Gainsborough’s portraits of society ladies often show them in the guise of mythological characters. Photographic family portraits from Victorian times to the high streets of today usually have the father as protector, the pater familias, and the mother as his support and the nurturer:
- Find 2 examples of naturalistic paintings of a particular genre – landscape, portraiture or whatever, and annotate them to discover the similar conventions of representation: medium, format, allusion, purpose, etc.
- Find two examples of portrait photography, one formal and one informal, and annotate them to see what connections from the formal are observed in the informal and give your thoughts on why this might be so.
I am being asked to deconstruct four pictures using some of the structural methods explored by people like Barthes, Derrider and other structuralists and post-structuralists we’re looked at – two from the Naturalistic period, one that is confusingly difficult to determine; and then two photographic portraits.
This post focuses on 2 paintings. The next post will look at the portraits.
I studied 19th century naturalism and realism when training as an actor, and comprehend that that movement was informed by emerging scientific thought, regarding evolution, psychology and anthropology. And also, that it did not explode out of a void, but had been preceded by earlier shifts in art and greater societal change, such as he Enlightenment. I have written about this period a little during TAOP. A quote, written by Jan Van Nimmon, from a webpage about the Illusions of Reality exhibition catalogue “Published in conjunction with the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki”, describes the mid to late 19th century naturalism and realism succinctly.
“Differentiating naturalism from realism tends to clot discussions of late nineteenth-century art. Deftly avoiding that hazard in their introductory essay for Illusions of Reality, Edwin Becker, curator of exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum, and Gabriel P. Weisberg, whose Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse (1992) remains the standard work on the subject, offer the reader two first-rate – if second-hand – definitions. First, they cite the lucid essay published in 1982 by Geneviève Lacambre, then chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay (14). She pointed to characteristics of naturalism: “scientific exactitude, psychological examination, and a large-scale format” and the practice of “showing their subjects as if caught – frozen – in a specific, characteristic instant, akin to the photography of the period in their attitude, though not in their scale.” The authors also quote Castagnary’s Salon of 1863 (15): “The naturalist school declares that art is the expression of life in every way and degree, and that its singular goal is to reproduce nature to its maximum power and intensity: it is truth balancing itself with science.”” With that in mind I have chosen the following two images to deconstruct.
- From the aforementioned webpage, Conveying the Child’s Coffin by Albert Edelfelt, 1879
Link to larger higher quality file: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/u/0/asset/conveying-a-child-s-coffin/LAG1bHKWVB7VvQ?hl=en&ms=%7B%22x%22%3A0.5%2C%22y%22%3A0.5%2C%22z%22%3A9.69482652077566%2C%22size%22%3A%7B%22width%22%3A1.289224462069119%2C%22height%22%3A1.5770463610694792%7D%7D
If this were a family portrait it would be macabre; but painted very beautifully, in the same style of a candid photograph, it becomes a tragic portrait of a family, informal. Today however, we might not be so shocked or surprised to see a photograph like this painting in the news. Although I did not consciously choose this photograph with refugees in mind, I think I may well have been drawn to this particular image because today we are faced with a number of journalistic photographs of families in boats either crying with relief when they arrive, or mourning, having lost people during the short but perilous crossing of the Agean sea. We have seen dead bodies and the very well known image of a dead child, which shocked so many people, although only temporarily until another news story took its place. I was surprised when researching the image to find it on a cushion and being sold as a ‘lovely present for a father or son”. The painting is very beautifully done and the artist apparently won an award for it (GoogleArts&Culture) but to give someone a present with a picture of a dead child being rowed across an estuary in a boat seems odd to me, although I would appreciate seeing the painting in a frame on a wall.
