The Tretyakov Gallery – My favourites.

The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The Tretyakov Gallery is one of the world’s richest museums, a veritable treasure house of the finest works of Russian and Soviet art. In all, there are in excess of fifty thousand paintings, sculptures, drawings and engravings in the storerooms and galleries of this great establishment. The magnificent collection of art was founded by Pavel Tretyakov who began to collect art in the mid nineteenth century with a clearly formed conception of founding a museum that would be open to all to see and appreciate. It was to be a gallery for the people whereas entry to the Hermitage in St Petersburg was granted exclusively to visitors in full dress or tailcoats and the titles of all the paintings on show were in the French language. The Hermitage was only for the elite. In my final look at paintings housed in the Tretyakov Gallery I am going to showcase my five favourite works. Although my five previous Tretyakov blogs were solely about portraiture, and I do marvel at the technical ability shown by artists of that genre, the favourite paintings I am showing you today are all quite different, but gems in their own right.

The Appearance of Christ Before the People by Alexander Ivanov (1837-1857)

My first offering is a painting by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov who was born in St. Petersburg on July 16th 1806. It is entitled The Appearance of Christ Before the People (The Apparition of the Messiah) which he started in 1837 and yet did not complete until 1857. This monumental oil on canvas work measures 540cms x 750cms (18ft x 24ft 6ins) and the depiction is set on the banks of the River Jordan. The painting is based on the first chapter of the Gospel According to John (1: 29–31):

“…The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel…”

Ivanov’s fame is inseparable from his great masterpiece. The finished painting is based on hundreds of preparatory studies he made over twenty years, many of which are gems in themselves and are considered by art historians as masterpieces in their own right. This painting and about 300 preparatory sketches are housed in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Art critics believe that the preparatory sketches reveal greater expressiveness and psychological depth than the finished painting itself.

In the middle ground we see the solitary figure of Christ on a rocky mound approaching the gathering. Behind him in the background is a wide plain and the distant mountains. His figure is small in comparison to the others but nevertheless stands out because of it being a lone figure. In the foreground of the picture there are a number of male figures of varying ages, some of whom are already undressed waiting to be baptised.

John the Baptist

The main figure with his wavy black hair, dressed in his animal skin under a long cloak, is John the Baptist. In his left hand he holds a crosier. He is standing on the banks of the River Jordan and has raised his hands aloft and gestures towards the approaching solitary figure of Christ. To John the Baptist’s left, we see a group of apostles: the young John the Theologian, behind him – Peter, further on – Andrew and behind his back – Nathaniel, the so-called “doubter.” To the right of the approaching Christ and below the two soldiers on horseback, we have the Pharisees and scribes who unbendingly reject the Truth. In the centre of the painting we see a haggard old man struggling to his feet buoyed by the words of John the Baptist.

There are two interesting inclusions in the depiction. Firstly, to the right there is a figure that stands nearest to Jesus and it was he who was depicted as the Repin’s good friend, the writer and dramatist, Nikolai Gogol.

Self portrait

Ivanov also included a self-portrait. Just under the raised right hand of John the Baptist, one can make out a seated man with a red headgear – this is Ivanov himself.

In 1858, Alexander Ivanov went with his beloved painting to St Petersburg where it was exhibited. Its lukewarm reception must have been heart-breaking for Ivanov. Just imagine how you would feel if you had spent almost half of your life on one painting and then after all that effort it was not well received. Ivanov died of cholera in St Petersburg on July 3rd 1858, just a fortnight before his fifty-second birthday, not knowing that some years after his death his work of art would be hailed, by the likes of Ilya Repin, the most celebrated Russian painter of his day, as “the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1873)

My second choice is a painting by Ilya Repin. In an earlier blog regarding the Tretyakov Gallery I looked at some of Repin’s portraiture but my favourite works by him are his Social Realism works of art. His most iconic and most famous work is one he started in 1870 and completed in 1873. It is his painting entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga, which was bought by the Tsar’s second son. After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1880-1883)

However, the Tretyakov Gallery houses another great painting by Repin. It is his 1883 work entitled The Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk. Like the Barge Haulers on the Volga it is a monumental painting measuring 175 × 280 cm. It is the annual religious procession in honour of Our Lady of Kursk at which the famous icon, Our Lady of Kursk, is carried twenty-five kilometres from the Korennaya Monastery, south, to the city of Kursk.  The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth. The hillside to the right appears to have been recently cleared of timber, and we can see fresh tree stumps in the ground. Further back along the procession we can see another platform, holding what appears to be a circular icon, besides which are two large banners. Further back along the procession we can just make out a large processional cross which is being held aloft.

The icon bearers

The leaders of the procession carry aloft a bier on top of which is the icon inside an elaborate neo-classical case. The light from the many candles inside the glass case gleam and this reflects off the gold riza icon-cover. A riza is a metal cover protecting an icon. To the left we see a line of peasants holding hands in an attempt to prevent any of the crowd getting too close to the icon. We see a peasant holding a stick out in front of him to try and prevent the crippled boy breaking through the cordon.

The priest

 

Following behind the icon are the priests and better-dressed people, some of who clutch icons to their chests. Note how Repin has portrayed one of the priests in a dandified manner as he carefully straightens his hair. Repin has also scornfully depicted the large stout woman in a yellow dress and bonnet carrying an icon behind the priest. She clutches an icon case to her chest.

 

What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community. Look carefully at the painting and observe the various characters Repin has depicted. He, by his portrayal of how the people are dressed, stresses the difference in their social status and highlights life’s inequalities. Some are in rags whilst others are bedecked in rich caftans.

The crippled boy

We focus our eyes on the young hunchback as he struggles along with his makeshift crutch totally focused on the icon, which is being held on the shoulders of the monks. To him, the icon may mean salvation. To him, life cannot get any worse and for him this procession will lead him to a better existence. Compare that with the posture of the cavalry officer atop of his horse who oozes a kind of sanctimonious piety, his attitude appears to be of one who only half believes in the power of the icon and who probably, unlike the hunchback, needs little that the icon can possibly offer anyway.  This is a “them and us” scene, a “have and have not” scenario, which Repin liked to depict in his social realist paintings. This was part of a slow build up to the revolution which would take another twenty years to arrive with its 1905 initial uprisings leading eventually to the ultimate revolution in 1917 which finally destroyed the Tsarist rule and the inequalities of life. For Repin, the procession we see before us in this painting maybe an allegory for the slow but unyielding forward advance of the working classes towards social change. Of his painting Repin wrote:

“…I am applying all of my insignificant forces to try to give true incarnation to my ideas; life around me disturbs me a great deal and gives me no peace – it begs to be captured on canvas…”

David L Jackson wrote in his book, The Wanderers and Critical Realism in nineteenth-century Russian painting, that one art critic at the time wrote with obvious disapproval with regards Repin’s painting and the people viewing it, saying that they were:

“…undesirables who thronged around it at exhibition, noting a preponderance of liberated women with short haircuts, nihilistic young men, and a strong Jewish element; the chief characters of Imperial xenophobia…”

While the American writer and educator, Richard Brettell, wrote about the painting in very unflattering terms, in his book, Modern art, 1851–1929: capitalism and representation, that the painting depicted:

“…fat, gold-robed priests, stupid peasants, wretched cripples, cruel mouthed officials, and inflated rural dignitaries…”

The painting was bought by the leading collector of the time, Pavel Tretyakov for a record 10,000 roubles and there is an interesting tale connected to this purchase. Tretyakov wanted Repin to replace the maids carrying the empty icon-case with “a beautiful young girl, exuding spiritual rapture”. Repin refused !

