturesque. Some of them were withered and wrinkled old men and women who looked more like animated mummies than human beings." 

Citizens would throw garbage out their window onto the streets, and the rag pickers would sort through it, taking anything they could resell.

The rags were a raw material for making quality paper. Bones were used for knife handles and toys, and the grease taken out of them was used for making soap.

Painting such poor people was a preoccupation of some of the realist painters. 

Eduoard Manet painted a chiffonier. Whether such subjects were worthy for art divided the painters who came to be known as Impressionists, some of whom were sympathetic to such commonplace subjects. Others wished to exclude them from exhibitions. 

The American painter Thomas Waterson Wood (1823-1903) also painted a ragpicker.

Striving to improve sanitation in France, an 1883 law required people to throw their trash into receptacles, which the ragpickers were allowed to dump out and sort through.

But these arrangements eventually changed the habits of the ragpickers, who were replaced by the more familiar garbage collectors and recycling men of our own era.


Eugene Arenhaus said...

Interesting! I suppose whatever garbage that chiffoniers did not want was left lying on the streets of Paris, then? Or was it a custom to throw only the reusable garbage out of the windows?..

Steve said...

Timely post for the day after Christmas. Reminds me of Peter Spier's wonderful wordless book for children --titled "Christmas" -- which cheerfully depicts not only the days of preparation leading to Dec. 25th, but unflinchingly shows the aftermath -- the drifts of discarded packaging.

Smurfswacker said...

Odd that "chiffonier" came to refer (in English at least) to various sorts of furniture: a bureau,. a doored bookcase, a china cabinet. Wonder how that happened.

Kate said...

Yes, also the soft, light and luxurious fabric 'chiffon' seems in direct contrast.

Rich said...

Love these mongrel and faithful looking dogs here, perfectly rendered, looking out for their potential share of pickings.

Those dogs: a highlight in my view.

Unknown said...

a whole virtual exhibition about ragpickers :