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Monday, March 4, 2019

1890s Art

Portrait of Felix Feneon, 1890, Paul Signac. Art history's first psychedelic painter?
As I've mentioned a number of times before in undertaking to guide readers as they study the art and artists of the past, dividing up such studies by decade is, at best, an artificial delineation. However, despite its various shortcomings, it seems to be the one method which touches upon the important and interesting without dwelling in excess on traditional people, places, dates, and other items that can make art history a dreadful bore. One might say that each decade becomes like a clothes hanger in the history closet. It seems too that the further we go back the less relevant such material becomes. I suppose that's true of history in general but especially so with a narrow thread like art. Those decades we've experienced ourselves are steeped in nostalgia--they're fun to recall. Those before our time seem only to be steeped in trivia. Yet from the moment I first began to love history in the third grade, it's always been the peculiar events and the trivial pursuits of past generations that I've found most interesting.

Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
The French Impressionist, Paul Signac with his Portrait of Felix Feneon (top) is a fine example. By the 1890s Impressionism was well established in the world of French art and, indeed, much of the western world. Yet the original impressionists, and especially their students, were dropping the style like week-old bread. They fragmented into a dozen or more directions collectively known as Post-impressionism. One such artists was George Seurat and his Pointillism. Signac was a colleague, student, and follower of Seurat who moved Pointillism to new heights well into the 20th-Century. We can all recall psychedelic art. Look at Signac's work. Was he the "inventor" of psychedelia, or what? Some might contend that Signac should share such an "honor" with the far more well-known, Vincent van Gogh as seen in his famous Starry Night (above) from June of 1889 (almost the 1890s). Was van Gogh on drugs? Well, actually he was (in combating a number of mental problems), but that's another story. The colors are somewhat less vivid than those of Signac or what we think of as psychedelia of the 1960s, but van Gogh's emotional fire and brimstone is as powerful as it gets.
Nature Morte Aux Livres, 1890, Henri Matisse
William Morris wallpaper, 1896
Speaking of vivid colors, another artist of the 1890s comes to mind in the work of Henri Matisse and the Fauvists. However, as seen in the artist's Nature Morte Aux Livres (above), from 1890, Matisse seems mired in academic grays, blacks, and earth tones. Nowhere is there to be found the wallpaper flat, bright, freely distorted im-ages of his later years. Several artists of the 20th-Century, like Matisse, found their "foot-ings" during that century's previous decade. Speaking of wallpaper, the name William Morris stands apart from similar artists whose reputations are indelibly linked to wallpaper design. However, there is a ten-dency to over-estimate the influence he had in this field, at least in his own lifetime. In fact, despite his much repeated belief in "art for all", his wallpapers, like most of the pro-ducts of Morris and Co., were hand-made and expensive (below). Consequently they had a relatively limited acceptance. His papers were slow to find a market beyond fellow artists, and were positively hated by some influential figures, such as Oscar Wilde. How-ever, Morris has had a long-lived effect on wallpaper design and consumption, creating designs which have enjoyed lasting appeal. This relatively inexpensive art form came to life with the development of steam-powered printing presses early in the 19th-Century, but hit its stride as a number of technical improvements in printing came along. These two factors allowed manufacturers to mass-produce wallpaper (and Morris' 1890s designs), thus re-ducing its price and so making it affordable to working-class people. Thus "art for the masses" was an important development derived from the 1890s.

Mother Feeding Child, 1898, Mary Cassatt
Dancers, Pink and Green, 1890,  Edgar Degas
Despite the fact that many of today's most well-known artists were moving beyond Impressionism by the 1890s, the style was, nonetheless, in its prime during this final decade of the 19th-Century. Edgar Degas (left) and his female protégé, Mary Cassatt (above), were still exploring and producing along with the stalwart revolutionary, Paul Cezanne (below). Both Degas and Cassatt often dis-pensed with traditional impressionist oils in favor of the much more con-venient and perhaps more expressive medium of dry pastels. Cezanne, for his part, while espousing Impres-sionism, had deserted many of its tenets, or at least given the style new definition as he sought to reassert the dominance of masses over the tra-ditional delicacies of painterly tech-nique and color.
Still Life with Peppermint Bottle, 1890-94, Paul Cézanne
On the western shores of the Atlantic, Impressionism had not yet made much of an impression. The American frontier artists of the 1890s were reveling in a newfound beauty of the "wild" west while Frederick Remington (below) was making a reputation for himself with his depictions of the more brutal realities of America's vast interior. Remington was celebrating not the beauty of the western landscape but the hearty bravado of the men and women who "won" the West. Both he and his eastern colleagues were glamorizing. Most of the West was not nearly so stunning as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Ayres, or Willis E. Davis depicted while few American "cowboys," as painted by Remington, were as brave, skilled, or adventurous as he suggests. For the most part, their art of this era was one of subtle (though sometimes not so subtle) exaggerated idealism.
Bear Hunting, His Last Stand, 1890 Frederic Remington
For better or worse, whether in America or Europe, the 1890s is often summed up as the Victorian Era, so named for England's long-time reigning monarch. I suppose that's better than referring to this decade as the "gay" nineties, though the Victorian Era actually encompassed most of the latter half of the 19th-century. To our eyes today, the art of this lengthy period seems fussy, puritanical, and retrograde (as with the Pre-Raphaelites). It might surprise many of us today to find that the artists of this period, though having to live amid the stylized ornamentation of the era, actually had much the same negative opinion of the over decorated cultural milieu which they were struggling to reject.

A decade with a look all its own, never to be seen again (thank God).
Regardless of the region or socio-economic level, Victorian niceties extended into every nook and cranny of the 1890s. Industrial wealth and mass production had fostered a degree of nearly infinite ornamentation upon virtually everything made by man (or women in the case of female finery). Whether the art was that of fashion design, architecture, advertising, illustration, painting, sculpture, or domestic items, far from the later mantra of Modernism, More is less," the operant ideal of the 1890s was "More is not enough."

If the 1890s were gay, few people talked about it. "Blissful" might be a better word.
Many art historians point to the birth of Impressionism as the opening overture of Modern Art. Certainly many of the first "strains," both stylistic and philosophical were being heard, seen, and felt during the 1890s and before. Yet one look at the "fashionable" work of artists and designers of this period serves to underline the fact the Modern Art was still in its infancy, awaiting the fresh start of a new century to stretch its limbs. The word "new" was to become the most powerful word in the vernacular parlance taking shape as the decade drew to a close. On the horizon were new means of transportation, communication, visualization, and most of all idealization. I'm not sure when or where the first reference to the "good ole days" arose, but there can be little doubt that the associated images the phrase evokes are those of the 1890s.

Items from the 1890s are often the star attractions of antique shops and similar TV shows.
Modern Art as seen in a typical 1890s gallery setting.

    Van Gogh's view of the 1890s.

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