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.

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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.

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilia Repin (1873)

My blog today continues, as promised, with the Social Realism Movement in art.  Social Realism is a very broad term for painting or literature that comments on contemporary social political or economic conditions, usually from a left-wing viewpoint, in a realistic manner.  It was a way in which artists were able to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who were critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions.  As I am looking at a work by a Russian painter today it is important that we understand that Social Realism and Socialist Realism are quite different.  Social Realism evolved from the French Realism of the second half of the nineteenth century whereas Socialist Realism never came into being until the mid 1930’s when in 1934 Joseph Stalin made Socialist Realism the official art form of the USSR and later by the other Communist parties worldwide.  Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life.   It was important to the communist regimes that Socialist Realism Art emphasized not just realism but the optimism and heroism of the people and the dictate was that all forms of experimentalism in art was to be looked upon as being degenerate and totally pessimistic.

One group of Soviet Realist artists, of which today’s featured painter was one, was the Peredvizhniki, which was also known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English.  This group of painters was formed in 1863 in St Petersburg as a protest at the academic restrictions of the official art center, the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Sounds familiar?  It should be, as in the past I have talked about the breakaway of artists from Academic control in both France and England.  The St Petersburg Academy, like other Academies in Western Europe, was associated with neoclassicism.   Neoclassicism was based on the ideal of beauty seen in ancient Greek and Roman art and looked to the Italian Renaissance.  The St Petersburg Academy of Arts was no different.  It wanted its student to depict not Russian subjects but more traditional art-historical themes: classical history, legends and myths.  In 1863, fourteen artists broke away from the Academy in protest of the proposed topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, which was to be the mythological subject of the Entrance of Odin into Valhalla. These fourteen painters believed that this subject was too remote from the real life of Russia and that the academic style of neoclassicism was much too constricting.   Having left the Academy, they organized themselves into a society on cooperative principles and developed their own educational program and in 1870 set up a touring group to exhibit their work known as the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions. The Society maintained its independence from state support and their travelling exhibitions allowed them to take their art, which illustrated the contemporary life of the people from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, to the provinces.

The artists adopted the style, which could be termed critical realism. Their aim was to depict their homeland and the life and history of their people from a truthful and democratic standpoint. The artists depicted the working class folk in a favourable and often heroic light but at the same time tore into their corrupt upper classes and aristocracy depicting them as oppressors and enemies of the workers.  Their paintings often highlighted the totally unacceptable and unbearable living conditions that the working class people had to endure.  It should be remembered that even though the first Russian Revolution was still more than 30 years away, and that unlike other Western European countries, Russia was a country where the political freedom to express oneself was strictly prohibited. However things were changing.  Tsar Nicholas I died in 1856 and a year later the Russian armies were defeated in the Crimea.  There was a hint of reform in the air but it was only in the arts, whether it be paintings, literature or the theatre that there was an opportunity to express one’s views.  With this in mind the members of the Peredvizhniki believed it was their duty to effect change to the living conditions of the working class. Our featured artist today, Ilya Repin wrote succinctly that artists come from the people and that the people expect art should reflect a clear understanding of conditions and nature.

Today’s featured work is second painting by Repin which I have looked at in a blog.   The first one was a painting, entitled Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk  (My Daily Art Display of August 29th 2011)   Today’s work is entitled Barge-Haulers on the Volga which he completed in 1873.   An alternative title is Burlacks on the Volga.   A burlak was a Russian nickname for a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. The word itself came from the Tatar word bujdak, ‘homeless’.  Before us is a river scene. The barge in the painting’s title is relegated to a minor role in the right background and if you look closely you will see in the distance, behind the barge, a small steam-powered boat, which makes us realise that at the time of the painting we were at the onset of the industrial age and the days of using human beings to haul barges was coming to an end.