The Rooks have Returned by Alexei Savrasov (1871)

My third choice is a landscape work. It is Alexsei Savrasov’s 1871 painting entitled The Rooks have Returned, which is considered to be one of his finest works. Savrasov is looked upon as one of the most important of all the 19th century Russian landscape painters and is regarded as being one of the early architects of the “lyrical landscape”, sometimes referred to as “mood landscape”. In 1870 Savrasov became a member of the Peredvizhniki group of Russian realist artists who had protested about academic restrictions, and, with other disenchanted aspiring artists, formed an artists’ cooperative, which eventually evolved into the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions in 1870, which allowed the artists to break away from government-sponsored academic art. In December 1870, Savrasov and his wife went to Yaroslavl and later, Nizhny Novgorod, which was close to the Volga River. The artist was overwhelmed by the splendour of the beautiful Russian countryside and spent much of his time outdoors painting landscapes en plein air.

The painting, The Rooks have Returned, depicts the start of Spring, evidenced by the return of these birds. Savrasov’s landscape works were influenced by the great English landscape painter, John Constable.  This painting is considered by many critics as being the high point in Savrasov’s artistic career. The depiction we see before us is a simple, and depicts the somewhat inconsequential occurrence of birds returning home in spring to an extremely unpretentious landscape, but it was Savrasov’s way of communicating the change of seasons from Winter to Spring. Simple and yet beautiful. Ivan Kramskoy, the Russian painter and art critic who was the intellectual leader of the Russian democratic art movement wrote that the landscape in “The Rooks Have Come Back” was the best he’d ever seen; and despite the fact that there were similar landscapes painted by other renowned Russian artists, only “The Rooks” mirrored the artist’s soul. Another famous Russian painter, the classical landscape painter, Isaac Levitan commented about its simplicity saying that although the painting was very simple, beneath its simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it.  The painting enhanced Savrasov’s reputation as a landscape painter and it contributed to the success of the first exhibition organized by the Peredvizhniki.

My final two choices are both historical painting by Vasily Surikov which Pavel Tretyakov bought for his Gallery. Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia on January 24th 1848 and at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Moscow. Many believe that he was the greatest Russian historical painter. The paintings like many others by Surikov have one thing in common – the depiction of crowds. He once wrote:

“…I cannot see individual historical figures acting without the people, without the crowd, I want them all out in the street…”

Boyaryna Morozova by Vasily Surikov (1887)

Both these works of art I have chosen hang in the Tretyakov Gallery. The first one is his monumental 1887 work entitled The Boyarynia Morozova which measures 304 x 588cms. A boyarynia is a woman of high nobility.
Tzar Alexey Mikhailovich Romanov who ruled between 1645 to 1676 was the father of Peter I the Great, and he started the reforms in Russia; one of which was intended to subordinate the church to the tsar. The reforms resulted in the Russian Orthodox Church split into Nikonians (those who followed the new course set down by the tsar, the name comes from the revolutionary patriarch Nikon) and the Old-Believers who were against the radical changes. The changes included the revision of icons and holy books, and there were even changes in the divine service. It was also deemed that making the sign of the cross should be done with three fingers, instead of two. In the picture the Boyarynya and her supporters are shown with two fingers up, which means they are Old-Believers.

Boyaryna Morozova

The painting depicts the arrest of Feodosia Morozova, one of the most well-known of the Old Believers in 1653. She is being driven, bound in chains, on a simple peasant sledge through a narrow Moscow street. She has been condemned to a terrible death and is now being exposed to shame and abuse. She remains unbending in her beliefs and we witness her as she sweeps her hand upwards with two outstretched fingers – the sign of the schism. She looks pale and emaciated but still her eyes sparkle defiantly. Few of her followers dare to copy her gesture as they are afraid to openly show their support with the woman because of the brutal oppression by the authorities. However, a beggar to the right holds up his two fingers in a gesture of solidarity whilst others bow their heads in grief.

The Morning of the Streltsy Execution by Vasily Surikov (1881)

The second work by Surikov, and my final choice, is his 1881 painting entitled The Morning of the Streltsy Execution.  Surikov’s very large historical work (218 x 379cms) depicts an event during the reign of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, the second Streltsy Uprising of 1698. The Streltsy were infantry units which were formed in the 16th century by the Russian Tsar Ivan IV ‘Ivan the Terrible’. These units were considered elite units. Over time the Streltsy became a power behind the throne and in 1682 they attempted to prevent Peter the Great from coming to the throne in favour of his mentally disabled half-brother, Ivan. Whilst Peter the Great was on a scientific tour in western Europe during 1697 and 1698, the four thousand men from the Streltsy-regiments of Moscow rebelled. The rebellion was crushed, Peter the Great cut short his tour and returned to Moscow to punish the rebels with savage reprisals, including public executions and torture. Surikov’s painting depicts the crushing of the rebels. The setting is Red Square, with the large Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the background. The stone platform on the left is the Lobnoye Mesto, a 13-meter-long stone platform situated on Red Square in Moscow in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. On the right, on horseback, we can see Tsar Peter the Great, with his advisors standing next to him. To the left we can the Streltsy rebels on carts, their family and loved ones surround them agonising over their impending fate. Fifty-seven Streltsy were executed in Red Square by hanging, with seventy-four more to follow four days later. Many Streltsy were also whipped, drawn and quartered, and buried alive, with the total number of executions eventually reaching 1,182. Six hundred were sent into exile. The Streltsy-regiments were then disbanded.

Of all the world’s Art Galleries the Tretyakov in Moscow is one to visit.

Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Hans Andersen Brendekilde

As I have said before, I choose the subject for my blogs based on having sufficient information about the artist and also access to a large selection of his or her work. Without those two criteria the blog would be somewhat empty. I also prefer to feature “unknown” (at least, to me) artists. However, once in a while, there comes a time when I look at a painting and have the overwhelming desire to share it with you, even before knowing whether my two criteria could be achieved. Today’s blog is one of those occasions.

My featured artist today is the nineteenth Danish painter Hans Andersen Brendekilde although at birth his name was simply Hans Andersen but later added to his surname the name of his birth village, Brændekilde.    He was born on April 7th, 1857, on the island of Funen, the third largest Danish island,which lies five miles south-west of the island’s main town, Odense. He was brought up in an impoverished household and had to try and support the family by doing jobs, which included working in the house of a farmer doing chores. His father, Anders Rasmussen, was a maker of wooden shoes and his mother was Maren Nielsdatter.

L. A. Ring painting near Aasum smithy by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1893)

As a child, Hans was interested in carving figures of animals out of wood. When he was attending the local school one of his teachers discovered his talent as an artist and sent him to a school in Odense. Here he became a good friend of Axel Blumensaadt, and it was Axel’s mother who helped fund Hans to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he initially studied sculpture.

Portrait of L.A. Ring by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

He became a friend and associate of painter Laurits Andersen, and in 1881 he left behind sculpting to take up painting. Laurits Andersen and Hans Andersen held a joint exhibition, but because of the confusion of their surnames they both decided to add their birthplace to their name and so Laurits who was born in the Zeeland village of Ring became known as Laurits Andersen Ring (L.A. Ring) and Hans took the name Hans Andersen Brendekilde (H.A. Brendekilde). Their paintings at their first exhibition now had their “new” designated surnames to avoid confusion.

In the summer of 1882 Hans and some other artists were invited to stay on a farm in Rugelund by its owner and soon an artist colony was formed. For Hans it was not just a chance to paint and mix with fellow artists it was a chance to be well-fed. It was also a chance to see first-hand the harsh working environment of the rural workers which he would later depict on many of his canvases. But all was not doom and gloom in his works for often, in comparison to his gritty social realism works, other paintings by Brendekilde highlighted the pleasures of living in the countryside.

