Hard Times by Sir Hubert von Herkomer

Hard Times by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1885)

My featured artist today is the German painter Hubert von Herkomer.  He was born in 1849 in Waal, a small town in southern Bavaria.  He was an only child.  His father Lorenz was a talented wood carver and his mother was a talented pianist and music teacher.  At the age of two he and his family emigrated to America and settled in Cleveland Ohio.  Their stay in America was comparatively short for in 1857 they returned to Europe, settling down in Southampton, England.  Herkomer first art tuition came from his father and later in life he often said that his father had been one of the most important and positive influences on his career.   He went to school in Southampton and began his art education when he attended the Southampton School of Art.  One of his fellow students was Luke Fildes who was to become one of the greatest English Social Realism painters (see My Daily Art Display, May 17th).  When he was sixteen years old his father took him back to Bavaria where he attended the Munich Academy for a short time.  In 1866 he returned to England and enrolled at the South Kensington Schools which we now know as the Royal College of Art and at the age of twenty he exhibited, for the first time, at the Royal Academy.

Herkomer left Kensington Art School and 1867 and started a career as a book and magazine illustrator. However he found most of the work tedious and so being a young man with radical political opinions he was excited by the news that the social reformer, William Thomas, intended to launch an illustrated weekly magazine called the Graphic.  Herkomer immediately fired with enthusiasm sent Thomas a drawing of a group of gypsies. The magazine owner, Thomas, was delighted with the drawings and the following week it appeared in his magazine.   Over the next few years Herkomer supplied Thomas with more drawings which were published.  He applied to join the staff of the magazine but was both annoyed and disappointed when his application was turned down by Thomas.  Herkomer had no choice but to remain as a freelance contributor.  Although devastated by the refusal he was later to recall that this rebuff was to be the making of him as an artist.  He wrote about his belief that he had an obligation to pictorially depict the hard times of the poor and the importance of such magazines like the Graphic, saying:

 “…It is not too much to say that there was a visible change in the selection of subjects by painters in England after the advent of the Graphic.  Mr. Thomas opened its pages to every phase of the story of our life; he led the rising artist into drawing subjects that might never have otherwise arrested his attention; he only asked that they should be subjects of universal interest and of artistic value.  I owe to Mr. Thomas everything in my early art career.  Whether it was to do a two-penny lodging-house for St. Giles’, a scene in Petticoat Lane, Sunday morning, the flogging of a criminal in Newgate Prison, an entertainment given to Italian organ grinders, it mattered little.  It was a lesson in life, and a lesson in art.  I am only one of many who received these lessons at the hands of Mr. W. L. Thomas….”

(Spartacus Educational Hubert Von Herkomer)

A number of his engravings which were used in the Graphic were later reworked by Herkomer into large scale oil paintings.  In 1879 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and became an Academician in 1890.

In 1880 Herkomer started to concentrate on portraiture which, at the time, was the most lucrative art genre.  His fame grew and he spent time in America where he completed thirteen portraits during his ten week stay and for them he received the princely sum of £6000.  His wealth grew rapidly and he could now afford a luxurious lifestyle.  Despite the lucrative portraiture market he never lost his love of Social Realism art which drew attention to the atrocious conditions of the poor.  It was in the late nineteenth century that he produced some of his great Social Realism paintings such as Pressing to the West in 1884; today’s featured painting Hard Times in 1885 and On Strike in 1891.  In 1883 Herkomer started his own art school at Bushey in Hertfordshire, at which he oversaw some five hundred would-be artists.  He served as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University between 1885 and 1895 and was knighted by the King in 1907.  Herkomer died in 1914 aged 65 and is buried in St James’s Church, Bushey.

The featured painting in My Daily Art Display is entitled Hard Times and was painted by Herkomer in 1885.  It now hangs in the City Art Gallery of Manchester.  The artist was dedicated to bringing the social problems of the poor to the eyes of the public through his oil on canvas paintings.  He never forgot his early impoverished childhood and his health problems.  The author Lee Edwards, who wrote extensively about Herkomer, commented:

“…Herkomer painted a number of pictures that revealed his sympathy with the poor and disadvantaged, a characteristic fostered in part by his own humble origins…”

This painting was one of his most famous works and was one of many of his paintings which featured rural scenes.  His inspiration for this painting was probably the impoverished migrant workers he had seen near his home in Bushey.  Herkomer actually used a real family for his painting, getting an a working labourer, James Quarry and his wife Annie to pose with their two sons Frederick George and his brother James Joseph as unemployed workers and their children.  The setting for this painting was called Coldharbour Lane, a long and winding road in the Hertfordshire countryside.  The outdoor setting was painted en plein air but the characters in the painting were painted later, indoors at his Art School.

The wife who sits with her children by the roadside looks sad and dejected.   On the other hand, the man looks down the road and his face is one of hope and possibly optimism that something will “turn up soon” and the tools of the man’s trade lie before them signifying that strength would eventually overcome hardship.  It is interesting to note the difference in Herkomer’s portrayal of the effect hardship had on men and women.  So should we view this painting as one of hope or one of destitution?

I suppose the answer lies with ourselves and whether when we face problems we believe our glass is half full or half empty !

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