- Two rowers on a dingy in a lake
- Strong sunshine – the first Finnish painting to be done outside in the open (GoogleArt&Culture)
- Three women, one of which is obscured by one of the rowers, and she rowing herself, as the man in the foreground has both hands on his oar; I am surprised by the fact she’s a she, but that’s my own bigotry I suppose – although I cannot say who she is, I am assuming attached to the rowers, and again assuming they are providers of a service due to the looks on their faces, particularly the man on the left, which are respectful but detached, whereas the faces of the women we can see are far more mournful. Painted faces are harder to read than photographed faces. The other two women sit behind the coffin and a child in the centre. The older woman – dressed in black holding a bible wrapped in a handkerchief, hair covered by a shawl. A younger women, not dressed in black but holding a bundle (I wonder if it has the dead child’s things in it)
- A living child, sitting just off centre of the boat in the foreground, looking downwards at the water, holding flowers, in foreground – the focal point
- A small coffin behind her
- Painted in formal dimensions, rules of thirds both vertically, horizontally and diagonally, so classic Western perspectives, many triangular shapes making up the whole, reinforcing and representing centuries long tradition of picture making and reading
- Painting about loss, sadness of child mortality rife at a time when across classes – hygiene, medicines and diet only just beginning to evolve into more modern practise and child mortality still high – the reality and lack of sentimentality is new and very much in the vein of Realism, unlike the structure of the painting which follows traditional patterns
- No histrionics, no heightened drama despite the awful sadness of the scene, again linked to Realism
- Quiet, real, emotional expressions in all faces we can see, body language extremely simple and authentic looking, believable; Like Strindberg or Ibsen – playwrights working in true Naturalism
- “French critics particularly lauded the fact that the painting did not come over as sentimental; instead it displays a serenity and nobility in accepting the inevitability of the cycle of life. While it is realistic in style, it does not seek to show the coarseness of the common people or to avoid any sense of beauty.” (GoogleArt&Culture) – “serenity and nobility in accepting the inevitability of the cycle of life”. A quiet, acceptance of life’s turmoil is celebrated. There is no unseemly keening in this picture. The opposite of keening is portrayed as beautiful.
- A Christian cross rests on or beside the coffin, establishing religiousity – establishing the importance of the church in the mourning process, of God being important, a protector, taker, where the dead child will now have gone. It’s god’s will that this child has died early (rather than possibly poverty, lead poisoning, malnourishment or any of the other societal disadvantages people lower down the social rung may have been subject to)
- Other vessels using water crossing in the distant background – life continues, life goes on, inevitable nature of loss
- Older matriarch wears black, holds bible, looks like the leader of this family group – Natural order of things again
- Why does the woman in blue hold the bundle? What does that signify? I’m not entirely sure about this
- The little girl’s hand on the boat as she holds on and looks into the sea processing her grief is incredibly evocative “A very fine exhibition design is employed here at the entrance to the exhibition: three very large details of workers’ hands from paintings within the show are juxtaposed on the wall with a loop of Antoine’s film, showing a worker’s hands caressing a vast lump of silken dirt. The motif of the worker’s hand is ubiquitous in Naturalist imagery; the hand, and not the eye, becomes the window to their souls (fig. 2).” (Caterina Y. Pierre, Ph.D.)
I suggest the structuralists would read that the image promotes the idea that there is a natural order of things in this life, including death. The sorrow and pain of life, along with the social order of the time, is not something we can do anything about and must live with it. That plays into a far greater story than the immediate one which is represented, that of a tragic but relatively common death of a child. It is well known today that children died often during the industrial age and many people did not make it to old age. The deeply structured class system allowed the capitalist leaders to thrive (although even they could not escape the common illness that threatened life) and capitalism itself thrived. In order for that to continue the structures needed to remain in place. Although the working class people represented in the painting are not demonised or villified in anyway, in fact they are rendered very beautifully, but naturally, structuralists might argue that this painting is suggesting that the working classes and death are equally necessary ordered aspects of life. And that God wills things to be that way. And that we cannot expect anything else. That life is tough but that God has designed it to be so. Industry continues regardless in the boats in the distance, one of which is a ship.