Udslidt by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1889)

But let us have a look at probably his most famous work, the one which drew me to looking into his life. It was his social realist painting entitled Udslidt (Worn Out) which he completed in 1889.

In this heart-rending depiction we see a day-labourer lying crumpled on the rock-strewn ground of the barren field where he had been working. His onerous task, with other peasants, would have been to remove the stones from the ground, prior to ploughing and planting, and put them in piles awaiting disposal. The field although barren takes up eighty per cent of the picture. Look at the detail Brendekilde has incorporated in his depiction of the ground. However, what is more emotive is the portrayal of the two figures in the foreground. The elderly peasant worker has stumbled and fallen to the ground. He is dressed in shabby clothes which are covered in dirt. One of his wooden clogs has fallen off during his fall. The heavy stones he had been carry in his apron, lie on the ground next to him. He had finally been overcome by exhaustion or maybe he has suffered a heart attack. A woman, maybe his wife or daughter or just a co-worker, has rushed to his aid. She is kneeling next to him and cradles his head.

A scream for help

Her mouth is open wide as she screams for somebody to come and help. Her impassioned plea has yet to be answered and she is both overwhelmed with fear for the man and her own helplessness.  The picture was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and also at The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

It received a mixed reception. Many people lavished praise on the artist for the work whilst the “monied-people” and the bourgeois press thought the painting was over-melodramatic and condemned it for its blatant political stance about the life of the poor and downtrodden which they obviously didn’t want to be reminded about.

Fortrykt by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1887)

Another of his works with a depiction in a similar vain is his 1887 painting simply entitled Fortrykt which literally translated now means “pre-printed” but it is more likely that the artist was using the word to mean “supressed” or “subdued”. The painting was completed two years before the previous work Worn Out and again dwells on the hardship suffered by the rural peasant class, who were the social losers and who were way down the social ladder. Four people dominate the foreground and we may surmise that they are a young woman and her child along with her mother or older sister and her father. The older woman and the seated father are dressed in old clothes and have been working in the fields gathering bits of grain to take home.

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, (1857).

They are the gleaners, as depicted in Millet’s famous 1857 painting,  The Gleaners.  Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. It is the Biblically-derived right to glean the fields and was reserved for the poor; a right, enforceable by law, that continued in parts of Europe into modern times. The young woman is dressed in finer clothes and has not been working in the field. She is talking to her father and her mother raises her head to listen. The father sits on a bag of grain and looks exhausted and yet there seems to be an air of resignation about him. He has accepted his lowly lot in life. Has his daughter told him something he didn’t want to hear? Is it something to do with young child who, whilst amusing herself, is sitting on a pile of coats?

The First Anemones by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1889)

At the end of the nineteenth century Brendekilde painted several cutting social-realist works. At other times he depicted the everyday life of poor people without critical undertones. These were more to do with the happier memories Brendekilde had of rural life when lack of money could not detract from the pleasures of immersing oneself in nature such as his 1889 springtime painting, The First Anemones.

A Spring Day by Hans Anderson Brendekilde (c.1890)

Again, we see a similar setting in his work A Spring Day when the villagers, dressed in their “Sunday-best” clothes take a pleasurable walk through the forest.

Autumn by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Another fascinating and evocative work is his 1908 oil painting, Autumn. It is a combination of a landscape and sombre realist style painting in which we see an elderly lady standing by an open grave in a cemetery. It is a dark autumn day and we see the leaves from the nearby trees lying all around. There is a gale blowing which is stripping the leaves from the trees which are leaning over due to the ferocity of the wind. In the middle ground one can see the church and the green grass of the graveyard. Two black crosses have been blown over and lie abandoned against a hillock. Some graves seem to have been tended whilst others look abandoned. The old woman through her age and the strength of the wind is bent over and she clutches at her dress whilst holding on to her walking cane. She gazes into the excavated hole in the ground. The question the artist poses is what are her thoughts. Has she lost a loved one who will be buried in this plot or is she contemplating her own end of life. Could this even be termed a vanitas painting?  One of the pleasures of looking at a painting is to try and decide for ourselves what we see in a depiction and work out what the artist was trying to convey.

A Wooded Path In Autumn by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1902)

The autumn season often featured in Brendekilde’s painting.  He enjoyed depicting this colourful time of the year.  A time when the normally green leaves of many deciduous trees and shrubs slowly turn to various shades of red, yellow, purple, black, orange, pink, magenta, blue and brown, during a few weeks in the autumn season, before they fall to the ground.  Brendekilde beautifully captures that moment in his 1902 painting entitled A Wooded Path in Autumn.

A Short Respite by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Elderly people often featured in Brendekilde’s paintings and another of my favourites is his painting entitled A Short Respite in which we see an old man taking a rest from his gardening chores looked on by his wife.

Soap Bubbles by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1906)

It was not just the elderly who featured in Brendekilde’s works of art, nor were the subjects of his painting always sombre.  In later life, he would concentrate on idyllic village scenes often depicting happy children, innocent children, and these proved very popular with the public.

Home with Dinner by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

In many of his paintings featuring children he also included one or two elderly people. Maybe he remembered his childhood days and how elderly relatives and neighbours played a part in his life. It seems strange now that some look upon paintings depicting an older person with a child as something suspicious and unnatural. Gone are the days when we accept unconditionally that our young children and an elderly person such as a relative can form a bond and in some ways learn from each other.

Fishing Village by Hans Andersen Brendekilde

Brendekilde died on 30 March 1942, aged 84,  in Jyllinge, a town located on the eastern shores of Roskilde Fjord,  some 40 km west of Copenhagen.

Walter Langley the Social Realist painter and the Newlyn Art Colony

Walter Langley, from a chalk drawing by Hubert Vos. From Newlyn and the Newlyn School, Magazine of Art, 1890

In eighteenth century France, Rococo was the popular style of art. Painters such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher had given art lovers a highly ornate and decorative form of art with its elegant, delightful, if somewhat voyeuristic, depictions of the good life. There was a playfulness about the depictions and all thoughts of seriousness was substituted by eroticism. The minority who were able to live the lifestyle shown in the Rococo paintings were pleased with what they saw but of course this was not real life for many of the citizens. Change had to come, and it did in the form of Realism. One of the leaders of this movement was the French artist, Gustave Courbet and he set out a manifesto, La Réalisme which stated that art should be about truth and depictions must be objective records. Realism was to be an art in which the painter put on his canvas what he saw, “warts and all” and not be concerned as to whether it was appropriate or inappropriate. This new form art was to move away from bourgeoise tastes.

The Artist’s Studio by Gustave Courbet (1855)

Probably Courbet’s most famous painting was pure Realism. It was entitled The Artist’s Studio, which he completed in 1855. The work baffled many, so much so Courbet clarified the ideas behind the depiction, declaring:

“…It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death…”

The group to the right……..

The painting depicts two groups of men and women. In the first group on the right, there is the bearded profile of the art collector Alfred Bruyas, and behind him, facing us, the philosopher Proudhon. Jules François Felix Fleury-Husson, who wrote under the name Champfleury.  He was a French art critic and novelist, and a prominent supporter of the Realist movement in painting and fiction, and is seated on a stool, while the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire is absorbed in a book. In the right foreground we see a couple who exemplify a pair of art lovers, and in the background, near the window, we see a couple unashamedly wrapped in a loving embrace and they have been included to symbolise free love.

…………….and to the left

However, the group on the left symbolise the reality of life. There is a priest, a merchant, a hunter, and even an unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolising poverty. These last two insertions were controversial. Look on the floor by the dog and you will see a dagger, a guitar and large hat with a black plumed feather. Courbet added these items alluding to what was often seen in Academic art.