The Barge Pullers

It is a magnificent portrayal of a group of eleven men, dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses, who struggle with their backbreaking task at hand, the towing of a barge along the waters of the River Volga.  This painting is looked upon as being one of the best works of the Peredvizhniki movement.   The men we see before us are simply human pack mules.  This painting focuses on the difficult life endured by the peasantry at that time.  Look how Repin has portrayed the barge haulers.   It is a hot day and the men seem to be at the point of collapse and exhaustion as they lean forward in a desperate effort to keep the laden barge moving.   The painting is not just a testament to the peasant’s heroic efforts but it is a damning condemnation of the people that have set them this inhumane task.

The young optimist

There is an added touch of heroism.  Look at the line of men.  All but one of them is dressed in drably-coloured clothes.  In the middle of the line one man stands out from the others.  He is a fair-haired young man, dressed in slightly brighter colours.  He is not exhausted and bent over like the others.  He stands upright and proud as he looks out over the river.  He is not humiliated by his menial  and backbreaking task.  His spirit, unlike the others, is not broken.  He scans the horizon and in this gesture we realise he is not just scanning the river, he is looking to the future – his future. 

Repin, who was twenty-six at the time he started this work, formulated the idea for this painting during a summer holiday he spent near Stavropol, close to the river Volga in 1870.  He had spent three months there with his brother Vasily and friends. During that time he took a boat trip down the Volga and watched the gangs of barge haulers. Initially he made many oil sketches of the area and the men working on the riverbanks and the people we see in the painting were real people.  One was a former soldier, one and artist and one a defrocked priest.  The former priest’s name was Kanin, who became a good friend of Repin, and he can be seen as the lead hauler of the group wearing a bandana.  From the dialogue Repin had with the barge haulers he was shocked to find that at one time most of them had held relatively important positions in society but had since fallen on hard times.  Although not shown in this painting, there would often be women employed as barge haulers and the number in a barge-hauling gang would normally be more than the eleven Repin has depicted.

Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, who was looked upon as the most respected Russian critic during his lifetime, said of the way Repin depicted the barge haulers:

“…They are like a group of forest Hercules with their dishevelled heads, their sun-tanned chests, and their motionlessly hanging, strong-veined hands. What glances from untamed eyes, what distended nostrils, what iron muscles!…’

and of the painting itself, Stasov commented:

“….with a daring that is unprecedented amongst us [Repin] has abandoned all former conceptions of the ideal in art, and has plunged head first into the very heart of the people’s life, the people’s interests, and the people’s oppressive reality… no one in Russia has ever dared take on such a subject…”

Despite its critical message of how the upper classes badly treated its workers, the painting 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.

Repin commented on the paintings of the Russian Social Realist artists and what they achieved, saying:

 “…The pictures of those days made the viewer blush, to shiver and carefully look into himself…. They upset the public and directed it into the path of humaneness…”

Hush and Hushed by Frank Holl

Hush by Frank Holl (1877)

I get great pleasure in “discovering” new artists.  Today I am going to look at the life of an artist I had never previously heard of and maybe he is somebody that you have never come across before.  In My Daily Art Display today I am going to look at two paintings by the English Victorian social realist painter and portraitist Frank Holl, entitled Hush and Hushed.

Frank Montague Holl was born in Kentish Town, London in 1845.  His father, Francis, was a well-known engraver and Academician.  His grandfather, William Holl, was also an engraver.  He was brought up in a political household.  His family were staunch Socialists and from an early age Holl was taught that he had a duty in life to transform society and improve it for the common people.   He started his schooling at the Heath Mount School in Hampstead and at the age of fifteen he enrolled as a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools.  He proved to be an exceptional student but much to the dismay of his tutors, Holl liked to add a touch 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 it 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 set off on his travel scholarship to Italy but the journey 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 the lower working-class life in England.

