Politics and Art in the 1800s

1830 - 1848: the "July monarchy" (refers to the July revolution which resulted in the downfall of the Bourbon regime and the installation of Louis Philippe (called "citizen king" because at first he did have popular support; by 1848, he did not)

The transition to realism is, to a large degree, the result of the increasing impact of industrialism on ordinary life.  Likewise, Marx and Engels' "Communist Manifesto" is a response to the same changes because the creation of new technologies fundamentally changes the relationships that people have to work.  These technologies, which include the mass production of media, make the interchange of ideas easier and more far-reaching.  One implication of mass production is that the public has a new relationship to art, which no longer refers exclusively to things seen in museums or the salon.  As a popular visual culture comes into existence, so does censorship: images can be threatening because they can also be subversive in ways that language sometimes can't be.  Ultimately, realism has the potential to be a much more political form of art than Romanticism because it eliminates the overlay of exotic or mythological history.  This was, in fact, one of the increasing criticisms made against both Romanticism and Neo-classicism: that both forms of art did not address the present in a direct manner.

Honoré Daumier

Daumier: Gargantua, lithograph, 1831 Daumier: The Masks of 1831, lithograph

By the 1830s, print media in France had assumed an unprecedented position of importance in terms of influencing people and the popular culture.  Caricature was a central part of this importance and Daumier was a leading caricaturist.  Gargantua, an irreverent and scatalogical examination of the waste and taxation policies of Louis Philippe, resulted in Daumier's arrest and the shut-down of the newspaper which published his lithograph.  The Masks continues to mock Louis Philippe and his ministers, combining one of Daumier's favorite motifs, the pear-king (in conversational French, pear means "dullard" or "fathead") with the stylized faces of his ministers, presumably telling him what he wants to hear. Some of the social commentary in Gargantua comes from the French association of the king's body (as a real human body) with the body of the state (a metaphorical body).  Satirizing one meant satirizing the other.

Daumier: Rue Transnonian, April 15, 1834  (litho., 1834)

Based on a real event (although Daumier did not paint the scene from life), the Rue Transnonian refers to an incident in which the National Guard raided the homes of innocent people, in search of a rebel, and killed everyone they found, regardless of age or gender or innocence.  A powerful work in its own right, Rue Transnonian marked a change we have already encountered in the work of Romantic artists such as Delacroix, Goya and Gericault -- an interest in portraying the victims of war rather than the heroes.  Daumier, however, eliminates the passionate and heated emotional tones of a Romantic painting as well as the allegorizing presence of a figure such as Liberty.  Without the refuge of beautiful paint, we are confronted with a seemingly more objective account of atrocity, a format which will become much more familiar after the invention of photography although it did not need photography to come into existence.

Timothy O'Sullivan: A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863 (albumen-silver  print)
Meissonier: Memory of Civil War (Barricade on the Rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848) (1848, 11 x 8") Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830

The comparison between Meissonier's painting and Delacroix is instructive, given that both are painting similar events.  The 1848 revolution was unquestionably a bloodier event than the 3-day revolution which Delacroix painted, but Delacroix, despite the dark tonality in his painting, gives us a much more brilliantly lit painting in which the black and brown tones separate around the presence of Liberty to suggest triumph and revelation (triumph and revolution?).  Meissonier, despite using reddish and violet tones, creates a painting in which war is not illuminating but squalid and torrid.  Both artists were painting rebellions and barricaded streets strewn with dead bodies, and both used the French tri-color symbolism to make a statement about France.  But without the figure of Liberty suggesting the way out, we are left with little more than the vision of trampled dead bodies which have almost no greater individuality than the rubble underneath them.


Outline: Human beings work in order to produce objects which satisfy their needs.  Production, the codified relationships which lead to the creation of material objects, determines the relationships which people have with nature and the world of human beings.  In an ideal state, each person would satisfy his or her own objective needs through his or her own labor or acts of creativity, but until class divisions are eradicated, some people exert labor in order to satisfy the needs of other people.  This state characterizes feudalism, slavery, and capitalism with the difference being that under capitalism, the workers (the proletariat) are paid for their labor.  Because the products of their work do not belong to them, Marx described their social situation in life as one of alienation.  The solution to this inequity, according to Marx, is the "abolition of private property."  [Keep in mind that this is a utopian message, written well before the Russian revolution of 1917.  The reality was not utopia but the intention was.]
Part of the thinking behind the Communist Manifesto is the idea of dialectic change.  Society progresses through stages, so capitalism is actually necessary in order to arrive at the communist/socialist utopia in which classes no longer exist.  This progression is dialectic in its nature: one state of affairs exists until it is challenged by an opposing condition; some synthesis between the two conditions is reached and this becomes the next stage.  The process of dialectic/synthesis will continue until the ideal communist state is attained.

