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Monday, July 1, 2019

1880s Art

A May Morning in the Park, 1879-80, Thomas Eakins of Philadelphia, a shining star in the otherwise lackluster group of American artists of the 1880s.
In studying past eras of art, it's only natural that the further we go back from our own era, the less we are able to identify and admire the work of the painters, sculptors, and designers of the time. Gradually we come to the point that such studies are only of interest to artists and history buffs. Everyone else has a tendency to either yawn or laugh. Moreover, I have to start by disappointing all my American readers by noting here and now, that most of the outstanding art of the 1880s was not American. Sculpture and painting were both strong in the 1880s, but poster design from this era, with its Art Nouveau stylings, is often considered the most important artistic development of the time. And for those who like to laugh, I've included a fair sampling of the decade's design achievements in the creation of women's fashions. Sorry men, your clothes were as boring in the 1880s as the were in the 1870s and will be in the 1890s.

Dancers in the Wings, ca. 1880, Auguste Renoir. The strange cropping of the composition displays the influence of photography in Renoir's work.
Woman Sitting Under the Willows,
1880-81, Claude Monet

When people think of this era in art, painting seems first and foremost with impressionism for the first time starting to flex some muscle with the work of Claude Monet (right), Jean-Auguste Renoir (above), along with Degas, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, the only two women among the lot. As numerous as the struggling impressionists were becoming in Paris during the 1880s, they were outnumbered about ten to one by literally thousands of painters churning out work in the traditional academic style led chiefly by Alexandre Cabanel with mythical or allegorical works similar to Cabanel's Phèdre (below) painted in 1880. I should note that the 1880s was also the era of the American expatriates such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler.

Phèdre, 1880, Alexandre Cabanel
Strangely enough, some of the most important paintings of this era were done by relative unknowns. One of these is Changing Pasteur (below), painted in 1880, by Antoine Mauve (yes, the same as the color mauve). Mauve was not French, but Dutch, born in 1838. His work is neither Impressionist nor Academic (academicians seldom painted cows). Mauve settled at The Hague about 1870, painting in the neighboring fishing village of Scheveningen. There he became part of a group of artists known as the Hague school, whose members specialized in representing landscapes and scenes of rural life in the Netherlands. In 1885 he went to live in the country at Laren, near Hilversum, where he brought together a group of landscape painters who came to be known as the “Dutch Barbizon.” Mauve’s pictures are subdued in color and similar to those of Gustave Corot in their harmonies of grays and blues. Changing Pasteur was one of his major pictures. He was also an accomplished watercolorist. Perhaps more important than all this though, his wife happened to be a cousin of Vincent van Gogh, to whom Mauve gave advice about oil painting in 1881 and 1882.

Changing Pasteur, 1880, Antoine Mauve
In looking over Mauve's work it's hard to see that any instruction he may have given van Gogh was of much consequence. Their work looks absolutely nothing alike. However, keep in mind, the 1880s were van Gogh's "student" days in which he was struggling frenetically to absorb anything and everything he could about painting. These were the days of van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, created in 1885. Picture in your mind the bleak setting, the artists use (or misuse) of color, with the grim work-worn faces of his Dutch compatriots. Compare that image to what may, in fact be an earlier work, Angelus, a copy of Jean-François Millet's most famous painting by the same name. You can compare the two (below). And before you think the less of van Gogh, copying the works of the masters was considered an acceptable, indeed, highly effective means of learning to paint.

I'd give it about a B-.
Jean-Michel Papillon from France is considered to be the first poster designer and the inventor of the wallpaper. Back in 1675, he engraved rustic designs into woodworks in continuous, matching patterns. But due to a painstaking process of poster production, posters appeared very slowly. Artisans had to engrave a poster into a wooden block or metal sheets manually, with little or no design and color. Everything changed with the birth of the lithographic printing in 1796. Lithography was invented by The Austrian printer, Alois Senefelder as he was searching for an alternative to expensive metal plate engraving. He offered a series of lithos, metal or stone carvings, tinted with ink to make a print. A list of European poster designers of the 1880s would read much the same as a list of famous European painters with names such as British artist, Aubrey Beardsley, Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt, Czech painter, Alphonse Mucha, and of course the poster child of all the poster painters, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was the first artist to elevate advertising to the level of fine art, creating a shift in history that acknowledged that an important work of art could be an everyday poster in a nightclub. Soon the mass media embraced posters for promotional purposes in France and throughout Europe. Printed advertisements appeared in newspapers, theatre and opera shows in Paris started using "poster advertisements" to announce important events. Publishers and writers appreciated the new poster art. In 19th century, great lithographic designers like Raffet, Gavarni and Johannot illustrated the most acclaimed masterpieces of French literary works.

A sampling of European poster art from the 1880s in the Art Nouveau style.
When discussing sculpture of the 1880s, there's Auguste Rodin, then there's everybody else. As with painting, there was impressionism and the academics. Impressionist sculpture? We might say Rodin was to sculpture what Monet was to painting. Although Rodin couldn't (or didn't) sculpt in color just about all other attributes of impressionist painting can be found in his iconic works such as the Burgers of Calais, the Gates of Hell, St. John the Baptist, Balzac, and many others. He has often been compared favorably to Michelangelo whom he studied and copied. The two representative pieces below are so familiar they need not be identified. However, the same cannot be said for the Academic "everyone else" sculptures directly below Rodin's work.

Impressionism in the round.
(Upper left) Salammbo, Bronze, Paris, 1880, Emile Bruchon,
(right) Flower Basin with a Nude Drying Her Foot, ca 1880s , Ricardo Aurili.

Informal and formal.

Men's dressing gown, ca. 1880

And on a lighter side, the 1880s marked what might be called the zenith of Paris haute couture. The French were the first to make an industry out of fashion, not just dress-making, and they have been exporting their style since the 17th century which is frankly before most of the world even realized what fashion was. Fashion has always existed at the crossroads of art and consumerism and never more so than in the 1880s. Of course we're not talking just about women's fashions. Men's clothing styles also frequently had their genesis in Paris. Men do care about fashionable attire, just not as much as women. Below is an illustrated chart I put together detailing what women chose to buy and wear each year (dates are approximations). I keep wondering how the ladies managed personal hygiene wearing such tight, constricting frocks.

The tailored look for outside, the frilly ruffles and ribbons to impress one another indoors.
1880s swimwear---not much
chance to get a tan.

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