- Beautiful Days, Jules Alexis Menuer, 1889
- Painting based on photograph taken by artist (see earlier UVC projects about this) “Muenier’s camera lucida, used to transfer photographic images onto his canvases, was displayed a little bit too high to be viewed properly by a short person like myself, but it was still instructive to see his personal equipment here, emphasizing the large extent to which he used photography to create a painted picture.” (Caterina Y. Pierre, Ph.D.)
- Family portrait, informal
- Constructed to look candid
- Family sitting at table outside, in nature, natural setting
- Mother, grandmother (or other older female generation)
- Father in hat with pipe – in photograph you can’t see his eyes, in the painting you can. He looks either at the child or directly at the viewer. It is hard to tell.
- Both women smile at the child
- The man does not
- There is a leaf in the foreground of the painting (not the photogprah) – signifies possibility of autumn at the very least, but certainly nature, time passing, regeneration, death, birth
- The table has china cups, a sugar bowl and coffee pot, as well as wine bottle on it, suggesting the end of a meal rather than afternoon tea: all the acoutruments of a genial way of spending time, convivial, relaxed, feeding enjoyable, maybe Sunday lunch, aspects of civilised living but in the outdoors
- People enjoying nature
- Perspective in the painting allows you to see into the distance in the painting, land, countryside, but no so much in the photograph. (see into the future? Which is filled with lovely light) It is perhaps a false perspective (heightened realism) – and so the ‘nature’ element is important to the image. It’s not indoors, it’s light and airy.
- A little girl stands at the table, she is not seated (like so many children choose to be at a table) -is she leaving? has she been playing? has she been helping her mother? However, she does mirror the maternal figure by standing. She is set apart from the two older adults as they are still seated. As the child mirrors the mother’s position – it makes me think the photograph is suggesting a story about the new generations taking over from previous ones, making space for the future. I’m almost tempted to think there is some suggestion of death here and as it is Naturalism that wouldn’t be surprising – but the title is Beautiful Days – so whatever else is true, there is a sense of nostalgia, of time passed, of a moment in time having gone, a good moment.
- They all look to her – she has everyone’s attention. They are looking to the future. The eye-lines make a triangle, traditional western perspective. The little girl is the central focal point.
- She looks up to her mother, her hair is loose and curly, natural, although very brushed as was the fashion, in all likelihood (looks more so in the painting)
- The older woman is dressed in black, mourning?
- The younger woman is in a patterned colourful, possibly fashionable dress. My suspicion is that the dress in the painting is a palatable (to upper classes – buyers of art) heightened version of country-style Victoriana that lower-middle class to middle class women would have worn at the time. The dress in the photograph is less refined than the one in the painting. The cloth seems silkier and more delicate in the painting. The photograph communicates a much more robust and more ‘real’ sense than the dress in the painting which is idealised; more floaty, etherial, delicate, prettier, bigger bustle ect.
- The face of the young woman is also idealised in the painting, as is her gesture. She has the same head to the side look of Botticelli’s Venus. Nowadays we don’t see that head to the side as much as we see women with open, sexually inviting mouths in adverts and Instagram photos (or that fish pout). (A friend of mine has been collecting these open mouths – it’s very certainly a ‘trope’)
- The women in the photograph are smiling far more that the ones in the painting. The mother has a look of maternal concern in the painting and the older woman looks ever so slightly disapproving perhaps by something the child is saying or else about something else entirely – the faces are harder to read in the painting, because the expressions are painted representations rather than photographic. Both women look much warmer and more amused by the child in the photograph. The mother looks like she is needing to be quite patient in the painting with whatever the child is saying.
- The father/male troubles me – He seems incredibly one-dimensional, which makes him look almost absent. He doesn’t have the same look of worry that the older women shows in her facial expression – he just looks disinterested although feigning interest (is that my warped perception though?) Maybe that was the intention? In the photograph he looks even more distant and I suspect that’s because of the shadow from his hat covering his eyes.
- Finally the bottle of wine is positioned very differently in the painting to the photograph. It is the apex of a triangle and has been placed directly below an opening in the treeline, pointing to a bright future perhaps.