Realism: The "Second" Revolution in Art

Gustave Courbet: Burial at Ornans, 1849 (10' x 22')

In the Burial at Ornans, Courbet initiates a strategy we will encounter in the later painting, The Artist's Studio.  This is a strategy of contradiction: what we see makes visual sense but as we break it apart and analyze it, the painting seems to be rife with contradictions.  In Burial, the contradictions take place on the order of painting conventions: typically, very large or monumental art works deal with history and religious subject matter.  The Burial is quite large, and the subject has some relationship to religion, but it is not treated as a religious painting.  Although Courbet locates the painting in a specific place (Ornans), it is a place which very few people would have known.  Finally, the painting contains 51 portraits of people who seem to come from different social classes and have grouped themselves by class or role in society, without interacting across these "boundaries."  In the end, Courbet's painting is not truly about the funeral; his subject is the existence of social contradictions in rural French society in the mid-19th century.  His composition -- rather than the visible subject -- which includes some visual, spatial contradictions as well as these other contradictions of convention is the key to the meaning of the painting.  It is this new tendency, to use the method or style of painting to communicate subject matter, which becomes characteristic of modernism.

Courbet: The Stonebreakers, 1849-50 Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners, 1857 (33" x 44")

In Millet's painting, what looks like a transparent rendering of poor women searching for left-overs after the harvesting is done is a painting which has ennobled the women.  The large expanse of land and sky, the distant suggestion of a cathedral, and the fact that there are three women (why three?) combine to suggest a spiritual tone rather than condemnation or despair.  The Romantic belief in the unity of nature and the individual is operative in Millet's composition in a way that it is not in Courbet's Stonebreakers. The men in Courbet's painting are trapped -- the mountain behind them blocks almost the entire sky and these men, young or old, will not escape their backbreaking work or poverty.  Both were painted after Marx had written his Communist Manifesto: do these relate to the ideas in that work?  To some degree, both of them do.  The Gleaners might be taken as an image of women satisfying their own survival needs, but we know they are supervised by the constable in the distance and they probably cannot survive on the gleanings they find.  The stonebreakers are performing in an almost synchronized pattern suggesting that they have become machines, in much the same way that Marx described the lower class worker, and the fact that we do not see their faces confirms their alienation from us and society.  Both paintings were offensive to bourgeois viewers because they reminded viewers of the existence of this underclass, but it is likely that Courbet's painting was more so since it is a more despairing painting than Millet's.

Rosa Bonheur: The Horse Fair, 1853-55  (8' X 16'7")

Rosa Bonheur is a more naturalistic painter than either Courbet or Millet.  She is more like Millet, however, in her tendency to idealize her subject matter.  But like Courbet, she fills the canvas with a parade of horses stretching from the left edge to the right, and reinforces this movement with the rising line of trees behind them.  The Horse Fair is remarkable for its portrayal of horses in motion, shown from almost every possible position.

Courbet: The Artist's Studio: A Real Allegory of the Last 7 Years of My Life, 1855 (11'10" X 19'6")

One key to this painting lies in the fact that Courbet is painting a landscape with a nude model standing by his side, seemingly filling an entirely useless role.  Is he making a statement about the subject of female nudes, with his unidealized nude who in no way challenges the viewer?  Or a statement about himself and his relationship to tradition in painting?  Then we have the presence of the "audience" -- critics, friends, models for other paintings, dogs, a child... They do not really interact with him, nor does he interact with them.  As we continue to take in this large scene of non-interacting figures, we begin to see an image of an artist who is separated and alienated from his audience, yet cannot survive without them.  This theme of a union of existing in alienation from people one cannot exist without becomes a prominent theme in the mid-19th century to the extent that we can consider it a theme of modern life, in both literature and art.  But Courbet is also telling us something else, and the title is the key to this other message.  Allegories are not generally about real life, but Courbet's painting, a real allegory, is about real life.  Yet it is about real life which has been artificially constructed to look like a painting.  Courbet's "real allegory" tells us that realism, as an artistic movement, does have meaning which may go beyond what we see in front of us.  It also tells us that the realism in a painting may be as artificial as the allegory we see in a painting of history or mythology.

Manet, Prostitution, and the Spectacle of Modern Life

The growth of industrial urban cities was associated with the rise of prostitution–often women who came to the city from the countryside, trying to enter a labor force which was already full; their customers were men in like situations: unemployed or underemployed newcomers to the city. This begins to change around mid-century with the rise of a new class of prostitute: women who emulate the bourgeoisie and higher social classes, whose customers are members of the upper class.  Corresponding to these changes is another one: the subject of the prostitute becomes a subject of private fantasies.

But the more general meaning of the prostitute relates to the issue of commodification: the commodification of sexuality, of women (who signify sexuality, whether they are prostitutes or not), and of urban society.  All of which means that the subject of the prostitute in art and literature  is often a subject which has to do with the blurred boundaries of social life created by urbanization.  In addition to that general understanding of the image, it had more metaphorical meanings.

Brothels provided regulated prostitution; "clandestine" prostitution became more popular precisely because it was secretive and therefore unregulated.  Thus, not only was prostitution a large part of Parisian life in the late 19th century, but it was also a frequent and recognizable subject in paintings.  That is the situation which Manet responded to in his painting of Olympia and continued to suggest in later paintings of women who do not clearly conform to social prescriptions of any sort but are contrived to allow for fantasy, to suggest a clandestine arrangement, to let the male customer appear guileless but still remain the seducer, if he chooses.

