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In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, during the Victorian era, a group of painters, poets and art critics created the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in an attempt to get rid of the aesthetic and ideological narrowness with which the English bourgeoisie treated its artists. With an insolent and subversive response, they protested against a country dominated since the beginning of the century by a ferocious capitalism that commercialized all spheres of life and promoted a very conservative, repressive and moralizing art.

The Pre-Raphaelites attempted to reach a realism that believed, as postulated John Ruskin (1819-1900), which should be at the service of an idea of a spiritual kind: “the form and colours of Nature are but the language of the painter, the symbols through which he expresses meaning of his own mind”.[1] In the first stage of the Pre-Raphaelites, when the influence of Ruskin was more, these contents were social, moral or religious. And the art was an appropriate language to express them.

The Protestant work ethic, a belief in the moral value of work, was one of the beliefs of the Victorian middle class. This concept was very important in the artistic identity of the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, obsessively detailed finishing work testified a strong commitment of time and work.[2] This idea is related to the validation of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) of the connection between realism and moral purpose. The Pre-Raphaelites saw in reality a spiritually radiant attribute and they assumed that only through detailed representation of the fact it could be represented the transcendent. [3]

This essay aims firstly analyze the willingness of some Pre-Raphaelites artists to regenerate the decorative arts, in response to mechanization and mass production of modern society. Secondly, show the relationship between work and morality, particularly in the work of Ford Madox Brown.

Some Pre- Raphaelites artists sought a return to craft ideas of the Middle Ages, to the purity of man and nature as a teacher. They detested the official academies as well as industrial society in which they lived. Thus, it could be said that they used a regressive aesthetic inspired by an idealized and distant past, but maintaining a lifestyle that does not forget the virtues of the Christian religion.

The painting of William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd (Manchester Art Gallery, 1851), represents a new vision of rural England quite different from previous paintings, prints and literary descriptions. [4] The painting depicts a shepherd and shepherdess, both in the field reclined beside a clump of trees. The pastor, who is dressed in the garb of a typical field worker, is leaning seductively towards the girl, her head almost resting on his shoulder. In her casual and loose fitting, the shepherdess insinuates her feelings through the suggestive body language. She leans towards him and her right arm reaches back to grab his apparently. However, her facial expression is less attractive, with a hint of excessive pride. A lamb is sitting while eating apples to the right of the couple. More apples, flowers and grass dominate the foreground of the image, while sheep graze in a shaded area to the left of the Shepherd area. Most British rustic landscapes and genre scenes that took place in the decades of 1840s and 1850s found its roots in the previous century. The eighteenth century saw a flowering of poetry that has been justly classified as Georgic and these British georgic poems adapted the imagery of the tasks of the agricultural cycle and the Virgilian taste for historical and philosophical commentaries to the British scene.[5] This type of representation preached the notion of a moral and stable rural society, in which the farmers work in harmony with their employers and nature for the good of the nation.[6]

However, the artist said in a letter sent in 1897 to J.E. Phythian that his main purpose with this artwork was painted authentic rural people:

“My first object as an artist was to paint, not dresden china bergers, but a real Shepherds, and a real shepherdess, and a landscape of full sunlight, with all the colour of luscious summer without the faintest fear of the precedents of any landscape painters who has rendered Nature before”.[7]

Thus, it could be argued that the artist was concerned about ‘real’ working people, implying a commitment to naturalistic representation of rural life style. Michael Rosenthal describes how previous depictions of rural workers had a moral tone, highlighting the important connection that existed between agricultural production and social welfare.[8]

Until then, according to the aesthetic doctrines imposed by the Academy, genre painting depicting the working classes should be for charity by their superiors. However, Hunt shows rural workers as employers committed to the temptation and salvation, a situation that has affected all social classes throughout history.

Although there is no relationship openly acknowledged with French Realism, and more specifically with Courbet, it could be argued that there was a similar confrontation of reality both in France and in England, taking into consideration the approach of artists to humanitarian social currents, love of work, popular subjects.[9]

Ford Madox Brown believed in the moral value of work. The main theme of one of his most important paintings, Work (Manchester Art Gallery, 1865) is the ennoblement of the nature of the work.[10] The painting depicts a scene that takes place in one of the streets near the studio of the painter, in the London suburb of Hampstead, where some workers were drilling the ground to improve the water mains. These migrant workers, who travelled around the country while building infrastructure for the common good, were popularly known by the name of navvies (short for navigators). They were the perfect actors for his painting, and asked them sat for him. This work describes ordinary workers in heroic terms. The workers appear as superior to any other character in this vision of English society, assuming a break with traditional forms of representation of these people.[11]

The visual logic of the picture is very complex, but essentially the artist presents an organization of social types in hierarchies, which ranks the top rich and poor in the composition below. However, far from translating a traditional social hierarchy, Brown relegated to the wealthy in a shady position, the bottom composition, unable to perform useful work in the foreground, irrelevantly judging the aristocracy. The Pre-Raphaelites were united in the belief moral decadence and incompetence of many of the aristocrats.[12]

One of the most accusers influences in the thought and work of Brown is Carlyle. In one of his most emblematic works Past and Present, philosopher removes the work of the realm of necessity and presents it in place as an expression of innate character. [13] The writer makes multiple references to morally purifying effect of the work, stating that “he that will not work, even the sort of vagrant Irish poor who appear in Work, deserve neither charity nor pity”.[14]

The rest of the scene composes different characters with different attitudes to labour. For example, the right of the navvies shown are brain-workers, intellectuals who managed to change the way people worked through their revolutionary ideas. They are not invented characters, but portraits of real people. The man in the black hat is Carlyle himself. The gentleman who next to him is the reverend Frederick Denison Maurice, the founder of the Working Men’s College, the first school for adults to training provided to workers so they could improve their job prospects. The other characters in the painting are people who cannot, do not know or need to work. The group of people who are resting on the hillside located behind the fence are those who cannot work. Are Irish immigrants who have just arrived from the field, looking for new opportunities in the city, but for now are unemployed. Among them, there is a young couple that feeds their newborn with slurry of cold porridge. On the street on the right, some men do ad campaign for the candidate to local parliament Bobus Higgins, a corrupt and unscrupulous rich man.