Courbet and the landscape painting

In the centre, Courbet sits at his large-scale painting of a beautiful landscape with its blue sky and verdant background and this is in direct contrast to the depiction of his grimy and crowded studio. This is a reminder of the difference between real life and an idealised life. This work was destined to be exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition but was rejected on the ground of it being too big but maybe it was because it was too controversial. Courbet, however, was determined that the work should be seen by the public and so, not to be deterred, Courbet, at his own expense, built a Pavilion of Realism close to the official Universal Exhibition site and showed this work and thirteen others including his famous A Burial at Ornans.

Hope by Frank Holl (1883)

From this eighteenth century Realist movement came Social Realism which developed to pictorially arouse concerns about the squalid living conditions suffered by urban poor, and farming and fishing communities. In Britain, artists such as Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl, and William Small were at the forefront of this movement. In America the beginnings of Social Realism started life with the Ashcan School painters, who in the early 20th century depicted through their art, the everyday, stark, and unglamorous truths of city life. Artists such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and George Luks were prominent members of this diverse group who painted scenes from everyday life.

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

In Russia, Social Realism came in the form of paintings by Ilya Repin who declared that the reason for his art was to show and criticize all the monstrosities of our vile society of the Tsarist period.  One of his most famous Realist paintings was his 1883 work entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga.

Waiting for the Boats by Walter Langley (1885)

The reason for this introduction regarding Realism and Social Realism is that the artist I am looking at today is an English Social Realist painter. His name is Walter Langley. He was born in Birmingham, England on June 8th, 1852. Although attending normal school, because of his interest in drawing and painting and artistic ability, at the age of ten, he was also enrolled for evening classes at the Birmingham School of Design. He left school at the age of fifteen and was taken on as an apprentice to a lithographer, August Heinrich Biermann, but still continued with his classes at the School of Design. Langley began to teach himself to paint, and first exhibited three water colours at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 1873. His wish was to become a professional artist and that year, at the age of twenty-one, he won a scholarship to the National Art Training School in South Kensington, now known as the Royal College of Art. It was there that he took part in a two-year design course and began to exhibit his works of art.

Photographic portrait of Clara, Walter Langley’s first wife, taken in the studio of Robert Preston photographer

It was also around this time that he married Clara Perkins, with whom he had four children.

Hard Times by Hurbert von Herkomer (1885)

In 1875, when his course had ended he had to decide whether to stay in London or return home. The decision was made for him as August Biermann, his former employer, offered Langley a partnership in his lithographer business and so he returned to Birmingham to resume his career as a lithographer. However, Langley did not give up his love of painting and, because he decided that he needed to make progress with his artwork, he enrolled in classes firstly at the Midland Art Guild and then at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. It was during this period that Langley became influenced by the works of Realist painters and one who had his works exhibited at the Birmingham Society  was the German-born British realist painter, Hubert Von Herkomer, who took a realistic approach to the conditions of life of the poor.

A Reverie by Walter Langley (1883)

Langley would have probably continued his career as a lithographer but in 1876 the demand for such items fell drastically and he soon realised that his artwork was needed to bring him a living wage. In 1877, Langley married Clara Perkins and the couple went on to have four children. In 1879 he left Biermann’s lithographer business and concentrated on his art. In his early years Walter Langley painted rural scenes close to his home in Birmingham and it was not until the summer of 1880 that he first visited Newlyn in Cornwall with his friend William Pope whilst on a sketching holiday.

Memories by Walter Langley (1906)

In 1881 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, which is one of the oldest Art Societies in the United Kingdom. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists played an important part in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones both served as presidents. Other eminent presidents were the painters, Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Between the Tides by Walter Langley (1901)

Whilst plying his artistic trade in Birmingham a well-known and wealthy Victorian photographer, Robert White Thrupp, approached him and offered him a commission of £500 to go to Cornwall and paint a series of twenty pictures of the local Newlyn scenes and so in 1881 Langley left his wife and family behind in Birmingham, and rented a property, Pembroke Lodge. The Penwith Local History Group wrote about Langley’s new home:

“…Pembroke Lodge was a grand house that had been home to bankers and gentry since it was built in 1791.Langley’s first year’s rent of £62 (payable in advance) gave him two parlours, two kitchens, a dairy, pantry, four good bedrooms, and a dressing room. It also had a studio in the garden. The house was a good size for Langley, his wife Clara and their four children who moved into their new home in March 1882. Clara had not long given birth to her fourth child, a son Cecil born in February that year. The other children were son Lorraine (born September 8, 1877), daughter Eleanor (born March 15, 1879) and son Gabriel (born November 21, 1881)…”

Thoughts Far Away by Walter Langley

Once settled in, Langley began to paint local scenes and portraits featuring the people of Newlyn, most of which depicted the women and their role in the community. Langley could empathize with the plight of the fishermen and their families because 0f his own working-class origins in Birmingham and his socialist beliefs.

Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves, by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his first paintings he completed after his arrival at Newlyn was his 1882 watercolour work entitled Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves. It is a depiction of a local woman, believed to be Grace Kelynack. It is a portrait of great compassion and one that detects Langley’s understanding of the plight of the elderly. There is a sense of loneliness and solitude in this depiction of the woman as she ponders the hardships she has had to endure during her long life. In the painting we see her sitting at a table, with her right elbow on an open Bible. She rests her cheek on her fist as she gazes downwards, lost in her own thoughts. It was the first work that Langley exhibited in London and was widely acclaimed by both critics and the public. The watercolour painting led to Langley being elected to the prestigious Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour.

The Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Forbes (1885)

Walter Langley soon became a leading figure in the Newlyn School, which was an art colony of artists based in or near Newlyn. Another of the founding members of the Newlyn School was Stanhope Forbes who arrived at the Cornish fishing village in 1884.

Amongst the Missing by Walter Langley (1884)

Like other artist colonies such as the Barbizon and Skagen Schools, as well as the artist colonies scattered along the coast of Britany, the attraction of Newlyn was its fantastic light, and mild climate which made it an ideal location for plein air painters. It also provided many opportunities to paint seascapes, and for the Realist painters, the chance to record the harsh life endured by the fishing community. Another attraction was the ability to live there cheaply and employ local people as models at much lower rates than would have been the case in big cities. This magnetic pull towards Newlyn was summed up in the Victorian writer, Mrs Lionel Birch’s 1906 book, Stanhope A. Forbes, and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, in which she quotes Stanhope Forbes’ take on Newlyn:

“…I had come from France and, wandering down into Cornwall, came one spring morning along that dusty road by which Newlyn is approached from Penzance. Little did I think that the cluster of grey-roofed houses which I saw before me against the hillside would be my home for many years. What lode-some of artistic metal the place contains I know not; but its effects were strongly felt in the studios of Paris and Antwerp particularly, by a number of young English painters studying there, who just about then, by some common impulse, seemed drawn towards this corner of their native land… There are plenty of names amongst them which are still, and I hope will long by, associated with Newlyn, and the beauty of this fair district, which charmed us from the first, has not lost its power, and holds us still…”

The Old Book by Walter Langley

Walter Langley was always an advocate of the working class and was noted for his left-wing views. Whilst a young man in Birmingham, he was influenced by the stance taken by the firebrand politician and advocate of trade unionism, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical socialist who fought for the rights of the working class. It was these strong-held beliefs of Langley that ensured he empathized with the harsh life of the Newlyn fishing folk and their families. It was through his paintings depicting their hard life and their worries that classed him as a Social Realist painter.

For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his most poignant paintings is a watercolour entitled For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep which he completed in 1883 and focuses on the plight of wives and mothers who are left behind when their husbands and sons head out to sea. The title of the painting comes from a line of a poem by Charles Kinsley, The Three Fishers:

Three fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.
Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night wrack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning.
Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come back to the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep—
And good-by to the bar and its moaning.