Manet: Olympia, 1863-5

Manet's painting caused a scandal, but it seems more likely that this response to his painting was a response to his style and not to his subject.  If we briefly compare his painting to the one on which it appears to have been based, this might make sense:

[Titian: Venus d'Urbino]

But perhaps we can only understand the scandal by seeing Olympia in the same context in which it was exhibited--along with another painting by Manet, The Mockery of Christ.

Manet: The Mockery of Christ, 1865 Manet: Olympia, 1865

First, notice the reversal: in The Mockery, the man in the background confronts the viewer but Christ does not; in Olympia, she is the one who looks at the viewer but the maid in the background does  not. It is of particular interest to note that these paintings were exhibited together and that the two paintings abound with oppositions: vertical/horizontal; discreet nudity/not discreet; male/female; religious-history/contemporary.  Yet, almost precisely because of these oppositions, they foreground an identical theme: the body as a conflicted site of self-assertion and degradation, both spoken directly to the viewer.  Olympia addresses the viewer herself with her gaze, making the viewer into a substitute for the user of her services.  Christ does not confront the viewer but the guard standing behind him does.  Again, the viewer is implicated, in this case as another of the people who mocked or tormented Christ.  Both paintings, then, implicate or accuse the viewer of participating in devalued, degrading, or substandard behavior.  But what precisely is Manet accusing the viewer of doing, since the viewer must look at his paintings if he's going to buy them?  It would seem that Manet's target is not the individual viewer, then, but the contradictions of modern life--contradictions he addresses more completely near the end of his life in The Bar at the Folies-Bergere.

An American Realist: Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins, like another famous American painter (Mary Cassatt), was from Philadelphia and he spent several years studying art in France. Unlike Cassatt, he returned to America, and in his paintings, he was committed to finding and expressing a vision of American life --- its heroes, for the most part.  Eakins was not a landscape painter. Because of his interest in and experiments with photography, his realism has been thought of as photographic images transferred into paint.  There is substantial evidence to support this but at the same time, there is also evidence to show that he never based a painting on a single photographic image and to show that in some cases, the underlying image was used entirely out of context (for example, in his painting of the Gross Clinic, the underpainting was a painting of rowers).

The realism of his painting more likely reflects his commitment to science -- in addition to studying art, he studied anatomy at the Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and a dual commitment to science and art characterized his life. The people he painted, from scientists to artists to athletes, were people whose chosen activity combined the poetry and intuitive thinking of the artist with the rational precision of a scientist.   This duality of science and art can also be seen as a union of the physical or manual with the intuitive and mental.  In his most convincing paintings, we are invited to witness this union in the concentrated efforts of the rowers he painted and the portraits of scientists and doctors.

Although Eakins made a lot of portraits, of both men and women, he also made a large number of paintings of rowers -- outdoor scenes of active men. The rowers in these paintings are engaged in rhythmic, demanding activity and they are lost in it, as if in a trance. They tend to be horizontal paintings (as opposed to the vertical format of his portraits), emphasizing a sense of expansiveness which supports the idea of the rowers as a new type of hero -- the "heroes" of American modern life.  Rowing was an activity which could represent in visual form some of the goals of 19th century masculine life.  It was a sport which required physical exertion and mental activity; a sport which offered something to upper and lower classes -- to the laborer, an opportunity to control the use of his body though his own mental exertions; for men of the upper class, an opportunity to turn his mental activity to physical goals.

Eakins: Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871

The Portrait of Dr. Gross: The Gross Clinic

Eakins: The Gross Clinic, 1875 detail from the Gross Clinic Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632

The Gross Clinic has generated numerous interpretations, ranging from a psychoanalytic examination of the painting as an Oedipal fantasy to more formalist analyses which focus on the light hitting the forehead of Dr. Gross and his hand, as well as the patient, and the relationship of the painting to Rembrandt's painting of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.  The formalist analysis leads to an understanding of this painting as an expression of the poetic/scientist theme in Eakins' art while the psychoanalytic or psychobiographical interpretation leads to an understanding of the painting as using the personal insecurities of the artist's life to create a metaphor or allegory about the instabilities and insecurities of the late 19th century in American social life.  I don't think these interpretations necessarily exclude one another, especially if we consider the dark, upper half of the painting as a "representation" of the unconscious.  The painting can then be understood as Eakins' attempt to paint the image or look of psychology as a subject, and to use the image of pyschology as the metaphor of the union of poetry and science (or imagination and reason). Understanding the painting in this way reinforces the idea that Romanticism did not simply vanish in the middle of the 19th century --- as artists increasingly turned to realist subject matter, the style of Romanticism and the goal of representing the interior and subjective core of the artist continued to influence art.  But at the same time, we should be clear that Eakins' style demonstrates the extremely precise naturalism of a realist painter, not a romantic.