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Victorian Social Realist Art Gets Its First Show

February 01, 1988|GRAHAM HEATHCOTE | Associated Press

MANCHESTER, England — People at work have always been in the background and around the edges of art.

There are maidservants bearing salvers and wine in the frescoes on the ruined Roman walls at Pompeii.

Prayer books of the Middle Ages depicted plowmen and bird-scarers among the flowers that decorated the margins, while lords and ladies and saints occupied the center of the page. Painters from the Renaissance onward included stonemasons and carpenters as minor figures in their townscapes.

But only when the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith in mid-Victorian England did artists make the bodies, toil and homes of anonymous working people the focus of their pictures.

After Charles Dickens' novel "Hard Times" in 1854, which described social problems and poverty, factory workers, fishermen, miners and laborers especially became legitimate subjects for art.

The first exhibition of this Victorian social realism has just been staged at Manchester City Art Gallery. Later it goes to the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and from April 6 to May 29 it will be at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn.

What better place could there be for it in England than thickly populated Manchester, the capital of northern England and center of manufacturing towns that prospered on coal, engineering and textiles, amid canals and railways?

"These are some of the most powerful and moving images of the 19th Century," said Julian Treuherz, keeper of fine art at the gallery and organizer of the exhibition.

"We don't often think of the Victorians as having a social conscience. One writer has said Victorian painting was based on luxury, optimism and aristocracy, without the struggle for existence.

"Subjects had to be charming, such as roses round the cottage door and little girls playing with kittens or aristocratic, elegant women in expensive gowns.

"When social issues were depicted, they were outnumbered. The 1874 Royal Academy summer show contained four of them in a total of 1,433 and the prevailing view was that the subjects of the four--a seamstress, a stone breaker, a group of ragged homeless and a heap of factory waste--were ugly and inartistic," Treuherz said.

"I should probably make more money by portraits," Luke Fildes complained when sugar baron Henry Tate commissioned him to paint a picture of a doctor watching over a sick child.

That picture, "The Doctor," done in 1891, is today one of the most popular paintings in London's Tate Gallery.

Credit for spreading interest in social realism in art is given to a weekly news magazine, the Graphic, which commissioned artists in the 1870s to provide documentary illustrations of scenes from the life of the poor. The illustrations were used as the basis for oil paintings shown at the academy.

The paintings often had dramatic, explicit titles such as "Found Drowned"--about a young woman's suicide; "Widowed and Fatherless," which depicts the family of a lost fisherman; and "Deserted--A Foundling," a work about an abandoned child.

There were several pictures titled "Hard Times," but the most famous was by Hubert von Herkomer in 1885, showing a jobless laborer in a country lane with his wife and two little children wearily beside him.

There was economic depression in 1873 that worsened during the 1880s, and Herkomer himself saw jobless people tramping the roads looking for work.

Herkomer was reckoned by some critics to be the finest portraitist of his time in England, but he is known today solely for his pictures of the poor.

He came from Bavaria and his woodcarver father emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, but after six years settled in England.

A dramatic painting by Herkomer in the exhibition is his 1884 "Pressing to the West," based on his own experiences and showing immigrants hoping for a new life clustered in Castle Garden, N.Y., the port of entry from 1855 to 1892.

The exhibition includes eight pictures by Vincent van Gogh, who lived in England from 1873 to 1876. The volumes of the Graphic and the many social realist drawings and prints he collected inspired him to paint such pictures as "The Potato Eaters" and "A Pair of Boots," which hang in the Amsterdam museum named after him.

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