Considering the tenets of Naturalism – the image appears to be like a candid every day setting, but it is in fact a heightened example of Realism due the ‘heightened’ way it is portrayed – dress being more floaty and idealised for instance. It is representative of an everyday scene, of a seemingly uneventful family meal rather than anything historically ‘important’ or mythic which fits with the genre. There is no fantasy or magic realism – it’s far more mundane and almost like a vernacular photograph of an everyday lunch scene, perhaps Sunday lunch; at any rate, an elongated meal – no doubt influenced by the photographic revolution. The story the painting tells is also more ambigious than the one in the photograph. The position of the fallen autumnal leaf seems important to me – it’s very strategically placed, and I don’t think it’s just because they’re outside. One of the things about Naturalism is the aim to show all aspects of real life, including loss, sadness, debauchery, and not to idealise or mytholigize (although as said there is quite a strong sense of class and feminine idelaisation in the painting). So I wonder if there is a suggestion of loss of some sort – all eyes are focused on the child. She is the future. We can’t say who the older women might be mourning, or if she is, but there is a suggestion of renewal, death and birth in the picture. The title harks back to something – days that were beautiful, is that possibly coming from a position where the days are not beautiful anymore? At first I wondered if the little girl’s future death was being suggested. The older women’s look is telling. In the photograph the two women are actually laughing/smiling very warmly but the artist has not shown that in the painting. Instead concern, worry. I do find it hard to read the man’s expression but then perhaps that’s as it always was. But due to the the light and sky and the gap in the trees at the top of the bottle, the triangle pointing to that places in the background, I think the picture might be more optimistic, even though it does reference loss in with various signifiers.
From a structural place, the family, with present maternal figures and absent men (even though one man is there, he appears emotionally more absent than he might) is being represented as a “beautiful” thing. This is nature, this is how life is to be lived. Women in their very specific roles, feeding people, providing lunch, offering gentle authority and direction to the child, who will grow up and do the same, being that she is also female. It is nature. In the same way that things die, and grow and the cycle of life continues, the role of the mother as shown here, is the natural order of things, kind empathetic, not too crazy, head to side, gentle and no direct eye contact with viewer. First she is a little girl, then she is the mother figure heading up the domestic existence of a family, then she is the widowed matriarch helping to support and give authority but in second place to the gentle but firm mother of the child. This picture expresses how society saw the role of the women/mother figure, re-establishes it as reality for the viewer and makes it an unavoidable ‘truth’ about life. Neither picture seems to ask questions of the society they portray, instead they confirms everyone’s role in it. The way they are both structured is typical of Western tradition with triangles and perspective. They are gently radical in that they portray normal people (albeit slightly idealised and made more palatable, genteel, beautiful than reality especially in the second example here); Beautiful Days presents us with a simple scene rather than some great mythical fantasy from the bible, or royalty, or history. The second is gently radical in that it shows a tragic but common occurrence from the day without sentimental drama or histrionics, as was often the trend in the lead up to Naturalism. I would add that Naturalism in painting has less of a specific genes than Naturalism in the theatre, as artists had focused on little details of life throughout art history, whereas the theatre was far more histrionic prior to the movement, influenced by psychology, science and cultural concerns in an industrial age. Each painting helps to cement what Barthes’ refers to as visual mythology about society. i.e. the role of the gentle, authority of Mother as a God-given natural situation?
In an extreme example of how we make assumptions about what is natural, the Ache once thought it was ‘natural’ and rightly ordered in the universe, to dispatch women once they reached a certain age, when they were less able to contribute work-wise to the village. A member of society was sanctioned to hit such women over the head with an axe once at that point – a duty that was deemed natural in that society. (Hrdy, 2000; 282, 29) The social order supported that myth and it had become neutralised by their stories and expectations. So the word and concept of natural along with its relative “Naturalism” are probably words that require more than a degree of caution since what looks ‘natural’ may often be so due to varying degrees of hegemony. Or Barthes’ Myths. (See notes on Myth Today next)
Hardy, SB, 2000. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts & The Shaping of the Species, Vintage, London: 282, 29