Old fisherman at Newlyn Harbour (c.1906)

Newlyn was a mix of the good and the bad. The good was the picturesque landscape and the bad was the terrible poverty suffered by the local people who struggled to eke out a living from the fish they caught. Add to this the ferocious storms and tumultuous seas which brought death to many of the fishermen and made widows out of many of the women.

His one-year commission was completed at the end of 1885 and he moved back to Birmingham to be with his wife and children. He returned for a brief visit to Newlyn in 1886 to complete his unfinished watercolour which was shown at the Institute’s Spring Exhibition that year. In the Spring of 1887, Walter Langley, along with his family, moved permanently to Newlyn,

But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand by Walter Langley (1888)

Another title of one of Langley’s paintings was based on a poem. His 1888 work, But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand was a line from Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break which he wrote in 1835 and was about his sorrow at the death of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hallam, who tragically died at the age of twenty-two:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.

Fradgan, Newlyn in 1906

On his return to Newlyn with his family, he was unable to secure suitable accommodation in Newlyn and decided to live in Penzance but as his work and models lived in Newlyn he bought a small cottage in Fragdan, the old part of the coastal village, which he converted into his studio.

Cornish Light, The Nottingham 1894 Exhibition

In June 1890, he brought his family back to Newlyn, and took a two-year lease on Pembroke Lodge. When the lease expired Langley moved his family to Penzance. In 1894, along with other Newlyn artists, he exhibited his work in the exhibition Painters of the Newlyn School at Nottingham Castle. In David Tovey and Sarah Skinner’s 2015 book, Cornish Light – the Nottingham 1894 Exhibition Revisited they discuss the exhibition:

“…The 1894 Nottingham Castle exhibition of Cornish painters was, in its way, ground-breaking. It brought a burgeoning new style and range of subjects to a much wider public and fostered awareness of painters from Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth.
Much of the work was, in typical Victorian style, both art and social commentary and much of it is romanticised – craggy-faced fishermen gaze knowingly towards the horizon and the young women working on the shore have suspiciously lustrous complexions…”

This was the high-point of the Newlyn Colony’s achievements.

Self-portrait by Walter Langley
Courtesy of Archivi Alinari, Firenze

In 1895, forty-three-year-old Langley was invited, by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, to contribute a self-portrait to hang alongside those of Raphael, Rubens, and Rembrandt in their Medici Collection of portraits of great artists.

That same year, Langley’s wife Clara died at the young age of 45. This left Langley a widower with four children. Two years later, Langley married his second wife Ethel Pengelly in St Johns Parish Church Penzance on June 24th, 1897. The couple went on to have one child. During 1904 and 1905, Langley made visits to Holland and a trip to Belgium in 1906.

Walter Langley in his studio

Walter Langley died in Penzance on March 22, 1922, a couple of months before what would have been his seventieth birthday. Today his work is described as being fundamental to the representation of the Newlyn School and he was, together with Stanhope Forbes, the most unswerving in style and his large output of works depicting life around Newlyn.


Besides the normal internet sources I gained a lot of information from the websites of the Penlee House Museum and the Penwith Local History Group.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington

In my next two blogs I am going to look at the lives and works of two English painters, the father, Thomas Benjamin Kennington and his son, Eric.   Today I am going to concentrate and examine some of the works of the father and tomorrow, switch to look at the art of his son.

The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)
The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)

Often when we watch a tear-jerker type film or read a heartbreaking fictional novel, we tend to be critical of the sugary-sweet, heart-tugging subject.  My featured artist today produced many paintings which, although of the realism genre, also wanted us to be emotionally moved by what we saw before us.  His paintings were often studies of the problems which beset the poor in Victorian England.  Today let me introduce you to the Victorian social realism painter and master of portraiture, Thomas Benjamin Kennington.

Kennington was born in the Lincolnshire fishing port of Grimsby in April 1856.  As a young man he studied painting at the Liverpool School of Art, where he won a gold medal, and the Royal College of Art in London.  He also went to Paris where he enrolled at the Académie Julian and studied under William-Adolphe Bougereau and Tony Robert-Fleury.  Thomas Kennington lived at a time when there were a large number of families living on the “bread line”; a term used denoting the poorest condition in which it is acceptable to live, with some even dying of starvation on the city streets.  The population of Great Britain increased three-fold during the nineteenth century due to many factors, such as an influx of people from Ireland who were escaping the potato famine, life expectancy had increased and infant mortality had decreased.  Jobs were hard to find in the countryside so folks had flocked to the urbanized areas seeking work.  With such a pool of workers, owners and businessmen could pay low wages, often so low that workers could not afford to feed or house their families.  In the middle of the nineteenth century it was estimated that there were more than thirty thousand homeless children living on the streets of London.  However, many of the well-off folk were less than sympathetic with regards their plight and believed that any money given to the poor was simply squandered on drink and gambling and did not, in any way, solve the underlying social problems at all.

Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)
Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)

Thomas Kennington was a social activist who was disturbed by the poverty he saw around him and decided that, through his art, he would highlight the plight of the poor. The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Homeless which he completed in 1890, whilst living in London.   In 1892 it was sent to Melbourne for the large Anglo-German exhibition which was held in Melbourne’s exhibition centre and the painting is now housed in the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.

The setting for the work is unknown but presumed to be London.   In the background, partly hidden by the smog, we see a gas works and a tall chimney belching out smoke.  This is a scene of urban pollution; a gloomy streetscape.  In the foreground we see a woman dressed in widow’s garb supporting a young boy’s body, partly lifting him up from the wet pavement.   The young lad’s face is white and his head has lolled to the side.  He looks to be in a bad way, possibly close to death.  His eyes vacantly stare out but he seems unaware of his surroundings.  The artist has further depicted the depressing state of affairs by limiting the depiction of nature to a lifeless-looking tree at the right of the painting.  It is leaf-less with one of its lower branches broken off and the whole of it is encased in the concrete pavings which will inhibit its growth.

Critics praised Kennington’s painting when it was first exhibited.  The art critic of the Melbourne Argus described the work:

“…full of pathos … both a poem and a sermon…”

while another Melbourne newspaper, The Age, told its readers to study the face of the child and described the work as:

“…a chef d’œuvre of artistic power and human sympathy … a face … that expresses all the patient suffering of a whole class, amongst whom the inheritance of sorrow and privation is patiently accepted and endured…”

Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)
Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)

Another work of art which focused on how poverty can affect families was summed up in Kennington’s work entitled Widowed and Fatherless, 1888.  In this depiction we have a mother whose husband has died and she is left with the monumental task of rearing her children.  One child is lying on the bed.  Maybe she is asleep or maybe she is very ill. Her sister kneels at the bedside praying, maybe praying that her sister will recover from her illness.  The mother sits in a chair stitching clothes but she cannot take her eyes off her sick daughter.

Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)
Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)

A very moving painting depicting the plight of the poor is one Kennington completed in 1885 entitled Orphans.  There is a similarity in this depiction of poverty with the 1650 work by the great Spanish painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in his work The Beggar Boy. (See My Daily Art Display January 25th 2011).  Before us we see two young boys.  They could be brothers.  Their clothes are no more than rags.  The older boy’s head is slumped to the side due to his tiredness.  He can hardly keep his eyes open but they stare down at the head of the younger boy who through circumstances beyond his control, is whom he has to look after.  The younger boy, with his rosy red cheeks, sits on the floor and leans against the older boy for comfort, his head and arm rest on the older boy’s thigh.  He stares out at us in a beseeching way.  What is he asking us?  Is it merely sustenance or does he want our love and our protection from the deprivation he is forced to suffer.  On the floor before the two boys is a plate with a piece of dried bread highlighting their plight. This is a prime example of Kennington’s depictions of the urban poor.  The painting was purchased by Henry Tate, the sugar merchant and philanthropist, who established the Tate Gallery in London.

Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)
Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)

A crust of bread appears in another painting by Kennington, entitled Daily Bread which he completed in 1883.  The title probably derives from the words of the Lord’s Prayer, give us our daily bread.   This is a very emotional depiction of poverty and it was hoped that by depicting such dprivation things would change.  Alas, it was not to happen for many years and even now child poverty and child beggars exist in Great Britain.

In contrast to the abandoned children we saw depicted in the previous paintings, the next painting, simply entitled The Mother, was Kennington’s idea of what family life should be about and how children should be brought up in a safe and loving environment.  This large work (115 x 168cms), which was completed in 1895, depicts a moment in family life when a mother says goodnight to her children.

The Mother by Thomas Kennington
The Mother by Thomas Kennington

This is a form of narrative painting as from about the seventeenth century, genre painting showed scenes and narratives of everyday life. Later, during the Victorian age, narrative painting of everyday life subjects became very popular and such art was often considered as a category in itself termed Victorian Narrative painting.   This theme of what family life should be about was a recurrent theme in Victorian art.  Domesticity was the order of the day focusing on how children and adults should behave within a family environment.  It was hoped that families could learn by what they saw through the medium of visual art.    This huge painting of The Mother by Kennington depicts her as the foundation stone of the family, the person who underpins the family group. The painting also alludes to another idea regarding Victorian family group.   If you look carefully at the dead centre of the work you will see the wedding ring on the mother’s finger and this could be the way in which the artist want to share his belief that marriage was also very important part of the family structure and family values.

In this painting we see the mother tending two of her young children.  Although the mother is the focal point of the painting she is depicted with her back to us.  We do not see her face clearly.  She is being helped by an older daughter, who is learning about the role of motherhood. The lighting of the painting is interesting.  The darker silhouette of the mother is in contrast with the brighter area around the two sleeping children, which is lit up by the light emanating from the lamp held by the mother and which is hidden from our view.   Of course this view of the family is a romanticised view of life in Victorian days and maybe it was more to do with what Kennington believed family life should be rather than the actuality.  This painting belongs to the Aigantighe’s Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania

Thomas Kennington exhibited his works in the Royal Academy of Arts every year from  1880 until his death in 1916.  His paintings were also regularly on show at the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) and the popular Grosvenor gallery in London.   Kennington was a founding member and became the first secretary of the New English Art Club which was founded in 1885 and was one of the founders of the Imperial League of Art in 1909.  This society was set up to protect and promote the interests of Artists and to inform, advise and assist Artists, who have enrolled as members, in matters of business connected with the practice of the Arts  Its role was to aid the artists and the protection of their interests.  Kennington exhibited internationally in Paris and Rome and so good was his work that he was chosen to exhibit at the Universal Expositions held in Paris in 1889, where he was awarded a bronze medal.

Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani
Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani

Besides his genre pieces which highlighted Victorian poverty, Kennington was an accomplished portraitist.  Many of his portraits featured family members.  In 1883, aged twenty-seven, Thomas Benjamin Kennington married twenty-two year old Swedish beauty, Elise Stevani, who was born in Lund a town in Southern Sweden 1881.

Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

His daughter Ann also featured in a couple of his works.  One was with her as Alice in Wonderland.

Portrait of the Artist's Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington
Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington

The other, when she was older, was of her, dressed as a Russian lady holding a balalaika.

My last offering is another interesting work by Kennington which he completed in 1882 and entitled The Ace of Hearts.  There is an element of trickery about this depiction.  We see the lady seated before us staring directly at us  But are we who she is looking at?   Look carefully at the mirror on the wall, above and behind her.

The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington
The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington

The image in the mirror indicated that the lady is looking straight through us, and focusing upon a man who can be seen scratching his neck.  He seems perplexed by what the woman is doing with the cards.  Look at the expression on the lady’s face.  It is one of satisfied triumph as she points to the ace of hearts and we can thus deduce that she was performing a card trick for the gentleman.  He is amazed and she is exultant with her trickery.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington died in London in December 1916 aged 60.  His wife Elise died at the young age of 34 in 1895.  Their son Eric was to go on to be a famous artist and in my next blog I will look at some of his work.

The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (1849)

For my third look at Realism art and Social Realism art I am going back to the land of its inception, France.   The emergence of this form of art came about in France around 1848, the year King Louis-Philippe lost the French crown and was replaced by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who became President of the French Second Republic.  The monarchy had gone, even if it was just for a few years, as Louis-Napoleon had himself crowned Napoleon III.  With the change of ruler came the promise of greater democracy. The French people were excited with the change and were now baying for this pledged greater democracy under the new regime.  Realism in art also arrived with the Realist artists who democratised their art by depicting in their paintings subjects from everyday lives of the working class.   These painters rejected what had gone before them.  They neither wanted to paint idealized pictures, which had no bearing on reality but was what was being taught and expected from the students at the École des Beaux-Arts, the state-sponsored art academy and exhibited at the official Salons, nor did they want to carry on with the exotic themes of Romanticism.

For these Realist artists, they wanted their paintings to be a direct reflection on modern life.  The great French painter and leading proponent of Realism art, Gustave Courbet, described what art should be, saying:

 

“…painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things..,”

Gustave Courbet is my featured artist today and I wanted to look at his painting The Stonebreakers.  Sadly it no longer exists as it was destroyed by Allied bombing on a transport convoy in February 1945, whilst it was being transported to the Königstein Castle, near Dresden, for safe keeping along with 154 other paintings.   When The Stonebreakers was exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1850, it was attacked as un-artistic, crude, and socialistic, so let us look at why this view was taken by the critics.

Courbet wanted to depict the lifestyle of working class people in his paintings.  However, he wanted to depart from the idealized depiction of these poor farm workers and peasants who in the past had always been depicted smiling happily as they got on with the most arduous and often dangerous jobs, for little remuneration.   The problem of course with this artistic style was although it appealed to people who sympathised with the lot of the working class, the buyers of art were often the rich and upper classes, who through association were the very people who treated their workers badly.   His Realism art works were looked upon as being anti-authoritarian and politically threatening.  When he put forward two of his large paintings A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio for inclusion in the 1855 Salon, the Salon jurists rejected them. Courbet was so angered by the jurists’ decision that he withdrew his eleven accepted submissions and displayed the paintings privately in his Pavillon du Réalisme, not far from the official international exhibition.   In his exhibition catalogue, which described his works, he wrote an introduction which, in essence, was a Realist manifesto.  He stated:

“…his goal as an artist was to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation…”

The realist paintings of Courbet found no favour with the Establishment.  Courbet’s critics firmly believed that he was bringing about an artistic and moral decline by painting what they deemed distasteful and inconsequential subjects on a grand scale. They accused him of nurturing a “cult of ugliness” against much beloved concepts of Beauty and the Ideal.   His critics even went as far as to state that this Realism was nothing less than the enemy of art.  However there were some high placed supporters of Courbet’s work.  The French socialist politician at the time, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an advocate of workers’ associations and co-operatives as well as individual worker / peasant possession over private ownership or the nationalization of land and workplaces, saw The Stonebreakers painting and commented:

“… The Stonebreakers was an irony directed against our industrialized civilization … which is incapable of freeing man from the heaviest, most difficult, most unpleasant tasks, the eternal lot of the poor...”
The Stonebreakers was painted by Gustave Courbet in 1849 and shows two peasants breaking rocks into gravel to be used as a base in the construction of roads. One appears to be in his sixties and the other much younger.  The painting could not be described as colourful.  Courbet has used monotonous colours and by doing so has reflected the languishing tone of the painting.  We are not distracted by a colourful landscape.  Our eyes are fixed upon the two men as they carry on with their backbreaking work.    In no way was Courbet’s depiction of the men idealized or romanticized.  What we see is the gritty uncompromising truth.  The job of a stonebreaker was considered the lot of the lowest in French society.   Their differing ages symbolizes the circle of poverty, which will haunt the lower classes throughout their lives.  Those born into poverty would remain so for the rest of their life.   It is a glimpse into the world of the rural unskilled labourer.   The workers are dressed in ragged clothes.  Their ragged clothes and the little meal laid out in the right midground of the work underline their impoverishment. Look how Courbet has depicted the boy as he struggles with the heavy basket of gravel.  It is almost beyond the boy’s strength while the old man exhaustedly bends his knee to work.   One is now too old and almost lacks the strength to wield the hammer whilst the other is almost too young and almost lacks the strength to carry his burden.  This is realist art at its finest.  Courbet has not resorted to ancient heroes for his portrayal of heroism he has taken two simple men whose lot in life was manual labour and who were carrying out their task as best they could.

