Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, December 16, 2019

1870s Art

American Progress, 1872, John Gast
In the hope of not sounding immodest, I like to think I've come to know a great deal about art, especially painting. Yet, one of the most difficult aspects of art appreciation is knowing what works of art are "important" and which ones are merely attractive footnotes to the archives. For me the the tendency is to be too inclusive as to works that are groundbreaking and those which are not. In researching just this question I sat aside more than eighteen pieces by almost that many artists which a layman art lover should recognize as "important." That's far too many for an article such as this so I am still faced with the question of what to include and what to let slide by. I find it comforting to realize that even so-called "art experts" with art knowledge far excess of mine have the same difficulty. The 1870s might well be considered the most important decade in art of all the 19th-century. For example, John Gast is a little-known American painter. Likewise, the same is true of his American Progress (top) painted in 1872. Yet the style and theme are so typical of the early 1870s in American art, I decided it would be as good a point of departure as any in exploring the art of this decade.

The Birth of Venus, 1879, William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Why is this particular decade in art history so important in the overall scheme of things? With a couple major exceptions (Picasso and Matisse for example) virtually every artist from this nascent period in Modern Art was alive and well and at one stage or another in the development of their art careers. Bouguereau's Birth of Venus (above) won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome Academic scholarship award for the year 1879. This overused and abused mythological subject with its antiseptic nudes was where art was coming from as Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, and other such household names were fighting classical Academicism to forge a new definition of art through Impressionism and all that followed. Manet called it "art for art's sake." To put it another way, this "new" art was art about art.

Impression, Soleil Levant (sunrise), 1872, Claude Monet
Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)
1875, Thomas Eakins
The 1870s were was the decade which spawned Monet's Impression Soleil Le-vant (above). Painted in 1872, even though it predates by several years Bouguereau's last gasp of Academicism, the tremendous differences between the two serve to underline the incredible progression Modern Art was struggling to instill. Compare Monet's 1872 effort with that of John Gast's American Progress painted the same year. All during the 19th-century, American art and artists always lagged at least a decade behind their French counterparts. That's not to say that American artists were in any way inferior to the French. The works of the Philadelphia painter, Thomas Eakins such as his Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (below),from 1871 or his The Gross Clinic (right) from 1875 hold up quite well as compared to works by Manet, Gus-tave Caillebotte, and Edgar Degas.

Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871, Thomas Eakins
In England during the 1870s, the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a few others numbering about seven altogether reigned sup-reme. Rossetti's Holy Grail (right) from 1874 is typical of the nostalgic longings and fussy style of the others. Their work stands in stark contrast to that of Gustave Caillebotte and the clean simplicity of his Paris Street; Rainy Day, (below) from 1877. Edgar Degas broke new ground as he explored the gritty underbelly of the Paris drug culture in L'Absinthe (below-left), from the year 1876.

Holy Grail. 1874,
Dante Gabriel Rosetti


L'Absinthe, 1876,
Edgar Degas

Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, Gustave Caillebotte
Though they each branded Impressionism with their individual styles, Edouard Manet and Auguste Renoir each managed to obtain small victories over the prettified niceties of the centuries-old Academicism. Manet's The Gare Saint-Lazare (upper image, below), from 1873 quite apart from his somewhat stark, flat style displays simple genre content previously considered by the French Academy to be "unworthy" of such a large canvas. On the other hand, Renoir's Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (lower image, below), from 1876, is every bit as frivolous as Bouguereau's Birth of Venus but without the mythological pretensions thought to be required when painting nudes.

Upper image: The Gare Saint-Lazare, 1873, Edouard Manet
Lower image: Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876, Auguste Renoir
Athlete Wrestling with a
Python, 1877, Frederick Leighton
Nowhere are the stylistic differences between American art and the cutting-edge world of French art clearer than in the area of sculpture. In the wake of the American Civil War sculptors were kept busy carving and casting life-size or larger monuments to men such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, U. S. Grant, and most frequently Abe Lincoln himself. Two monumental sculptures stand apart from the others, one carved from white marble, the other cast in bronze. The bronze by Randolph Rogers lords over the pigeons in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park while the pristine standing marble representation is intended to inspire lawmakers from the Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C. Meanwhile on the British side of the Atlantic, Frederic Leighton's muscular bronze athlete (right) wrestles with a mighty python akin to that of the Vatican Laocoon. Due largely to its classical purity the bronze combatants seem locked in a life-or death struggle marking this work in the eyes of Leighton's critics and admirers alike as his greatest work.
Upper image: Lincoln, 1871, Randolph Rogers, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, PA
Lower image: Lincoln, 1871, Vinnie Ream, U.S. Capitol Rotunda


Now, to make my point, the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin's Walking Man (right) from 1878 stands in stark contrast to the latent academicism of both Rogers and Ream not to mention that of Frederic Leighton whose classical tendencies were far more than latent. It's hard to imagine what Impres-sionist sculpture might look like without bringing to mind the many diverse carvings and castings of Auguste Rodin. Rodin's Walking Man is no one famous (he doesn't even possess a head). He pays tribute to "walking men" the world over, very much in a theretofore unseen universal homage.
The Walking Man (front)
1878, Auguste Rodin.

At first glance The Walking Man appears to be nude. Closer inspection reveals that he is, in fact, wearing the appropriate garb of a wrestler. Speaking of which, having discussed the painting and sculpture of the 1870s, on a lighter note we cannot forget the men and women of high fashion who kept the textile mills humming, scissors snipping, and we, their ancestors, laughing. Although men's fashions have evolved to some degree in the past 150 years it's the ladies who (fortunately) have seen the greatest strides in the designer's art. The French illustrator, James Tissot, in his Too Early (below), from 1873 gives us a peak at the bustles and elaborate drapery which characterized evening dresses of the early 1870s. The gentleman is outfitted in evening dress as well though far less flamboyantly.

Too Early, 1873, James Tissot. I keep wondering how the
ladies managed such frocks in going to the ladies' room.
Not to slight the gentlemen, we see below the tasteful garb of well-dressed young men whose only bow to high fashion is the "stovepipe" hat. I wonder if anyone ever made a statue of Lincoln wearing one. We know from mid-century photos that he was something of a fashion icon for his time.
The theme for men's fashions of the 1870 appears to be neat and,
slender, with just a touch of lace strategically placed near the bow tie.
Perhaps nothing has had a more lasting effect on women's fashions than the automobile. With a carriage, there were always polite gentlemen milling about to help the distressed, over-dressed, mistress climb to her seat for a leisurely ride in the park. That was not the case as women found it necessary to fend for themselves in getting in and out of cars. Skirts gradually got shorter. Waists became looser, even hats have gradually fallen to the wayside (or been blown off). All this we find amusing as compared to the difficulties faced by the present day art appreciator.
Yards and yards of unneeded fabric stitched together with hours 
upon hours of wasted time to create a dress such as this.
He says: "shall we sit for a bit?"
She says: "I should like to but my dressmaker
says I mustn't."


No comments:

Post a Comment