Tuesday, November 01, 2005

19th Century Landscape - Figure in the Landscape

Periods of landscape development:

  • 18th Century - fantasies of "retirement" (aristocratic rule, Rousseau)
  • 1790s - Contentment
  • 1800s - Documentary
  • 1793-1815 Napoleonic War and patriotic representations
  • 1815+ Nostalgia
  • 1830+ Visionary
  • 1830+ Social Conscience
  • 1870+ Realism and Social Conscience

This is a typical eighteenth century pastoral landscape in the Arcadian tradition but with an extra rococo lightness. It is associated with fantasies of "retirement", that is leaving the court for a rustic life of simple pleasures in nature.


Boucher, Shepherd piping to a Shepherdess c1750

Gainsborough, Girl Gathering Faggots (Daughter of the Abdy family) 1782.

This painting appeals to the idea of "charity" although the model for the girl was the daughter of an aristocratic family playing at being poor so this picture is also associated with retirement. At this time the aristocrats were in charge and the middle-class (or "middling sorts" as they were called) were a minor social category without the clear identity they achieved in the nineteenth century.

Towards the end of eighteenth century it became more common to show the working class but associated with the idea of contentment. This idealisation was happening at a time, and perhaps because of, the increasing social unrest, sacking churches, rick burning, riots and so on.

1790 onwards - Contentment Phase

This is the time of the French Revolution, increasing Enclosures Acts and the start of the Napoleonic War (1793). These form a sub-text against which all the paintings of the period should be seen.

Gainsborough, The Woodman 1790.

Gainsborough pandered to the taste for idealised poor but in later work like The Woodman (1790) and Barker's The Woodman (below) we see signs of a more realistic view.

Barker, The Woodman and his Dog in a Storm c1787

Barker, Landscape with Figures and Sheep c1815

Richard Westall, A Peasant Boy, c. 1794

Westall Storm in Harvest 1796 (not found)

Wheatley Times of Day — Noon 1799

1800 onwards - Documentary Phase

Around 1800 artists became more interested in the actual processes in the landscape and there were more representations of agricultural equipment and agricultural practices.


W.H. Pyne's Country Work (1808) - Man and Woman washing linen in a brook. Pyne produced a book called Microcosm that contained thousands of images that could be copied by artists and illustrators in engravings and paintings. These include images of rural life and the rural poor such as ploughing, shearing, wood cutting and flaying corn. This can be seen in the context of the Napoleonic War and self-sufficiency but also the Enlightenment mode of thinking - cataloguing and listing things. It was believed that through reason man can improve things and work with nature harmoniously.

This was also the time when alternative markets were developing and alternative style promoted by organisations other than the Royal Academy such as:

  • Sketching Society, 1800
  • Society of Painters in Watercolours 1804

Turner Ploughing up Turnips near Slough (Windsor) 1809. Recently art historians starting with Barrell (see Michele Miller) have suggested there are anachronism in the picture (such as growing turnips in a clay soil, cattle rather than sheep, the bottle suggesting drink and so on) and this implies a radical interpretation. However, the case is unproven. Are there in fact any landscape artists of the Napoleonic War period (1793-1815) that suggest radical dissent? Possibly Morland in the 1790s. Blake was of course a radical artist but not radical in the sense understood at the time, i.e. a supporter of Thomas Spence and other radicals who believed that land showed by shared by everyone and everyone should have the vote.

Turner Leeds 1816

De Wint Children at Lunch by a Corn Stook c 1810. The was a rapid growth in the use of watercolour at this time and it was more suitable for direct observation.

De Wint, Harvesting, date unknown

Lewis Hereford, Dynedor and the Malvern Hills, from the Haywood Lodge, Harvest Scene, Afternoon 1815. Lewis took notes and made sketches in the field but painted back in the studio. The art historian Payne talks about "idealisation, didacticism and reassurance" which sums up the period nicely.

1815 onwards - Nostalgia, Conservation

Constable's Flatford Mill can be read as documentary but it is also nostalgia - a scene from the artists childhood. Urban sensibilities, enclosures and working class agitation.