Despite Realist art not being favoured by the bourgeoisie or the Academies, it found an audience in France who was showing an interest in the plight of the working poor especially following the labourers uprising against the bourgeois leaders of the newly established Second Republic in 1848.  Their demands were simple – a redistribution of property and better working conditions.  The labourers’ uprising lasted just three days and many lives were lost. They did not achieve their demands but suddenly the plight of the working class labourer was centre stage and Courbet’s painting which came a year after the failed uprising could not have arrived at a more fortuitous time.

Newgate: Committed for Trial by Frank Holl

Newgate: Committed for Trial by Frank Holl (1878 )

Today I am going to revisit the Social Realism art movement and look at one of the leading English Victorian Social Realist painters, Frank Holl.  I featured two of his very moving paintings Hush and Hushed in My Daily Art Display of February 9th 2012).   The Realist movement which has its roots in France came to the fore in French art in about 1840 in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution which threw out the monarch, Louis-Philippe and saw the start of the Second Empire under the rule of Napoleon III.   Realist art flourished in France until the late nineteenth century.

The Social Realism Movement originated from this European Realism, and from the works of the great French Realist painters such as Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet.   A revolution was also taking place in England in the nineteenth century – the Industrial Revolution, where changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a tremendous consequence on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times. It was a time of poverty and unemployment for many of the lower classes and it aroused a concern in many artists for this urban poor.  During 1870s the work of many of the Social Realist artists, such as Luke Fildes (see My Daily Art Display May 17th and 18th 2011), Hubert Herkomer (See My Daily Art Display July 25th 2011) and today’s featured painter, Frank Holl came to the fore.

Frank Montague Holl was born in Kentish Town, London in 1845. His father, Francis, was a well-known engraver and Academician as was his grandfather, William Holl.   His family environment was politically driven for his family were steadfast Socialists and even when he was just a youngster his family instilled in him the thought that he had a duty in life to change society and make it better for the common people.  Holl went to Heath Mount School in Hampstead and at the age of fifteen he was accepted as a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools. He proved to be an outstanding student but often shocked his tutors by adding a hint of political content to his works of art. At the age of seventeen he won a silver medal for his work and the following year was awarded a gold medal and a travel scholarship for his painting entitled The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.  It was a painting that depicted a family bereavement and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, the then monarch, Queen Victoria,  attempted to buy the painting but the original purchaser refused to sell it. Two years later Holl painted another painting on the same theme entitled No Tidings from the Sea and on this occasion Queen Victoria purchased it for a 100 guineas.

Holl went away to Italy on his travel scholarship but the Italian sojourn lasted only two months, at which time he wrote to the Royal Academy saying that he wanted to return home and concentrate on his social realism paintings based on working-class life in England.   Holl began exhibiting his work in 1864 when he was nineteen years of age and from 1869 onwards he was a regular contributor to the Academy Exhibitions.  Many of these works were depicting the plight of the less fortunate and their pitiful existence, such as No Tidings from the Sea (1871) and Leaving Home (1873).  After he had he completed his studies in 1869 he was employed by William Luson Thomas, a successful artist, wood engraver and social reformer, who had just founded a new weekly illustrated newspaper, called The Graphic.

The newspaper when launched in December 1869 was printed in a rented house.   A successful artist himself, the founder, William Thomas recruited talented authors for the story lines and exceptional artists for the illustration which were to accompany the words.   The gifted artists included Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer and John Millais and great writers who worked on the journal included George Elliot, Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope. Thomas believed that it was not just words but the illustrations which had the great power to influence public opinion on political issues.  Thomas said later of his newspaper idea:

“…The originality of the scheme consisted in establishing a weekly illustrated journal open to all artists, whatever their method, instead of confining my staff to draughtsmen on wood as had been hitherto the general custom… it was a bold idea to attempt a new journal at the price of sixpence a copy in the face of the most successful and firmly established paper in the world, costing then only fivepence…”

For William Luson Thomas, his commitment was to force social reform and he hoped that the visual images in The Graphic would have a political impact on the reading public.  In his 2004 biography of Thomas, entitled Thomas, William Luson (1830–1900), Mark Bills, described Thomas’ journal:

“…The format of the paper offered artists an unprecedented opportunity to explore social subjects, and its images of poverty made it a catalyst for the development of social realism in British art. Many of the wood-engravings which it featured were developed into major paintings…”

This commitment to social reform by Thomas was exactly what Frank Holl desired and what he had been brought up to hear at the family table when he was growing up.  He, like Thomas, believed passionately in the cause for political and social change.  Frank Holl produced a series of pictures that were used to illustrate stories in the magazine and sometimes he and the other artists working on the journal would turn their engravings, which they had fashioned for the pages of The Graphic, into oil paintings.  These depictions of the hard and squalid life lead by the “under-class” of the nation lead them to become known as the Social Realist Movement.  Although we may look upon these depictions of poverty as a welcome wake-up call to the nation, they were badly received by the Victorian establishment at the time. The more fortunate viewed the works as being disloyal. The establishment and many of the people who had never suffered poverty wanted to turn a blind-eye to the suffering of the less fortunate. Their motto was “out of sight, out of mind” and they frowned upon these upstart young artists who wanted to drag the social differences which existed into the public forum.

The featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is entitled Newgate: Committed for Trial  which Frank Holl completed in 1878 and is housed in Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, just outside London.  It came about when Holl was given and assignment to visit Newgate Prison by the management of The Graphic.   Holl visited Newgate on a number of occasions and over time he and the Governor became friends.   What we see before us is what Holl described as a “cage”   It was where prisoners on trial were allowed, at certain times, to see visitors and talk to them through a double row of bars.  The space in between the two sets of bars was patrolled by a warden.    Holl later commented that he became very emotional when he saw the desperation of the prisoners and their visitors as they awaited the results of their trials.  In an attempt to better capture the emotion of imprisonment, Holl painted this picture whilst inside the Newgate Prison. In the painting today we see Holl’s depiction of two women and their children visiting their husbands who had been incarcerated.   Look at the face of the prisoner on the left.  It is a look of wide-eyed innocence but as we catch sight of his wife that stands before him we note how she seems wearied by her husband’s protestations of his innocence.  Could it be that she has heard it all before?  Almost hidden by this female visitor we can just make out a second prisoner.  He is in a much more animated and distressed state and seems to be pleading to his wife who is seated clutching her baby to her chest.  Is it a plea for forgiveness and understanding or is it a plea of innocence?  Whatever it is, the young woman seems unmoved and somewhat resigned by what she hears.