Ford Madox Brown believed in a doctrine of salvation through work. The grandson of the artist Ford Madox Ford, said his grandfather believed, rightly or wrongly, as a problem or obstacle anything that was not strictly useful.[15] Another artist belonging to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Everett Millais (1829-1896), represented the figure of Jesus identifying it with the working class in his city. The painting Christ in the House of His Parents (London, Tate Britain, 1849-50) a person of high status transformed into an active worker committed to the family business. In this manner, he treated a highly biblical theme in a particular style that looked more like the Victorians to represent the life of the lower classes in society, such as Dutch genre painting. By depicting the life of the holy family as domestic workers, suggestions Ruskin in his Modern Painters are appreciated by looking for a new sacred art.[16]

The clear cleaning the clothes of the workers in the painting of Brown could symbolize the thought of Carlyle on cleaning as a symbol of purity. Thus, it could be argued that workers represent the purity of the work. In addition, Brown also draws a parallel between the labourers cleaning with fresh clean water to Christ cleaning to the beggars, and by extension, an act of equality and humility of Jesus cleansing the feet of San Pedro.[17]

Another interesting aspect in the work of Brown is the strong antithesis, which distinguishes between masculine and feminine. The author Tim Barringer affirms in his book: “In all these Pre-Raphael images, women are defined in relation to their male counterparts, as husband or lover, protector or seducer”. Brown’s painting glorifies the physical constitution of the worker, showing the muscular masons, working hard, described by the artist as the pride of men’s health and beauty. However, in contrast to the male worker group, two female figures are walking on the left of the composition. One of them completely avoids the worker. The other woman, while showing a pamphlet unread by the worker, is demonstrating her uselessness. The work of women, which should be the objective of the energies of the angelic lady, is indicated by the thin face and yellow hat of his young daughter who tries to climb through her skirt. This natural connection between mother and daughter appears three times in the paint. One is the central scene in the foreground, in which a young girl holding a baby, comforting to her younger sister and disciplining to her brother. The texts written by Madox assimilate this group within morality in separate spheres, considering the efforts of the girl as another indication of a hidden work, a more domestic work permitted under a sexual division of labour. [18]

In conclusion, the Pre- Raphaelites Brotherhood artists showed an attitude towards work as a moral commitment. On the one hand, they thought they should represent reality as far as possible, requiring themselves a high degree of accuracy with respect to the exterior physical world. Only through this faithful representation, a characteristic of the aesthetics of earlier times like the Middle Ages or the Renaissance before Raphael, it could be transmitted the sacred and transcendent world around them. Furthermore, the Pre-Raphaelites, specifically Ford Madox Brown, glorified the act of work itself, even they equated with religion. That is why the Pre-Raphaelites removed the work of the realm of necessity and presented it as an expression of innate character, as a moral value. And, as in the case of religion, artists felt that the labour was a virtue that ennobleced everyone both aristocracy and the lower classes, breaking the barrier between social classes in Victorian culture.

[1] D. Masson, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism in Art and Literature’ in J. Sambrook, Pre-Raphaelitism. A Collection of Critical Essays (London: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp 197-220

[2] T. Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites, (London: Calmann and King Ltd, 1998), p.101

[3] H. L. Sussman, Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Rusking and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979), p. 17

[4] K. D. Kriz, ‘An English arcadia revisited and reassessed: Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd and the rural tradition’, in Art History 10 (Dec. 1987), p.478

[5] J. Chalker, The English Georgic: A study in the development of a form (Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), p.

[6] K. D. Kriz, ‘An English arcadia revisited and reassessed: Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd and the rural tradition’, p.478

[7] J. D. Macmillan, ‘Holman Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd: Some reflections on a Victorian Pastoral’ in Art Bulletin, (June Vol. 54, No. 2, Jun., 1972), pp.187-197.

[8] Kriz, ‘An English arcadia revisited and reassessed: Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd and the rural tradition’, p.478

[9] L. Nochlin, Realism and Tradition in Art 1848-1900 (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966), p.95

[10] G. Curtis, ‘Ford Madox Brown’s Work: An Iconographic Analysis’ in The Art Bulletin (1992, 74.4) pp 623-636

[11] K. Bendiner, The Art of Ford Madox Brown (USA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1998), p.91

[12] Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites, p.101

[13] T. Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites, p.100

[14] Bendiner, The Art of Ford Madox Brown, p.92

[15] J. Plastow, ‘Englishness and work’ in d. Brown and J. Plastow, Ford Madox Ford and Englishness (New York: Rodopi, 2006), p.180

[16] Sussman, Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Rusking and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, p.56

[17] G. Curtis, ‘Ford Madox Brown’s Work: an iconographic , pp.623-636

[18] Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites, p.102

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