This is, on the face of it, a seemingly unlikely subject for a book about art history. However, it fits with the Victorian style of narrative painting and fascination with – and often glamorisation of – the lower orders of society. Many nineteenth century artists depict working people in suspiciously well-kept clothes, but there were others, themselves living hand-to-mouth, who shared the world of the underclass and understood the conditions of their companions all too well.
Linda Nochlin concentrates for the most part on these latter: there are no Stanhope Forbes, William Powell Friths or Ford Maddox Browns here, although Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (his dog) is reproduced and is a masterpiece of sentimentalisation. Her thesis, expressed in the cover blurb, is that the rapid changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution caused displacement and destitution for those whom it did not benefit. This is, I think, to stretch a point somewhat and potentially to fall into the trap that artists themselves sometimes did, distinguishing between the happy, free, rural poor and their downtrodden urban counterparts.
The book itself, however, does not bear this out and begins with a lengthy examination of what Linda calls The Irish Paradigm. This is the rural poverty brought about by the potato famine and which was documented in publications such as The Illustrated London News, many of whose images are reproduced. Linda also includes illustrations which show a less charitable viewpoint: that of drunkenness and simple depravity; not everyone idolised the “deserving poor”.
It is, I think, important to take note of the fact that the title of the book is Misère and not Misery, although that word does appear in the subtitle. The difference is subtle (Linda explains its genesis from a discovery in a Parisian bookshop) and represents a construct rather than a state of existence – the representation of poverty rather than its sociological fact. It is easy to fall into another trap: that of assuming that all the people here are unhappy. I’m not suggesting that Courbet’s agricultural labourers, Gericault’s street-dwellers or Degas’ prostitutes are happy noble savages, but the works illustrated are perhaps more documentary than comment. No-one likes being at the bottom of the heap, but there is sometimes, maybe often, a degree of acceptance. These are people and they survive, at least after a fashion.
This is an interesting work that explores a corner of nineteenth century art that is, while not forgotten, not frequently commented on. The narrative maybe stretches a point sometimes, but Linda is also careful not to wear a campaigner’s hat; she is an art historian, not a social one. Reading the book, I was reminded of the Kasmin’s Postcards series, which shines another light on our forebears’ fascination with poverty and disaster.
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