As I said earlier, the rich and aristocratic were unmoved by what they saw in Social Realist works and it is remarkable that the wealthy English philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, who had made his fortune patenting medicines, would buy this work and add it to his collection, which grace the walls of the Royal Holloway College, which he had built in 1880.  Of his collection of seventy seven works of art which can be found there some were simple idyllic landscapes depicting the beautiful English countryside but like today’s work of art by Frank Holl, some were harrowing aspects of Victorian life.

The painting received mixed reviews when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878 but one critic summed up what we see before us, writing:

“…The characters are so real in this fine work that one feels there is a story to be told of ruined ambitions, of broken home ties, of devotion scorned and trampled underfoot….”

In the next few blogs I will stay with Social Realism art and look at the works of Social Realist artists from other countries

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 !

Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart Did Break by Walter Langley

Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart Did Break by Walter Langley (1894)

My Daily Art Display today features an extremely moving picture which has the very long title Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart Did Break.  The painting was completed by the English artist Walter Langley in 1894.  The painting today, as was the painting yesterday, is about loss.  The title of the painting emanates from Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam, one verse of which reads:

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break

Walter Langley was born in 1852 in Birmingham.   His father, William, was a tailor and Walter was one of eleven children brought up in an area close to the inner-city, poverty-stricken slums of one of England’s largest Victorian cities.  At the age of fifteen he was taken on as an apprentice lithographer and six years later he managed to gain a scholarship to South Kensington where he studied design for two years.  In 1876 Langley married Clara Perkins. The couple went off to Whitby on their honeymoon which was a favourite hangout of Victorian artists and this was Langley`s first encounter with a working fishing village.  In 1881 he returned to Birmingham and at the age of twenty-nine he was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, which had been established in the early nineteenth century

His lithography work was starting to dry up and this coupled with the news that his wife was expecting twins forced him to make a choice between continuing to be a full-time lithographer or concentrate all his efforts into his painting.  Langley`s growing commercial success as an artist made the decision easier for him to make as he knew he needed the money to support his rapidly increasing family..

He had visited the Cornish fishing port of Newlyn before and was very impressed with the surrounding area and in July 1881 he returned.  This time he went there with a commission for 20 paintings from an important Birmingham patron, Edwin Chamberlain. As the year came to close he received a further remarkable commission from the Birmingham art dealer JW Thrupp, acting on behalf of the Alldays family, of 500 pounds for a year`s paintings in Newlyn.  The year of 1881 was a great year for the artist and his family with the commercial success of his paintings which far outshone anything he could have hoped to earn as a lithographer in Birmingham.   In 1882 he and his family moved permanently to the Cornish fishing port of Newlyn which was to become a haven for artists.  The Newlyn School was the term used to describe this new art colony that was based around the fishing port and in some ways mirrored the artist colony based on the outskirts of Paris, known as the Barbizon School.  Artists from both schools were associated with en plein air painting.   Although Langley was not the first artist to move and settle in Newlyn, he is largely credited with being the Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony and this “title” was engraved on his tombstone in Penzance.

Having been brought up close to the poverty of slum life he was a great supporter of left-wing politics and was a follower of the left wing radical Charles Bradlaugh, the great advocate of trade unionism.  Many of his paintings were of the social realist genre depicting working class folk and their struggle for survival.  Some of his paintings highlight the empathy he had for the hard-working fishermen and their families amongst whom he lived, no more so than today’s featured painting,  Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart Did Break.   Before us we see an old woman comforting a younger one.  Her arm is wrapped around the young woman’s shoulder who holds her head in her hands and cries over a fisherman who never made it back home.   Look how the artist shows the moonlight dancing over the ripples of the sea.

This turmoil of human emotions is in direct contrast to the flat calm sea we can observe in the background of the painting.  It is the calm after the storm which has taken the life of the young woman’s beloved.  This is a very emotional painting and “speaks” more than any words could possibly do.  It succinctly illustrates the tragedies which can befall the family of working-class fishermen as they battle against all weathers simply to put food on the family table.

An Al-Fresco Toilette by Samuel Luke Fildes

An Al-Fresco Toilette by Samuel Luke Fildes (1889)

For the third day running I am featuring a British artist.  The reason being is that the small art gallery I visited last week, although it had some wonderful pictures, ninety per cent were by British artists and whilst the paintings were fresh in my mind and I could still decipher my notes I thought I would dwell on what I saw.

My featured artist today is Samuel Luke Fildes who was born in Liverpool in 1844.  At the age of 17 and after he had completed his basic schooling he moved to the nearby Warrington School of Art before moving south to London and becoming a student at the South Kensington Art School and later the Royal Academy.   It was here that he was influenced by Frederick Walker, the English Social Realist painter who John Everett Millais described as “the greatest artist of the century”.   The Social Realism, sometimes termed Socio-Realism, was an  art movement whose members depicted social and racial injustice and economic hardship and in their works of art.  The subjects of their paintings were often members of the “working class” pictured struggling to survive the hardships of life.    Social Realism genre of painting was also very popular in America during the Great Depression and one famous example of  an American Social Realism painting was one by Grant Wood, entitled American Gothic which I featured on January 7th.

In 1869 when he was 24, Fildes joined the staff of the The Graphic, a new illustrated weekly newspaper, which was founded by the artist and social reformer William Luson Thomas.  Thomas believed strongly in the power of visual images and that they could change public opinion and it was his hope that this may lead to the eradication of social injustice and poverty.  Luke Fildes submitted an illustration, which was to run side by side with an article on the 1864 Houseless Poor Act and his poignant offering showing a line of homeless people queueing  up to get a ticket which would give them access to overnight accommodation.  This engraving entitled Houseless and Hungry caught the attention of a fellow artist who also worked for The Graphic, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, who showed it to the author Charles Dickens.  The author having recently just lost his book illustrator through ill-health, immediately commissioned Fildes to illustrate his new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Fame soon followed and in 1870, Fildes left the newspaper to concentrate on his artistic work. 

I am leaving the story of Fildes life at this point as I want to conclude it tomorrow with another of his paintings, which is extremely poignant and sad and is connected to an incident later in his life.  However for today, I want to look at a painting which he completed in 1889 entitled An Al-Fresco Toilette and which can now be found in the Lady Lever Art Gallery on Merseyside.  This painting was a move away from his social realist work which was the main focus of his early artistic life.  Fildes, who began this painting in Venice, had originally decided to call this painting The Morning of the Fiesta.  It is set in a Venetian courtyard of a very old building with its vine-covered trellis work over the main entrance.   The building belonged to the artist Henry Wood.  Fildes and Wood were, at that time, looked upon as leaders of the Neo-Venetian art movement and many of their works depicted scenes of happy groups of girls passing the time away along the sides of the canals or posing on their balconies.  This type of painting was extremely popular in exhibitions and as illustrations in magazines and most importantly with art collectors.

In this painting, we see some women and children preparing themselves for that day’s Fiesta.  It is a vibrant painting full of charm and the sun has lit up the courtyard and the three women as they discuss the forthcoming event.  It is not known with any amount of certainty but it is believed that this is not an en plein air painting of a real life scene but was probably based on various individual preliminary sketches Fildes made and which were then used to build up the finished composition when he returned to his studio.  This type of happy, sunny painting was popular with art buyers.  Lord Leverhulme, the Northern Industrialist, philanthropist, and soap-manufacturer bought the painting in 1913 and considered it appropriate for his soap advertisements. 

However not everybody was happy with Fildes new art genre.  Art critics and the Art Establishment never forgave Fildes for abandoning the Social Realism genre of his early career, which had highlighted the terrible circumstances some of the poorest people in Britain had to suffer.   The Art Establishment still fervently believed that art still had an important moralistic role to play but unfortunately the taste of the buying public was starting to change.   They were moving away from these downbeat works, with all their distressing scenes, and look towards happier and sunnier scenes and Fildes realised that this was the route to financial stability.