Holl started 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).  When 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, and was looking for a number of talented artists to illustrate it.  For the following five years, Holl produced a series of pictures that were used to illustrate stories in the magazine. Among his fellow workers were Luke Fildes (see The Doctor – My Daily Art Display, May 17th 2011) and Hubert von Herkomer (see Hard Times, My Daily Art Display July 25th 2011), who like him believed passionately in the cause for political and social change.  Often they would turn the engravings, which they had fashioned for the pages of The Graphic, into oil paintings.  These depictions of the real 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.  They 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 frowned upon these upstart young artists who wanted to drag the social differences which existed into the public forum.

Samuel Cousins by Frank Holl (1879)

In 1879 Frank Holl had a breakthrough in his artistic career when he completed a portrait of his neighbor, the English mezzotint engraver, Samuel Cousins.  The critics loved it.  One wrote in a national newspaper:

“…Mr Frank Holl’s portrait of the renowned engraver Samuel Cousins R.A. is a superb work, glowing,  for all the austerity of its execution, with animation and intelligence…”

In another newspaper the art critic commented:

“…Mr Frank Holl’s half-length, seated of Mr Samuel Cousins, the engraver is one of the portraits of the year and does the young artist infinite credit…”

So was Samuel Cousins delighted with the finished work?  Actually, he wasn’t, saying, with an open show of vanity, that the painter had added to his years, and had made him appear too old.  However notwithstanding the sitter’s comments the painting lead to numerous lucrative commissions from wealthy patrons.  From that day on till the end of his life, Frank Holl never had to search out work, work searched him out.  His portraiture was mainly of men, often ones who were very famous such as Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain.

In 1888 having sent a number of his paintings to the Royal Academy for their Summer Exhibition he travelled to Spain.  He had decided to spend a short period in Madrid and visit the Prado where he could study the works of the great Spanish master, Velasquez.  Shortly after returning home he suffered at heart attack and died suddenly on July 31st 1888, aged just 43.  His fame as an portrait artist lead to much work, in fact too much work, none of which he ever turned down.  Holl continually tried to find time to paint his social realist paintings as well as his lucrative portraiture work but to do this he found himself working every day of the week.  He once told his wife of the strain he was under, saying:

“…Hunger for work is always on me, and it is when I cannot satisfy this hunger that I get so worn out. If only I could banish my tormenting conscience for work; but that never lets me alone, and if I do nothing I feel of no use…”

After his death his daughter commented that her father continually suffered from the nervous strain of working with such distinguished men and that this strain, in her mind, contributed to her father’s premature death.

Hushed by Frank Holl (1877)

Today’s pair of paintings entitled Hush and Hushed were completed by Frank Holl in 1877 and are now housed in the Tate Britain Gallery in London.

The setting for the two paintings is a room in a small dwelling.  It is a solemn setting and the somber colours used by Holl enhance the bleak and depressing mood.  One can tell by the sparse decor and bare walls that the occupants have little money.  The lives of such people was a constant source for Holl’s artistic works.  In the first of these paintings entitled Hush, we see before us a mother tenderly bending over the cradle of her sick child.   There is a distinct look of concern and apprehension in her face.  Whilst she looks into the cradle,  she whispers to her other child, who stands close by, to be quiet so as not wake the infant who has finally gone to sleep.  The young boy looks equally anxious about the situation.   It is a typical homely scene and there is no hint of what is to follow in the companion work, Hushed.

This second work is a follow-up scene in the same room and this time we see the devastated mother gazing sorrowfully into the empty cradle where once the baby had been but had now sadly passed away.   We see the mother with her hand covering her face in a sign of grief.  Her other child leans against a cupboard with his hands clasped in front of him.   He looks at his grieving mother but has no idea what to do to console her.

These are extremely moving works of art and in a way Holl has handled them without resorting to sentimentality.  The paintings were meant for people to understand the problems faced by those who were imprisoned by poverty and suffered the fates that accompanied such financial destitution. Infant mortality was high in 19th century and it is estimated 1 in 5 children died before their fifth birthday. Infant mortality had always been high and much of it could be because of the lack of sanitation and general hygiene especially amongst the poor. However in those days, the well-off were not immune to such early deaths, as it was also a period when consumption and cholera accounted for many young deaths.