Helsinger "recent changes that implicate local places in a national system...social protest."

Constable Boat—Building Near Flatford Mill 1815. We see figures on their own not as a working team perhaps so as not to suggest a riotous assembly. See Barrell on the solitary figure. Note that in the sketch Constable made for Boat-building there are many figures but in the final painting the figures are like rocks in the landscape, literally faceless.

Constable Sketch for Boat-Building Near Flatford Mill 1815

Constable Ploughing scene in Suffolk 1815. There are no strong verticals and the aerial perspective is subverted by the strong middle ground horizontal barrier of the trees that prevents the ploughman from seeing the commanding view presented to the viewer. Barrell says it illustrates class divisions between the land owner and the working poor. The painting was given a rhyming couplet by Robert Bloomfield

But, unassisted through each toilsome day,
With smiling brow the Plowman cleaves his way

One reading of "smiling brow" is a furrowed brow and therefore a suggestion that the rural worker is not happy. Constable avoids showing the hardship of rural work by keeping the ploughman in the middle distance with his back to us. There was a point in the 1820s when Constable stopped painting the rural worker, is this because the discrepancy between fact and painting became too great?

Constable Flatford Mill Scene of a Navigable River, 1816

Constable The Haywain 1821

1830 onwards - Visionary (Romanticism, Revolution, Religion)

Palmer The Gleaning Field 1830

Palmer The Harvest Moon; Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c1831-2. The harvest often had to be gathered at night by the light of the moon.

Linnell Harvest Moon 1858

Palmer Harvesting, c.1851, exhibited 1863. England is presented as a religious utopia. Often harvest is used to signify this through its associations with the eucharist, staff of life and Christ's body (although it is not being presented as a Catholic image).

1830 onwards - Social Conscience

Materialism, reform and Christian Socialism.

Linnell Young Brood (Shepherd Boy Playing His Flute 1831, not found)

Bourne Kilsby Tunnel, 8th July 1837. Few artists depicted railways considering the impact they had on everyone's lives (the obvious exception is Turner's Rain, Steam, Speed and Frith's Paddington Station). This picture is part of a series on the railways including construction of track, tunnels and stations. Bourne has given it a sublime treatment with its Gothic cathedral like dimensions and its biblical shaft of light from heaven. This tunnel was built as the land owners above had refused to give their permission for the railway to be built over their land. The lit group in the centre look like a nativity scene or Presentation in the Temple by Rembrandt. The imbuing of everyday with a sacred quality is often found in the Protestant world implying even the most humble scene demonstrates the glory of God. It also relates to the Alchemy of Nature, the birth of something new, and miraculous events perhaps with a scientific aspect.

Hunt The Hireling Shepherd 1852. This is another work that has been subject to much art historical analysis. The shepherd here is presented as an agricultural mercenary, someone who is just hired to do a job and who has little interest in the job. In this case we see the sheep straying into the corn field as the shepherd makes love to the woman. Sometimes agricultural workers were paid in beer and we see the barrel at his waist. This painting can be read as a religious tract about evangelism. (Note that in Far From The Madding Crowd Gabriel Oates saves the bloated sheep). This painting was one of the earliest painted outside although we know the women was a local country girl who Hunt brought to his London studio to paint.

Deverell The Irish Vagrants 1853. We see a group of people doing nothing as an aristocrat rides past ignoring the group. The idea of guardianship has broken down as itinerant workers roam the countryside.

Millais Ruskin 1854. Ruskin was the most influential art critic of the period.  He was a great supporter of Turner because he presented the detail and beauty of the natural world. Ruskin was against the picturesque as he saw it idealising the countryside. Turner went on the English Grand Tour including the Lake District. Beauty and outward form truthfully rendered were seen as connected with the presentation of God. Ruskin was asked by Millais to intervene and support the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood against the critics.

Ruskin invited Millais to see the mountains of Scotland and Ruskin dictated exactly how this portrait should look. Millais, as we know, took Ruskin's wife and the gushing waters may be a comment Ruskin's impotence. Photographs taken at exactly this spot today show how accurately it is portrayed as the rocks can be identified. Note the low viewpoint and the enclosed space without a horizon.

