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Monday, February 28, 2011

The Industrial Revolution

Every generation or so the world undergoes a "revolution." The current one is the Internet.  Just before that, and leading to it, was the digital revolution. Before that was television,  before that, plastics, preceded by pharmaceuticals, aviation, automobiles, radio, telephones, and all manner of technical innovations before that. If you want to go back into ancient history, you could name revolutions that literally caused revolutions (the armed kind) including the printing press, gun powder, and steam. 

Steam? One of the most studied periods in history was the so-called Industrial Revolution, and steam had a lot to do with that. It hit England in the early 1800's and much of Europe only a little later in the century. Sociologically, it's hard to overstate the impact this coming of the machine had on daily life. Like most drastic changes, it had both positive and negative effects for the citizens of every society it touched. Most of all though, it gave birth to a permanent "middle" class.   
And how did the Industrial Revolution effect painting and painters? Well, among other things, it brought a new clientele to the painting market and a new awareness of the daily lives of those who now, thanks to the machine age, could afford the time and money to collect art. Artists like Gustave Courbet devoted a lifetime to portraying these people, and in so doing opened up a new avenue of subject matter, portraying peasants, workers, merchants, and other contemporary individuals in a serious spirit. 
The Stone Breakers, 1849, Gustave Courbet
Without really meaning to, Courbet started a war within the art world. Noble ideals and flights of fancy were pitted against an old man and his young helper breaking up stones as in his Stone Breakers of 1849. History painting became anecdotal. Religious painting became introspective.  Mythological painting gave way to Romanticism; landscapes became geographically identifiable; still-life painting eschewed elegance in favor of humble elements of daily life. Paintings shrank. No middle-class homes had room for earlier wall-size canvases.  Art was no longer "GRAND" but approachable--all because of steam.

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