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Monday, September 30, 2013

Ford Madox Brown

Work, 1852-65, Ford Madox Brown
Ford Madox Brown Self-portrait, 1877
If Ford Madox Brown had been born in 1922 instead of 1822, he likely would have become a movie producer rather than a painter. Even so, in examining his major works, one gets somewhat the feeling of having seen a motion picture. It's not that the images move (they don't, of course) but that the theme, scope, and cast of characters is so broad, well defined, and well rendered, that the work itself becomes moving. Brown's most famous work, titled Work (top) was begun in 1852 but not completed until 1865. Even Michelangelo didn't take that long to paint an entire ceiling (four years). Though no small painting (54 inches by 78 inches), painted over the course of thirteen years, that works out to less than one square inch per day. Ford Madox Brown was closely aligned with England's Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were notorious for their time-consuming precision; but even at that, Work was an incredibly slow work.

The Last of England, 1855
(second) version, Ford Madox Brown
Brown was not a Pre-Raphaelite, though he might easily be mistaken for one. He certainly was good friends with Rossetti (whom he influenced), sculptor, Thomas Woolner, and others. But he was also an admirer of John Constable, William Collins, and the satiric painter, William Hogarth.  In fact, following the dissipation of the Pre-Raphaelites around 1858, Brown, along with landscape artist Henry Mark Anthony, and others founded the Hogarthians as a sort of replacement, though this group also fell by the wayside after two or three years. Though Work was well under way during this time, Brown also spent a similar amount of time on his most well-known effort, The Last of England (right), which he painted in at least four different versions between 1852 and 1866 (fourteen years). The painting depicts a downtrodden couple as they sadly sail away from England as immigrants, in this case to Australia, though the work no doubt struck a chord with thousands heading for America and elsewhere.

Work (detail) the shovelers.
Now, back to Work. The painting (top) was commissioned by Pre-Raphaelite collector, Thomas Plint, though he died before it was completed. (After all, thirteen years is a long time.) As to its literal subject, it depicts the excavation for a sewer. London was in the midst of combating outbreaks of Typhus and Cholera at the time. I counted about eighteen major figures in the painting and perhaps that many more in what (if it were a movie) would be considered "bit" parts, mostly on the right in the background. The location, Heath Street in Hempstead, was carefully selected because of its "high road" and "low road" qualities. Careful, systematic examination of the painting reveals figures from virtually every level of British society--intellectuals on the far right, common laborers front and center (left), high society above it all near the top, an Eliza Doolittle lookalike selling flower at left, beer vendors, upper right, and what may be the most enigmatic grouping of all, a young mother with two children and a dog at the bottom (below), aiming a pistol at a blond-headed man. (Or is it a misbehaving child?) See what I mean about it resembling a movie?

Work (detail), one mother you wouldn't want to tangle with.
Work (detail) portraits
of intellectuals Thomas
Carlyle and F.D. Maurice.
Yet Work is not genre. Brown would have been crazy-stupid to spend thirteen years on a genre painting (least of all the digging of a sewer). Work was, in fact, a new understanding of history painting. Perhaps more than that, it rose to the higher realm of allegory. Brown is proclaiming that work defines lives, while at the same time, in a broader sense, building the infrastructure that defines the history and culture of a society. Every figure in the painting, even the idle intellectuals, work. The politicians and businessmen in the background work to arrange financing. Labors work to make it happen, Street vendors provide services for them, young mothers work struggling to supply the human resources, while even the apparently idle intellectuals labor to provide the inspirational thinking which spurs and guides such social progress. And finally, all benefit from the work, whether being paid directly for doing it, or in using the new sewers, without which there could be no indoor plumbing, no bathrooms, and no improvement in healthful living, which extends lifespans. But still...thirteen years? It didn't take that long to dig the damned sewer!

Take Your Son, Sir, 1851, Ford Madox Brown, the artist's second wife, Emma, with their son. The work is unfinished--too busy painting allegories involving sewers, I guess.


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