Millais made sketches outside but finished the painting indoors. It has a "cut out" quality as there are no shadows. Note the rock behind his right leg is lighter to emphasize the leg. Is he communing with nature?

It almost looks as though it was based on a photograph. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood very very quiet about whether they used photographs and this is an interesting area for further study.

Brown Carrying Corn 1854-5. Ford Maddox Brown was walking with his wife and liked the way the colour of the corn and the turnips interacted and visited the site near Finchley twenty one times. He was engaged by the emerald green of the turnips against the corn and spent 70 hours on the painting. (Note: emerald green was a popular colour but it was made from arsenic and it was reported by The Times in the 1860s that the colouring was poisonous. William Morris later choose to ignore the contemporary health concerns even though children were dying sleeping in rooms with emerald green wallpaper. He was a shareholder in the largest arsenic mine in the world). Brown commented the turnips "change from day to day". The painting was rejected by the Royal Academy but was shown at a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in 1857. We see layering, framing, echoing, a strong vertical, a rising moon and pools of light in the centre. The sun is setting on the corn and the foreground shadow partly obscures a stooped woman who is perhaps weeding the turnips. The woman was modelled on Brown wife (although at the time he denied she was his wife perhaps as she was a lower social class). None of the woman's face is disclosed, it is just plain gray. It is a harmonious landscape and a nostalgic view of rural England. The Tate Gallery calls it a "pot boiler" but he spent 70 hours on it implying it was more than just a work rushed off to sell.

It is jewel-like with a subtle and calculated composition and the low viewpoint tends to bring us into the scene and become one with the landscape. The anonymous foreground figure suggests the painting may be about isolation, loneliness or misery. The PRB and their followers often had a single foreground figure in the landscape. It is interesting that at this time male artists used women possibly to represent themselves in a gender neutral way.

Millais The Blind Girl 1856. Reflects the attitudes of Christian Socialist such as Thomas Carlyle. In the aftermath of Chartism social reform, disenfranchised labourers. We see a person not actively engaged in farm work.

Millet The Gleaners 1857. A much more idealised image than say The Hireling Shepherd painted at about the same time.

Wallis The Stonebreaker 1857. There is a tension between the beautiful evening and the dead stonebreaker, exhausted by his back breaking work.

Brett The Stonebreaker 1857

Redgrave The Emigrant’s Last Sight of Home 1858. We have ideas of the labourer being forced to  leave his home to emigrate forever away from the idyllic English countryside. The artist is excited by the beauty of the landscape but there is a tension with the discordant figures.

1870 -"Realism" and Conservation

This period was concerned with preserving the past and nostalgia. Paintings would be bought by city dwellers who had lost all connection with the countryside and saw it nostalgically. Darwin's ideas permeated the population and most poeple only had a vague idea that it was something to do with origins. Does this idea also inform these images?

Crowe The Dinner Hour; Wigan 1874. One of the few images of working people that seems to be neutral in its interpretation. Maybe the woman have been idealised.

George Clausen The Girl at the Gate 1889 (Tate Britain). A low viewpoint induces sympathy and a connection with the scene. Is it a landscape or a portrait - it hovers between. George Clausen is now a forgotten artists but he was very influential at the time. Our view is blocked by the wall behind produces a closed feeling. It is not clear if this is a narrative. The woman is between being a girl and a woman, perhaps she is waiting at the gate for her lover who will never return, which explains her forlorn look. And we are the surrogate lover. Or is she welcoming us in the the garden?

The woman is actually based on the nursemaid of Clausen's children so was it intended to be realistic and a portrait. It is not modern and is fairly timeless from the cottage and the clothes. Was Clausen attempting to record types of people, the "salt of the earth" that make up the nation. Is she a Marianne figure (symbol of the French republic and freedom)?

1900 - The "Going Away"

Apart from Vorticism and Futurism 20th Century art does not represent the 20th Century but some other place or some abstract idea. In the 18909s it was concerned with urban sensisbilities, fin de siecle, and a post-Darwinian search for origins.


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